10 lessons learned over a 15-year tenure as an entrepreneur

10 lessons learned over a 15-year tenure as an entrepreneur

By Liezel Jonkheid, Director and Founder of the Consumer Psychology Lab

Thinking back to the time I stepped into the entrepreneurial world 15 years ago, I reflect on the most important lessons learned, some accidental, and others through challenges encountered along the way. 

For any aspiring entrepreneur, or anyone in the thick of “going out on your own”, here are my top 10 things I learned in business as an entrepreneur that may be of value… 

1. Be authentic and true to yourself and your vision

Having inherited the business with a mere year’s experience behind me in a protected consulting position, I was catapulted into the reality of running a business. And my very first lesson presented itself on my doorstep. In the first month at the helm, I was called to meet the senior leadership of one of our clients to present my credentials.  I will never forget how anxious I was and how thrown I was by the first question: “how many clients have you been able to retain and how many new ones have you acquired?” 

I don’t recall my exact answer as I barely had time to consider the way forward, but that question kickstarted my entire journey. I was armed only with my integrity and authenticity, and could not present anything other than my reality at the time.  

When it comes to absorbing and processing feedback, learn from it and seek every opportunity to finetune your value offering. Do not let the input of others derail you from your vision. Stay true to your voice – this is the absolute backbone of every small business. 

Lesson #1: In the end, no matter how senior or intimidating, clients are still human and can sense if you are truthful and sincere. Having the courage to be human on this day paid off hugely, and I proud to say that I continue to serve this very same client after 15 years! 

2. When the going gets tough, the tough get going 

Companies are not the bricks and mortar, they are made up of people.  All too often, people hide behind a culture that permits behaviour that is devoid of being human. In the first week of taking over the business, a major client, without consulting with me, unilaterally decided to take their business to another supplier, despite having signed a project acceptance document! They did not know if I was able to deliver the work, nor did they ask.  

Lesson #2:  You have to toughen up when the going gets tough. I took them on for breach of contract and the matter was settled. 

3. You are making a difference 

I often find myself contemplating my actual purpose in life and business, and if and how I am making a difference? I am reminded now of a comment made by one of my top interviewers who emigrated. She shared that the interviewing techniques we used, especially active listening and empathy, were skills she started using in her personal life, with her son and husband.  This confession left an enormous sense of gratitude with me.  We are changing how people engage in the world! An intern in research psychology working with us for her practical section of her degree requirements shared her appreciation for the exposure and opportunity she was given.  Having the privilege of witnessing the exponential emotional transformation in her confidence was an unexpected but wonderful reward. 

I set out to build a business model that provides an opportunity for a source of income to competent people, who may not be able to secure permanent positions in the formal workspace due to their personal circumstances – this was even before Covid.  Our team includes students completing their master’s degrees to stay-at-home-moms, to single moms, older people to people living with disabilities – all of whom can work in a modern, flexible and progressive business model. They work from the comfort of their homes (or from anywhere) in their own time and pace.  No traffic, not having to compromise their leave when a child is ill, the ability to study and work at the same time, the ability to use well-earned qualifications and skills and build on their work experience portfolio, make a contribution and earn an income.  

Lesson #3: Despite the individual circumstances, people’s sense of self-worth and value are hugely enhanced by the ability to contribute and do meaningful work. You can make a difference and contribute, despite challenging personal circumstances. 

4. Consistency and reliability  

Every month we dedicate a couple of days to preparing month-end reports for clients.  We put our heart and soul into these and deliver on time, every time. This consistency builds trust and confidence in the relationships with clients. My family and friends know that I dedicate those days, no matter where I am in the world – from Cancun to Italy – to produce these reports. And I believe this is the key to my 15-year tenue as a small business owner.  

Lesson #4: The lesson in consistency is that you have to lead by example, keep contributing and inspiring your team to embrace their role toward the collective result. Without the focus on the purpose – the contribution and value to the client – and without continuously inspiring the team to do the best we can, it will not be attainable. Your last work is the best showcase of your ability to deliver. 

5. Reinvent yourself 

I have learned that you can and must reinvent yourself, time and time again. Not only does the social and business context change, but needs and challenges change too. Fifteen years ago, we designed a customer experience management programme and mapped a customer journey that were undoubtedly ahead of their time. The wave of the relevance of customer experience for true differentiation has hit the South African business shores in full force. CX professionals are taking up this challenge with gusto.  When we launched our bespoke VOC programme to track the experience of customers through conversation, rather than numbers, we were the lone soldiers at the time. Although we still passionately advocate the value of customer stories for insights into consumer behaviour, we are actively seeking the next horizon. 

Lesson #5: Pushing the boundaries can disrupt and mobilise change. My personal lesson is to passionately do what I believe in, and the rest will follow. I am also asking myself… am I ready for the next step? 

