In the Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde said the following: Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.
There is another saying about experiences, that I love: "By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest."
I dedicate this story to my exciting & bitter career experiences.
If I had to name the year 2023, I'd call it a Rollercoaster. It went down as one of the most memorable years of my lifetime. During which I led, was part of, or wrote many stories. Some were exquisite, some were life-changing, and some were just soothing, hitting that sweet spot.
During last year, I covered a wide range of topics: Neuroscience, Testosterone, Walter Russel, Aristotle, clinical experiments, wellness, and shared stories of my personal experiences. I haven’t written a single piece covering my main profession yet. Today, I am changing that. As you may all know, I have two professions. My primary one is entrepreneurship. I founded my first company when I was 21, thanks to my former investor, who was also my employer at that time. At every turn, I tried to justify his belief in me,
with success and dividend payouts.
My career is quite peculiar, I meticulously and valorously tried to become someone I would be proud of. I took many risks, I would not bother with the semantics or details, I just shovelled everything on my road to clear space for bigger things to come. Some risks paid off & some did not. I don’t regret anything, however, with the same knowledge I have today, I probably would not have chosen similar tactics. The overall strategy would have been in the same vicinity. As they say: everything and everyone is either a lesson or an experience.
It was my last exam day at CASS Business School, City University. My exam was at 11:00 am and my flight back home to Baku was at 6:30. I had 5 suitcases packed and ready for the move back home. I wanted to work, I wanted to make money on my own terms and live on my own terms as well. The juvenile, Rashad, wanted to be free. A few years later, I was the self-appointed CEO of ATL, a group of companies which I named after the marketing term “Above the line”. Just to be clear on the timeline and chronology of events.
My former investor invested in ATL Consulting & ATL Electronics, while I worked for his organization as a sales executive. Later on, thanks to the same investor, I managed to take out business loans to create other new entities & business ventures. Hence, the domino effect of ATL Group’s creation was initiated.
Every day, I walked to ATL headquarters and rode the glass elevator up while watching every floor filled with team members and work in progress. Every morning I woke up with the same thoughts: “This is it, this is the day everything is going away, this makes no sense! I am knowledgeable enough to steer this ship. I am way over my head, it is going down today”
As I shake those insecure thoughts off, I put on my suit. Not because that was the dress code, I just wanted to look older. I was just 25, managing several companies of my own creation. Believe it or not, at that point the ATL team had a headcount of 250+ people: Six board members, 12 accountants, dozens of executives, a fleet of cars and so on. I was actually way over my head. However, every morning walking into the office building and going up in a see-through elevator, I was watching every floor of our office full of people actively working, debating, crunching numbers & having meetings.
I was the youngest and the least experienced CEO that I knew, of a company that size. Oh boy, I made so many mistakes. I smile at them today, however back then I took myself so seriously.
In order to give you a full picture, I’m going to outline what we accomplished back then & what kind of companies we had in our portfolio. The largest entity that we had was ATL Electronics. A nationwide distributor of consumer electronics brands like “Sharp”, “Midea”, “Skyworth” & etc. We were also dealing with brands like “Samsung” & “LG” within our brand portfolio. ATL Electronics had a few retail stores downtown & outside the city, even in Ganja. Our retail chain had 5 locations. However, 90% of our revenue was driven from wholesale distribution. We accumulated 107 million in sales over the course of 7 years of operation.
Our entrance ticket to the tech industry was ATL Tech. Back then it was called ATL InfoTech. In a month, we will be celebrating its 11th year of operation. We positioned ourselves as a software development company and still do so. Today, the activities of this company have become my pride and joy.
Third in priority was ATL Consulting, the first established company of the group. It was a consultancy firm helping in-house companies of the group in Marketing & Project Management. It also served some big brand names like Gazelli, Sobsan Boyalar, Milla & No1 Bread Factory. Unfortunately, after 12 years of operating, our consulting firm was shut down during the pandemic.
I told a story about ATL SMS in one of my previous articles. Bulk SMS Distributor, soon to be the national leader in the market. What’s so interesting about this company is the fact that we started out with an investment of 20,000AZN & today it is a nationwide market leader in the industry. It has a 5500+ client base and is worth millions.
As if all of that was not enough, we had a few side hustles as well. Believe it or not, there was a point in my career when I traded pianos from a separate retail store. Why the hell did I say yes to that?
