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Back in 2013, my friends and I set up a business whilst we were medical students called 6med. It began as a course for one of the medical school admissions tests called the B-MAT. We had all been on similar courses that just hadn’t been very good and had been very expensive – we thought that we could do a better job, for less money as well as give out places to students from low income backgrounds and so we resolved to set up 6med.
When we started we thought it would just be a small-scale, local project – but I suggested that we make a website and try to market it nationally. Skip forward a few months and we’d run 5 sold-out courses to over 120 students and the following year we expanded into the UKCAT course and began assisting with Medical School interviews. After that we established a question bank for the BMAT and the UKCAT and expanded our locations – even teaching a course in Singapore, Hong Kong, Netherlands.
All this experience, as well as all the advice that I have read or heard, has given me some useful insights that I want to share with you in this post:
1..Don’t Wait For Permission
When we’re thinking of starting something we’re often waiting for someone to give us permission or a certificate to say that we’re allowed to start. But waiting is not going to help. In most realms of business, you can start doing it whenever you want and, in fact, the act of ‘doing’ is the best form of learning. If you’re providing a good service that’s all the qualifications you need.
"The stars will never align and the traffic lights of life will never all be green at the same time. The universe doesn't conspire against you, but it doesn't go out of its way to line up all the pins either. Conditions are never perfect. "Someday" is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you...if it's important to you and you want to do it 'eventually' just do it and correct course along the way" Tim Ferriss
2. Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
Entrepreneurship and business are not new phenomena. It’s a well-trodden path and in the last few decades we’ve seen an influx of books, podcasts, websites, articles, interviews and a plethora of other resources with people who have set up their own businesses or started their own growth projects. These people have shared what they know and given us really useful resources.
From the 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss to the website IndieHackers which has interviews with founders of successful internet businesses to Paul Graham’s website which has articles and essays about how to get started to Seth Godin’s podcast StartUp School…there is so much stuff out there that we would be foolish not to use it!
3. Learn to Code
It might sound slightly cliched now but knowing the basics of how to code is really valuable. I’ve found it helpful for two key reasons:
- Knowing how to code opens your mind up to potential business ideas – it enables you to know the realms of possibility, what can be done.
- When you have an idea you can turn it into a business by yourself without having to bring in someone who knows how to code. With my own business, if I hadn’t known how to code, we wouldn’t have expanded online. The ability to create a website is what allowed it to become a national and then international business.
4. Learn Design Basics
This might sound like quite a simple concept but learning the basics of design and familiarising yourself with what web design works effectively is very helpful. I think one of the reasons our business was able to grow was because our website looked eye-catching and legitimate. By developing your eye for design, you can add production value which has benefits for a vast array of things in life as well as business. One resource that I’ve found particularly helpful in this regard is Muz.li – a browser extension on Google Chrome – take a look.
5. Do it with Friends
There’s a classic saying in start-ups:
“If you want to go fast, you should go alone; if you want to go far, you should go together”.
I’ve found this to be completely true – it’s much more enjoyable to undertake projects with people rather than try to go alone on a project. Working with friends makes the whole experience of running a business that much more enjoyable and enables you to problem solve collectively as well as get a variety of opinions as to what people think will work best which will improve the quality of the product too.
6. Start Small
It’s far too easy at the idea stage of a business to get ahead of yourself, overloading features and ultimately becoming overwhelmed very quickly and not getting anything off the ground. It’s far better to concentrate on the basics and your MVP – Minimum Viable Product – which is the smallest version of your product that you can feasibly get in front of people. It’s important to start off really small and, over time, using user feedback, add more iterations and improve the product in small ways. I had the same attitude towards starting my YouTube channel – I recognised that the first 50 – 100 videos were probably going to be terrible but I used everything that I learned in making them to improve over the long term.
7. Do Things that Don’t Scale
This might initially sound counterintuitive. What I mean by this, is not that you should design a product that won’t scale but when you are starting out, undertake actions that won’t scale to ensure customer satisfaction as well as build your customer base. This advice originated from an essay by Paul Graham and the main idea is that at the start you want to be putting in extra effort to make your customers happy and recruit new customers. The extra physical effort initially can help things to snowball and lead to rewards further down the line – take AirBnB. The team initially went round to every listing in New York and offered to take professional photos of the apartments and rooms listed. Another example is Wufoo who wrote handwritten thank you cards to all their customers in the first few years of business.
When we started 6med I did a similar thing – I would email any new customer to give them more information as well as check to see if they had any questions at all about the medicine application process and studying they could reply to that email and we would get back to them. This pleasantly surprised many of our customers and probably helped improve our aura of reliability and honesty.
8. Expect, and Learn From, Failure
The truth is, the chances are very small that your start-up will succeed. It’s the hard truth. BUT failures are valuable – you can learn from your mistakes as well as improve for future projects. I had 5 failed business ideas at secondary school but it was going through those failures and learning from them, that enabled me to ultimately come up with the idea of a BMAT crash course which led to 6med. If you treat failure as a learning opportunity instead of an outright rejection of your product, that will set you up for success further down the line.
9. Ask Yourself Why
We should regularly ask ourselves why we are really doing what we have decided to do. I read a book in 2016 by Derek Sivers, one of the three books that changed my life, called Anything You Want – 40 Lessons for a new kind of Entrepreneur. In this book, he talks about lessons for entrepreneurs that he gained from a company called CD Baby that he set up in the late nineties and sold 10 years later. There’s a quote that I remind myself of every time I become too transfixed by issues or numbers or anything stressful about the business and it always brings me back down to earth and into reality – making me focus on what really matters in life. The quote is:
“Never forget why you are really doing what you’re doing. Are you helping people? Are they happy? Are you happy? Are you profitable? Isn’t that enough?”
10. Just Start
If you’re interested in entrepreneurship – and if you’ve read this far then you probably are (!) – the best thing you can do is just start. We can spend too long being fearful of being judged or, as with the first piece of advice, waiting for permission. Waiting achieves nothing. It’s good to use all the sources I’ve mentioned and read up about business and start-ups but don’t think that that’s a substitute for actually doing your own thing. You only really start to learn when you start to ‘do’! Remember the quote from Tim Ferriss:
"Someday" is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you...if it's important to you and you want to do it 'eventually' just do it and correct course along the way"
So, what are you waiting for?