The “Why?” is more important than the funds when launching a start-up, says our regular columnist Iqbal Wahhab
You’ve got an idea for a business. It’s brilliant, and you’re going to make it work. All you need now is the money and the world will be a better place.
How many aspirant business people do you know with this attitude? I come across many. I help a fantastic project called Kitchenette for start-up food entrepreneurs. I’ve mentored a few over the past couple of years and some have made a name for themselves on London’s vibrant street-food scene.
I started each mentoring session with the same opening line: “You think all you need to get going is money. I intend to show you that right now, it’s the last thing you need.” For some, it took a day for the message to sink in, for others it took months. I told them this because when I started my first grown-up business, I felt the same way.
Writing this reminds me of the many times I embarrassed those around me – once a journalist friend took me for a lunch where he bumped into a writer friend of his. He introduced us by saying his mate had just landed a million-dollar deal to write a Hollywood script. Without thinking, I said: “Wow – congratulations. Would you be interested in investing some of that into a restaurant I am planning?”
Part of the imagined make-up of the start-up entrepreneur is of a swashbuckling pioneer who fights against the odds until he or she wins (winning is usually defined by getting started, not by succeeding). To everyone else, though, you’re a pain in the neck.
For some, it’s easier to gain access to start-up cash than others. Middle-class youth often ask friends and family for a leg-up, often creating a latent bias in the social make-up of entrepreneurs. A woman came to see me about creating a clothing start-up. She said she had never met anyone who had their own business before. I said, of course she had – how about the person who sells her fish and chips, or whoever runs her local newsagent? They owned companies.
If you have a compelling commercial case there are start-up funds, bank loans and tax-efficient investment schemes that can help. If you’re no good, you get shot down. And if you are rejected, at first you feel humiliated and then adamant to fix whatever was highlighted as wrong.
Nowadays access to finance has become more democratic, less socially unequal thanks to crowdfunding. But getting the money and making your business succeed remain too distanced from each other in start-ups. The key driver to commercial success, according to Simon Sinek’s brilliant book Start With Why, is to separate early on what you want to do from why you want to do it.
He cites the example of the invention of the aeroplane. We all know the first successful flying machine was built by the Wright brothers. But did you realise that they did so with hardly any cash – they enthused all those they engaged with in a small bicycle shop in Ohio until their dream took off. Around the same time, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a Harvard professor, convinced the US War Department to give him $50,000 – a mighty sum then – to build a plane too but was overtaken by the whippersnapper brothers, whose ‘why’ was to create a technology that would change the world.
The ‘why’ for start-ups is hardly ever as compelling. Sometimes it could be as simple as Mikie’s story. A former gang leader, he reckoned his chances of living beyond his twenties if he carried on doing what he was doing were remote, so he set up a business selling Caribbean food. Why would someone like me mentor someone like him? Well, why wouldn’t I?
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. @IqbalWahhab