Lessons Learned as an Accidental Entrepreneur
By : Naveed Ahmad
On August 1st, 2012 my career, my life, and my purpose changed with a single phone call. My youngest brother, Nussar Ahmad, the vibrant, millennial-minded founder of Addictive Mobility, had passed away suddenly from a heart attack. Faced with the choice of continuing his legacy in Canadian ad-tech, I left my life as a banker and took on a role that could not have been further from my 15 years in banking– I became an entrepreneur.
The gravity of this change hadn’t struck me until I walked into the Addictive Mobility office at 8:45 AM on July 3rd, 2013, to find no one in the office. Around 9:30 – 9:45 AM staff began to stroll in, and by 11:00 AM, I witnessed the first table tennis match with both curiosity and bewilderment. I chalked this up to “start-up culture”, a dramatic difference from the banking mindset I had become accustomed to. Not very many financial institutions have table tennis competitions mid-day, but then again, most bank employees would not stay long after 5:00 PM to collaborate and solve complex client problems.
Now, just over 5 years later, I look in the mirror and see a reflection that is very different than the one I remember. I often joke with friends who see the amount of white hair on my head that I resemble the before and after picture of President Obama after his 8 years of serving his country.
Despite my changed appearance, I truly feel more passionate, hungry and competitive than I ever have. The most interesting thing for me is what has driven this mindset. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned throughout all of this is that your team is the most critical element that will define your company’s success or failure.
As an accidental entrepreneur, I felt I had very little I could immediately offer the company or its staff. I had no experience in the field, I had no industry contacts I could leverage and I did not know what it would take to move the needle with a very young and passionate team. On top of this, in my first 4 months, my CTO resigned, my competition openly poached my best staff, my shareholders wanted to exit at any cost, and revenue was on the decline. Needless to say, there were countless lessons I learned, as I grew Addictive Mobility with my team to what it is now.
PERSEVERANCE IS YOUR ONLY OPTION:
Perhaps the greatest difference between being an employee vs. entrepreneur is that giving up is not an option. If you give up, so will your business. Each day is very much like walking on a highwire tightrope without a safety net. Perseverance does not mean stubbornness, in my opinion, it means being steadfast. There is a subtle yet significant difference. I believe if one is stubborn, it is about his/ her ego. If one is steadfast, there is the ability to be flexible and adapt to change with the mindset that this is for the overall betterment of the company and its people.
LEAD WITH SERVITUDE:
An older relative once told me that, “the greatest trees in the forest were not ones that were the tallest. The greatest trees were the ones that provided the most shade, the most fruit and the strongest branches that provided a habitat for life”. The purpose of these trees was simple, to serve. Throughout these 5 years, I have learned that to serve does not mean to serve blindly. There is a required reciprocity. However, I truly believe the culture of servitude needs to be instilled from the top.
FINANCIAL PRUDENCE MATTERS:
In witnessing the many successes and failures of other entrepreneurs around me, perhaps the one thing that surprised me the most was the lack of focus on financial prudence. This could very well be because many entrepreneurs in the tech space were financially supported by third parties, VCs, PE Funds, etc. Perhaps the thought was, “well, it is not my money, so if it is gone, I can ask for more”. As a banker, business is about making money; otherwise, in my opinion, it is simply a cool high school project. That does not mean that financial statements and balance sheets are the sole drivers, but yes, they are a key focal point, particularly if you are bootstrapped. The reality is, for an entrepreneur, it is just simple.
SELL WHAT IS ON THE COVER OF THE CAN:
This is by far the most challenging, but critical thing to do, particularly as an entrepreneur who is fighting the good fight in a hyper-competitive environment. Every startup, including ours, is attempting to challenge the status quo, be a David against a number of Goliaths. However, over the years, what I have witnessed is that smoke and mirrors will only get you so far. At some point, you will be called out, and your company’s integrity will be put at risk. I am not saying that we were flawless in this execution; however, the mindset was and always has to be one of selling what is on the cover of the can.
PASSION SUPERSEDES NATURAL TALENT
It is often said that successful entrepreneurs have it in their genes. I am not too sure about that. What I have outlined has nothing to do with genetics. Perhaps I was never a true entrepreneur, just simply an “Accidental Entrepreneur” who was fortunate to be part of a great success story.
On Oct 10th I was fortunate enough to fulfill a promise I made 5 years ago to my youngest brother. This blog is dedicated to him.