Getting real about entrepreneurship

Last night I went to a talk given by Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, otherwise known as The Black Farmer, founder of a company that produces award-winning gluten-free sausages, burgers and other meat products.  He’s a fascinating man, born in Jamaica and brought up in inner-city Birmingham (he was refreshingly frank about his early life and the disadvantages he had to overcome growing up) who spoke about his childhood dream of owning a farm, and how he managed to achieve it.

Along the way and despite dyslexia and a lack of qualifications, he became a BBC producer working on the Food & Drink programme, married and raised a family, and built a well-respected food and drink marketing company. He spoke eloquently about the people who saw something in him and offered a helping hand when he needed it, and of the importance of believing passionately in what you do.

His energy as he spoke reminded me so vividly of the early days of building my business, when my business partner and I were so driven and focused on creating an agency we really believed in. We lived it 24/7 and I wouldn’t swap those exhausting days when all we thought about was how to bring our vision to life for anything. Emmanuel-Jones’ evident desire to challenge, his dissatisfaction with the status quo and his level of self-knowledge was extraordinarily inspiring.

If you’re expecting to achieve a work-life balance in your first three years of running your own business, then you’re never going to succeed, he said. It has to be your absolute focus, and you have to be absolutely determined to make a go of it. It’s incredibly hard work and whilst it’s exhilarating when it’s going well, founding, running and growing a business from scratch is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Looking back, I’d say that’s bang on from my experience, and I wasn’t alone.  As I sat there with fellow entrepreneurs, some of whom had built and sold businesses, others who were still in the development phase, the energy fairly crackled in the air.

Entrepreneurship is a state of mind, he said – and he’s so right. It’s about being prepared to take risks, to innovate, to cut through all of the clutter to get to the heart of an issue and make decisions (then make another one quickly if the first one wasn’t right).  It’s about listening, understanding and, most important of all, taking action. Those things don’t have to be unique to independent businesses though, and bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to bigger organisations is possible if you can create the right environment for your people.

Be open to challenge, encourage lively minds to identify new approaches to problem solving, try not to feel threatened by new thinking, but above all else, enable people to ask the question: “why not?”.  If you’re the one with the ideas, you don’t always have to go it alone, so long as you’re in an organisation that welcomes innovation. If you’ve spotted a gap in the market or have an idea that could elevate your business to a higher level, give yourself permission to imagine it and then bring it to life, even if that’s a single sheet of A4 paper capturing the germ of something great – then share it. In my experience, real leaders find a way to open the door to novel thinking rather than feeling threatened by it.  Passion is infectious and in the right organisation with the right leadership, anything really is possible.

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