My first business was a failure… Here are five things it taught me


Thinking entrepreneurially isn’t something that happened instantly for me. In fact, it kind of happened by accident. I think I was dragged kicking and screaming into the business world.

I started my professional life in education teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in both New Zealand and Japan. It turned out that this background was a pretty good apprenticeship because it taught me how to work with people on a lot of different levels.

This was before I started my first business, but working with people who struggled with English most of the time also taught me the first lesson:

1. There is huge value in making things comprehensible to others.

After I came back from Japan, the ESOL market imploded in New Zealand and I had to reinvent myself. And this was really the start of my transition from being a teacher, to thinking more like an entrepreneur, to being an entrepreneur… or perhaps an edupreneur.

Mostly, this is where I learned the second lesson:

2. Your first foray into business is likely to be fueled by equal parts desperation, fear, and crazy ideas.

I had a post grad qualification, and some great experience, including overseas, but I was on the dole. I had no money and I had a young family to support. What to do?

This is when I learned another lesson:

3. You don’t really choose.

The local unemployment office gave me two choices: join their team as a case manager, or apply for a enterprise development grant and become self employed.

I took the red pill.

One month later I had a small business crash course under my belt, a registered company, and a business plan.

The business course was basic, but the registered company was real, and my business plan was kick-ass. Then came lesson 4.

4. You don’t need a business plan… you need a business model.

Of course, it later turned out that no one wanted what I had to sell and what I really needed wasn’t a business plan, but a business model… a way of actually generating revenue.

Despite not really having any viable product or service to sell, going through the process got me the grant and a three month timeframe to start. I was “in business”. But then came the next lesson.

5. You have no idea what you are doing

My first step was to immediately squander thousands of dollars of the grant money on useless business software which I convinced myself I needed for contact management, lead generation, bookkeeping, and project management.

From there I drifted into the dullest kind of consulting work that you could never imagine: educational compliance.

Pick any really boring occupation, like tax accounting for example, and educational compliance trumps it for sheer dullness by a factor of 100. At least.

In fact, education compliance work is so boring that tax accountants (a usually humourless bunch) will laugh out loud when I describe this kind of work to them.

So that was my job for a while: I would help training providers, often the dodgy ones, sort out their compliance issues and occasionally write proposals to help them gain additional government funding.

The work would meet the brief in the eyes of the bureaucrats who were reviewing or auditing, often substantially. But in reality, it was mostly just a clever cover up for a lack of any real substance. A lot like my original business plan and business.

So that business failed. But it was a great learning curve.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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