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5 things I wish my 20-year-old self knew about business

As Caspar Lee reaches the big 3-0, he reflects on what he's learned about founding, building and investing in businesses

I recently turned 30 and for the first time in my fairly short life I found myself reflecting on the decade prior. I’m sure every decade comes with a lot of change but I can only assume there aren’t too many in your adult life as transformational as your 20s.

I’ve learnt the difference between net and gross (mostly thanks to golf), the power of compound interest and, most importantly, that property in London isn’t as good an investment as it used to be.

So, I thought I’d put together a list of five things I wish my 20-year-old self knew about business in the hope that some of them will resonate with you – or your children… I know my demographics here.   

1. ‘Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life’ is b******t, especially for entrepreneurs.  

As an investor, I see many pitches focusing on a founder’s passion for their product or market. Don’t get me wrong, I like an expert who enjoys their industry but the realities of running a business involve a lot more than excitement. From building P&Ls to managing teams, the daily grind is tedious.

Most coffee shop owners find out too late that running a coffee shop isn’t as romantic as drinking coffee. When I first met the founders of Wild, the UK’s fastest-growing deodorant company, they didn’t strike me as people passionate about natural deodorant. However, their previous experience at HelloFresh was filled with challenges that they loved overcoming. They are pragmatic problem solvers who could have chosen a number of markets to build a business in, they just so happened to find one with a big enough opportunity.

Passion for one’s business can develop over time, but resilience and a love for the daily hustle are what truly matter. Society teaches young people through self-help books and podcasts that passion trumps all. Like a romantic relationship, passion is nice in the first few months but in the long run your ability to solve problems in a meaningful and measured way is more important.  

2. Ideas are easy, execution is hard 

Growing up, I used to think I was one unique idea away from my very own version of Facebook. But in reality, we live in a world with nearly 8 billion people. If you’ve come up with something that nobody else is doing, it’s usually because it isn’t a very good idea.

Yes, there are extremely rare cases when you’ve thought of something new during a massive platform shift, but as we are seeing in AI startups, if your new idea is good and starts getting traction, it won’t be long before others cotton on. The most important thing by a country mile is the quality of your execution and how quickly you can scale before you give your competition a chance to catch up. This is so much harder than a new idea.  

3. Get comfortable being uncomfortable 

If anything is certain about the entrepreneurial journey, it’s that nothing is certain. Just when you think you’ve got things figured out, the government will impose new regulations that turn everything upside down, and when you think everything is about to collapse, the client you always wanted turns up with double the budget you hoped for.

During the pandemic, Airbnb faced huge challenges, leading to a drastic drop in bookings. But travel behaviour towards local and extended stays provided an unexpected opportunity, resulting in a surge in bookings for rural and suburban properties. Airbnb successfully adjusted to this new market demands and emerged stronger.

Like in life, running a business is full of difficult conversations and uncertain decisions. You have to trust your strategy is taking you in the right direction and know that there will be a lot of sleepless nights along the way. If you’re not comfortable being uncomfortable, this simply isn’t for you.  

4. Sell the problem you solve, not the product you make

Many founders, including myself, love talking about the details of our products, highlighting every feature and technical specification. It goes without saying that you need a great product but what matters more with customers is a clear understanding of the problem it solves.

When Dropbox launched, it didn’t market the specifics of its file-sharing capabilities, it focused on the issue of losing important files and transferring documents. By focusing on these simple pain points, it attracted users who identified with the problems.

Another example is Warby Parker, which didn’t just sell glasses but tackled the issue of expensive eyewear and the inconvenience of the retail experience. It doubled down on affordability and home try-ons, which addressed simple customer frustrations.

Successful entrepreneurs don’t just love their products, they want to solve real problems. When pitching or marketing your business, remember to focus on that.

5. Learn to love the numbers 

A lot of founders are driven by vision and creativity and so shy away from finances. But understanding and embracing the numbers is really important, you can’t wait until you’re big enough to hire a CFO to sort it out.

Jeff Bezos’s relentless focus on metrics, from customer acquisition costs to lifetime value, was built into Amazon’s culture from day one. Having a good product mattered but staying on top of the numbers was just as important.

Zara, the fashion retailer, mastered inventory management and supply chain efficiency by analysing sales data and market trends. Its precision allows it to rapidly respond to consumer demands and minimise waste.

By diving into P&Ls, cashflow analysis and key performance indicators, you gain insights that should drive decisions. 

My 20s were a lot of fun, I had fewer responsibilities and more collagen production than I will going forward. I learnt that adults aren’t always right, alcohol can make you feel really sick the next day and the five lessons above.

I’m not sure what I’ll be writing about in another decade, but I hope it’s not greying hair and forehead wrinkles. 

Caspar Lee is the co-founder of Influencer.com and Creator Ventures 

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