Career & Education | Life | Personal Stories | Article
The Biggest Lessons I Learned From Being My Own Boss
by Ain Bandial | 22 Apr 2021 | 6 mins read
About four years ago, the news company I was working for closed down abruptly, leaving me – and over 100 other people – unceremoniously jobless.
Even though I had been working steadily for seven years I did not have an emergency fund, instead I owed the bank thousands of dollars in debt.
With no income, I had to use whatever severance pay I received to settle my debt with the bank, which meant clearing my credit card, remaining car repayments and a small personal loan.
Although I became debt-free for the first time in my adult life, I was also broke and unemployed. But what I didn’t realise at the time was that being debt-free would later give me the freedom to gamble on starting my own media company.
Fast forward nine months later, and I had partnered with three of my ex-colleagues to launch Scoop Media, Brunei’s first digital news company.
What started out as an ambitious experiment has become a viable – albeit immensely challenging – business venture. But with little knowledge of entrepreneurship or finance, it has been a steep learning curve.
In the three and a half years since we launched our company, here are some of the key lessons I learned along the way.
Don’t expect to make money in the short-term
When we founded our company in September 2017, we only had $2,000 between the four of us to launch our flagship news website, The Scoop.
We were young, hungry, and had nothing left to lose.
But in the first quarter of the business, we didn’t see any income. We had to continue to pump our own money into the news operation until we made our first major ad sale.
Those first few months were spent establishing our brand, gathering feedback and refining our product. At that point, we were still an unknown entity – we had traction, but hadn’t begun to win advertiser confidence yet.
The founding partners did not draw a salary for at least four months. And even then, our compensation during the first 18 months was pretty modest because most of the money we made had to be reinvested back into the company.
When you’re building your business, you have to be okay living with a degree of financial insecurity. So before you quit your job to “follow your dream”, think about whether you’re willing and able to make those financial sacrifices, forgoing luxuries and vacations, and living on a shoestring budget.
Not everyone will be in a position where they can take on that risk. They may have family to support, long-term financial commitments such as a mortgage, or they have other debts tying them down.
While realising your vision may seem romantic, living on a paltry income is not. Abandon any illusions you have about running your own company before you take the plunge.
In the beginning, you will have to do everything yourself
At the start of your journey, you will have to wear many hats.
As well as being the boss, you will also have to be the accountant, the salesperson, the content creator, the graphic designer, the social media guru – everything.
Don’t underestimate the toll this can take on your mental and physical well-being.
If you are lucky enough to have other team members to share the burden, it’s important to lay out responsibilities clearly and create a system of ownership and accountability.
Outsource to stay lean
Most startups and small businesses can’t afford to hire in-house staff for all the roles required to run a business.
When we started Scoop Media, we outsourced a lot of the non-editorial work, such as web development and graphic design.
Even today, many of the roles at our company are still outsourced because it is more cost-efficient than hiring full-time staff.
Our core team is just four full-time employees, but we also work with a number of freelancers who regularly contribute their talent and skills to the company.
On the content creation side, we like to tap into the local creative industry if we need illustrators, photographers and videographers, and we also utilise platforms like Fiverr when we need more tedious tasks done such as transcribing.
Outsourcing has helped us stay lean and keep our costs low.
Managing people is the hardest part of the job
In the beginning of a startup journey, you spend so much time with your team, it is almost inevitable conflict and differences will arise.
Navigating these issues can be tricky, but learning how is what makes a good manager. (If you don’t know how to have difficult conversations, everything is Google-able.)
Say someone is not pulling their weight. While you might want to cut them some slack because they’re going through a tough time in their personal life, or they’re experiencing financial difficulties, you still need to vocalise and address the problem.
Starting an open conversation with an employee about their performance and difficulties is not easy. But putting it off will only allow resentment to fester among team members who have to pick up their slack.
If your team member is reluctant to engage in this kind of dialogue, or they’re unwilling to be honest and transparent, then they probably need to go.
There cannot be leniency without first having accountability.
Accounting is tedious, but important
When you’re trying to get your business off the ground it’s chaotic and simple things like book-keeping and invoicing can fall by the wayside.
But financial record-keeping is really important – for transparency, to assess the health of your business, or in the event you decide to sell your company and need to conduct an audit.
This seems like an obvious statement, but record-keeping can seem like a low-priority task when you’re putting out small fires every day.
It’s worth taking a basic class in book-keeping and business planning – both of which you can sign up for free at DARe, a government agency set up to help small businesses.
If you prefer to study in your own time, platforms like Udemy or Skillshare also offer similar classes online.
With your financial data in order, you’ll know where you’re spending the most, if your cash is flowing, and how profitable you are.
We need to stop romanticising entrepreneurship, because it is not for everyone.
It is hard and lonely, and no matter how well-meaning your friends and family may be, they cannot really empathise unless they’ve been in your position.
I never aspired to run my own business, but it has given me the autonomy I have always craved and created opportunities I would not have gotten working for someone else.
So despite all the caveats, the long days and sleepless nights, if you relish the challenge of building something from scratch; then perhaps entrepreneurship is a good fit for you.
It is high-risk, but also definitely high reward.