“Capital isn’t that important in business. Experience isn’t that important. You can get both of these things. What is important is ideas.” -Harvey Firestone, founder of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.
By Olumide Adeleye
VENTURES AFRICA – People often ask me: “I would like to start a business but I don’t have money. How can I get money to start?” My response most times: “Financial capital is overrated!”
Perhaps I should tell you about my first foray into the world of entrepreneurship.
I had just completed my first year as an undergraduate student. I needed money (who doesn’t?) and I couldn’t place my financial burdens on my parents, who were actually struggling to keep us comfortable. Besides, if there was anything I had learnt from my dad, it was to pursue the joys and fulfillment attached to following my own passion. My dad was crazy about farming and he followed it with all his heart. I knew his farm could do with a good injection of capital. But I also knew that he had an edge- he wasn’t waiting for funds to come. He had plunged himself into his passion and was gaining valuable experience touring that road, even if it meant that it would take longer to arrive at his destination. I decided to follow his example and start with almost nothing. I had certain advantages he did not have- I didn’t have to take care of a wife and children and I could also run back to him if I failed.
I decided to start up a holiday computer training scheme for students in the university. My capital was… a sum of two thousand Naira (about 15 US Dollars at that time). I had no office, no website, no staff and no equipment, except for my personal computer- a Pentium 3 desktop computer that I was so proud of. In reality, my main asset was me!
To start with, I visited one of my neighbours who had a “fairly conducive” mini-structure (actually it was a small hall that had not been floored, plastered or ceiled) and requested for permission to use the place as my training centre. He was pleased that someone of my age would have such an idea and gladly granted my request. Next, I printed handbills (one-colour, A5 size) using my 2000 Naira running capital. I then convinced my friends and sister (who was also a student in the same university) to distribute my handbills. I offered commissions for successful sales.
As the commencement of the training neared, I discovered something alarming: people were promising to register but no one actually did! I needed them to register and pay ahead of the training. Remember that I had no equipment and no funds. I needed their cash to purchase the required things! I urgently needed a new strategy.
It came in an unexpected way. A friend just asked me one day if I could address his fellowship members in about five to eight minutes and tell them about the training. I jumped at the offer.
That day, I learnt that I could speak! In seven minutes, I held the audience completely mesmerized. By the time I was through, I had a good number of people registering. I also had invitations to make similar speeches at other gatherings.
As people registered, I purchased the things I needed. I even employed a friend as my assistant. I also convinced colleagues to borrow me their computers while offering them discounts on the training fees. To maximize resources, I had three batches per day. So, the same resources served at least three different people each day. My students (eventually almost 50) loved the sessions. Since my price was reasonable, they were indifferent to the not-so-good environment. They were pleased with my instructional skills. I became a big boy, having gained more cash than I had ever possessed in my life…
I don’t doubt that financial capital is an important part of any business venture. But I believe that even more important are your entrepreneurial skills, marketing skills and passion for what you do. Money responds to passion. Facebook became a success because there was a solid idea and a passionate Mark Zuckerberg to follow it up. The funding was a result of the human capital. Microsoft started with a Bill Gates and Paul Allen who sold a product they didn’t even have, again proving that it wasn’t the money but the human capital that really started the business. One of Nigeria’s largest fast-food ventures, Sweet Sensation, was started in the basement of the founder’s home.
In this era of the internet, money (as the main start-up prerequisite) has become much less important. Unknown people become YouTube stars overnight. Businesses move from zero to billions in a few years. For the first time in human history, young, inexperienced, and previously not-so-rich people are starting and heading Fortune-500 corporations.
Start with what you have! There is a good chance that if you really have a solid product and the real skills to make it as an entrepreneur, the funding will follow.