Why there’s no substitute for practical experience in business

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Hands-on experience in business is just as important as learning and careful planning, says Chris Niarchos.

You can have an MBA from a top university, have read every business book from How to Win Friends and Influence People to The Art of War, and have meticulously created the ‘perfect’ business plan, but if you’ve never actually ‘rolled up your sleeves’ in the corporate world, you might be in for a shock.

While education and careful planning shouldn’t be undervalued, they’re no substitutes for real-life experience in business. Here are three reasons you should make it a priority.

Learning from mistakes

Business mogul Richard Branson says he found out that the best way of learning was doing when, as a kid, he tried and failed to set up a business selling Christmas trees. I have to agree, there’s no better way to find out what works and what doesn’t than by giving things a go.

Since starting my own business at the age of 22, I’ve learned many invaluable lessons through basic trial and error. Whether it’s setting up a lemonade stall, taking a role as a salesperson or launching your own company, the only way to truly hone your skills and develop your business acumen is hands-on experience.

Don’t let fear of failure stand in the way of taking on a challenge. Getting it right every time may feel good, but it’ll never take you as far as going outside of your comfort zone and getting it wrong every now and again.

Developing ‘soft skills’

There are some skills that are far easier to develop in the boardroom than in the classroom. Building rapport, actively listening, making decisions, solving problems, leading others, performing well in a team dynamic, motivating yourself and managing your time well are just a few of the so-called ‘soft skills’ that are crucial in the business landscape.

You can watch all the TED Talks you like (many of which are excellent) and read every business blog under the sun (including this one!) on these topics, but I’m afraid you won’t get a chance to properly sharpen your abilities until you throw yourself into the world of work. 

Differentiating yourself

Whether you’re applying for a nine-to-five role, pitching for work as a contractor or seeking investment in a business idea, your experience is one of the first things people want to know about.

If you’re trying to set yourself apart from every other graduate, freelancer or budding CEO, it’s important to be able to demonstrate that you have the relevant experience required to get the job done.

Whether you’ve successfully managed a charity project as part of a voluntary role, broken sales records in a blue chip company, or tried and failed to bring a new product to market, what’s important is that you’ve got stuck in and tried to do something for yourself. 

Chris Niarchos is founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a diverse portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.


3 rules every businessperson must know about goal setting

I’ve no doubt that the aims I set for myself at the beginning of my business career have played a big role in helping me to build a successful international company, so I’m well aware of the importance of having goals.

Setting clear objectives can make the difference between success and failure, and is something that all entrepreneurs should take seriously. Here are three rules that I believe all business people should know about goal setting.

1. Your goals must really mean something to you

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Kirsten Dunst believes loving what you do is a goal worth having (Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com)

“You know that feeling when you wake up in the morning and you’re excited for the day? That’s one of my main goals in life.” – Kirsten Dunst

Don’t let other people define what your goals in business, or in life, should be. To have the power to motivate you day after day, your aims have to be things that really matter to you on a personal level.

For example, while some people prioritise money and security for themselves and their families, others put creativity first. For some, having the flexibility to enjoy more time with family is the most important thing.

When you’re setting your objectives, have a careful think about what you actually want to get from your experiences as an entrepreneur.

2. Have clear goals from the outset

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Former US president Ronald Reagan believed working hard towards a clear goal guaranteed success (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)

“My philosophy of life is that if we make up our mind what we are going to make of our lives, then work hard toward that goal, we never lose. Somehow we always win out.” – Ronald Reagan

It’s a good idea to have a clear set of measurable and achievable goals from the very start of your business journey. Your objectives can serve as a framework for measuring your progress and, as long as they’re clear and specific, they should give you added focus and a greater sense of direction and purpose.

General aims, like making a success of your company, are fine, but it’s important to break these down into more specific targets. For example, you might decide you want your business to achieve a certain amount of profit within the first year.

3. Big victories don’t usually come easily

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Basketball legend Michael Jordan says there’s no excuse for a lack of effort (landmarkmedia / Shutterstock.com)

“The game has its ups and downs, but you can never lose focus of your individual goals and you can’t let yourself be beat because of lack of effort.” – Michael Jordan

It can be tempting to think that many high-profile entrepreneurs achieved their success overnight, propelling themselves from obscurity to the spotlight at breakneck speed.