On a separate note, we even imported floor tiles from China. To accomplish that, we went on a trip to the east. That experience took me all the way to Guangzhou. That was one of my worst trips ever. Guangzhou in July was an awful idea, came back hungry and with a fever.
At one point, the idea of starting a burger joint hit me. Along with an agency named “Kokon”, we launched our first burger place called “Topkimi”. Soon enough, we ended up having 3 locations in downtown. Nonetheless, my greed and hunger were not getting the subsequent amount of gratification needed. I embarked on another idea, we invested in a concept called “Ajdaha Doner”, a local sandwich shop. Soon enough it had 10 branches across the city. Right at that time, “Topkimi” was struggling with management and growth and quite on the contrary, “Ajdaha” was thriving. I made a judgement call… We shut down Topkimi and converted its branches into the other fast food concept. A few months later, Ajdaha was booming and we had 12 locations. Several years later, during the pandemic, I quit the business. The pandemic sucked out the whole fun and joy of the industry. It burdened me with a lot of problems I did not like solving. Quitting this industry was a weight off my shoulders.
Another experience from 2015 deserves a separate section. I was looking for another problem to solve. Me, ATL Tech CTO Vurghun & an expert named Mammad Karim started a new venture called Sup.Az, which was the first startup accelerator in Azerbaijan. Almost 10 years ago, we initiated the first institution focusing on aiding startups. ATL Group provided the first floor of our office building to SUP and covered all of SUP’s financial needs. Whereas Mammad was in charge of managing it. Our purpose was to provide space, mentorship, guidance & consulting towards our residents in exchange for equity in their ventures. Along with highly successful mentors, we were teaching startups how to build a business, pitch their ideas and raise funds. Furthermore, each quarter of the year we organized demo events in the same location. During demo days, we were even aiding investors to understand trends, terminologies & manage expectations of potential investments.
Unfortunately, after 2 years of operating, hosting & financing SUP, I decided to pull out. Although we made a huge contribution to the nationwide industry from our humble office building, I could not foresee a return on my investment.
I understood that I was throwing money at a problem too large for me to solve. We were experiencing all the gaps in our educational system first-hand. Moreover, those founders who were already employed and had primary sources of income elsewhere were treating their startups as a “hobby”. Lastly, the investor pool was expecting startups to perform in the same “cash-positive” manner as their other brick-and-mortar businesses.
SUP was too soon to the market & ATL’s 400k AZN wasn’t big enough to move that ship. Soon enough, with Mammad’s help, “Innoland” incubation center was established and a government agency took over the steering wheel.
Throughout this chronology of events, I tried to cover my activity as an entrepreneur in 2015. I took you back to the time when I was an inexperienced 25 year old. Personally for a guy who was born in Ganja - I was having a ride of a lifetime.
Keeping in mind that in my first job, I was managing a team of 120 people, numbers or volumes did not overwhelm me at all. It was thrilling… I was excited to outperform everyone. I enjoyed breaking stereotypes on the go.
Trust me on this, every white collar with a double-breasted suit and a pocket square would kill for that experience. Nevertheless, for me, it was not enough. Although this article may sound like “Look at how cool I am”, it is actually about my fuck-ups. I failed, and I failed big. When I swung, I swung hard and that was the time when my own momentum made my own head spin.
You may think that I managed it all by myself, but that is nowhere near the truth. In 2013 I had a board of directors because managing ATL was not a cakewalk. It was a dynamic and diverse organization, renting a 6 floor building on Ahmad Rajabli Street. Let me tell you a bit about the management team.
A new CMO took over as a board member, his name was Soltan Bayramov, he took over the position from predecessor Teymur Hajiyev who quit his job as Head Of Marketing to become a filmmaker. As I am handwriting this article, Soltan is working as Deputy Executive Director at the Innovations Center and Teymur is shooting a movie in Ukraine.
Another board member was Teymur Taghiyev, who was Chief of Project Management and is now in charge of NEQSOL holding’s head office.
