Work for What You Can Learn, not Earn

I often get people asking me “How do I start my own business, I don’t have any capital or skills”. Without money or skills it is very hard to get started, you are going to have to start some business that involves recycling waste, hustling around to get enough materials to make it a sustainable business. It’s not impossible just very hard. But when you have a skill you have something that is worth something. It can be traded for money, for other services, even for equity in a business depending how good you are. But how do you get skills when you left school and did not study further and have no money to study further?

Rich Dad Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki says “When you are young work to learn, not earn”. This can apply to someone of any age but why does Kiyosaki say “When you are young…”? That is because when you are young it is the best time, you usually don’t have a family to feed, or a bond to pay and most times when you are young you are still living with your parents who are the breadwinners of the house. And this is why, starting a business with nothing (no money or skills), starts with common sense. The skills can be learnt, business savvy can be picked up but if you have a lot of children to support it is very, very challenging. As all the profits that you need to grow your business will go “into the pot”.

Not having a family to support also means you can go long periods without making a lot of profit and instead focusing on growing your business, without the need to take on debt or give up equity. Such a finance runway is imperative to growing a small business into a large business.

It’s a bit different if you already had a job and family and then lost the job or got retrenched, the fact that you had a job before means you have some experience and contacts you can use to further yourself.

This is the philosophy that I used to get myself out of poverty. After leaving school, I wanted to start a t-shirt label like Marc Ecko. I did my research at the local library where I found out that the most popular way to print t-shirts is screen-printing. Which I decided to learn, I took out some books to get to grips with the theory aspect, but it was hard without the practical side and I had no money for equipment. So I asked a screen-printing shop if I could help them out for no money in order to gain some experience. And so I learnt about the processes, equipment, strategy etc. Sometimes they gave me R50 for the week probably because they felt bad that I was working for free. But I gained something way more important: knowledge, skills and experience. I never did start that fashion label (not yet at least), but I used the knowledge I learnt to further myself.

After interning there (or whatever you want to call it), I met another guy that owned a local screen-print shop, I already knew all the terminology, as well as having good computer skills to make positives. He offered to share his shop space with me for free in exchange for me making artwork and positives for him. Here I got free office space in a good area (I wasn’t living in a nice area at the time where clients could come see me) and I was learning more.

After a year, I left to be on my own, equipped with the knowledge to run my own print company. But more importantly I had gotten a LOT of knowledge to start my label whenever I wanted to as the last guy I was with specialised in textile printing. I could pick his brain whenever I wanted, I learnt of different inks, mesh count (and when to use what), I learnt how to cure the printed shirts and how to correct mistakes. Again, when I was sharing the space, I went from making no money and learning something to making some money and learning more.

Here is how to work for free
You might think that offering to work for free will get you a lot of takers, this is not the case. People must trust you before they hire you – even for free.

Do your research
Before wanting to enter a business you need some theoretical knowledge. People are not going to hire you even for free, if they must hold your hand every step of the way because then it is just more work for them. And the reason they asked you to help out was for an extra set of hands to help out.

Don’t be entitled
When you are working for free don’t act like you are doing anybody a favour. Be thankful for the opportunity even if the only thing you are getting from the company is coffee. Work like you are being paid. Not only are you getting skills (which would have cost money if you had to take a course) but you are getting real world experience which is very valuable and you are getting a future reference.

Don’t beg
When you approach a company, don’t look like you are begging, appear more student like, like you are learning towards something and would like to gain experience. Don’t come begging at the door like you are looking for a job. Companies get that all the time. I became known to the people I eventually worked with as I used to go to them for quotes, when I wanted to print t-shirts or bumper stickers and I used to ask a lot of questions. This already told them this is something I’m interested in. While at the place you can then look around; if they appear busy ask if they need a helping hand.

Leverage your contacts
This is like word of mouth, it is so very important, speak to friends if they know someone, they then act as a reference saying but are a decent guy etc.

Don’t be a moron
I have seen this too many times, people get a good opportunity to make something of their lives then they mess it up. Whether because of theft or drugs, I saw this first hand when the second place I worked at the guy gave someone asking at the door an opportunity, only for it to be a total waste of time. There are many people out there willing to give you a chance, don’t throw it away as it may only come around once.

Don’t allow yourself to be influenced.
In modern South Africa not everybody is going to agree with what I say because they want things easy or think they are entitled to an easy life. Nothing comes easy. People with agendas will tell you that you can earn five figures a month without skills or hard work and that you are being exploited by working for free, in order to manipulate you. The doctors and lawyers that earn lots of money had to study long and then on top of that they too had to do work to learn more before they could earn.

Nobody – not even South Africa’s most ardent communists who advocate for free everything – is going to lend you money if you cannot prove an ability to pay it back. If you have no skills your chance of getting startup capital is virtually zero. If you have a skill you have a chance whether through development capital or partnering with someone who has capital or existing equipment.

Starting a business requires hard work, dedication, applying your mind, but most importantly it requires patience, patience to learn before you earn and then more patience while your business takes off. This is sometimes difficult when you see people in nice cars and their pretty girlfriends passing you on your bicycle, while your only companion is loneliness. But it is worth every sacrifice.