Tuesday January 21 2014

The possibility of starting your business with only Shs18,000

By Richard Branson

Q: How can I grow $7 - about Shs18,000 - into a big business? I need to start with a tiny stall beside a road or with a homemade cart.
- Atwijukire Absolom, Uganda

A: When you’re starting up a new business, it can be easy to get carried away as you dream and plan - and with good reason, since you’re embarking on a thrilling journey. Atwijukire, if you’re like most entrepreneurs, at the moment your idea became clear, you got a surge of adrenaline, and since then your every waking minute has been devoted to getting your plan in motion. The question is, can you do it?
A $7 business won’t turn into multimillion dollar enterprise overnight. There’s a lot of work to be done, and during that long journey, qualities like determination and gumption will be just as vital as enthusiasm and optimism.
Having an end goal in mind is a great thing; now you have to decide on the smaller, more achievable steps that help you work toward it, and then carry them out.

That work should begin long before you make your first sale. You need to understand who your customers are and what they want. If you’re looking to set up a stall to sell goods, the market research may be as straightforward as asking people in your community what they’d like to buy but are having trouble finding in local shops and stalls.

As you prepare for launch day, you must ensure that you’re going to be nimble enough to cope with unforeseen problems and to take advantage of any valuable opportunities that arise.

A stall or cart offers some advantages in terms of flexibility, because if you notice that a particular type of product is doing especially well, you can more easily transfer your energy and funds to developing that area of the business than a large company ever could.

This may mean modifying your original idea, which can be difficult. Many businesses fail because their founders are too headstrong to adjust course.

Ashish Thakkar’s tips
A situation like yours requires real creativity and flexibility, so it may be especially useful to turn to mentors for advice. There are a number of African entrepreneurs you might look to, one of whom is Ashish Thakkar, who was recently named Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the World Entrepreneurship Forum. (I was also named Serial Entrepreneur of the Year, but let’s not focus on that.)

In an interview with Forbes in 2012, Ashish, who is also from Uganda, had some inspiring and practical words for entrepreneurs that you may find helpful. He said, “I believe in a strong sense of perseverance, always thinking big and aiming high, and of course positivity.”

He also commented: “Always be down to earth and approachable. The day your arrogance or ego kicks in, it’s all over. Always remember, no matter how big you become you will still always be a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things.” This is exactly right, in that your ability to listen to others and adapt may mean the difference between success and failure.

Expanding your business
When you are starting up from such a small sum, it will often be tempting to base your decisions on short-term profit. But that would be short-sighted, because no matter how big or small your business is, the key to success is attracting customers and keeping them coming back.

When you’re helping a customer, remember that each one is a resource, with the potential to provide your venture with funding and feedback, and to help spread the word.

Providing great service may set you back a little more than you’d like, but if you do things the right way, then your customers will be a lot more likely to return.

Great companies are built on such foundations. At Virgin, we make exactly the same choices, although we’re operating on a larger scale these days. At the end of last year, after six tough years, our airline Virgin America started to make a consistent profit. In that time we focused on building a loyal and passionate following in a tough market. (This is an extreme example to give to a startup, and we were able to support the venture through its startup phase, but it does illustrate my point.) If we can provide personalised great service across such a big organisation, then you can too.

So dream big! Be flexible as you explore what your market needs, help your customers however you can, and have fun. If you follow these steps, you may find that your small business is becoming big business.

Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.