In reality though, the vast majority of renowned entrepreneurs have worked extremely hard for long periods of time to reach the top, often overcoming major obstacles along the way. Like them, if you want to achieve your greatest goals, you have to be prepared to persevere.

This dogged approach to doing business can be summed up by my company motto ‘Be something more’, which is about always striving for excellence and making an effort to be the best you possibly can. When things get tough, don’t give in. By overcoming any problems you face, you can make yourself a stronger, better entrepreneur.

Chris Niarchos is founder and chairman of The Cobra Group of Companies, which specialises in incubating, developing and managing a diverse portfolio of start-up enterprises and successful companies.

Business ideas: How do you know when it’s the real deal?

I knew that with faith and a lot of hard work that I could make a real impact – even at 22!

When I set up my first company, The Cobra Group, in Sydney at the age of 22, I had no way of knowing that it would develop, expand and metamorphose a few times into the international organisation it is today. I always had faith in my ideas though and I knew that as long as I worked hard and drew on all my skills, I would be able to put myself in a strong position for business success.

If you’re just starting out as an entrepreneur and you’re not sure if your business idea is the real deal, it’s worth asking yourself the following questions. They could make it easier to identify the strengths, as well as potential weaknesses, of your concept and help you to decide if it’s really worth pursuing.

Are you meeting a need?

One of the first things you should consider is whether your product or service is meeting a genuine need. The best business ideas solve problems or present people with something new and compelling that enriches their lives.

You should have a clear idea of exactly who your company is targeting and what it is about your product or service specifically that will appeal to them. It may be that you’re going after a very niche market. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you’ll need to factor in the size of your potential customer base when you’re making projections about demand and future sales levels.

Always bear in mind that, if other businesses are already offering very similar things and you’re not bringing anything particularly new to the market, you could find it tough to get market cut-through.

Are you getting positive feedback?

You’re bound to be positive about your idea, but what do other people think about it? It can be hard to hear people’s honest impressions about your business concept – especially if it’s something you’ve put a lot of work into and you hold close to your heart. But it’s essential that you canvass opinion on your business idea and plan before you invest too much time and money in it. This means doing plenty of market research.

A good business idea should start to generate excitement and anticipation early on. So, even if you’re emotionally invested in the project, if you’re struggling to win over would-be customers, it’s important to realise (early!) that there may be a problem with your plan.

Can you explain your idea clearly and concisely?

The elevator pitch became a cliché because it’s true. Even if you’re developing a complex product or service, you should be able to explain the basic idea clearly and concisely. If you find yourself waffling when you try to sum up your concept, it could be that it’s still too complicated and needs further refining.

Also, bear in mind that you’ll need to win over customers and possibly also investors in order to make your venture a success. You won’t be able to do this unless you can present your idea in a simple and compelling way.

Launching a new business always takes a leap of faith, but asking yourself questions like these can reduce some of the uncertainty – first and foremost, in your own mind.

What lessons can businesses learn from the launch of the new pound coin?

They might have come into circulation in the UK in late March, but the new bimetallic 12-sided one pound coins still get my attention each time I have one in my hand.

The coins, complete with their distinctive new look and series of security features – including grooved edges and a high-tech hologram – got me thinking about the lessons businesses can learn from their launch.

Although switching from one coin to another might not seem like a big deal, it does draw attention to a range of issues that all companies should think carefully about. Here are a couple of the most important lessons I think businesses can learn.

It pays to plan ahead

Forward planning is vital in any business, and this includes paying attention to any upcoming developments that could affect your day-to-day operations. If you don’t put effective measures in place to help your company cope with any imminent changes, you could be left counting the cost – and your reputation may be damaged as well.

Highlighting this fact, some businesses seemed to be caught off guard when the new pound coin was first launched. Around the country, a range of ticket and vending machines, as well as supermarket trolleys, weren’t adapted to accept the new coins.

