Start Where You Are But Don’t Stay There

Entrepreneurs are as diverse as the types of business they start and the underlying factors that leads them to be an entrepreneur. There are many paths to entrepreneurship and each person’s path can be mapped differently.

If you have seen the illustration about the entrepreneur’s journey, then you know it is not a straight line. In fact, it has so many twists and turns you probably need a GPS to figure out where you began and where you should be heading.

Only in hindsight can I see that my journey to run my own business did not begin in 2008 when I launched GeoTechVision but much earlier before the age of 10 and the product which needed to find customers at that time was mangoes.

In Jamaica, as most Caribbean islands during mango season, mangoes are everywhere especially in the countryside. There was a woman, Ms. Gloria who would come through the village and purchase mangoes, which she would take to town and sell at the market. I quickly became a reliable supplier. Once it was mango season, you could find me on mornings and evenings before and after school gathering and cleaning them in preparation for when Ms. Gloria would stop by our house to buy mangoes.

As I studied agriculture in high school, I understood a bit more than the basics of farming. Of course, it helped that my parents also had a farm. Peppers was my vegetable of choice as there was always a demand. I grew scotch bonnet peppers which is the most popular in Jamaica. I had to deal with the theft but thankfully they left me enough that I could also sell. Being entrepreneurial and Jamaican seem to go hand in hand. I don’t know any other way to be and it wasn’t just something I saw in my family. Most Jamaicans have a way of making a dollar out of fifty cents.

My older brother had his own side hustle while he was studying Electrical Engineering. He sold neckties. My mother Monica Grant, now deceased, was the family matriarch and consummate homemaker, who ran a small dressmaking business and so we all knew how to sew. My job in my brother’s venture was to help pick fabric and assist with marketing and sale of the ties.

My Dad was an electrician and farmer, so we saw our parents engage in hard work but working for themselves. We saw what it took to run a small business. This, I believe contributed to my love for entrepreneurship but also my desire to not confine my business to a small part of Jamaica but to maximize it by going global. My journey has convinced me that entrepreneurship is not simply about starting a business, but rather a mindset or way of thinking and a set of distinct behaviors. During my later years in high school, one of my chores was to assist with the shopping for groceries on a Saturday. I quickly learned how to bargain, a skill that has served me well over the years as negotiation is critical in almost every business endeavor. As an entrepreneur, there are many opportunities to negotiate for what is in your company’s best interest. In my work with women entrepreneurs I have found that they are often disadvantaged in negotiations, because of gender biases and stereotypes (something I will discuss in a future post) but understanding the art of negotiation can help you overcome several barriers in getting what you want in a deal.

The skills I learned selling mangoes and neckties in small village in Dias and bargaining in the market in Lucea, helped me when I went off to university and joined the debating and sports teams. I was a master at fundraising and enjoyed coming up with ways to make sure we achieved the goal, whether it was to purchase equipment, undertake a particular project or participate in an international event. At my first job after university, the boss always gave everyone a gift at the end of the year, that first year I offered to supply all the cakes to be included in staff gifts and so I put my baking skills to good use. The point is, look for where there is a need and satisfy that need. Ask yourself, “where are the opportunities?” While I worked as a GIS Manager in the Ministry of Land and Environment my brother (the Electrical Engineer) and I started a business selling Electrical Supplies. After about a year, that business failed. Looking back, I understand the main reason it failed, and it included:

Failure in business is a fact of life, that as an entrepreneur you must embrace. To borrow from Mike Ditka, “Success isn’t permanent, and failure isn’t fatal”. To fail is ok, it is how you handle the failure. There must be a conscious effort to minimize the cost of failure and a plan to recover quickly. I appreciate my upbringing now more than ever, recognizing the value of path dependency which confirms that ‘history matters’. Path dependence explains how the decisions we face for a particular circumstance is limited by the decisions we have made in the past or by the events we have experienced, even if the past circumstances are no longer relevant.