In charge of finances was Milind Jatkar, a humble and friendly CFO. During those times ATL employed half a dozen accountants and Milind was their commanding officer. Funny thing about Milind, he was always wearing a suit with a tie. However, on Fridays, he did not put on a tie, just the suit. In his second month, when I observed that fashion pattern, I confronted him about it. “Milind, why no tie on fridays?” “Well, Rashad, because it’s friday! I am used to dressing more casually on fridays”
As if this roster was not enough, we had 3 more expats on our board. Lubomir Iliev from Bulgaria, who helped us build ATL Tech. Milas Hrbaty from Croatia and Roman Nikitin from Russia. They all were Chiefs of Operations in either tech or retail businesses. Unfortunately, I have lost touch with Roman & Milos.
However, Milind always stops by for tea. He is probably the most adorable CFO I have ever met. Lubomir is back in Europe now, though we do comment back and forth on each other’s posts on LinkedIn.
Believe it or not, I managed to headhunt these guys, though some positions were filled with the help of my friend Ilham Hajiyev, who is still the best executive headhunter in the country. Hiring was only half of the job. Correspondingly, I had to manage that sheer amount of talent and experience. Luckily, I have taught myself not to be discomforted by smarter people in the room. If at any point, I feel like I can do my team member’s job better than him, that means I do not need him anymore. I always keep my hiring bar high, I would rather overpay for the talent than settle for mediocrity.
Above, I have tried to outline the point of a career I was in. I described the company and the management. After this moment, I would like to focus on individual and corporate mistakes.
During the span of my lifetime, I was never uncomfortable with being surrounded by people whom I considered smarter than me. On the contrary, I always tried to surround myself by them. The philosophy and understanding of the statement: “You are the average of the 5 people you spend time with” transcended to my hiring strategy as well. I wanted to hire the best, all the time.
Now that I have managed to flex with my accomplishments in my mid 20s, we can focus on my failures. Here is what I failed at.
1. Clarity of Purpose: Neglecting a clear vision and mission can blur your company's roadmap.
Individually speaking, for each company we had in our portfolio, we had an understanding of where we wanted to take it. However, we did not have a system of prioritization and essentialism. We were being “trigger happy” with most opportunities which were coming to our horizon. This approach resulted in segregation, de-focus & incapability of prioritizing as a group. Although, we had a structure. It was wrong. We were doing too many things, all at once & at a high pace.
2. Navigating Uncertainty: Absence of crisis management or a business continuity plan invites unnecessary chaos.
We made a big mistake by not giving enough importance to planning for business continuity. According to Datto, just one hour of downtime can set back small businesses by $10,000, and for larger ones, it can skyrocket to over $5 million. FEMA also states that 90% of small companies might have to shut down if they can't get back on track within five days after a disaster. Not having a solid plan in place left us vulnerable to unexpected disruptions, stressing the need for businesses to focus on thorough crisis management and business continuity planning for a more secure future.
And when we look at the impact of crisis management, the numbers tell a clear story. Without it, only 45% of businesses manage to keep things running smoothly. But with a good crisis management plan? That number jumps up to a solid 85%, showing just how crucial it is for businesses to be ready for whatever comes their way.
To give you a better idea, ATL Electronics’ business model was heavily disrupted by the devaluation of the currency. Ajdaha chain almost went bankrupt during the pandemic. We were not ready for such drastic changes in the macroeconomy. We live in a different time now, very unsafe & devoid of peace. Wars are breaking out everywhere. Supply chains & consumer behaviors are shifting on a yearly basis. I learned it the hard way.
3. Team Building: Selecting members without considering culture fit or team compatibility can disrupt harmony.
One of the biggest mistakes that I made early on in my corporate career as a business owner was overlooking the crucial significance of right hiring, fostering a positive corporate culture, and ensuring the compatibility of the team. In the beginning, my focus was mostly on finding employees who had the skills I required. However, I didn't pay much hard attention to their fit within the existing team or their potential contribution to the corporate culture. According to a study published by the Cultural Intelligence Center, up to 68% of employees believe that it’s more important to have a cultural fit with a potential job than to secure a high salary. As I progressed, I quickly realized the impact that a poor corporate culture or a team that doesn't gel well can have on the overall performance of a business. Job compatibility is critical for improving productivity. A report by McKinsey states that companies with a strong culture of collaboration are 5 times as likely to be high performers. After recognizing this mistake, I made a conscious effort to ensure that every subsequent hire was not just skilled, but also a good fit for the team and the culture.
