From Corporate Lawyer to Shoe Peddler: 5 Lessons Learned About Social Entrepreneurship
It’s been a bit over a year since I quit my previous job as a lawyer to become a shoe peddler. One vacation to India and I started mohinders, a company that sells hand-woven leather shoes sourced from a village cooperative. It's been a long journey and now that we've launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, this is what I've learned so far...
1. You can be an entrepreneur without starting a tech company.
In the Silicon Valley, I was representing companies that were creating software products and shooting for the moon. They were raising millions of dollars from venture capitalists that believed these companies would eventually be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the near future. So, naturally I thought that if I wanted to be an entrepreneur I had to create the next Instagram, or Snapchat…even though I knew nothing about programming and it wasn't something that excited me. After weeks of mulling over the idea of starting mohinders, I had a realization: I could still be entrepreneurial and start a company without producing a $100m exit.
2. If you can afford to, go with your gut.
I understand that not everyone can drop everything and start a company. I’m lucky that my wife earns enough money at her job for us both to live comfortably and that my family is hugely supportive of whatever I do. If you’re in a position where you can take a risk and start something fun, do it. Part of the reason why I moved forward with mohinders is because I felt like I had to see whether I could start a successful company by making decisions based on my gut, and based on keeping it fun. Imagine how great life could be if your work consisted of doing things that excited you? That’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m still making decisions based on what sounds fun and I’m optimistic that it will work.
3. From zero to product, momentum is everything.
The initial stage of starting a company (from idea to product or to first sale) is a tumultuous one. The only way I’ve found to get through this period is to actually create a product, and to not give up along the way. So when making decisions, it’s important to think about the effect they will have on your momentum. You get a huge burst of momentum from the excitement of the initial idea and the decision to take the leap forward. This initial burst will only get you so far. Therefore, you need to find ways to regain the momentum. I’ve gotten momentum from reaching milestones (e.g., finishing first production samples), receiving positive feedback (e.g., getting compliments from people I respect), and having fun (e.g., going on trips to India to interact with my suppliers face-to-face). Conversely, you can lose momentum for a variety of reasons. For me, thinking too many moves ahead, trying to do things perfectly, and reading entrepreneurship blogs and books that tell you “how to start a company” zap my momentum. All of the momentum killers have one thing in common: They overcomplicate things. If you overcomplicate things too much during this stage, you may get overwhelmed and give up before creating a product. So remember to keep momentum high.
4. You have to learn by doing, and you’ll likely make mistakes along the way.
On my first sourcing trip to India, I discovered the cooperative that is now my supplier and met face-to-face with its managing director. During our meeting, we discussed my first order: 120 pairs of shoes. The shoes would all be made of locally-produced vegetable-tanned water buffalo leather. He told me that it would take about a month for the shoes to be made and shipped to the United States. I remember thinking…man, this importing thing is easy, right? Wrong! I constantly checked in with my supplier to make sure that all was going to plan. I made sure to let him know that he could tell me if anything was wrong or needed my attention. So, one month went by. Then two months. Then three months. Finally, after a long phone call with the managing director, I learned that they were having problems obtaining the leather. Supply was low, and the price was high. They were hesitant of buying the leather and losing money, but didn’t want to tell me for fear of ruining our relationship. It took a few months and a second trip to India to figure this all out. As our relationship has grown over time, my supplier is more up-front with me about issues like this…though I’m certain it won’t always be smooth sailing going forward.
5. You can transition from a corporate job to entrepreneurship.
I don’t regret my stint as a lawyer. Yes, it took five years of my life…that’s three years of law school plus nearly two years as a lawyer. However, without doing this I wouldn’t have had the courage to start something on my own. Before gaining the confidence to put a product and story out into the world, I needed to prove to myself that I could hold my own in a well-regarded job. Once, I did that, I was ready to start mohinders. I have lots of friends working in conventional roles at large corporations for a variety of reasons: income security, risk aversion, building confidence… Just know that no matter how long you’ve been on a conventional path, it’s not too late to try something new, and enjoy the ride.