This is probably one of the toughest pieces to write, as it is all about admitting where I went wrong in my startup journey. If you are an entrepreneur, you would know how hard it is to realize that you could have done things differently. But the real story is that no matter who you are, you will make mistakes -- but hopefully you will learn from them.
To put things into context, Souqalmal.com is the leading financial comparison website in the Middle East today -- so basically as an aggregator of banking products, the biggest components of the business are people and technology.
Here are some mistakes I made along the way:
1. Not hiring early enough
We were a very small team for quite a while and only started hiring properly post our second round of investment. To be fair, that was the time when we had the funds to do so, but hiring early on poises the company for a much faster growth. The hardest part was to trust someone else with what I believed was the core of my business.
In the early stages, a lot of the growth revolves around the founder, but trying to do it all alone was not necessary. This meant that I had no time off or a break when I needed it. My father, who had started three businesses over the years, had warned me that having your own business is a 24/7 thing -- now I understand. No holiday or break is a real one-- there is no such thing as “switching off” -- and it is not that I am only thinking of strategy but also execution. Every detail had to be taken care of by myself which is normal in the initial phase of a startup, but the question is how long is too long to stay in this particular mode?
2. Not firing early enough
Once you have a team in place, it is critical to keep the culture and the environment very positive, upbeat and motivating. Having the wrong person on the team can ruin this very important aspect of the business -- one aspect that you will find is probably the biggest asset you have.
However, when you realize that things are not working out with a certain employee, it is very hard to call it quits. I start thinking about who else will take the job, how will I cope with the tasks that require expert skills, and what about the relationships this person has built? In my experience however, you always find a way. Once the person was gone, the environment in the office turned from toxic to fantastic -- something I should have done earlier.
3. Growing without co-founder
Being an entrepreneur can be very lonely at times. Very often I find myself debating pros and cons in my head, as it is very hard to put the burden on other team members who already have enough on their plate. A co-founder helps you see things from a different angle and is there to support you in good and bad times, as you are in it together. Having a co-founder also helps in building a strong team around you, as there are two of you looking out for more people to join.
Building a startup from the ground up is already a tough journey to embark on, and it is better to have someone on your side on this ride. Being two allows you to have a break once in a while and come back with a fresh mind without stressing that there is no one taking care of the business while you are away.
4. Not listening to my gut feeling
This might sound fluffy, but from my experience, when my gut feeling is saying no, I find out soon enough that I should have listened. Remember that you probably have the best understanding of what your business needs and the type of people you need around you to make things happen.
Not only have I lost time but also spent precious dollars in decisions made against my gut feeling, and these decisions would range from who to hire to which partners to bring on board. There is a reason you amongst all others have decided to take the leap -- trust your gut feeling and run with it. It is tempting to continue on a route already started. It is already hard enough to go through a whole lot of interviews again, but if you feel that a candidate even at his / her last interview is not the right one, cut your losses and start the process again. The chances of this person lasting in the company are small, and you may find yourself starting the process again anyway -- along with losing a few months in between.
5. Underestimating the funding process and time
Funding is on every startup’s agenda. It is what keeps the salaries and expenses going while you build an amazing business which would eventually turn profitable. Three years ago, I was a novice when it came to raising money. Little did I know about the process, the due diligence, the pitching, etc. I had planned my product launches around when I thought the money would be coming in, and I can tell you that none of that plan got executed on time as the fundraising took a lot longer than I anticipated. There are different factors that can affect the timeline of fundraising for your business, from extent of the due diligence process, time of the year (holiday periods are usually slower), to how many investors and who you are bringing on board.
It has been an unbelievable ride over the last three years since Souqalmal.com was launched. There have been some major ups and major downs, mistakes I have made and things I would do differently if I had to do it all over again -- but I would indeed do it all over again. I look back with pride at a company which within three years became the number-one financial comparison website in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and now employs 27 staff members.