10 of the world's most successful entrepreneurs share their best advice for boosting your business right now
Learn empathy from Ratan Tata and how to get things started from the CEO of Bumble
Being your own boss is the most common business advice for entrepreneurs dolled out on motivational posters, but there really isn’t enough real estate on those A3 pages to chart out what a roller coaster ride it is. Everyone wants a ‘Live, Love, Laugh, Lead’ sign for their office but the addendum of the terms and conditions of entrepreneurship in minute font on the back lies forgotten.
The real challenge is to be more than just a quote plastered on the wall. It’s being a confident driving force when the economy starts fumbling — with decisions becoming riskier and employees needing a shot of motivation.
This past year has seen big businesses struggle with lay-offs and pay cuts. Simultaneously, a slew of new small businesses started popping up as dreamers started cashing in on their hobbies, turning them into a side hustle. The right business advice helped many shake themselves out of a rut and adapt to the changing environment.
It can be overwhelming. But behind every thriving business are mentors, guiding the way. I can’t exactly get Indra Nooyi on speed dial. So I turned industry leaders, entrepreneurs and CEOs from different fields into virtual mentors, making the most of help being one click away.
Whether you’re planning your entrepreneurial journey or trying to upskill, reskill and take your business in a new direction, their wisdom is just what you need to iron out the kinks.
The best business advice for entrepreneurs, from the ones who made it
If you have a new idea, write it down and stare at it
Whitney Wolfe Herd, founder and CEO of Bumble, has spoken a lot about the harassment and adversity she faced while working at Tinder before venturing out on her own. And like with starting any new business, there were a lot of fears and risks.
Her business advice for entrepreneurs looking for success? Even if you’re scared, make the first move. Start with simple steps, like “Writing your idea down on a piece of paper and putting it on your bathroom mirror and staring at it for two weeks,” she said.
It’s a technique I picked up from Tweak founder Twinkle Khanna, who walks around with scraps of paper stuffed into her notebook, each with an idea to build on. Worst case? You toss it and start all over.
Writing things seems trivial when we’re in a digital world with supercomputers in our palms, but writing clears the mind, helps you figure out business goals and maintain a record. Who knows which scrawl could turn into that ‘BOOM!’ idea as you’re skimming through your shreds, and a burst of inspiration shoots through your brain like you’ve just been on a caffeine IV?
Streamline and focus on what you’re best at
Five years ago, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) was on the edge of bankruptcy. In came a new CEO, Dr Lisa Su who steered the ship in a new, thriving direction. The company creates microchips and processors that are probably in the laptop I’m using right now.
Her method of turning the ship around when everything seems to be a chaotic mess? Drop what isn’t working, focus on making what you’re good at and make it even better.
It’s something my editor tells me often. Instead of trying to cover every corner of a subject, focus on the main point and make it engaging.
You could be on either end of the see-saw. A business thinking about branching out to draw more people in or one with your toe in many sludgy puddles. Take Su’s business advice for entrepreneurs and “Decide what you are really, really good at because you have to be the best, number one or number two.” Su adds. “It’s all about focusing on, ‘Hey, this is the DNA of the company, let us make it as great as possible.'”
Surround yourself with the right advisors
A good idea is only a starting point for having a successful business. Serial entrepreneur and author Naeem Zafar says that having the right people in your corner is crucial.
He suggests creating a team of five different types of advisors – a personal coach, a domain expert, someone who can connect you with a large network and make introductions, an industry leader of stature to lend credibility and a technical expert.
It may not always be possible to seek expert professionals when you don’t have the access, opportunity or finances to support them. If you can find even one mentor with experience in the field, it’s better than trying (and failing) to figure out sales, marketing, finance and operations of it all.
“See who you have the right chemistry with, who is intrigued by your idea and who you can rely on,” says Zafar.
Listen to your customer complaints, they may be onto something
“As long as people are complaining, they still want to do business with you. When they stop complaining is when you need to worry.” Guy Kawasaki is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and chief evangelist at Canva. This go-to business advice came from a jewellery manufacturer he worked with before embarking on his tech career.
I’ve always complained about the lack of good customer service in India, especially at bigger businesses. When you have a possible market of 1 billion people, losing the business of one disgruntled customer isn’t a big deal.
But when you have returning customers with a complaint, they may be on to something. Customer loyalty is about delivering good products and services, and engaging with them to make them feel like they have a sense of ownership.
Ask for customer feedback and ideas on how you can improve. You may get 10 suggestions, of which eight are duds, but two ideas could present areas you could really work on. Ensuring a better customer experience and boosting your business.
Recognise when you need to try a different approach
Payal Kadakia Pujji launched ClassPass in New York in 2013 and slowly it turned into a company worth a billion dollars. But the ClassPass users see today isn’t what she had initially thought of. It first launched as Classtivity, a search engine for dance and fitness classes, inspired by her own needs. It didn’t work. People came to the website but didn’t sign up for anything.
She innovated with different promotions and trial offers. Finally landing on ClassPass as it is today, with a membership model where people get to try exclusive classes at boutique fitness centres that are available in their area.
