Steep learning curve, lots of ambiguity: How to survive as a newbie entrepreneur

SOURCE: Mandel Ngan/AFP
Entrepreneurship has become a popular career option in recent years.

By Yasmin Ahmad Kamil 

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Bill Gates. Jeff Bezos. Warren Buffet. Cath Kidston. Arianna Huffington. These are just a handful of successful entrepreneurs who have carved themselves a name in the global arena, spurring many aspiring entrepreneurs to follow in their footsteps.

Despite their success, data from startup investment company Nexea notes that approximately 50% of all startups fail within five years. While this paints a bleak picture for aspiring entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship has become a popular career option for students and professionals in recent years. 

This is buoyed, in part, due to an increasing number of successful role models that encourages more people to consider starting a new venture and raising aspirations around what they can achieve, says a careers expert.

So, what can aspiring entrepreneurs do to beat the odds of failure and successfully scale their ventures?

Having sufficient funding, being able to deal with ambiguity, and having the proper training and education to help you cope with a steep learning curve are some things that can help, notes Marek Tokarski.

Tokarski is Durham University Senior Enterprise Manager. He provides strategic leadership for student enterprise and entrepreneurship, including staff and financial management and ensuring the delivery of high-quality services to students and graduates. 

Tokarski is directly involved in the development and delivery of activity to help students develop enterprising capabilities and launch new ventures. 

U2B caught up with him via email to find out more about what aspiring entrepreneurs can do to kickstart their dream.

Tokarski notes that having sufficient funding and being able to deal with ambiguity can help improve aspiring entrepreneurs’ chances of success.

Can you tell me about the entrepreneurship landscape in Britain and the UK? Is there a growing interest among university-going students or professionals who want to become entrepreneurs?

Yes, I believe there’s an increasing number of students and professionals exploring a range of entrepreneurial opportunities. 

The perception of entrepreneurship as a career choice has become much more favourable amongst students and professionals in recent years. This, alongside an increasing number of successful role models, is encouraging more people to consider starting a new venture, in addition to raising aspirations around what they can achieve. 

Emerging work trends show that more people have a portfolio of careers; the emergence of the gig economy is leading to people becoming more entrepreneurial in their approach to this. Finally, many people are starting businesses in their spare time to either supplement their income or use it as an opportunity to test ideas to assess their future potential.

These trends have led to more people considering switching career paths, and there is an increasing amount of support for those that want to do this. 

Entrepreneur First is a great example showcasing how exceptionally talented individuals are willing to give up, often, very well paid and comfortable positions, to take a chance on launching a startup to create a positive impact on the world. 

Other support from universities is available too. For instance, at Durham University, we recently launched the Hazan Venture Lab, a support lab for budding entrepreneurs looking to make a difference in the world. 


What do you think is the biggest stumbling block for entrepreneurs in growing their business?

I think the common barriers that startups face when it comes to growing their businesses relate to access to finance and talent. 

In terms of finance, many startups will need more money than they anticipate to fund their future growth. The time and effort involved in raising finance can also slow the growth of startups. 

Talent is another major barrier, and startups need to have access to people with the right skills at the right time and the right price. 

Perhaps more fundamentally, we need to consider the future vision entrepreneurs have for their new ventures. What level of growth do they aspire to achieve, do they know how they will get there and do they know what the most important actions are to take right now to advance on their journey?

What are some of the skills that are often lacking in new entrepreneurs?

Startup founders are extremely diverse, as are their ventures, so this is a difficult question to answer. But if we look at common skills entrepreneurs need to achieve success, this would certainly include an ability to deal with ambiguity. 

Starting a new venture exposes founders to a lot of uncertainty and often requires them to adapt their plans based on what they learn from testing their ideas. Founders must also develop skills that enable them to function effectively with a diverse workload. As well as developing products and services, they’ll need to make decisions regarding marketing, finance, business operations, people and much more. 

This diverse workload also means that startup founders can very rarely do everything alone, so they will need to develop their abilities to work with others. Even solo founders will realise that they need the help of people outside of their business to help them turn their vision into reality. 

Working with others effectively requires you to understand your strengths and weaknesses. Focusing on your strengths and minimising your weaknesses by working with those with complementary skills is extremely beneficial. 

What are your tips for adults who want to be entrepreneurs later in their careers? What can they do to improve their chances of success?

“Following your passion” comes up regularly when people are considering starting a new venture. However, this can simultaneously be the best and worst possible advice. 

Doing something we love as a career is an ultimate goal for many of us, and building a new business around your passions can feel like a logical way to achieve this. Being passionate will also help you get through some of the difficult times you are likely to face when starting a new venture. 

Despite this, I would also warn against blindly following your passions and assuming that you will succeed because you are passionate about your area of work. You have to think smart and consider how you will compete in your chosen sector. If you are making a big shift in the area of your work, this is even more imperative. 

For example, let’s say you’re interested in starting out as a yoga instructor. You may have practised yoga for many years and have completed a training qualification, but how will you be able to compete with a yoga instructor with many years of experience and an existing customer base. It can be done, but I’d advise thinking this through before quitting your current role. 

People approaching entrepreneurship later in their careers are more likely to have developed specialist skills, greater experience and a wider network. These are things people can usually leverage to create a competitive advantage when starting out in business. 

Sometimes the best opportunities emerge where people consider how they can apply their skills, experience and network to create something new in an area they are passionate about.


What are your thoughts on the importance of upskilling for aspiring or current entrepreneurs? When is it better to pursue a master’s in a related field vs enrolling in a short programme?

When starting a business for the first time, you are highly likely to face a steep learning curve. Taking a master’s in entrepreneurship or a similar field might enable you to prepare for the journey ahead. It can be beneficial to combine your studies with testing a new idea as you can apply what you are learning on your course to your startup. 

However, before committing, give some thought about what you want to get out of the programme, and consider if the course will meet your needs. Courses “about” entrepreneurship rather than “for” entrepreneurship may not provide the practical knowledge to apply to your new business directly. 

A short programme might be more beneficial for those launching a business full-time. Running a startup is often very time consuming, and a short programme might provide a quick way of gaining vital skills and knowledge that will help you achieve your startup objectives.