In 2013 I co-founded my first company. It was a huge deal. It was a for-profit Canadian company operating in Ghana West Africa. Our main source of funding was the Canadian and Ghanaian Governments. Our focus was on implementing a taxation and business licensing system to allow local level governments to generate their own revenues. This would allow them to not depend so heavily on non-profits, foreign support or the federal government to take care of community needs.
It was a system that I was so unfamiliar with and so excited about. My role was to handle the operations, logistics and HR within the organization. Start-up life is anything but glorious. There were days in the beginning when we were waiting for funding where we ate nothing but Heinz baked beans (and split a can because we only had so many). I lived in an apartment that was sinking into the sewer, didn’t have a car so taxied everywhere (meaning that within the Ghanaian heat, any meeting I arrived at my hair was unruly and I was drenched in sweat). Our funding kept getting delayed (all in all we waited 9 months, when we expected to initially wait 60 days) for multiple reasons that we couldn’t control (and trust me I tried). Those were the longest 9 months of my life, but I was happy. I loved my life, I loved being in Ghana and I loved the challenge that was ahead.
And a challenge it was. In hindsight I absolutely messed up more than I was successful with my role, however I was almost always able to turn things around, find a solution and keep going. This is still one of my greatest strengths today.
The company hired both Canadian and Ghanaian staff. We had a 50/50 split, which meant we had payroll in two countries, benefit systems in two countries, multiple currencies, and cultures to consider in all of our interactions. Our team was incredible. They truly were (and are) amazing individuals, and they jumped in with us not knowing where we were going to land.
Once we were off the ground our first year was more or less smooth. Sure there were frustrations, roadblocks, tough days and moments of panic, but what company doesn’t face that? Our initial budget was around $1.4 million CAD. It hit our bank accounts and we hit the ground running.
But we messed up, and messed up big. We didn’t diversify our revenues fast enough and we didn’t pay attention to signals that in hindsight were flashing like giant red lights in front of our faces. We didn’t put time into having a business plan, or a board that could help us make decisions when we were too in the weeds. We ran off our egos, and they were our downfall. We spent so much time trying to prove others wrong that we didn’t see we were sinking and sinking fast.
We ran into massive snags with our second round of funding that was completely out of our control, but due to not planning or doing a strong enough risk assessment we sank. We had to do the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my career and lay off our entire staff. One by one we had to have the conversations that sucked horribly. We had failed them and we had failed ourselves.
It took many years for me to come to terms with what had happened to not wake up in the middle of the night reliving the horrible end of my time with the company and feeling like we had fail absolutely everyone – our staff, our investors, our communities, and ourselves. However when I was able to step back I realised this was the biggest success I have had and the biggest learning experience I have had in my life.
It was my biggest success because I figured every piece out that I needed to and ran a team and company that was technically multi-national for over a year and learned the system we were in, increased my knowledge of the development sector and interacted with some massive players. I learned how to do effective and flexible business plans, how to build a funding model that is not dependent on one stream of revenue. I learned more about business acumen in those couple years that I could have ever learned in an institution.
Sure if I did it again I would definitely change some things, however there is no use in living in the past, and the failures that happened with this company made me better and stronger for the steps I took afterwards, and gave me the experience to be creative while looking at a bigger picture than what is currently in front of me.
Failure sucks because it hurts. And it hurts bad. But you don’t learn and grow without failing. I am forever grateful for the time with this company and the learnings it gave me.
Let me know what your biggest failure has been. I’d love to hear about it. Head on over to my contact page and send me a note.