Yesterday Phase Magazine published a short interview feature about entrepreneurship and start-ups with yours truly. Am posting the answers to the original questions here together with scans of the actual published article below. Thanks to Caroline Gatt for taking the time :-)
1. What is ethical entrepreneurship and why do you think it is important?
‘Ethical Entrepreneurship’ is the idea that business ventures – and their success – need not only be measured in financial terms.
By this I do not mean that entrepreneurs and businesses should switch professions and become philanthropists or missionaries. Nor does it mean that business owners should not be ready to take tough decisions like firing people when necessary. All businesses need to profitable and that should always be a core aim. But it needn’t be the only one.
Ethical Entrepreneurship happens when entrepreneurs are not just out to make money, but also to make meaning.
2. What does it mean to be an entrepreneur?
I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all definition of an entrepreneur. Bill Gates, Caqnu and the pizza guy down the road are all entrepreneurs. But I’d be hard pressed to say what is realistically common between them.
Of course this is an extreme example but it doesn’t diminish the fact that entrepreneurship tends to be indifferent to background, personality, sex, creed, race, physique or any other typical ‘market segmentation’ criteria. Some entrepreneurs are shy (Ben & Jerry’s), some are geeks (Bill Gates, Microsoft), some are show-offs (Richard Branson, Virgin), and others environmentalists (Anita Roddick, Body Shop). Some were born rich (Jeff Bezos, Amazon) and some poor and oppressed (Martin Varsavsky, Fon).
I think your personality and background define what kind of entrepreneur you can be – not whether you will be one. And being an entrepreneur means getting up off your ass and doing something.
3. What was the first company you set up and when did you set up, how old were you?
In 1998, when I was 18, I set up a web and graphic design company with my cousin. We produced a website and a brochure for one client!
4. Since then what companies have you set up and what various things are you currently working on?
Since then I have co-founded an advertising agency and a mobile marketing company. Today I split my time between independent tech consulting and working on a new company focused on helping people reduce electricity consumption.
5. What motivated you to set up on your own and how did you know what to do?
Growing up I was a rather shy and introverted person. However I inadvertently discovered – through my work with a political student organisation – that when I needed to convince people of something (I believe in) I could easily overcome my introversion. And life became much more fun when I could socialise and network. Entrepreneurship is a great ‘excuse’ to meet people and thus it makes life fun for me. Of course, other factors like peer influence, financial independence and the desire to create something that has a positive impact on society all play a part too.
As to ‘knowing what to do’, there are various ways of finding out. Most people tend to be very helpful when you ask for advice. Reading and research helps too. It’s also important to document what you do so that you can remember in detail what you did when something worked or not.
6. What other entrepreneurship projects/initiatives did you work on? What are they?
Startup Malta is a non-profit foundation aimed at promoting entrepreneurship in Malta. It was founded in 2000 and it launched Malta’s first ever business plan competition. I joined in 2001 and was active until 2006. Unfortunately, since I left in 2006, the foundation has not been active.
More recently I have been involved in Smarter Start – a small entrepreneurial think tank. I can’t say too much about what we’re doing because we’re mostly researching at this stage but we’re hoping to launch a few interesting tools to help people get started on the entrepreneurial path.
7. Why do you think these initiatives are important?
During 6 years of Startup Malta activities, hundreds of people attended and participated in our competitions, training events, workshops, networking meetings and seminars. To me this is a clear indication that there is a significant group of people who want to learn and practice entrepreneurship – and that’s one thing that makes it important.
On a more practical level, during a global credit crunch and recession such as this one, where your likelihood of being unemployed quadruples overnight, a few entrepreneurial skills could certainly have been useful in transforming the jobless into job providers.
8. What did you study, and how did your studies help / hinder / not related to your entrepreneurship?
I studied computer science and then read for a master’s degree in creativity and innovation. I think that any sort of study is helpful and there isn’t one kind of field or course that makes it more likely for you to be a successful entrepreneur. In fact, a long-running joke amongst venture capitalists is that MBA and commerce students make the worst entrepreneurs! I don’t think they mean that if you have an MBA you can’t be a good entrepreneur. The real lesson is that you shouldn’t be overconfident of the knowledge that you have and need to be constantly aware that there’s always much more that you don’t know.
9. What was the toughest lesson you have learnt from your actual experience of setting up alone or in partnerships?
Working with partners is always much more fun as well as the added benefit of mutual encouragement. However, having a partner just for the sake of not being alone is not a good idea. While there is probably no such thing as ‘perfect business partners’, there is definitely an abundance of ‘terribly bad business partners’. This could result from a number of factors but typically stems from a misalignment of expectations. If you think that firing somebody is tough, ‘firing’ or breaking up with a business partner is much harder. Just make sure that if you’re going into business with somebody, he or she knows clearly why you are doing it and that the other person has a complimentary skill set to yours.
10. Did any of your businesses fail? What is failure for an entrepreneur?
The ‘correct’ answer is that failure is a learning experience. In reality it is a depressing, emotional and trying time.
However failure will at some point in time happen to everyone – entrepreneur or not. Just ask somebody who’s been fired, passed up for promotion or lost an important football match. I think an important aspect of dealing with failure is being pre-emptive. That is, being aware of the potential for, and consequences of, failure before you put yourself into an irreversible situation. The worst failures are those that blindside you.
Many of my projects and ideas have failed. But the only times that they truly affected me badly were the times where the failure completely and utterly surprised me because I had been too blind or caught up in the rosy aspects of a project to recognise and deal with certain risks. I would recommend any budding entrepreneur to research and read up about Scenario Planning to help minimise such experiences.
11. What has been your biggest success so far? What keeps your motivation to be an entrepreneur going?
Probably presenting my latest project at the LeWeb conference in Paris last December was my biggest success in terms of visibility. However each and every successful client interaction I’ve had, be it getting sponsorship money, selling a product or getting people to attend an event, has always yielded the same feeling of deep satisfaction. In part, my motivation to keep going is definitely due to wanting to experience this feeling one more time, every time.
12. Will everyone’s experience of being an entrepreneur be the same?
Some things will be the same. It is almost a given that you will have some very low and tough times. You will have people who will react negatively to your project and people who try to dissuade you from doing your own thing. You are also likely to have dissatisfied customers and possibly even angry ones.
If you persevere you are very likely to also have significant ‘highs’: grateful customers, positive feedback, financial reward, the possibility of ‘leaving a legacy’, or whatever makes you tick.
What will be different for everybody is the process of achieving those highs and of dealing with the lows. This will depend quite a bit on your personality and habits so it’s crucially important to at least be honest with yourself and acknowledge your strengths and faults in order to make the best of the bad times and to remain an Ethical Entrepreneur during the good ones.
The full page scans of the article: