As I told you previously, I am following a lot of great entrepreneurs and mumpreneurs recently to see how they got started. Two young women with incredibly inspiring stories that I admire are Alexa von Tobel, 27, founder of Learnvest, and Shama Kabani, 25, founder of the Marketing ZEN Group. They have several things in common and I will talk about what I think we can all learn from them.
For those of you who don’t know them, a quick introduction:
SHAMA KABANI, 25, did her master’s thesis in organizational communication at the University of Austin, Texas, when she discovered Twitter in its early stages and immediately understood the power of social media for online marketing. She contemplated doing consulting upon graduation and realized she should play to her strengths and focus on social media and its implications for online marketing. She first thought she was too young, but then understood this was an asset, not a disadvantage. She could tell clients they had to learn from the youngsters who had grown up with the internet and gadgets, and they agreed! She then started web TV shows on online marketing and wrote the book “The ZEN of Social Media Marketing: An Easier Way to Build Credibility, Generate Buzz and Increase Revenue“, which became a marketing bestseller on amazon. She now runs her online marketing group with 20 employees and was voted one of the “top 25 entrepreneurs under 25″.
ALEXA VON TOBEL, 27, studied psychology at Harvard, then worked just over a year as an analyst on a credit trading desk at Morgan Stanley, briefly became a business manager at venture backed start-up Drop.io in New York and then enrolled at Harvard Business School in the fall of 2008 (the year I graduated from London Business School and became a trader!). Having realised while working in investment banking that she could be responsible for large sums without knowing how to manage her own money, and seeing no good books on personal finance, she pitched a business plan for Learnvest at a business plan competition, won it, and used her savings from Morgan Stanley to start Learnvest. By now, she has raised $24.5m funding for the company and has already managed to reach 100,000 online members who subscribe to her personal finance newsletter and take part in online personal finance courses (some of which are paid). She has won numerous awards, among them “25 Women-Run Startups to Watch” by Fast Company, Worth Magazine’s list of “20 Entrepreneurs to Watch” and BusinessWeek’s “Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs”.
What do they have in common and what can we learn from them?
- Chutzpah, chutzpah, chutzpah!!! Let’s face it, 99% of us spend our final year in college and business school looking for the “dream job” and hoping somebody will pay us and tell us what to do in return, and we hope that if we work hard we get rewarded and thanked for it. I am incredibly impressed by Shama Kabani simply deciding to do freelance consulting straight away, winning her own clients and learning as she went along. Same with Alexa – I have read hundreds of books on personal finance and financial markets and trading and investing and worked at McKinsey and in trading for years, and still I keep thinking I don’t have enough experience or knowledge to set up a personal finance business. And this girl realizes there is a market that needs simple advice that she can give, packages it nicely and voila – raises $25m! It takes a lot of courage to say “hey, you classmates can go to job interviews and try to find that dream job – I’m just going to do my own thing”.
- Self-confidence: you can always doubt yourself and focus on your weaknesses and all the things you don’t know. Shama and Alexa, however, played to their strengths, knew they had found a market gap, and hired help where they needed it. They knew they could sell their story, whereas many in their shoes might have stopped and thought nobody would buy it.
- Marketing, marketing, marketing! If you have read “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” (which I strongly recommend, by the way, it is one of my favourite non-fiction books and I have made it a habit of re-reading it at least once a year), you may know the story of how he advised a talented writer in Singapore on becoming a best-selling author. He recommended her to work in sales and marketing or do a quick marketing course, and she became offended. But he insisted that she wanted to be a best-selling author, not a best-writing one, and that made all the difference. The point here is that what they might have lacked in actual years of experience or in-depth knowledge, they made up for in intelligent marketing, networking, finding the right backers, getting discussed in the national media and on TV, and this brought them the audience to market their businesses. I cannot stress enough how important this is. It’s important because we often hesitate to start a business because we think we are not ready yet in terms of experience or content, and their story shows that you are never ready, that you can focus on marketing aggressively and work on the content and product as you go along.
Entrepreneurs are those that just go out and make things happen instead of saying “it would be great if there was this product or that website”, and Alexa and Shama are fantastic examples for that. I think they are great role models for any aspiring young entrepreneur. I hope this gives you food for thought and inspiration in case you are contemplating your own business idea. What’s stopping us?