Earlier this month I joined 50 award winning entrepreneurs from other countries in Monte Carlo for the Ernest & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year awards, which was won by Dr. James Mwangi, CEO and Managing Director of Kenya’s Equity Bank Limited.
It was an incredible experience to represent Australia’s thriving entrepreneur community at a high profile event such as this and being given the opportunity to share iiNet’s success story with many amazing international business leaders.
These are the lessons I’d share with anyone thinking of taking that first step to start their own business.
You are your own customer
I’d always wanted to run my own business, but iiNet really came about because I was about to leave university and since there were no public Internet Service Providers in WA in 1993, that meant losing my Internet access.
The cost of a 14k link to the Internet was $25,000 per year. Yes, that’s 14kilobits, not 14 megabits! That was of course a huge amount of money for a fresh graduate, but I was pretty confident that other students, graduates and people with niche interests would also want an affordable home Internet connection.
I had about half the money that I needed and my parents loaned me the rest. I had been living in rental accommodation, so I moved back to my parent’s home in Padbury and set up shop in the garage. With two computers and five modems, I signed up my first customers for $25 a month dial up Internet access.
Start with what you enjoy
There’s no shortage of stories about people who turn their hobbies into a business, or start off with a part time project to earn extra cash before realising it has the potential to become their full time job.
My experience with iiNet was the same. I thought that setting up a local ISP would be nothing more than a side project and that I would eventually need to get a ‘real job’.
After two and a half years, I was now employing six people, so we moved to an office in Perth’s CBD. We had about two thousand customers and the business had reached a stage where I could draw a small salary as well.
Start small, and enjoy it
Running a small business is a lot of fun. Everyone chips in to do everything. On any given day, I could be handling customer calls, coding on the billing system, handling domain name applications, and covering reception during lunch.
Everyone knows everyone else too and the sense of camaraderie is great. Of course, we weren’t really sure if we’d still be around the following week! I didn’t have any management or business training so everything had to be learned on the job.
Every entrepreneur needs to focus on building a sound business, but there’s no reason not to enjoy the journey along the way too!
Put your customers at the heart of all you do
My mother taught me the most important lesson about running a business, which is to put your customers first. This may seem really obvious, but I think too many businesses just focus on their cool product, and are disdainful of their own customers.
We’re here to help you get your Internet connection working and get the most out of it. This is something which has defined iiNet from the offset and remains our biggest focus.
One of the ways we measure all staff performance at iiNet is through Net Promoter Score (NPS) rankings, which is derived from direct feedback from customers. My own pay packet is tied to that, so if you’re not happy, I get paid less! That certainly helps keeps the focus.
Give it a go
There will always be plenty of excuses to put off starting your business for another year and the longer you put it off the harder it’ll be. If you have a great idea, give it a try. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work. You’ll regret it a lot more if you never try in the first place.
Learning from others
It’s important to celebrate the huge achievements of entrepreneurs, whether it’s through government initiatives, awards programs or events where entrepreneurs can come together and share their successes, struggles and tips with one another. Building a business is really hard!
Hearing the stories about other businesses can give great lessons and motivation. The event in Monte Carlo really hammered this home for me – everyone at the event was there because Ernst & Young had acknowledged their achievements in their home country and I got to meet some incredible people and hear some amazing stories. Plus it’s pretty cool to have an excuse to spend a couple of days in Monte Carlo!