From our CEO - The things I wish I knew before becoming an entrepreneur

I started my company in 2010 and looking back on it now, I realise how silly of a decision it was. I had no knowledge, experience or capital, but it happened anyway because I simply wanted to help people. I’ve taken some time to reflect and pen my story down, and to share some of the lessons I’ve learnt along the way (this is a long post so if you want to, you can skip directly to the sections you are interested in).



How it all started


In 2009, I was president of the Students' Union at my university, and I was struggling a lot. I was a perfectionist, my fellow officers didn’t do their jobs the way I envisioned, and it felt like the entire world was resting on my shoulders. I was overwhelmed and looking at it now, probably a little depressed. I cried everyday in the morning calling my mum and telling her how much I was struggling with having to go to work. At one of our team meetings, I hit rock bottom, and I hid under the table telling everyone I didn’t want to listen to them. I did it as a joke, I think, but rumours started to spread that I was losing it.


Shortly after that day my friend Ylva approached the topic of my burnout. Before that, we had worked together on an Environmental campaign (which was quite successful by the way - we managed to influence the university to introduce recycling bins across all campuses) and we got along very well. I really trusted her judgement. She studied psychology and was trained as a coach, and offered to help me. I took her up on her offer as I really wanted to do away with the situation I was in.


With Ylva’s coaching, it took just 6 weeks to turn my entire attitude around, and by January 2010, I was feeling positive, in control and motivated to continue working on projects. This enabled me to complete my sabbatical year successfully. After seeing all the amazing results in my life, I asked Ylva to teach me what she knew so I could help others too.


Ylva took me through elements of Psychology, Neuroscience, NLP, Biology, made me read some academic papers and encouraged me to continue exploring so I could find my own style. After a few months we decided to start a business together. She focused on the heavier topics of personal development, while I worked on things closer to my expertise in management studies such as time management and professional profile building. We made the fundamental mistake of focusing on students as our main clientele and, unsurprisingly, could not make the company sustainable as students did not have the means to pay us. We closed down our partnership, and Ylva moved to Denmark to continue studying and developing her career. As for me, I knew there was a way, so I registered myself as self-employed to continue working on I&I.


Over the years, I’ve shifted my focus from students to women entrepreneurs, startups, schools and corporations. It has been a crazy journey, and through it I’ve managed to gain enough knowledge and experience to get my company to where it is today. Here are some of the lessons I learnt along the way.



What I learned along the way


1. You know more than you think you know and continuous learning is a thing

At the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, I really struggled with not having a formal education related to coaching. I had learnt the ropes from a psychologist, but I was still only a graduate in managerial studies which had nothing to do with human development. As a result, I spent years studying, taking on all the courses I could afford, and even got certified as an NLP coach. However, the more I studied, the more I felt I wasn’t good enough. Only after receiving several comments from clients did I start realising how rich my toolbox was, and I quickly put together workshops based on my mental library. I could have started many projects much earlier if only I had trusted my expertise. Now that I’ve learnt my lesson, I make it my personal mission to encourage people to activate their projects and learn along the way; the best way to assess knowledge and experience gaps is to test them in the market.


2. Following your Passion helps in being resilient

Being an entrepreneur is hard at times. Picking the right business model can be tricky, and maintaining a healthy cash flow is a real challenge. There were numerous days where I cried and was close to giving up. There were also days when I felt like I had enough, and I would dust off my CV and apply for jobs. But then there were mornings, after those dark days, when I reminded myself why I did what I did, pick myself up and continue. Getting to where I am today would never have happened if I wasn’t passionate about my work.


3. Trust yourself more than others – not all mentors are good

This one is hard. I started something at a young age and I kept trying to get as much advice as possible from people around me. I had a vision, but it was put to the test by many, and there were people who told me to do things a certain way. Their advice didn’t always resonate with me, but not being able to do what they said made me feel inadequate and like a failure; I could write an entire blog post about mentorship and how it can go wrong, but that’s a topic for another day. Over the years, I learnt that no one else around me knows what is best for me than myself, so the smartest thing to do, in my case, is to collect wisdom from various sources, sieve through it in my own head, pick what works for my company and experiment with those things. Trusting my own gut feeling has saved me from many misfortunes.


4. Build and maintain a Great Team

I am still working hard on this one. For many years I operated alone, partly because I travelled around and worked as a freelancer, and partly because I had neither the time nor resources to train others in what I needed them to do. It was only a few years back that I started to work with freelancers, interns and employees, and this has been life-changing. I always aim to hire people smarter than me with skills that complement mine. My team is amazing, and if it wasn’t for them I would have never been able to take some time off after giving birth to my baby girl. I believe the key to hiring a great team for a tiny company like mine is to trust your gut when hiring at first. Then make sure they can work and develop themselves while helping to build the company, and support them in moving on to better jobs when the time is right. Another tough lesson I learnt is to let go of team members that are no longer the right fit sooner rather than later.


5. Embrace Failure by performing small experiments

As mentioned previously, life can be hard. Failure will happen, and trying to avoid it by not taking action will just delay progress. I used to be terrified of failure, but now I simply assume that something will go wrong. The keys to surviving setbacks is to always have a “plan B”, be relaxed about deliverables (within reason) and bounce back quickly. My personal approach to trying new things is to treat them as experiments with their main objective being to collect as much feedback as possible and then adjust the experiment based on it; rinse and repeat.


6. Always have the big picture in mind

This one used to be challenging, especially when I heard that I should focus on one thing at a time. You see, when I started my company I had many ideas. They came about from figuring out how I wanted to contribute to society, lessons learnt from clients and circumstances I had to adapt to in order to make my business sustainable. As a result, I developed my mental empire, a big picture involving numerous brands, projects and initiatives. It does come with downsides as it can distract me easily, and from an outsider’s perspective it may seem like I’m chasing down unrelated rabbit holes that are disconnected from what I’m meant to be focusing on. It means that it may take longer to complete some projects, but in the end, I see every single thing that I do in life as a building block in my grand scheme of things. Thanks to this, I can introduce new initiatives swiftly as many of my materials I want to use are already in place. Most importantly, by being laser focused on where I want to get to, I can say “no” to things that don’t serve the vision.


AUTHOR

Aga Gajownik

CEO, Co-founder of Innovation & Integration