Business is Common Sense

The 25-yrs old does it again. Couple of days back I was whining to him about work and how I should do what my friends say and just get a job, and he says, “Business is common sense, Maria – perhaps you need to rethink your expectations”. Much as it pains me to admit it but that made sense. This blog is not about him so I’ll skip to what it actually is about. What is business really?

In her guest post on Women 2.0, Jennifer Toney, Founder and CEO of  WeMakeItSafer describes business beautifully (and I am a little jealous of her for being so eloquent).

“If I’m cursing, there is a business opportunity.” You know, every time you say, “@*#*! I hate it when that happens!” or “@*#*! Why in the world did they make it this way?!” …. if a problem is big enough and important enough that it makes you mad; if it evokes enough passion that you are writing about how stupid it is on your Facebook wall, or better yet, a three-page blog post; it just might be a problem worth solving. After all, if it irritates you, chances are good that it irritates others.”

I just LOVE the simplicity of this definition. I can relate to it when it comes to WDL. I was working as a teacher at a private school and hating every minute of it. I naturally quit though it took me three long years to reach that decision. While sitting at home, I kept thinking to myself there HAD to be a way around this problem. I couldn’t do anything but teach – no one would let me – but I am not one to give up easily …. :D I started looking around, found Rozee online. Wrote 200 essays for a lady in Multan for Rs. 15k. Found oDesk while shadowing her on the Internet (I am evil, I know), earned about $400 in the first month. Was approached by founder of a not-for-profit startup in SF, CA and became a full-fledged VA from a content writer. Heard about Women 2.0 Startup Competition, and became an entrepreneur. Ladies (GET OVER IT – I am a feminist), motive behind the brag? I had a problem and instead of sitting down crying about it and shouting at God for not  being fair to me, or having a sighing competitions with other women over who has had the hardest, saddest life and hence deserves a place among saints, I found a solution to the problem. I know, I am AWESOME! :P

You don’t have to start big, you can start with making beaded jewelry, or embroidered mobile pouches and selling them on Etsy or Folksy. Or you can start from your home designing clothes for friends and family, taking pics of all the dresses you made so far and putting them on a Facebook page, or you may want to start a cooking class for little girls. It doesn’t have to be a social enterprise. It doesn’t have to have a huge social impact changing people’s lives for the better. Look at Facebook, Evernote, Angry Birds. I don’t feel like a better person for using any but man is a social animal and wants to mingle with people, we all have our own crazy ways of unwinding, many of us have trouble keeping track of our ideas. These businesses banked on those needs. Look around you and see if you can identify a problem that you can solve, something you feel passionate about, something you can do better and differently, find out if there is a market for it. Start with friends and family, neighbors, the random people you have added to your FB list, twitter – and then stop contemplating and take the plunge. See where procrastination landed Hamlet? I always say, “I’ll never know unless I do it”.

Trust me, it has its pitfalls – there are days you want to commit murder – you curse yourself for refusing to get an easy 9-5 job at some huge multinational whose owner is best buddies with your uncle – but it’s fun. The adrenaline, the small conquests, the way the world unfolds before you gives you a high like nothing else. It’s the strongest addiction ever. Try it and let me know how it goes.

OK byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Ignore this – even I don’t know what this is about

He put all his 25 years of wisdom into one sentence: It starts with you, it starts with hope. Dammit! To be very cliché: the enormity of what I am doing hit me with a ferocity unlike what I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been meaning to use that sentence for some time without finding a proper moment to do so. Feels good! With that out of the way, I can tell you what’s going on.

So, you know how I am a self-proclaimed sexist, right? For the past couple of years I’ve been working on a startup that employs women (surprise! surprise!) to do digital work from home and hence (very British of me, no? This is in honor of the Royal Wedding coming up – the most I could do.) enabling them to work without fear of any objections from the fam, or any fear of getting hit by a lightning bolt for working with men and burning in eternal fire, or fear of getting blown up into smithereens by a random bombing. It’s a win-win! You work with cute, rich, random guys from around the world AND you earn more than you would working as a teacher at some “best elitist school system” (yep, my son’s Bradford-born Principal, who probably flunked A-levels and was married off to the first Paki guy who would have her because of her enchanté accent *blech*,  told me that when I went for his admission!!), and you can spend the entire day sitting in your room watching Gossip Girl and bark at people around you ‘coz of course you were transcribing the show for a client. Professional and family life become bliss! GOD! I better stop watching Gossip Girl – that was mean even for me.

Anyhoo, so I was saying. Me? Role model? Beacon of hope? Erm? So, I’ve worked with pretty cool people the past 2 years: YPO, Quora, Fission Strategy. Had wonderful experiences including helping to arrange a conference call with Tony Blair and Paul Kagame (I won’t say exactly how much I helped but I did help more than YOU did so stop b****ing and accept I am cooler than you), working on trips to Africa to help build schools for orphans, spreading awareness about the devastation caused by natural disasters in Pakistan and Haiti. But that was all for me. How am I giving hope to anyone?

I guess it might be ‘coz very early in my life I learned that if you wanted something bad enough there was always a way to get it (NOT APPLICABLE if you look like YOU and want to look like Christy Turlington – that ain’t happening no matter how hard you try sista’) and it did not necessarily meant breaking every rule in the book and becoming a rebel. You can find a way around the obstacles in your way – you don’t have to go through them. I wanted to study – do my Masters. Wasn’t allowed to attend a co-ed so I started looking around for options, wasted a year, and found a girl’s college that had started Masters classes that year. The experience was HORRIBLE to say the least BUT I am glad I made the right decision and went ahead with the course. Now when someone asks me what my qualification is, saying I have a Masters from Quaid-e-Azam or saying I have a Masters from Frontier College, makes no difference to my clients. They don’t recognize either institutes. All they know is that I have an MA in English Lit, and that’s all that matters.

