Boyan S. Benev is the CEO and co-founder of Gain, an AI-driven marketplace that is helping to fight income inequality, by providing economic opportunities to communities around the world. A regular judge at the Chivas Venture local competition in Bulgaria, he is passionate about delivering long-term, sustainable change both in business and society. In this guest post for the Chivas Venture he recalls how the competition was a eureka moment for him and provides some timely advice on how to turn a big idea into a sustainable and profitable business.
Our bright-eyed early years frequently start out with an insistent determination to change the world. For me, it was an early fixation with division. Born in Bulgaria in the final years before the fall of Socialism, moving to England at the very start of the transition, the topic of ‘us’ and ‘them’ was ever-present. It left a lasting desire to solve distance: distance, which gives rise to division, conflict and violence. Lofty ambitions for a ten year old.
As time goes on, unable to find a path to realise them and overcome by ever-more day-to-day commitments, the daunting scale of our young dreams often push them further and further back to the realms of just that; dreams. It took me twenty years and three years as a jury member of the Chivas Venture to realise that the path was staring me in the face ever since I started my first business peddling antiques [read: thrift shop trinkets] at the ripe old age of twelve.
Scale is daunting. Looking at, let’s say, a house, we’re seeing the cumulative result of years of planning and building by a large team of professionals. Not to mention the years of experience that led to those people becoming experienced planners, architects and builders … or, the collective experience that was passed down to those professionals through their education and training. Yet a house is still a pretty tangible object. Building one, while tough, is still in the realms of comprehension. Changing society or saving the environment however, throws up several degrees of extra complexity.
Yet somehow people do it… and have done it throughout all of human history. Leaders, inventors explorers, thinkers, scientists, you name it – our future has been shaped by things which were at one point ideas, turned into reality by their creators or those they’ve inspired. So clearly there’s a way to make lofty ideas a reality, otherwise we’d all still be pretty cold in cave somewhere.
During the 2016 finals for the Chivas Venture in New York, my eureka moment was that business provides a framework for all of us to realise even the most abstract dream because it forces us to focus:
A business isn’t a business unless it’s sustainable – otherwise, at best, it’s a project. Sustainability is, in other words, repetition: the ability to do something which generates value (for example, selling, building, illustrating) over and over again. This repetition leads to a model or business plan: what are you making? How are you making it? How do you find customers and how do you convince them to pay more for it than what it cost you to make?
Repetition shouldn’t be confused with scale. In the world of technology, we’re obsessed with the idea of scaling – the ability to sell something a million times with the same resource it took to sell ten times. Sustainability can simply mean selling ten times but being able to sell ten times each and every month.
The distinction is important because of one thing: time. Nothing stays fixed and just because you were able to create and sell a product today doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make or sell it tomorrow. Suppliers may delay supplies, buyers might collapse or, if you’re making something interesting, competition might arise.
All of these are natural and inescapable elements in building a business which we all come across over time. As our experience grows, so too does our toolbox for dealing with ever-more complex challenges.
In the media we often hear about stratospheric business successes which seem like they involved a heavy dose of luck. And luck does play a role but it almost always only creates an initial or temporary opportunity – you might bump into a potential investor in the lift or find a client sitting next to you on a flight, but it’s experience that allows us to convert those lucky opportunities into results. The more experience you gain over time, the luckier you become.
Experience is convertible. In the intervening years between my antiques business, I’ve also been a real-estate broker, marketing director and even award-winning television talk show host. This hotchpotch of weird and wonderful memories is surprisingly handy surprisingly often in my new guise as a tech entrepreneur. Experience in different spheres gives a wider view on a problem, offering up surprisingly creative solutions.
Our ability to collaborate can make amazing ideas become a reality. As the world becomes more complex and interconnected, opportunities for business require solutions built from ever-more disparate fields. I’m surprised at how many entrepreneurs overlook opportunities which require them to collaborate with people outside of their own field. Working with scientists, politicians and the media has delivered some of the greatest satisfaction in my work, because the result is a surprise. It forces us out of our comfort zone.
So don’t be afraid of profit, it’s necessary for your project’s survival. Don’t be daunted by time and the need to build your dream, one granular step at a time. And don’t be scared off by people you’ve never met before – the results of working with them will definitely be unexpected.
On their own, these words of wisdom can be applied to any business – and indeed, many people create successful lifestyle businesses which don’t need to change the world. They provide a great quality of life for their creators, their employees and all of the people they touch. Nevertheless, if you’re set on changing the world there’s a missing ingredient.
Having a vision for why you’re doing what you’re doing right now helps tie the granular, day-to-day hurdles and successes to the abstract, pie-in-the-sky ambitions we had all those years ago.
For me, the Chivas Venture pushed me down the path to understand my vision, leave my highly-paid post and establish a business, which can help achieve that twenty year old dream. I firmly believe that a lot of the world’s issues can be partially solved by addressing two forms of inequality: income and education, which includes inequalities between countries and within them. Inequality creates distance by tapping into a hardwired human ability to notice difference. That distance then fuels decisions which we wouldn’t make if we saw others as equals.
We’re realising this vision by creating technology which removes barriers: in our products, we use artificial intelligence to help people use online marketplaces as easily as they would send a photo to a friend. With our services we help companies large and small remove barriers between their products and their customers whether that’s media companies reaching readers or travel companies helping people plan a trip.
Having a vision allows us to plan ahead – to see what we’re doing now as a stepping stone to what we want to do tomorrow. It gives us the strength to overcome the challenges which lay in-between.
Vision captures that bright-eyed determination from our youth and translates it into action at every step in our journey.
Follow Boyan on Twitter here.
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