Five Lessons from Five Years as an Entrepreneur

Nic Simmonds, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Clockwork Media, shares the key lessons he has learned from his five-year journey as a young entrepreneur in the marketing and media industry.


As many industries – advertising and marketing included – begin to wind down into the quieter months of the year, it’s natural for an entrepreneur to reflect on his or her business’s progress – to consider what has succeeded, what has failed, and what improvements could be made. I am no exception to this habit – so there could hardly have been a better time to be invited to contribute to Entrepreneur Month with a long, hard – hopefully-insightful – look at not only the past year, but my entire journey from salaried worker to freelancer to business owner, and the things I’ve learned in the five years in between.


You don’t need to have it all mapped out perfectly to take the leap

It may seem a little contrived to quote Mark Zuckerberg right off the bat when considering my own entrepreneurial journey, but this one has always stuck with me, and only continues to grow in relevance whenever I see it.

“If you work on stuff that you like and are passionate about, you don’t have to have a master plan with how things will play out.”

When we started out, we never really planned to grow Clockwork Media as quickly and dramatically as we did. Our growth from a two-man operation to a hundred-strong content and communications agency was a gradual one, though it seems explosive in retrospect. We both came from journalistic backgrounds and then moved into freelancing, providing outsourced services for other agencies.

All we had was the conviction that we really understood content and how it worked in the newly emerging digital and social landscape. We believed that there was a market for our services if we positioned ourselves correctly, and – looking back – that’s all we needed. The first seed of entrepreneurship was planted when we realised we were stronger as a collective than as two individuals, and our main objective in the first year was to become financially self-sufficient doing something we loved, were passionate about, and felt a drive to share with the world. Five years later, it’s still the cornerstone of what we do at Clockwork Media, and at the heart of all the work we do for our clients.


You’ll need to become a people-person, whether you like it or not

In the early months of our venture, we realised that even achieving sustainability – much less actual growth – would depend on having a steady stream of clients and a strong sales emphasis. But who were we to walk into the boardrooms of the kinds of corporate clients that we now service daily – two young content writers with precious little experience and even fewer resources?

Many business owners will agree with the adage, “It’s not what you know, but who you know” – and the contacts we developed during our time in journalism were critically important to establishing the agency; in fact, two of them became our first retained clients, months after opening. In the early days, a significant majority of the work we won came through short extensions of our personal network. It sounds a little insidious, but the reality is that to get a business off the ground, you have to figure out what your unfair advantages are, and leverage them. In our case, our good relationships with numerous PR agencies and marketing managers were our foot in the door.

“It sounds a little insidious, but the reality is that to get a business off the ground, you have to figure out what your unfair advantages are, and leverage them.”


There’s no room for self-doubt

At the time we established Clockwork Media, social media and content marketing were new forces in South African marketing, and a lot of established agencies were in a scramble to figure out how to approach them. We knew that our writing, research and critical thinking skills from journalism would serve us well in the branding world, and we sensed in the industry a lack of understanding when it came to creating content for these new platforms.  That soon became the foundation we built the business on. This conviction – that there was more value to be gained by both businesses and consumers through the power of good content – guided our decisions throughout, and became the unique offering we knew we needed to stand out, even though bigger, more established agencies were doing things differently.

In the early days of starting a company, you are going to get plenty of feedback from friends and family. It’s important to hear them and take their input into account, but it’s more important to stand firm in your own vision; at its core, this is the entrepreneur’s most basic mandate. If you adapt your vision based on feedback too much, then there’s a good chance you’ve lost the core of what will make or break you.

It’s important to stand firm in your own vision. If you adapt your vision based on feedback too much, then there’s a good chance you’ve lost the core of what will make or break you.”


The “Born Entrepreneur” is a myth

There’s this pervasive myth in contemporary culture that a true entrepreneur is something of a unicorn, with a full and uncompromising set of specific traits that lead them to success. My five years have taught me a little bit different. There are a host of different character traits and competencies that when combined, improve an entrepreneur’s chances of succeeding. The reality is that nobody can possess all of them. There are a couple of core abilities which really help, such as thinking strategically, being driven, and being good with people.

Data shows that businesses with more than a single founder are far more likely to succeed. One of the reasons for this, is that having multiple founders gives your business a higher chance of possessing, in combination, the set of traits, abilities and skills needed to make your business work. So, in my view, it’s less about being a “born entrepreneur”, and more about the dynamic interplay that exists between the founding partners.

“Data shows that businesses with more than a single founder are far more likely to succeed.”


Setbacks, obstacles, and failures can be your greatest teachers… if you let them

And trust me, we’ve had our fair share. But looking back now, none of them were the catastrophes we sometimes thought they were. Our company is still standing. In fact, it’s standing stronger than ever. In our first year of official competition entries, we are one of the country’s most awarded agencies, and the 7th fastest growing business of our kind in the world. We’ve lost clients before – and doubtless, we will again. It’s an intrinsic part of running a business, and a learning opportunity if you look at it as such.

Being a good leader is about tenacity, picking yourself up after every fall. And with practice, it becomes easier and easier every time. We are committed to meeting defeat not with despondence, but with a renewed commitment to learn from every failure, analyse it, and do what we can to not let it happen again.