The games we play

The games we play

Shivani Parmar set out to build a high-growth business based on her love of photography and Olympic rowing. A year on from her MBA, she reflects on her experience, openly questioning received wisdom on building entrepreneurial ventures.

I'm sitting at the finish line and I'm nervous.

It's the Olympic final for the Men's Eight rowing race. The announcer declares the race has started. There’s just 2,000m to go before the boats cross the line in front of me. Roughly 5:30 minutes.

I've got my head in my hands, covering my eyes … admittedly not the most useful tactic for a photographer.

When I finally look up and glance down the racecourse, I realise I'm not the only one who’s on edge. Coaches from all over the world are feeling just as tense, anxiously waiting to see how their crews do.

The Olympic final is the culmination of many years of hard work, not just from the athletes, but coaches, support staff, even team photographers like me.

Because of the grandeur of the event, it’s easy to forget that races are rarely decided on race day. In truth, they are decided every single day before that final competition.

During the Olympic fortnight, everything’s great. But all those years of training beforehand are a totally different story. Athletes joke that everyone wants to go to the Olympics but nobody wants to do the work to get there.

If there's one thing the Olympic team taught me, it's that achieving your goals doesn’t happen overnight. It’s actually a process. It means showing up to practice everyday and doing your very best, rain or shine – slowly building yourself up over time.

As a young athlete, first you need to beat your school teammates. Then you need to win at regional events. Eventually you’ll be successful at national events and finally be invited to train at national level.

On arrival, you'll find yourself right at the bottom of the pile again. Slowly you’ll perfect your skills and work your way up the team ladder, making your first international team, your first World Championship, and – if you’re good enough – your first Olympics.

This process is hard work. There’s no way to skip any steps: the competition is simply too tight.

I’d like to say I had already internalised this reality as I picked up my camera and started photographing the boats crossing the finishing line of the Olympic Men’s Eight final. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until very recently that I distilled some of the key lessons I’d learned. And it was a bumpy journey of my own that got me there.

After my MBA, I joined the LBS Incubator to build up SHIVSPIX, the business I founded while working with the team and its sponsors.

Entering the start-up world was exciting. But pretty soon my focus changed from dreaming up my perfect venture, to writing vague business plans, trying to convince people I’d have 'hockey stick' growth, chasing investors, and persuading them I’d make a lot of money within my three-year plan when I sell my business.

I struggled in the Incubator, there's no doubt about that. I forgot everything I learned from the Olympic team about following a process and being patient.

When I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere, I tried to compensate for it by working longer hours. I started getting sick. Every month for six months in a row I'd find myself in bed for three days, running a fever of 40°C. By May 2013 I knew something had to give. I simply couldn't come to terms with the lifestyle I was chasing. Even my body was rejecting it!

So last summer, I decided to take a step back from my business to get healthy again.

Rather than trying to force something that clearly wasn’t working, I spent time revisiting how I got there.

Specifically, I revisited my time with the Olympic team. I had 165,708 photographs and 3,748 minutes of interview recordings sitting on my computer hard drive. My goal had always been to put together a photo-documentary based on my time with the team. Now seemed as good a time as any.

As my book gradually took shape, all those life lessons I had learned and somehow ignored came back to me. In trying to build a business fast, I had ignored some of the key things that I believe to be true.

WHAT I LEARNED THE HARD WAY

If there is one realisation in the past year that stands out the most, it’s this: Most aspects of life are a game.

I spent close to two years doing HIV Awareness work. That was not a game. That was life-saving information.

But if it’s not life or death, it is a game, whether it is related to careers, businesses, academic exams or even dating.

Sometimes we trick ourselves into believing things are important when they are not, and we use money, such as salary or revenue figures to justify it.

More importantly, we can choose which games we want to play.

That means we can also choose what success looks like and which rules to play by to get there.

My goal was always to create a business that is a positive force in this world. Looking back at my time in the Incubator, I think I was headed in the right direction. But I was too clouded by the idea of fast growth to see what I was doing right, because it seemed like nothing was good enough or happening quickly enough.

Recognising this, I’ve decided to change my approach, forcing myself to be more patient, and focused on the people coming to my business.

The KPIs I now use to measure my business by are as follows:

METRIC  PURPOSE  EXPLANATION
Customers Value and sustainability I measure the number of customers, but not the revenue they generate. The number of customers helps me focus on generating value for the customer and tells me if my business is financially sustainable. 
Website traffic  Momentum I use website traffic as an indicator of momentum to the business. It is not an indicator of success, but simply the pulse of the business. 
Engagement  Resonance  This ranges from the emails customers send me to the Tweets I receive, and is a way for me to gauge whether people are actively connecting with my business. 
Helping  Positive Impact  I keep track of how often I help someone through my business to ensure I am having a positive impact in the world. 

 

Financially, I don’t look at revenue or profit. I just care to stay cash flow positive. I don't want to spend my time chasing money. Happily, that means I don't need to chase investors either.

I want slow organic growth, focused on giving my customers a great experience and generating positive word of mouth.

To attain that level of patience and freedom, ironically the solution was getting a fulltime job, which allows me to bootstrap the business. While it seems counter-intuitive, this decision was liberating because it means I do not have to focus on money anymore.

People will say you need to work full time on your business to show investors you're serious about it. Actually, I think taking on alternative employment was one of the best things I could have done for the long-term success of my business.

While it limits the time I spend on my business to 5:00-7:00am every morning, it also means I'm forced to really focus on the things that matter to me – which as it turns out isn't money, but having happy customers.

The best part of my week is getting an email or Facebook message from a customer who is excited about my business. It brings me more joy than any revenue figure ever will.

I’ve become increasingly aware of the difference between pursuing sales and people. Sales are pound signs. Customers are people. I prefer working with people. This realisation has defined every decision I’ve made since then.

LOOKING AHEAD

Maybe it shouldn’t have taken me so long to fully grasp what really matters to me. I should have known from the very beginning of my MBA.

As we arrived for our MBA, the most common question everyone asked was, ‘So what did you do before this?’ Most would say ‘Finance’ or ‘Consulting’ and the conversation ended there.

But when I told my story, of my journey going from HIV Awareness work in San Francisco and India, to being a medical journalist, to the photographer of the US Olympic rowing team ... everyone listened and quickly followed-up with questions.

The one question nobody ever asked me was, 'How much money did you make?' Actually, it didn't matter.

In the same way, I look forward and I'm convinced slow and organic growth is the way to go, mostly because it feels right and true to me. It allows me to concentrate on creating excellent work, being process-focused, and doing what I love – working with people.

I don't know how large my business will grow in the long run. But along the journey, I'm sure I will make a lot of customers happy, and in the end, I think that will be more valuable to me than anything else.

That's the game I choose to play.

The Longest Odds

The Longest Oddsis a photo-documentary about the choices we make and the decisions we live by through the experiences of the US Olympic team from 2006-2012. It’s dedicated to all those who have ever dreamed of pursuing something so big, so distant, so far-fetched, so impossible, so unattainable … and who have still gone for it despite the longest odds.

The Longest Oddsis available as an eBook and can be purchased at www.shivspix.com/the-longest-odds

If you have a question or just want to have a conversation, feel free to get in touch with me at sparmar.mba2012@london.edu.

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