In fact, according to the Automatic Vending Association (AVA), around 15 per cent of the UK’s vending machines were initially unable to accept the replacement coins. This may have resulted in countless missed sales opportunities. Tesco was one of the supermarkets hit. It had to leave trolleys at some of its larger stores unlocked while it updated its locking mechanisms to accept the new coins.

There’s a risk that any long-term strategic planning will end up taking a back seat – especially when you’re under pressure to meet demand for your products or services and you have other important priorities to focus on. But if you want to ensure your company is ready for whatever lies ahead, it’s essential to devote time and energy to future proofing your strategies on an ongoing basis.

Factor your finances into any change

The launch of the coin also reinforced the importance of factoring your finances into any changes or enhancements you introduce in your business. Treasury assessments of the economic impact of the introduction of new 5p and 10p coins in 2011 suggest that it cost the coin-operated industry approximately £80 million.

This time round, the figures are likely to be even higher. The British Parking Association states that it can cost up to £130 per machine for a software upgrade, while hardware changes can come with a bill of £350 per machine. The AVA estimates that it will cost companies a combined total of around £32 million to upgrade the UK’s 500,000 vending machines.

It may not be easy, but creating a financial cushion around the implementation of any new idea will help you cope with expenses like these. In turn, it could increase your chances of securing the long-term success of your business – and it means you can enjoy greater peace of mind.

How to spot opportunities in business

Spotting opportunities is the essence of entrepreneurial success, but if you’re yet to make your mark in business, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to identifying profitable ideas.

It’s tempting to think that the best concepts suddenly present themselves to people as eureka moments. In reality though, most entrepreneurs have to train themselves to recognise and develop opportunities. So, if you’re looking for your big break, here are some pointers that I think are worth paying attention to.

Focus on areas you’re familiar with

If you have personal or professional experience in a particular industry, it makes sense to focus on searching for ideas and innovation opportunities in that field. The more you know about an industry, the more insight you’ll have into the potential that may exist within it.

For example, you’re likely to be aware of the products or services that are already available, what’s currently working and not working and what your competitors are up to. An entrepreneur will use this knowledge to identify where they can make a difference, solve a problem or offer something unique to the market.

Look for creative solutions

‘Thinking outside the box’ may be a cliché and one of the most overused phrases in business, but this adage really gets to the heart of what it takes to spot an opportunity. Essentially, the best business ideas boil down to finding new ways to solve old problems or to serve existing needs. This means you’ll need to think creatively.

A great case in point is the food delivery company Deliveroo. The business, which makes money by charging customers a flat fee on its app and taking a commission from restaurants, was set up just over three years ago and already has over 300 employees and thousands of delivery agents across Europe and Asia.

Founder William Shu apparently came up with the idea after many late nights working in the banking sector with limited cuisine on offer for home delivery. He saw an opportunity to solve that problem for himself and others like him and, in doing so, filled a gap in the market by offering restaurants that don’t normally deliver food an additional source of revenue and by providing consumers with greater choice when they are ordering food.

Don’t hesitate

Identifying an idea you think may have potential is one thing. Having the courage to pursue the concept is something else entirely. If you hesitate and fail to seize the moment, someone else may get in there first.

Bear in mind that if you’ve spotted a gap in the market, the chances are others will recognise the opportunity too. There’s no way of knowing when this will happen, but by acting swiftly and having the courage of your convictions, you can put yourself in poll position.

No business idea is guaranteed to work out and there’s rarely a perfect time to take the plunge. The simple fact is, to succeed as an entrepreneur, you have to be prepared to take calculated risks.

Don’t shy away from hard work

Columnist Ann Landers once said: “Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don’t recognise them.” This hits on a key point for anyone looking for a business opportunity. It’s essential to realise that having the initial idea is only the first step; the hard graft is yet to come.

You’ll need to do the groundwork to give your concept lift-off, and you can’t expect your new idea to start turning a profit straight away. It might take months or even years before you really start to be rewarded for your efforts. But if you believe in your venture, can inspire others to believe in too and you are willing to put in the hard yards, you may just achieve success.

Read more blogs by Chris Niarchos.