Circumstances and situations keep changing. The pandemic may have put a major roadblock in your mission and what you’re trying to achieve through your business. But Pujji’s business advice for entrepreneurs is to assess the situation, pivot and adapt. “Being an entrepreneur is [basically about] how you innovate. You have to understand what’s going on with the world around you, and adapt to that to keep achieving your mission,” said Pujji to Vogue India.
While her business changed thrice on its journey to where it is today, she stuck to her goal of getting people to try out new ways of being active.
Don’t sell a product, sell an experience
Whether you’re trying to crack a client brief or find a new design for product branding, sometimes you get stuck in a rut and there’s no way to get the creative juices flowing again. As an entrepreneur, you can feel the same about your business.
Instead of rushing into a new expansion which can be risky right now, see the product you have on offer and turn it into an experience. Heed Debbi Fields’ business advice for entrepreneurs. The founder of Mrs Fields, one of the largest bakery and snack food franchises in the United States, she started with homemade cookies, selling them from stalls at airports and malls.
“I’ve never felt like I was in the cookie business. I’ve always been in a feel-good feeling business. My job is to sell joy. My job is to sell an experience,” said Fields.
Invest in your marketing, advertisements and social media strategies and look beyond the product you’re selling. Focus on the senses you can evoke, the nostalgia, emotions and memories. It is about how you make your customers feel.
You’re creating a certain perception of your brand that people want to be associated with. Why else do we fork over hundreds for a so-so store-bought coffee when ghar ki phenti hui coffee hits all the right spots?
Ask for help to balance work with your personal life
Finding a work-life balance is as mythical as a unicorn. Especially for a new business owner.
Then you hear about the woman juggling motherhood with a thriving business and Instagram pictures of smiling staff members in a meeting that look like they’ve been pulled off Shutterstock.
Being an entrepreneur is hard work, and Meika Hollender, cofounder and co-CEO of Sustain which creates sustainable sexual health products, believes the grind needs to be spoken about more than the glamour.
“Over the last five years I think there has been a glamorisation of entrepreneurship, and while I think there’s some benefit of making it look awesome because more people are taking the risk and starting amazing companies, it can also be demoralising and break your spirit,” she said in a Forbes interview. She adds that she wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of her husband and business partner who took over a lot of other household and office tasks.
Delegate your tasks to others, who in a lot of cases may be more skilled and equipped to handle them. Ask for help when you need it and don’t feel guilty for taking a step back when you need it.
Harness the power of empathy
Ratan Tata, the man, the legend and our favourite boomer influencer, has dealt with his fair share of business ups and downs. But the business advice for entrepreneurs he himself has always stuck by — to run a successful business, you need empathy.
“I admire people who are very successful. But if that success has been achieved through too much ruthlessness, then I may admire that person, but I can’t respect him,” he says.
There’s been a lot of fear for employees, of big and small companies alike. With major lay-offs, pay cuts and uncertainty about the future. In these times, he stressed the need to be open with your employees and reach out to them.
Instead of keeping management matters on the DL, address them with an open communication strategy and an empathetic approach. Even if things turn negative, try and reach people on an emotional level. Because once the anger dies down, you can start brainstorming as a team and elicit ideas that work for both the company and its employees.
As a leadership approach, it can help you build better relations with the people you work with and develop employee loyalty.
Don’t burn bridges, with other businesses, employees or customers
Other than being an author of multiple books, Martin Zwilling’s company mentors up-and-coming start-ups through the big bad world of entrepreneurship.
When you embark on your journey, keep your cool when it comes to the people in your network.
“In a startup, you can’t predict when you will need help from a past connection, advisor, or investor, so it pays to maintain old relationships rather than ignore them or lose them through petty disagreements or ego,” suggests Zwilling.
On one hand, I’m all for going all scorched earth when dropping a toxic employer and moving on to live your best life. But as a rational adult, I’ve come to agree that burning your bridges isn’t a good idea. You never know whom you may need in the future.
Given the stress of running a company right now, telling someone to relax and not snap at people doesn’t sound like the best business advice for entrepreneurs, but it’s more for the future than the present. Like Zwilling says, “Good working relationships are hard to build, and easy to destroy.”
Good leadership is also knowing when to stop, and it takes courage
As a venture capitalist, founder and director of Kalaari Capital and one of the ‘Most Powerful Women in Business,‘ Vani Kola knows what she’s talking about.
She has seen and written extensively about the darker side of entrepreneurship. Taking the hard decision to say goodbye to a business before you become too embroiled – emotionally and financially – in a sinking ship.
“Perseverance is only part of the story. Sometimes, the darker reality is that we need to have the courage to pull the plug on what may seem an impossible salvage mission,” said Kola. “And knowing when to give up is equally important. When the dues pile up, when you can’t pay employees the salary, and you have mounting debt, it is too late to do anything.”
Failure comes with very negative connotations in our society. But for Kola, calling an end to a project that isn’t working may feel like a letdown at first, but it’s your way of saving time, energy and resources which you can put towards your next project.