As part of my series about the “Five Things You Needs To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ayan Birimzhan, a graduate of Nazarbayev University School of Science and Humanities. He used the knowledge he learnt from training as a professional bodybuilder about health eating and nutrition to start a successful meal delivery and healthy lifestyle company called “HEALTH PROJECT.” The company first started as a simple meal delivery service; Ayan and his mother would cook healthy meals in their kitchen and sell them to relatives, friends, and classmate. Although Ayan no longer competes professionally due to focusing on his company, he still loves bodybuilding and taking care of his health. Ayan’s greatest motivation for success has been to provide for his family as much as he could.
Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My story begins during my student days. While studying at Nazarbayev University, in 2015, I decided to create a healthy food delivery service. The reason I decided to create this service is that at that time I was involved in bodybuilding and had also planned to open my own cafe or restaurant for quite a while. But since there was no initial investment, I decided to start with a delivery service of healthy food.
I was lucky in that I initially chose the profession of an economist, as the skills I learnt helped with starting a business. At Nazarbayev University, we studied different methods of building business processes. One of which is the idea of the “blue and red ocean”. Originally, I doubted the launch of the service since there were already alternatives on the market. But I realized that you need to be involved, be one of the first, and you need to capture the market while there are only a couple of competitors. This is what the blue ocean is: unexplored new market areas. In other sectors, in the restaurant business, shop sector, catering, etc., there are even more competitors. That is the red ocean, which is full of very high competition. Therefore, the idea of the blue and red ocean eventually helped me to make sure that my target market was the blue ocean. So, then I created the “HEALTH PROJECT” organization.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
There are a lot of stories during the startup of the business, including good moments and challenges. Whatever they are, I cannot say there were funny moments. But I did come to one important realization when I started doing business in 2015: “if there is a why, then you will always find a how”. This was the most important insight for me. Now I know that, despite the circumstances or challenges, we will definitely be able to achieve our goals if we know why we are doing it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
A lot of people have helped me in my life. We are a team: partners, friends, brothers, sisters and, of course, parents. At the beginning of the journey, parents played an important role in creating the “HEALTH PROJECT” organization. My mom agreed to cook food at our house, and my dad took the bus to work so I could use his car. Then I delivered food to my friends who knew that the food was cooked in my house because I couldn’t afford a chef. This was just the beginning.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I agree with the idea that it is desirable to have a mission in your project, because a mission can help you achieve great results. We also had a mission, but I realized that the mission can be constantly changing and this is normal because the company is growing. You initially hold one set of beliefs and then others. But even if the end goal changes, the direction remains the same.
Initially, I had a big dream to help as much as possible to improve the health of the population, starting with Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s capital. It was a drive for me and that’s why I started providing healthy food. Later, I noticed that it would be more effective not only to deliver healthy food but to open healthy food coffee shops where people can buy healthy food to-go. Now we have four successful healthy coffee corners and two canteens.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
“We support each other not because we are a team. We support each other and therefore we are a team” — from the show, Kuroko’s Basketball.
I am very lucky with my colleagues who I work with in the HEALTH PROJECT. We are very friendly; we respect everyone in team and help each other at all stages. The corporate structure is built so that everyone is trying to help each other. If, for some reason, someone is late for work, then another person steps in for him or her. If someone has financial difficulties, then we also help financially. Therefore, when the difficult stages begin, everyone knows that the company will support their employees and the employees will support the company.
