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5 things I’ve learnt in 5 years
Feb 17, 2022
Entrepreneurship is a narcotic I got hooked on early in life.
I think I was all of seven when I went door to door with my sidekick (age six) to collect chanda for Ganpathi Chathurthi and purchased a small Ganesha to set up a tiny pandal in our road. Heretical for two little girls in conservative South Bangalore, circa 1980.
I grew up spending many a happy hour tagging along with my entrepreneur Dad as he met clients, learning capacitor colour codes to bag them, and acting as his telex and fax operator.
Fast forward a decade or three, when I collaborated with a finance maven to design and build mobile learning apps for children – one of which won ‘top learning iOS app’ from parent portal babble.com in 2011. The venture failed, not because we didn’t know how to design well, but because we failed to account for marketing.
I then plunged into digital marketing, more accurately, the content marketing aspects of it, as a solopreneur, working with clients in networking, edtech, iOT and other exciting sectors. I was backed by a previous stint in enterprise technology consulting, building pathbreaking learning and multimedia portals when MOOCs were still a twinkle in Coursera’s eye. All this experience stood me in good stead when I launched Clearly Blue.
It’s been five years since. In fact, we’re closing in on six soon. I thought it’s a good time to take stock and share five things I’ve learned along the way. Some of these may seem contrary to popular wisdom, some obvious, but here goes.
Fear Failure, But Don’t Let it Paralyse You – In the era of ‘Fail fast’ and ‘Humble Brag’ about celebrated failures this may seem outrageous, but it’s incredible to me that anyone would actually glorify failure as a goal. I’m all for experimentation, but the goal behind every experiment is to succeed.
We learn from failures – we iterate, we tweak, sometimes we give up and move forward, but at Clearly Blue, we keep success in our sights in every effort we start! We’re primarily a services company, but we’ve also constantly launched efforts in content-based solutions and products with an intent to win. The fear of failure fuels me to action: I want to be able to succeed in pleasing every customer, in delivering world class services and being profitable. Which brings me to #2.
Value profitability over growth – Someone recently remarked to me that we should have grown X% ‘more’ over five years and reached some mythical growth target for a 5-year firm. Such targets conveniently ignore the ‘P’ word – profitability. Sure, we’ve not grown as per many sorts of subjective yardsticks, but we’ve grown profitably. Clearly Blue has been in the black from about month 4 of year 1. We’ve always paid salaries and retainers – no cuts even through the direst of pandemic months. We’ve paid our taxes and maintained ‘clean’ books. We’ve grown healthily! This, in my estimation, is a better metric for success than multiple valuations of top-line growth. I’ve had my share of offers to beef up the top-line, but for me, the bottom-line is happy customers, happy employees and good sleep at night.
Grow a thick skin – “You’re just a woman with a bunch of freelancers” (said a customer who happened to be a woman!) “You can’t hope to grow with your health and a bunch of pregnant ladies” (said a consultant – again a woman!) “Congratulations on your gender-diverse team” (said a prospect, snidely). I’ve heard them all. Blatant sexism to outright misogyny. Subtle put downs to gendered puns. No ‘man entrepreneur’ has been labeled as such or has had to explain leading a team of (mostly) men. ‘Woman entrepreneur’ tags make me impatient. But we’ve grown – a thick skin – along with team size and revenues. We’re a bunch of talented, experienced people who deliver value. We welcome collaborating on great work from anyone, anywhere in the world – we’re blind to age, sex and other labels. We’re heartened by support from many quarters, including hurrahs from customers. We’re growing – in confidence as well!
If it’s not fun, what is it all about? Speaking of happy employees, this is a key metric of entrepreneurship success to me. We burn the midnight oil many times. We’re not the best paymaster out there – yet! We have disagreements, mostly professional. But at all times, people work at CB because they want to. We persisted in holding on to our office last year when many agencies went completely virtual – the persistence paid off as people head back happily to work together a few times a week. We’ve always been a hybrid workplace, but people yearn for the social connect – the few (socially distanced) hours spent together are worth more than several days of Zooming and Meeting. We work together, crib together and sometimes, play together.
Now, we swiggy in more but are venturing out in new explorations, thanks to new members of our ecosystem!
5. Stay paranoid – Will AI-generated content upend our business model? Will anonymous armies of “10,000 writers” write better SEO copy? Will younger, fresher, nimbler, cheaper teams take away business? We are paranoid about these and a myriad other things, big and small.
To keep ourselves updated – we evaluate AI portals churning out copy, talk to ‘10,000 writers’, learn about algorithm changes that affect SEO.
To go higher – SEO is but the beginning of great content. For marketing campaigns to excel, especially in the B2B context, the emphasis has to be on thought leadership, deep product collateral and strategic content marketing. Which is what we excel in.
But the most important thing we do is focus on the basics – English grammar, writing styles, keeping pace with tech trends, consistency in content quality, adhering to deadlines. These are the day-to-day things that keep us in business and ensure happy customers. At the end of the day, as long as there’s a value to humans absorbing content and reacting to it, CB will keep going.
The learning is still on. I feel like I’m weaving magic on ‘flow’ days and standing on a pile of (self-created?) shambles on others. Talk to me a few years down the road and many of these tenets may have morphed into something else.
A key learning is that entrepreneurship, like life itself, is a journey. There’s no point worrying too much about the destination. While we do have goals of growth and profitability, while we do plan to spin out more services and solutions – with all the attendant ups and downs – we may as well take a breather and enjoy the ride today.
A lifetime of experimentation with a bunch of great people is something to celebrate everyday!