4. Effective Management of Resources: Poor resource management undermines sustainability and growth.
Ever heard of the phrase, "it's not about the resources, but your resourcefulness?" As a business owner, I learned this the hard way. The fourth mistake in my corporate journey circles around my initial poor management of resources. While setting up my business, I had a grand vision in mind, but my resource allocation was all over the place. Over time, I realized that I had splurged on resources that were not proving to be productive and resulted in substantial financial losses. In the face of these financial drains, I encountered the "do more with less" conundrum. I learned that being excessive didn’t necessarily translate to effectiveness. A study by CEB Global indicates that the most efficient organizations can reduce their operational costs by up to 25%. Correcting this misstep involved sharpening my resource management skills, a critical aspect of the business. Later in my career, along with my trusted team members I began intensive forecasting, monitored actuals against planned budgets, and made necessary adjustments to ensure we got the highest value from our resources.
5. Sell it Right: Ineffectively marketing and promoting your product can limit reach.
As I look back at my early business and corporate journey, I can't help but recognize this mistake. I was blissfully ignorant, thinking I could simply build it and they would come – a delusional approach, indeed. Only 22% of businesses are pleased with their conversion rates, according to Econsultancy, while Small Biz Trends reports that 47% of small business owners handle marketing efforts on their own. I belonged to this second category, choosing to navigate through the rough terrains of marketing without the right experience or a comprehensive plan. Consequently, I saw more failures than successes in my early days. My lack of foresight significantly slowed our growth and potential. I just wish I knew better, but at the end of the day, I learned invaluable lessons from my marketing blunders.
6. Learning when to Let Go: Overly generous second chances can lead to complacency.
Without a doubt, I made sure to fire someone for fraud, deceit & overpromising whilst underdelivering. However, second chances and the misplaced belief in change were the culprits of my generosity. Statistics speak up - an estimated 20-30% of business costs are eaten up by underperformers. A hefty price was paid, bleeding both time and money.
7. Mastery over Jack-of-all Trades: Broad rather than specialized focus can dilute expertise.
As an entrepreneur the main lessons learned were that being specialized is key! Growing vertically is more important than spreading into many things horizontally. I have learned this lesson the hard way.
I shouldn’t have looked into new business as long as my existing business models proved for growing vertically and cash-positive constantly. Even studies show this. It's supported by the report on Corporate Strategy by McKinsey & Company which stated that companies with highly specialized positions are 35% more likely to above-average profitability. Taking cash out of operations of one and investing in another is a risky business. Although I have grown ATL that way, ideally it should have been extracted from dividends, not operational income/
I was negligent of the fact that I have to make sure every penny spent is justified and reflected either in market share, or EBITDA.
8. Tackling Unwanted Challenges: Creating problems you detest solving fosters discontent.
I always romanticized the idea of owning a fast-food chain, however, I did not foresee the following. I hated having problems with meat or cheese. “Rashad we can not find a good kind of cheddar cheese”. Why would I want to be bothered with the search for cheese? Due to some business decisions I made, I have created problems or issues, which I did not like to solve. The fast food business was affected by every daily minor change. Weather, traffic, holidays, pandemic or an event around town. It was keeping me under too much stress and pressure. According to a study, taking on unwanted challenges increases 29.6% of job dissatisfaction, and then further drops your productivity by 24.3%. Imagine waking up every day and looking outside at the weather thinking "Damn it is raining, we will have low sales today" or "Will delivery guys revolt and refuse to work today?"
For such businesses, an investor has to be very hands-on. My involvement was limited & to run a restaurant business in an emerging market, one has to live it. Managing from the sidelines does not work. An entrepreneur has to make sure that his desired lifestyle & lifecycle of the businesses he is running, have alignment.
9. Honoring Values: Compromising integrity is a struggle, not a stumble.
“Low-class men desire wealth; middle-class men both wealth and respect; but the noble, honor only; hence honor is the noble man's true wealth.”
I was young, and sometimes the professionalism & background of the people that I hired shone a bright light in my eyes. Consecutively, I was blinded by the “flash” & ignorant about the man/woman behind the shining armor. Like in war trenches, you should always be able to trust the “brother in arms”. A general should be always aware of the following - are you leading an army of believers or an army of mercenaries?
Believers can not be bought, they can only release themselves from duty with honor. However, mercenaries are always looking for “that next one”. Hire believers of skill, knowledge, wisdom honor, integrity & virtue.