6. You never stop learning  

One of the most daunting aspects of being an entrepreneur is the constantly changing playing field and the scope of what you need to know, to survive. Over the past 15 years I have had to adapt and master a variety of new tools from new apps to new software, to run the business more efficiently – online accounting, collaboration and project management tools, time management and editing tools, social media and a host of new skills for presentation, proposal writing, research methodologies, analytics, and facilitation, to name a few. As an entrepreneur, it sometimes feels like you’re literally being a jack-of-all- trades-and-master-of-none. But the very nature of the entrepreneurial space underpins the need to evolve and learn – and this agility and versatility is key to business survival. 

Lesson #6: Remain true to your vision and passion, by trying out new tools and methodologies to make your business more agile and efficient.  Agility and versatility as an entrepreneur are fundamental.

7. Celebrate your successes  

There is no one to pat you on the back when you are an entrepreneur. There is no boss (and very few clients) who give you the encouragement and positive feedback to keep going. You need bucketloads of resilience and self-drive, so be sure to harness your ability to celebrate the smallest of victories. In my experience, most clients feel that their payment is the reward. By the way, it’s generally evident how the employees are treated too!  

I will never forget the moment when a client called me to thank me for our efforts and contribution to their business after a workshop for their team.  I was moved to tears, as these moments are rare.  I felt that I was walking on air and I was deeply touched. The fact that time was taken to call and thank me, will stay with me forever.  I felt truly valued and guess what, I would do anything to return their appreciation and faith in my business. 

In another instance, I asked a client if he would be prepared to provide me with a testimonial of the work we have done, and what he wrote, also moved me to tears, because I never realized how much our contribution was valued! 

Lesson #7: Regularly reflect on your service delivery and recognize when you and your team do great work. Celebrate the smallest successes by consciously noticing any change that you enable. And, when a client acknowledges your contribution, treasure and share that inspirational value with your team. Lastly, ask for a testimonial – it may surprise you just how valued you are. 

8. Manage expectations and set healthy boundaries 

I soon learned to manage expectations and set healthy boundaries in my corporate roles, as your client demands can quickly swallow you up. The idea that you are your own “boss” will come crashing down with a harsh reality check. You still work for a “boss”! Other entrepreneurs shared how they get calls after hours with the expectation of immediate delivery of the requests. My view is to set reasonable time frames and don’t overcommit. Suppose you are met with a challenge that will impact delivery, speak out and re-negotiate.  In most cases, one day will make a huge difference in your life, but none for your clients! Understand what drives certain deadlines for the client, to guide these important conversations. If you don’t, in the end you will resent the client, deliver poor work, or be disappointed in yourself when you push yourself purely for the sake of a deadline.  

Lesson #8:  Have the courage to set boundaries and manage client expectations. If you do not value your own time, your clients will not either. Do the best you can in the time you have. Sometimes it may mean that you have to choose your, or your family’s happiness over your clients.

9. Connect with other entrepreneurs  

In the beginning of my entrepreneurial venture, I had a standing lunch date on Friday afternoons with a friend who also started her own consultancy.  We shared our frustrations and our successes. We spoke about our observations of clients, how to design our administrative processes, shared contacts, and supported each other emotionally. It was one of the most meaningful contact sessions I had in a week. In the following years, I have often connected with other entrepreneurs who face similar challenges. It helps to contextualise the roads less travelled, with pit stops to recharge, refuel and grow.   

Lesson #9: Reach out to others who understand the challenges of trying to make it on your own.  Invest the time in connecting with people who can inspire and support you and always reciprocate. 

10. Positive cashflow is king 

No matter what the turnover of your business, without a positive cashflow, maintaining a sustainable business becomes a never-ending source of stress.  I have been extremely blessed with having no bad debt in fifteen years, and I contribute this to solid relationships with clients, having the courage to ask, and good governance. Irrespective of the size of the business, good financial practices are essential.  

Lesson #10:  My personal takeout is that I do what I do because I want to make a meaningful difference, but that I am also worthy of being rewarded with fair compensation.  My objective has never been about money, but to play a significant role in the economy, be a responsible employer and enable my team and I to contribute and sustain our personal dreams. 

As I close out with a suitcase of great lessons, I venture out into the next 15 years.  I want to thank our clients and every individual who has over the years trusted us and endorsed us to others.  I especially want to thank my supportive and committed team, and the friends and family whom without, no entrepreneur will survive. 

I was reminded that a 15-year anniversary is celebrated with crystal – and it’s a fitting gem to symbolise the many facets of our business, and the complexity and depth that comes with time. What a wonderful way to celebrate the light and its representation of how strong relationships can turn challenges into something wonderful!  May we continue to shine brightly and flourish for many more anniversaries to come. 

Reflections from our team

Hildy:  I feel privileged and honoured to be part of such a resolute team where they continuously strive to improve, grow, uplift, and support their team. It has been extremely rewarding to be part of a masterclass in CX. Thank you for your trust in me, I feel super proud and confident how far I have come to overcome insecurities. It has been an empowering and enjoyable experience to interact with the Lexus customers that deserve respect for their journey every step of the way. I have learned that there was no black and white in terms of their expectations and to make sure they have a seamless and cohesive experience which their customers deserve and earned. The standout of my journey was to learn to listen and learn how the customers valued and were grateful for the opportunity to participate and share their stories, especially where the Lexus brand showed interest and were committed to please them. It has kept them loyal and has made them the advocates for the brand. Happy birthday CPL, you rock. 

