“Every time you meet somebody new, it’s a contact, and you have that person for life.”
“Failure is a stepping stone.”
“Be clear on what you do and why you do it.”
These were just some of the pointers shared with attendees at the Digital Housing Conference 2016 (#DH2016), held at Eden Gardens Resort on November 30, 2016. The speakers were a panel of eight young Jamaicans who were selected to be fellows in the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI), a programme launched by President Barack Obama to help create networks between young leaders in the northern region. They all travelled to the United States to be part of a six-week exchange, where they got the opportunity to consult and connect with mentors, and witness best practices at businesses and organisations in 21 cities across the United States.
The YLAI eight were: Renee Stewart (CEO of Haute Apparel), Miguel ‘Steppa’ Williams (director of Forward Step Foundation), Craslyn Benjamin (CEO of Benlar Foods), Patria-Kaye Aarons (CEO of Sweetie), Kadeem Pet-Grave (Co-founder of Educatours Jamaica), Tishauna Mullings (CEO of NexxStepp), Latoya West-Blackwood, CEO of iPublish) and Javette Nixon (CEO of POINT Global Marketing Limited). The guest speaker was deputy chairman and CFO of Musson Group of Companies, Dr Nigel Clarke.
diGJamaica has compiled a list of the top 10 takeaways from the event. These were the points that were stated and restated by each panelist and speaker, underlining their importance to any entrepreneurial endeavour.
1. Just do it.
Every person who took the stage had this advice for anyone who wanted to start their own business: don’t hesitate. “The time to do it is now,” said Renee. Steppa was even franker: “Just do it!” Javette later added that the sooner an entrepreneur formalises their business, the greater their sense of purpose and the quicker and easier their compliance with legal requirements, etc.
“Ensure that you’re innovating,” said Tishauna. “What is the differentiating factor that your business carries that separates it from everyone else’s?” Then she added: “Hustling and entrepreneurship are not the same thing.”
3. Find like-minded people.
Javette couldn’t stress this enough. Referring to his time at the University of Technology’s business incubator, he said: “Some of the best advice I got was from other entrepreneurs.” Kadeem had a warning for young start-ups: Be careful who you take advice from. Your business idea is YOUR business idea, so buy-in from others might be low initially, or they may try to dissuade you from starting your business. All of them encouraged aspiring entrepreneurs to find people who were also building businesses to network with (for the REAL definition of networking, see number 9).
4. Show proof of concept.
Kadeem and Tishauna both harped on this point. Their moderator summed it up well when she said: “When you start a business, especially in Jamaica, do some work before you try to get investments. It is good to have a track record to show.” She went on to explain that unlike in the United States, Jamaican entrepreneurs were unlikely to get funded for their ideas alone, so they needed to ensure that they had proof of concept before seeking buy-in from investors.
5. Tell your story well.
“Build your story,” Kadeem Pet-Grave stressed. “Your story must connect with your audience.” Javette was even more specific: “Articulate your story in a way that validates it to your [audience].” He mentioned how Matchfire told their story in a way that “showed and measured and validated it to outsiders”.
6. Get educated.
All the entrepreneurs encouraged persons to get an education in what they want to do. “Know your industry and know it well,” said guest speaker Nigel Clarke, encouraging aspiring entrepreneurs to stay informed and at the top of their industry. Tishauna also mentioned that aspiring entrepreneurs don’t have to lave college to start their businesses. “If you know what you want to go into,” she said, “you should get educated in that.”
7. Don’t ignore funding from friends and family.
They all said it: Funding doesn’t have to come from a venture capitalist or an angel investor. It can come from crowdfunding, connections, and friends and family. And friends and family also provide emotional support. Patria-Kaye told everyone how her mother was her biggest supporter, and how that made a difference in her entrepreneurial journey. Craslyn emphasised the need to find a partner who understands the entrepreneurial endeavour, and supports what you are trying to do. The message was clear: Dis-count no one.
8. Help people.
All eight YLAI entrepreneurs emphasised the importance of providing help to other persons when in a position to do so. Latoya and Craslyn spoke about networking from this perspective: not just exchanging business cards, but actually listening to another person’s ideas and challenges, and then thinking of ways you can help, or of other resource persons you know who can assist. They also lamented the absence of an organised system that allowed start-ups to more easily connect with resource persons/groups. “Jamaica is full of innovation and raw creativity,” Latoya said, “but we’re lacking in organisation to match goodwill with projects.”
9. Hire dreambuilders.
Tishauna said she didn’t just hire competent people. She said she hired DREAMBUILDERS. Javette said one of the best pieces of advice he got came from another entrepreneur who told him to hire people with like passions. Nigel Clarke added to the mix, saying that entrepreneurs should outsource their weaknesses, because they need a full complement of skills.
10. Pay yourself.
If you’re not paying yourself, said Javette, then what you are doing might as well be a hobby. He recommended paying yourself, so that when you start taking on employees, you will get into the habit of paying them, and also create the habit of building a sustainable business, i.e., one that is able to produce enough profit to pay the required salaries. Latoya was quick to point out that PROFIT is not a bad word, and that it’s okay to like nice things. She said that while personal sacrifices had to be made at times, persons (especially in the creative industries) had to learn to treat their businesses as serious for-profit ventures, and not merely hobbies.