top of page

Eternal Sunshine of the Bootstrapping Kind

In my journey transitioning from employee to entrepreneur I have considered, and deeply enjoyed, the many advantages that accompany running one's own business. The freedom to take one's own decisions; the choice to work at one's own pace, in one's own time; the satisfaction that comes from creation, the independence from corporate hierarchies and from office politics. Those of you who are entrepreneurs know, and those that aspire to become entrepreneurs probably understand.

Another aspect I have truly been grateful for - and contrary to what common wisdom would suggest every entrepreneur should do, mind you - is getting actively involved with almost every single aspect of business.

For the purposes of this piece I am going to ignore the pros and cons of focusing on the most productive work and delegating the rest - that's for another discussion. For now, please allow me to focus entirely on the joys of learning, of dipping one's toes in a significantly large number of creative endeavours, something that would have been impossible for me as an employee. Just imagine taking substantial time off, as an employee, to learn skills for tasks that YOU did not exactly NEED to do yourself!

Many of these activities have been forced by the circumstances bootstrapping start-ups operate in (read a tremendous deficit of ready cash). Many others by my rather annoying habit of trying to get everything right (sometimes to the task's detriment - just last night I tried to fix an almost invisible problem with some carpentry work I was doing for our kitchen and ended up undoing hours of work. Argh! But I digress.), and therefore not being satisfied by someone else's professional and perfectly acceptable but 'imperfect' solution. Some have been fuelled by my appetite for finding pleasure in doing certain things for their own sake rather than for a defined end goal. And some others have risen out of a desire to keep learning new skills, to keep dipping my toes in untested (albeit safe) waters.

Just last night, as I lay in bed trying desperately to fall asleep, my mind drifted to the unusually large array of skills I have picked up in the last several years. I am the first to acknowledge that being jack of all comes with the predictable downside of not being a master of many (or, dare I say, any?), but I tell myself - true or not - that it is an unusual, even rare, attribute with a very high value in life. So, anyway, I said to myself, why don't I try listing down what I have learnt? Here is a clumsy live attempt at putting together a list.

So here goes, in no particular order:

1. Early into my foray into entrepreneurship I learned how to register a company, including the basics of company types and their individual characteristics. Luckily, the UK has one of the simplest, and quickest, new company formations anywhere around, so one may argue that there's no great skill in that. Still, I learned how to do it!

2. I learned how to write business plans - like, really write them, and write them well. Ok, B-school had taught me the theory and the basics but only when one starts to put together a real-life business plan for a rather complex business does one understand what it takes to put together a high quality plan. Coupled to a business plan, of course, are all the financial essentials like profit & loss statements, balance sheets, cash flow projections, and business valuation. I then went on and advised and helped several other entrepreneurs put together the business plans for their own ventures.

3. I attained some basic skill in business accounting. Having struggled through the accountancy course while in B-school (looking at you, Tomo Suzuki, a wonderful teacher and a gent who nevertheless, for reasons entirely ascribable to me, failed to instil in me anything more than a rudimentary understanding of the subject). It is something I would still rather pass on to someone else!

4. I learned how to use accounting software, use it to make book keeping entries, and to prepare a VAT return. I figured out, through various meetings with the accountants, how annual accounts are made, how annual reports are made and filed, and how payrolls are run.

5. I learned how to write stories and create narratives for the brand and the business - some of this came from a natural inclination (even though I have not been blessed with great imagination and struggle to write fiction, I found weaving facts into stories relatively easy), and some from the organic nature of the brand and the business that lent itself to story-telling. The latter was picked up by very many journalists who thought that the story of two Oxford MBAs in their mid-thirties eschewing conventional professional, corporate, consulting, or finance careers to set up a passion business in the romantic world of wine was a story worth telling. The acquired skill also proved to be invaluable in the dozens of consumer wine tasting events I conducted across the length and breadth of the UK, which we always received plaudits for, and also in the content creation and copywriting for our website, product brochure, and the like.