Bianca: Congratulations to Consumer Psychology Lab on your 15th anniversary. This milestone is a testament to your unwavering commitment to excellence, innovation, and teamwork. As we commemorate this significant achievement, I am filled with immense pride and gratitude for being part of such an incredible journey.

Over the last decade, I have witnessed CPL’s remarkable growth and transformation. Together, we have navigated challenges, celebrated successes, and continuously pushed the boundaries of what is possible. Most importantly, it has been a huge learning experience for me. I have not only grown as an individual but have also ‘come out of my shell’, ultimately becoming more aware and critical about the world around me – in a good way!

CPL, you are a force to be reckoned with, a frontrunner in helping shape how businesses understand interactions and behaviours. This has been my biggest ‘aha moment’, particularly because it dispelled my preconceived notions and helped me understand that ‘nothing is random’, emphasizing the importance of thoughtful design and intentionally creating memorable customer experiences.

Here’s to 15 years of excellence and to many more years of success, innovation, and growth.

Pranushka:  What a phenomenal milestone. It has really come a long way. I have been a part of the team for 10 years and the biggest standout has to be the level of forgiveness South African customers have, it is a truly beautiful thing. It may not be entirely helpful in terms of experience or behaviour change, but it shows how human customers are and they use this humanness even in situations where they should be angry and disappointed. The level of loyalty also stands out especially when there is mutual benefit, even in times of utter disappoint, there is forgiveness and loyalty.

Nosipho:  As we celebrate our 15th anniversary at CPL, it’s not just a milestone, it’s a testament to the invaluable insights gained through 15 years of engaging with customers. Through countless conversations, we’ve learned that each customer’s journey is uniquely shaped by their perspectives, values, beliefs, background, and everything else that makes them who they are.

What I’ve discovered is that no matter how similar experiences may sound, they are profoundly individual. This understanding has driven a more tailored approach, recognizing and respecting the distinct needs of every individual. It’s this acknowledgment of uniqueness that has guided our commitment to providing personalized solutions and fostering genuine connections. Here’s to another 15 years of embracing the diversity of human experiences and enriching lives through meaningful interactions!

Dee:  As I reflect on my journey , I am filled with gratitude and pride. Happy 15th birthday, Consumer Psychology Lab. The past six years have been a transformative experience for me, both professionally and personally. When I joined the company, I was eager yet unsure, stepping into the role of a customer experience researcher with a mix of excitement and apprehension.

Initially, I struggled with the fear that I wouldn’t be able to connect with people during our brief interviews. The pressure to extract genuine customer experiences in such a short time felt overwhelming. These moments of doubt were my lows, where I felt like I was merely scratching the surface rather than delving into the true essence of customer experiences.

But through these challenges, I grew. I realized that connection isn’t about the length of time but the quality of interaction. With each interview, I honed my skills, becoming more adept at understanding the subtleties and nuances of customer feedback. This growth happened through a series of small, incremental steps that built my confidence.

One of the highs has been the moments of genuine connection with our customers. Hearing a customer say, “You really understand what I’m talking about,” has been immensely rewarding. These affirmations have fuelled my passion and reinforced my belief in the importance of our work.

Another highlight has been the incredible support and camaraderie within our team. Collaborating with such dedicated and insightful colleagues, who have become friends despite working remotely, has been a source of inspiration and learning. Together, we’ve navigated challenges, celebrated successes, and continuously strived to improve the customer experience.

As I look back, I am proud of how far I’ve come. The initial self-doubt has transformed into deep-seated confidence in my abilities. Thank you, CPL, for being a catalyst in my professional growth. Your commitment to excellence and the supportive environment you foster have been instrumental in my journey. Here’s to many more years of success and innovation.

Carin: With Consumer Psychology Lab, I have had the privilege of connecting with people from all walks of life, exploring their stories and learning that every individual has a unique perspective of customer service and experience. Sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander! Communication is a key element in understanding how people experience a situation and how it impacts on their future choices. I am excited to be part of a company that allows me to deepen my understanding of human experience and grow within the field. Happy birthday and here’s to many more!

Mari:  Through my journey in CX and customer research, one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned is the remarkable diversity among customers. Even when two customers receive seemingly identical treatment, their experiences can differ vastly. This highlights the critical importance of understanding each customer as an individual, with unique needs and desires. Uncovering these nuances requires a specialised skill set in probing, interpreting, and understanding feedback. This personalised approach ensures that the full spectrum of user experiences is captured, allowing clients to tailor solutions that truly resonate with their customers. By investing in this deeper level of understanding, one can deliver unparalleled value to your clients, demonstrating that no two customer journeys are the same.

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