Then, I wanted to work. 3 years at a local private school as an ESL teacher were painful, to say the least. Won’t go into details, but it helped on my CV, and I learned some lessons that have helped me with latter work (such as, don’t suck up to the boss – suck up to the colleagues – they are the ones that will cover your ass. If you gals are reading this, which I doubt, you know I love you despite the fact I started with that agenda *grin*).

Then, the hunger to do something more challenging (dramatic, I know!) set in once again. This time, I wanted to work with an NGO or some UN-type organization, or work in an office-environment (whatever that means). VERY FUNNY – like that was going to happen! But it did. I found virtual work. Won’t start a bragging session about the amazing things I did/am doing though the temptation is overpowering.

So, if I can do it, everyone and anyone can. I get applications for work from such a  diverse group of women. Students, bored housewives, working women looking for more work (seriously!), cousins impressed and suspicious of my new found riches and star-status in the fam. But some stories are touching. Like this young mom who wrote to me a couple of weeks back. She has a small baby, about 18 months old, who has some sort of medical condition making him immobile from the waist down. She has to be with her baby 24/7 but promised she could work part-time when the baby was napping. I wanted to cry. If I had enough work to send her I would.  But I don’t. This is where my venture, if successful, gives hope. I told her about my struggle (yeah, I never forget to put in a bit of a brag into everything – I love me), pointed her towards places on the Internet she could find work on, and promised her I’d help her if I ever can. Few days back I pinged her on Skype and I was happy to know she had found a part-time VA job.

Another initiative – in a small town in the remote northern areas of Pakistan we have a team of about 10 women working from an IT Center doing basic digital tasks. Their earnings? Less than $25 each but in a place where a full-time school teacher gets less than $50 a month, these girls made that much working part-time. Plus, how many teaching jobs could there be in a town with a population of less than 10,000 people? This is an opportunity to work without leaving their homes and heading to bigger cities in search for employment. And we hope to send them more work and employ them full-time once some internal structural changes are made which I am hoping will be real soon.

Hope! This is what it’s all about. It’s not me alone but my venture and the lives touched that are rekindling hope in the hearts of many. It gives me courage to go along with my plans, to knock on doors I would never dare to approach, to push myself to the limit to make this successful. There are times when I want to give up and hide under the covers and just be happy with what I am doing for myself. But, I know if I give up now a part of me will always make me feel guilty for not doing it.

I’ll let you all go put those hankies in the washer now. Blow your noses, put iced tea-bags on your eyes, and be fabulous!

Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Accounting

I hate handling money. I absolutely abhor it. I suck at it. For me managing money means spending it and not having any so you don’t need to worry about managing it. That’s BAD – really bad – I know. But what to do? I need an accountant, WDL needs an accountant – BADLY!

Here is what I do to keep a track of WDL’s finances: have a folder on my desktop with 2 sub-folders. One sub is for invoices that have been paid and another for unpaid ones. And THAT’S it! This is hara kiri, I am telling you. (what is hara kiri? GOD GALS – you don’t Google at all, do you? Now is a good time to start … :P) OK so you would think, that’s not too bad. It is! Because I often forget to add invoices to the folders or put them in the wrong folder or something like that. Why I am confessing this? Because unless I admit I have a problem I won’t be able to find a solution to it. About ‘fessing stuff, some people/well-wishers have come up to me and said this blog will be the death of WDL. To them I say thanks for the concern but I have made so far with “this kind of attitude” and I don’t have regular Girl Fridays or Happy Hour dates with my clients. It’s more like Hey there, Can you please work on xyz task and return it by 10 PM? and that’s it. How I talk or what I talk about outside of work hours doesn’t bother them. I’d be surprised if any of my 5 avid readers turns out to be a former or current client. :P Chillax!

Digression thy name is MOI!

Yeah, so what do you guys suggest I do? CFOs are expensive. WDL can’t afford one. Volunteers – dunno where to find them and if I do get someone am not sure she will take it seriously enough. Back when I was partnering as a service provider with a not-for-profit in the US I was surprised to see how almost all of their staff was made of volunteers and each performed her duties like she would at a paid job. Here, in my dear country, I am afraid that ain’t gonna happen.

So, what are my options? Any free software available that’ll manage WDL’s finances? At the business skills course, they’ll be giving us classes on accounting and finance. Am hoping to pick something there – fingers crossed.

So, if you are a VA, which makes you into an entrepreneur, like it or not, you must keep a track of your money. Know what comes in, how much goes out in payments to team members, how much is spent on office stationary and power backup (I have to change the battery for my UPS every year and it cost me Rs. 12k this time), etc. Don’t get super excited by the total figure at the end of the month – learn to differentiate between total revenue and profits. Put aside a certain amount every month no matter how irresistible the lawn sales are – there will be lows and you must be prepared for them. I didn’t listen when a friend advised me to do just that a year back and I found myself so broke I put Oliver Twist to shame – Please Sir, I want some more … (have you noticed how when you are broke even a Rs. 100 DVD, that is roughly $1.2, seems like a fortune that mean, old fate has deprived you of?)

Lap up these words of wisdom, Ladies! oDesk and Elance don’t teach you this. Only experience does. And of course MOI!

OK byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee