Goal Setting

Upside Software’s Ashif Mawji understands the value of setting goals

Current Video: Goal-setting (05:29)
Ashif Mawji
Owner, Upside Software

Video editing: Natasha Mekhail and Tracy Hyatt
Technical direction: Gunnar Blodgett

The Upside of Up: How to Set Goals and Stay on Top

Upside Software’s Ashif Mawji understands the value of setting goals. This creative leader has been an entrepreneur since the age of 12, when he sold watches at trade shows. He has more than 15 years experience in the IT industry, is the President and CEO of one of the world’s most successful enterprise contract management software companies, and his kudos include the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, presented to Canadians that have contributed significantly to Canada. In 2004 he was named one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40.

My first real stunt at being an entrepreneur was selling watches at a trade show. I used to do that on the weekends: I’d get watches on consignment on the Friday, sell them on the weekend and return whatever I didn’t have on Monday and take the profit.

I was born and raised in Kenya. One of the luxuries we had was every year, twice a year, we would go to London. Computers were a big thing in Kenya; you couldn’t get them. I was able to buy Commodore 64s and Apple computers in London, bring them back and sell them for twice as much. And I like computers, too, so mine became free because of that. When we moved to Canada, I finished my high school here and I knew that NAIT was the right program because, ultimately, for me practicality was important, and NAIT offers that. So I was able to get my diploma in two years and learn a lot about programming and really prepare myself for the world.

Being an entrepreneur means you need to be self-sufficient; you need to know that you’re going to be responsible for everything. So you know when you start having a payroll, it’s not just yourself you’re looking after – you’re looking after other people who depend on you. At a very early age I was taught that trying to make a business plan and become profitable was something that was paramount. That fundamental business lesson that I’ve learned has helped me throughout my tenure as an entrepreneur.

One of the things, the challenges I had, was managing contracts. So I went on to the internet to look for software to help us manage contracts – to buy – and didn’t find anything. And I realized very quickly that there was a market. So I got a group of professionals – lawyers, sales people, finance – from different industries and I said, “Look, I’m not going to be able to give you any money, I need half a day of your time, but I do have a suite at a hockey game, so you give me half a day of your time, I’ll take you to the hockey game and buy you dinner.” And that’s how I validated that what I thought was a good idea was actually going to be a great thing.

One of the mistakes that I think entrepreneurs make is they’re very positive and optimistic. OK, that’s a good thing, but that’s also a bad thing because being an entrepreneur also means that you have to be diligent. Although I was very confident it was a great idea, I did go out and do the market research to see, first of all, which other competitors are there? What are the price points? Are they making money? Is anyone profitable in this business? If we build it will they buy it? Because, especially in technology, it’s very interesting to go out and build the coolest little thing… but you know if it’s not an iPod, they’re not going to buy it.

One of my goals early on was to make sure that I was profitable in every year. I failed on that in the first year – we had a loss – and that really shook me up because I’d never run a business that wasn’t profitable in the first year. It made me think that maybe this isn’t the right thing. I had my doubts, and then, you know, I guess better sense kicked in and a lot of people talked to me and said, “Look you can’t be profitable for three to four years.” The next year we were profitable and we’ve been profitable ever since. Our goal has been double-digit growth every year and we’ve obtained that. In some years we actually had triple-digit growth, and also we have had a goal of making sure that not only are we profitable each year, but each year our profits go up.

Setting goals is important. Setting goals is something that I like to do monthly and very frequently, and also adjust them as I see the market changing, as I see our business changing, as I see our people changing. I’m not afraid of changing goals, I’m not afraid of even lowering goals; I don’t see that as a mistake or a shame or anything like that. I just see that as adapting to reality. Just like market conditions: market conditions change, so should your goals.

As an entrepreneur there is a common misconception amongst others that people go into a business to make money, that the Google co-founders did that because they knew that they were going to make several billion. It wasn’t that. They were passionate about search engines, they loved it, they loved putting in the extra hours, they loved just dedicating their life to it, and same with me. It is something that I am passionate about. Money happens to be a side benefit and I think that’s the way you need to look at it.

Just like in the NHL, when there is an ideal time for retirement, in entrepreneurship or business there is a time. It doesn’t mean that you stop being an entrepreneur; it just means the current project or activity you have needs to go into other hands. So when you set your goals you should also know yourself: What are your limits? There’s a certain threshold of business where at that point you say you know this is beyond my capabilities and somebody else can take it over. You need to know that, because it’s only you who will be able to say, “I am ready for the next stage” or “I am not ready for the next stage.”

Dan Rubinstein is unlimited’s editor. He sat down with Ashif Mawji in May 2008 in Edmonton.

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