6. I learned how wine is made, and picked up the various nuances that start at the farm and end in the consumer's glass. I understood some of the chemistry behind fermentation, and the details that differentiate a good wine from the ordinary. Winemaking is an annual process and you get just one shot a year at getting things right. I also learned how easy it is to get things wrong with biological products.

7. I discovered dozens of types of wine grapes, and (barely, even after years) got started on understanding how to differentiate between them. I must admit this continues to be an area I have struggled with, even though I am probably better at this than almost everyone I know from outside the wine industry. I have been lucky enough to have tasted different kinds of wine from all parts of the world, including several from the early 20th century and even some from the 19th century!

8. I realised why wine grapes are grown in some parts of the world and not in others. I came to know how climate and weather and sunshine and soil drainage and mineral content (what the French call terroir) have a dramatic effect on what you taste in the wine glass. It is fascinating how protected the industry is in Europe, and how a bottle of wine from a farm on one side of a road can cost £25 while a bottle from another farm just across the same road can cost £5, and that too for reasons that have nothing to do with quality or taste! Equally fascinating is how high sun exposure during the day increases sugar content in the grapes and how low night time temperatures increase acid content, both needed for optimal balance in the wine. I learned about yeast and filtration, and about the different ways sparkling wine is made.

9. I learned about international trade and logistics, about imports and exports, about customs and duties, about containers and shipping, and about documentation and international payments. Not glamourous, I'm afraid, but an essential and integral part of international business for product businesses. Through imports from India to the UK over a decade, and exports to Germany, France, the USA, and Canada, I learned how logistics need to be thought differently for different parts of the world.

10. I learned how to negotiate international trade, its advantages as well as the risks associated with it - of the untold growth and revenue generating opportunities that reside in a huge and rapidly flattening world, but equally of the value (or lack thereof) of international contracts, of bad debt and unpaid invoices that are a nightmare for a start-up or small business, and of regulatory and logistical issues playing havoc with international shipments.

11. I discovered how complex my own business was: my company got wine (an alcoholic drink, I remind you, with all accompanying regulatory issues) contract-produced (with the contractual complications of an international contract) in India (where wine is a fledgling industry at best), packaged the wine into (fragile) glass bottles that were loaded into a steel container, that was then crowded onto a container ship that sailed halfway across the world baking the container and its contents through some of the hottest temperatures on Earth. On arrival in the UK the regulatory and customs dance was danced again, after which the wine was sent off to a regulated warehouse, to be distributed and sold under a newly created brand, by wine newbies (us!), through predominantly critical wine distributors, to consumers who had never before heard that such a thing as Indian wine existed. What could go wrong?!

12. I learned to write code in html and to create a website from scratch. After our first attempt to get a website made at a low cost did not go too well, and knowing we had no money in the bank to hire a professional website developer, I dipped my toes into everything that goes into creating a website - from domain registration to web hosting, from images, code and css sheets to contact forms and search engine optimisation. It was as steep a learning curve as one can imagine and involved many, many sleepless nights, but I can say I did a better-than-reasonable job at it. We received much praise for the quality of the website - all from people who imagined it was professionally designed and created!

13. I learned the nuances of product and business photography. While photography had always been a minor hobby for me, there is a difference between people / landscape photography and product photography. I had to quickly learn how to set up a studio and a lightbox, and how to take and create pictures that would look good in a professional brochure or on a website. No, I was never brilliant at it, but I can say that I took pictures of bottle shots, wine glass shots, as well as table-setting and creative shots that we were happily able to use for a few years. I even made a special trip to the vineyards in India to take some behind-the-scenes shots of the agriculture and wine-making.

14. I learned how to work with images (using Adobe Photoshop and Gimp), create documents and designs (using Adobe Indesign), and even create logos and vector files (using Adobe Illustrator). Though I never got very good at Illustrator, to this day I have a decent working knowledge of Photoshop and Indesign.

