Here’s the truth about starting a company: You don’t always have to start with a stellar idea.
That may sound counterintuitive, but for a lot of people, that’s exactly how the processing of starting a successful enterprise works. Just ask Alexander Fahie.
Fahie, who had a background in finance, started a company called Ethical Angel, and meant it to be a vehicle to fund angel investments. But Fahie quickly realized that he lacked the background that was necessary to make it work.
Don’t let being unqualified for work stop you from being an entrepreneur, though.
“It was very obvious very early on that I was in no way qualified or had the credentials necessary to launch straight into the fund land. So I rolled with the punches, and eventually came up with something that seems to be selling,” he told me during a recent interview for my podcast, Back Yourself. (The podcast, by the way, has just launched Series 2 — make sure to check back regularly for new podcast interviews with fascinating figures from the world of entrepreneurship.)
Ethical Angel’s goal is to connect causes with volunteers to benefit people, the planet, and profit. The enterprise serves as a virtual marketplace, where causes — organizations that deliver on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals — can get free education and implementation of projects that save them time, energy, and money. The Angels are digital volunteers who benefit from global opportunities to grow and team build while working on a curated set of high-impact campaigns.
Volunteer opportunities include blog writing, CEO mentoring, SEO recommendations, and fundraising audience analysis, and cover technology, administration and research, marketing, creativity, management, policy, and strategy and leadership. The Ethical Angel team has specialists in United Nations programmes, technology implementation, accounting, African initiatives, user success, and marketing.
Sick of the daily grind?
The project grew out of Fahie’s disillusionment with the corporate 9-to-5, and a lot of time spent thinking about ways to avoid it.
“I love to say that there was a problem,” Fahie said. “The frustration that led me to me founding the company was derived from the misalignment of working for someone else.”
The brainstorming process took Fahie down a lot of interesting pathways, but along the way he came to realize that one problem in the world of charitable work was that digitising the volunteering process was difficult and rarely worked at scale.
There was no Eureka! moment for Fahie. And you don’t need one, either.
The business model that Fahie created came about through methodical, organic research. With one component in place, Fahie approached colleagues to problem solve the next, eventually building a solid foundation for a unique enterprise that he felt would work.
Fahie realised that if he was successful in digitising volunteering, he’d have near-total control of the market. But he went about the process of making that determination in a totally unique way.
“I set myself the challenge of writing a critical essay, asking whether or not I could solve this problem, and if I could digitise volunteering we would be able to in effect monopolise this market,” he said.
That essay ran through ifs and hows, and sought to determine not if the business could be set up, but if it could be set up at the size and scale that Fahie wanted.
Fahie brought critical analysis to his business-creation process. Genius.
He determined the problem, the solution, the customer, the market size, and ultimately how large of a chunk of this market he could own.
Fahie easily admits he is no academic, but says he does have the ability to examine big-picture problems to see how different cogs can affect the overall mechanism.
He likens the entrepreneurship journey to that of old-school mechanical clocks. Those clocks work only because a large number of tiny cogs work in concert and to exact demands to produce one thing: an accurate representation of time. A business functions almost identically, with disparate teams or individuals completing precise tasks that join together to produce something. No one cog can work on its own.
Fahie imagined that he was at a pub and bouncing ideas off a friend only to have that friend tear the ideas to shreds. I’ve heard from other entrepreneurs who did the same thing: talk to people, go to people with your idea, and listen to people who say it won’t work. If you don’t have that resource then you take it internally, which is what Fahie did.
Fahie got people on board when he was able to show that he had an idea worth supporting. That attracted venture capital, and additional metrics showed the idea had legs.
Starting a business is tough. Make sure you have a support network in place before you get going.
Fahie counsels what I hear from many entrepreneurs and have experienced myself. Starting a business, especially one that is totally unique, is incredibly hard work. You’ll face withering criticism, long nights, and massive amounts of stress and self-doubt.
As Fahie says, make sure you have a support network in place.
“For us,” he says, “it’s 100 percent a team effort.”
You don’t necessarily need a great idea to start a great business, but you do need to learn, experiment, and grow with your goals in mind. When you do think you have an idea that will work, analyse it mercilessly. Criticism can be a great ally.