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7 Deadly Mistakes To Avoid As An Entrepreneur

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By Pooja Warier Hamilton:

I am not usually a big fan of management books, but I recently read “The Hard Things about Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz and was hooked. What struck me was that rather than giving clichéd answers to what it takes to be an entrepreneur — passion, persistence, belief in your dream and the like—it offers a brutally honest account of mistakes to be acknowledged and actions to be taken when nothing seems to be working.

It inspired me to reflect on the biggest mistakes I made as an entrepreneur and what I would do differently.

1. If it’s not your strength, pay extra attention to it

I was lucky to start three organisations with a co-founder who made up for all the things I wasn’t good at. As a result, I barely paid attention to those things. However, when I took up responsibility as CEO, not only did I have gaps in my skillset but it also took me painfully long to get up to speed. I can honestly say that my biggest errors of judgement were in those areas.

Most social entrepreneurs will have things that they hate spending time on — numbers, systems, HR, impact metrics, media — and will happily delegate these to a co-founder, team member, advisor or consultant. It’s okay to rely on experts as long as it doesn’t turn into a blind spot for you. Never forget that as founder/CEO, the buck stops at you and not the expert.

2. The devil is in the detail of a scale model

As a mentor, I often meet young entrepreneurs thrilled at any opportunity for scale. It is also very common for them not to think through the details before accepting a corporate’s funded offer of expanding to a new state or a partner’s offer of opening a chapter in their city. I was exactly the same. With the result that we grew our offering and reach in a short span of time.

While it was a joy to see our work expanding, we also spent a lot of time fire-fighting issues that we just hadn’t prepared for. If I was to do it all over again, I would (a) spend more time poring over every tiny detail, especially on aspects that are critical success factors and hence non-negotiable and (b) make sure the scale team was adequately resourced with talent, funds and systems.

3. At certain levels of innovation and scale, a good CFO and compliance team are a must

I often see social entrepreneurs getting confounded by the various interpretations of charity laws and compliance in India. There should never be any compromise for a high-quality CFO and a sound compliance person/team, especially if your business model is innovative and at a particular level of scale. I can hear you say, ‘Well, if only I can afford the good ones.’ Treat it as an investment to protect your work.

Photo Courtesy: Creative Commons 2.0

4. It’s not final until the money is in the bank

I still don’t think I have fully learnt this lesson. I still get excited by conversations where a funder shows a positive interest in our work and asks for a proposal ASAP. I then get extremely puzzled when they go missing on mails or when the contract gets pushed out by quarters (not even months) or when the transfer of money never seems to be around the actual dates in those contracts. Always remember the fundraising mantra: There are no guarantees until it hits your bank account.

Related article: Fundraising 101: Four steps you can take today

5. There is a fine line between being humble and being naïve

We began UnLtd India on the premise that our work should and would speak for itself. That it would attract the attention and support we needed. Hence, most of our media coverage and public appearances were a result of people finding us as opposed to any proactive efforts from us. While this built us strong goodwill in the sector, it also stopped serving us over time.

A lot of my first-time meetings would end with, “You are doing such amazing work. Why have I never heard of you guys before?” I also saw us losing opportunities to organisations that were new on the block but savvier at showcasing their work in the right circuits, in the right way. Don’t hesitate to trade in some of the humility for some of that savviness.

Related article: Communications 101: Talking about your nonprofit

6. Don’t procrastinate when you know it’s time to let go of a team member

In my experience, you can identify potential issues with team members pretty much in their first two months at work. More importantly, your gut will often tell you whether those issues can be resolved or not. When it comes to letting go of a team member, I always prefer to give feedback and opportunities for them to improve their game or attitude. However, there has to be a limit to how many chances you can give. Procrastinating on a decision that is staring you in the face is never good for the organisation and for the individual.

Related article: Waking up to the talent you already have

 7. Don’t be a bottle-neck

I struggle with the phrase “Done is better than perfect.” However, I do believe when you are juggling so many things; it is important to know what needs perfection and what just needs to get done. I am not making a case for mediocre performance, but there are certainly instances I can remember when delays could have been avoided if I had only let the team get on with things without needing my approval. The more approvals they seek, the less confident they feel in taking decisions, the bigger bottle-neck you become.

Life as an entrepreneur and as a leader is moulded by mistakes and errors of judgement. A bigger mistake is to not pay attention to the valuable learning at the core of each mistake. As I recently read, “You can never make the same mistake twice because the second time you make it, it’s a choice.”

About the author: Pooja Warier Hamilton is the co-founder, of UnLtd India, an organisation that finds, funds and supports early-stage social entrepreneurs in India.

This article was originally published in India Development Review. You can view it here.

 

You must be to comment.
  1. Sharad Pant

    Thanks Ms. Pooja for sharing and providing illustration of does and don’ts. i found it really informative. Keep writing to provide guidance to new comer like me.
    With best regards.
    Sharad Pant

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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