Growing up in Jamaica has shaped the woman I am today. Location truly affects who we are. Jamaica thought me how to punch above my weight class. As we, often say in Jamaica, "Wi likkle but wi tallawah". It is that understanding, and the refusal to be restrained by the boundaries of a small island that has allowed me to have a global perspective. My early preparation allowed me to step outside of Jamaica and take on projects across the region. At GeoTechVision we are always challenging the status quo, our aim is to be the best. We recognized that we must be providing value and hence innovating is critical. Other elements of our way of thinking includes being opportunity focused, taking risks and being growth oriented. We have always had a regional focus and within the first year of founding GeoTechVision we had clients in two Caribbean Countries and by 2010 we had clients in at least four Caribbean Islands. In 2012, we opened our second office in Guyana and that location became the jump point for the Eastern Caribbean.

If you should ask me today would you rather be selling mangoes, peppers, or neckties, the answer would be no. Not that there is no longer a demand for these items as there is both locally and internationally. Especially as it relates to agriculture, we need to produce more of our food rather than relying on imports. We also need to be exporting more and therefore it is my strong believe that infusing Agriculture with Technology is an area that can gain traction in the Caribbean.

The reason however, I wouldn’t revert to selling mangoes as I did as a 10-year-old child, is that it was a commodity I had at my disposal and there was a need for it, so it was a no brainer. It was useful for then and taught me valuable lessons and I loved the challenge of seeing how much I could save after each mango season by doing very simple tasks consistently (picking mangoes from trees in my backyard morning and evening, cleaning and storing them for Ms. Gloria to collect and then getting paid). This taught me about the compound effect - how simple tasks done consistently can reap financial rewards. Now, different things provide me that challenge and in addition I now have purpose. I also understand that any business I start must be based on a real need in the market. Do not start out with a solution looking for a problem but make sure what you are offering is unique and satisfying a need.

I have been very fortunate that I found my calling in geospatial sciences even if somehow accidentally, as this did not happen without the direction of professors and others who saw something in me that I had not yet discovered. I was all set to pursue a career in hydrogeology. My business would not have worked were it not for the fact that some of the Caribbean’s most enduring problems rely on the use of location-based solutions, a shortage of skilled professionals in the Caribbean geospatial industry and the rapid change in technology. The demand for location-based services and solutions coupled with the ability to determine the unique value we would provide created a market for us to fill.

Since GeoTechVision began, we have had to shift and pivot several times. I will share more of this as we go. However, it is important that as an entrepreneur you recognize the opportunity and be nimble about taking action.

Not everything we love should be a career. There is a difference between your side ‘hustle’ and running a business. Some things should remain our hobby. I don’t believe that you can turn every passion into a career. The driving force in creating a business is that it must meet the needs of others and create real value.
In my opinion any entrepreneurial endeavor should satisfy at least three characteristics, namely:

Understanding this is important as it will influence the decisions and choices you make as well as the goals you set. Imagine If over the last 11 years GeoTechVision did not set goals, nor make strategic plans or respond to shifts in the business environment but did things exactly the same as we did in our first 90 days of operation. I can guarantee that we would not have experienced any growth nor would we have survived.

It is impossible to discuss entrepreneurial ventures without mentioning risks as risks are an inherent part of the process. It should be understood that with more market information the impact of risk changes over time. The point is pay attention to your local news and world events. Needs shift and your ability to adapt and capitalize on rapidly changing situations will determine if you are a winner in the global marketplace. Be consistently looking and evaluating how to compete differently. Annually, quarterly, monthly, weekly or even daily look at what is going on and can be impactful and give you the competitive advantage. My advice to budding entrepreneurs is to start where you are but increase your chance of success through preparation.

About Valrie

Valrie Grant is an internationally respected geospatial scientist with a passion for science and entrepreneurship. Since 2008, she has built GeoTechVision into a major player in the growing Caribbean Geomatics and Geospatial services industry, earning along the way a litany of special recognitions and awards. She sits on the board of the World Geospatial Industry Council (WGIC), serves as Co-Chair of the United Nations Global Geospatial Information Management (UN-GGIM): Americas Private Sector Network, a Technical Advisor of the UN-GGIM Americas, Caribbean Project. She serves on several other national, regional and international Boards and Committees. This award-winning entrepreneur believes in simply living a great story and endeavours to live her best life every day.
Twitter: @Valrie_Grant at Valrie_Grant