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As an adventurer and small business owner, I learned from an early age that you must take control of your future in order to realize your dreams. While that sounds easy, it is actually a difficult balancing act: You must decide on, demonstrate, and remain committed to your core beliefs, yet still be open-minded to new ideas and perspectives. Here is what I have learned about taking control of my dreams.
Take a risk and follow your passions. Everyone told me I was foolish when I gave up a good job to start a clothing business in Cairo. However, because I believed in it, I was sure I could make others believe in me too. I designed and manufactured my first small collection, chose the shops that might be interested in them and then arranged to meet them. They were hesitant about clothes designed for six-month-old babies, so I offered to let them buy a piece at a time. I needed to create a demand for my products and I passionately went about getting it. Passion is contagious, and you cannot achieve your dreams without it.
Quality counts. I made quality my top goal. This was very difficult in an industry where quality was not a priority. It would have been easy to give in and follow the standards of other businesses but I had higher expectations. My quality standards were often time-consuming and hard in the short run because it made my products more expensive. But in the long run, my standards were what set me apart and made my business a success. I realized clothes were my product, but quality determined my future.
Teach your employees to think like buyers. It was hard for my workers to understand why I asked them not to smoke or eat while they were working on the machines or in the factory; of course I did not want the baby clothes to smell or feel like they have been used. That might sound obvious, but that never occurred to the workers because they did not think like buyers. This and many other things made our clients realize that we care and that we think like them.
Look for areas on the rise. My second business, started with my husband, was in the field of printer-cartridge recycling, a totally new and challenging field. This choice came from my passion to venture into areas that are on the rise. I knew that Egypt imported four million cartridges a year, and then I browsed the net and read articles about the growing interest in the environment. I put those two thoughts together and started my recycling business, Ecotek and continued living the dream.
Be Innovative and set yourself apart. Ecotek produced quality cartridges that could be offered to multi-national companies while reducing their printing costs by 40% -- and the opportunity to save the environment from toxic waste. It is imperative to constantly remain innovate and look for new ideas in order to set yourself apart and control your future.
Respect your competitors. I learned through the years that respecting your competitor is very important. This was particularly true in recycling. We work in a market filled with OEM companies with big names, refillers and counterfeiters. Knowledge of each was crucial to keeping us ahead. Respecting your competitors keeps you on your toes and your dream on track.
Always ask when you need help. Asking is never easy, but that is one of the easiest ways to learn fast and get the skills and resources you need to achieve your dreams. It’s amazing how many people are ready to help when you just reach out to them. Networking makes or breaks businesses so never forget to include people in your growth plan; just ask them to be part of your success and it will happen faster and bigger.
Trust your gut feeling. In business people will tell you to go one way or the other but sometimes your gut feeling will take you into a totally different path. For example, when my first clothing collection was a success, I got lots of orders and had to expand fast. I was risking a huge amount of money, and people warned me against growing so quickly. My feeling was just the opposite – go for it -- and thankfully it was the right decision.
Keep your eyes on the horizon. I started with just three machines and after three years, I had fifty machines, eighty employees, and a distribution chain of 200 shops. I believe you never just realize your dreams; you have to keep them alive.
This is the third in a series about Vital Voices, an organization that builds leadership and mentoring skills for women around the world. Look here in the coming weeks when another entrepreneur will share her story of, and tips for, building a successful small business.
Shereen Allam is co-owner of Eco-Tek.
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