15. I learned, first, the art of print design, and then of printing. I designed and wrote the copy for most of our product brochures, posters, flyers, and pamphlets myself, only sending the print-ready files out for printing. I then learned to print some of them in-house, to finish, laminate, guillotine trim, and bind for a professional look, even creating a coffee table hard bound book, designed, printed, and bound entirely in-house, to be placed in lounges of high-end restaurants!

16. I learned the art of product and packaging design, and the science of what goes on the labels of alcoholic products, what individual elements are required through legislation, and how to package them into a practical and visually appealing, wholesome design. I came to know of print substrates, and of printing, embossing, and embellishing packaging. I learned how to register for, create, and use barcodes for consumer products.

17. I learned the art of single-minded graft. Once, to save on cash, we ordered the individual pages for ten thousand 24-page product booklets to be printed professionally and then shipped to us for in-house collation, stapling, trimming, and finishing. Needless to say this was a task and a half and took the energies of all the family and several friends, who pitched in to put together 10,000 booklets. A thankless task, it tested my patience more than it had ever been tested before - but once initiated the job had to be completed. I regret the decision to this day from the perspective of the proportionately meagre cash saving it enabled, but am glad for the experience and for the lessons it taught me.

18. I learned the skills of professional networking. Though more or less an introvert until I turned entrepreneur, I had to teach myself, maybe initially even force myself, to attend events, to work a room, and to form credible professional connections along way. I attended vast numbers of professional and social events in Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, and London, during the last several years - and learned to really enjoy them!

19. I found that creating a high profile for yourself and for your brand is an art worth investing in, and learned what it takes to make it happen. In addition to winning several international product quality awards, we won or reached the finals of various business awards (the most prestigious being the National Business Awards and the British Chamber of Commerce Awards, both of which we were national finalists at). I was also finalist at two major awards for Entrepreneur of the Year though, sad to say, I won neither.

20. I learned how to use social media for business including content generation, mainly Twitter and Facebook, using campaigns, image creation, copywriting, posting, distribution as well as buying and using adverts. This is an ever evolving landscape and works differently for businesses of different kinds, but I now understand enough to be able to pick up on, and react to, new developments in the domain, quickly.

21. I learned the art and science behind crowdfunding. As a consumer brand we decided it would be best to raise growth funds from the so-called 'crowd' - friends, associates, acquaintances, business contacts, neighbours, strangers, current consumers, prospective consumers, and the like. Though incredibly hard work that took some 9 months or so end to end, it was a brilliant decision because the successful crowdfunding effort gave us not only the funds we needed and gave us 218 individual small investors from dozens of countries around the world - many of them supporters and brand ambassadors, but made us one of the very first companies in wine anywhere in the world to successfully crowdfund.

22. I learned how the complex world of finance and of funding and investments works from a start-up's viewpoint. My time in the corporate world had kept me completely isolated from the subject until I went to B-school and then turned entrepreneur, and I had to teach myself the nuances associated with different types of funding, with equity and dilution, with business structures, and with more complex topics like Weighted Average Cost of Capital, amongst others. I figured out how investors think, how venture capitalists operate, what drives their decision-making, and how tax schemes are leveraged for start-up funding, at least in the UK.

23. What I have learned, most of all, is to respect and appreciate the entire range of work that goes into running a start-up, and to not dismiss the challenges that colleagues or contractors undertaking these activities might be facing.

24. Very importantly, I have learned a broad enough range of skills to know what it really takes to do almost anything in the business, and to more accurately evaluate the performance of people working for the company - making it harder for anyone else to pull a fast one on me!

The world of entrepreneurship and start-ups is fascinating and a reward unto itself, but is made even better by the extraordinary learning opportunities it provides. I have leveraged the opportunity to the hilt, and continue to do so every living day. And I am sure I am a better person, a better professional, and a better entrepreneur for it.

Would I recommend other entrepreneurs to do the same? I leave it to the individual to judge. All I can say is that given another chance at this, I would do the same all over again.


bottom of page