Once I had some cash flowing into the business, generating enough for me to pay rent and bills, I eventually began earning enough extra cash to take a risk and hire someone to help me with my day-to-day business affairs, like answering the phones or carrying boxes around - someone physically based at the store to entertain any guest that came in.
In those days, if I had a meeting, The Box would be closed and I left a sign on the door and diverted office calls to my mobile. My wife reminded me that I used to answer calls coming in after midnight with the phrase, “thank you for choosing The Box, how can I help you?”.
When starting out all you have is your dream and your belief in achieving that dream - that’s it. That needs to be contagious, because even your friends will tell you that you’re crazy and your loved ones will tell you to come back down to earth.
Its tough, and it sucks when people who you bring in and train just bounce back out of the business onto something else. But that’s just the way it is if you want to bootstrap your way to building something meaningful.
I didn’t know where to start when hiring people. When I was running on thin margins, there was the temptation to reinvest everything back into building infrastructure, but I learned the hard way that running The Box as a one-man show wasn’t sustainable.
I ran the business every day for years without a vacation. I was like a machine, but all machines need maintenance and down time.
One day, my body couldn’t handle it anymore and I had a panic attack. I had burned myself out.
Looking back, this was a blessing in disguise and it helped me to make some tough decisions quickly, finding the people who helped me to build the business.
I had worried about recruitment and what approach was best to take. Do I try to get someone on a budget, only for them to use me as a stepping stone until they get a better offer, or do I try to hire for loyalty? And who do I hire?
Given that every dirham counted, I had to assess where best to spend the money. Customer service was one area that was a huge opportunity cost in terms of my own time, but I worried that no-one would answer the phones or pack the boxes as well as me. Eventually, I came to a realisation that others could actually do a much better job.
There were other lessons learned. I realised when you can only offer a budget salary, you will be just a stepping stone unless you spend time on training and development, and unless you can create the opportunities for people to move into. The trick is making sure that the vision you have built in your head is communicated to people, so they know what you are looking to build.
Share your dreams early and often
If you have a dream, it will always stay a dream until you put it to paper and bring it to fruition via a plan. To ensure I was held accountable to my own dreams, I shared them with my staff. I was open and honest and vulnerable. And I risked being humiliated if I said something and didn’t achieve it. I discovered along the way that when I shared something socially, I was able to set a commitment I could stick to more easily.
Whenever I do this, I imagine I’m on a football field where 100,000 people are watching me. I don’t want to screw up so publicly, which keeps me moving through any “defenders” that get in my way. Most people don’t share their dreams due to the inherent risk of failure, but I’ve learned that risk is what pushes you to get things done.
When starting out, I needed generalists who could juggle random tasks easily, but as the business developed it required more formal roles.
This was a challenge as both required different mindsets, but what I tried to do with my first recruits was to try to hire people with a good attitude – people who had provided good customer experience in a retail setting who were looking for a new challenge, or people referred to me by friends.
That worked out for a few years until the business grew in scale and I realised I needed to take recruitment a bit more seriously and hunt for great people with the right skills, rather than wait for the right person to show up at our door.
I also made many unwise decisions when it came to people, but like so much else when building a business, it was trial and error. And as we’ve scaled up, I’ve encouraged my own team as they’ve progressed to identify ways to buy back their own time by training and encouraging new talent.
Wadih Haddad's earlier articles on founding his business and on funding it can be found on his author page.
Any opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.
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