I recommend reading the book “Plain Talk: Lessons from a Business Maverick” by Ken Iverson. This book gives a fantastic understanding of how to take care of employees. It is important to realize that if the company shows that it is loyal to the employee, then the employee will be loyal to the company. If the employee is not loyal to the company, then over time he will leave because he will not be comfortable around other employees who are loyal to the company.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I definitely thought about giving up everything at the initial stages because there were so many difficult stages in early entrepreneurship. But over time, I realized a very important thing to have is a “Titan” inside you. It can be called whatever you want: a shield, immunity, some kind of metal inside you. This is something that is constant and never changes: a shield from the entire outside world. Imagine it inside, in the region of your heart. When you receive any information, know that you are only accepting information and not emotions. When difficulties occur, I am aware that these are only circumstances. I think with a cool head, rationally, without too much emotion. This helps me a lot in continuing through challenges.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
First of all, I think it is critical to remain calm, rational, and take on all decisions with a cool head without any emotional decision-making. This is important as the well-being of all the families of the employees of the company depend on the leader’s decision-making. Also, you do not necessarily need to make quick decisions. For example, during the pandemic, we studied a lot of materials. We began to think about when the pandemic might end. We started to conduct analytics and read a lot of articles and courses. Then, we began to make decisions with minimal risks. There were a lot of them, but first of all, we thought about our clients and our employees. Most importantly, we made it so that our customers could receive our products in any way as our establishments were closed.
Secondly, we did not raise prices even when going through a difficult stage, as customers will remember this. Even if all suppliers have raised prices for products, you don’t have to do the same. Clients will remember you did this and may be offended. We also tried to pay the minimum salaries to employees for this entire period. Since our volumes have decreased, we tried to provide employees to other businesses. When the pandemic ends, employees will remember what the company did for them and stay with us forever.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I held a meeting which helped a lot, so I recommend everyone to hold a meeting and explain that all this will pass. There is a story about King Solomon, about his mother giving him a ring on which it was written: “everything will pass.” The next time he got angry, he tore the ring off his finger and wanted to throw it into a pond, but suddenly he saw that there was an inscription on the inside of the ring too. He looked closely and read: “this too shall pass…”
Always be aware that everything will pass, both happy and sad moments. I explained to my colleagues that all this is temporary and that it will one day pass. This is a test of endurance. We must show ourselves that we are a really close-knit strong team and that nothing will stop us in the future.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
First of all, it is important not to lie. This does not mean that you should always speak as it is, but it’s important not to lie. Secondly, speak as briefly and clearly as possible. If you are planning to fire someone or that because of the pandemic you are not working, you must immediately tell them this. If you start talking a lot around the issue, going through different thoughts, then the person may not understand you correctly and you can make it worse.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
“The war will show the plan” — Napoleon Bonaparte
It is very difficult to predict the future development of the situation. Even American investor and business tycoon, Warren Buffett, lost a lot of money due to the pandemic, alongside other entrepreneurs and investors.
But we have two strategies. The first, when we roughly understand what will happen, is to create plan ‘A’ for the next 3–6 months. We also make plan ‘B’ for what will happen in a year and a half. Take a pandemic for example. If the pandemic lasts 3–6 months, then we build plan ‘A’ for this scenario and work on it. We also made plan ‘B’ for a year and a half. Every day we analyze what is happening so we can understand which scenario we are following: plan A or plan B. Only with a better understanding of the scenario, can you choose the path along which it is worth acting.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
A principle that I believe can help guide a company through the ups and does is “In order to become a diamond, you need to be cut.”
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
A big problem of startups is that they do not analyze the market and believe only in their idea. The fact is that, if there is no consumer, no one will buy your product. First of all, you need to do market analytics and not create a product that no one will need.
Secondly, everyone thinks about the product, is engaged in product development, and devotes little time to finance. Finance is, if not the most important, then one of the most important in the field of entrepreneurship. If an entrepreneur does not control finances, then soon, even if his product is the best, he is likely to go bankrupt.
Thirdly, there should be constant work on mistakes. Every startup has its own pros and cons. Pros can be improved, but at the same time, do not forget about the cons and become too content with only the pros.
My fourth point refers to the third: it is still necessary to strengthen the strong. Spend less time on small projects and improve on what earns you the most. For example, you have a large holding that has several divisions. Identify the most profitable divisions and make them the main focus and do not engage with other units that do not earn or have little profitability. Focus on what earns you the most.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
“Consistency over intensity”
We say this to each of our employees. There is no need to be completely involved in all the departments from the start. It is necessary to create a system in which everything will be automated for us and knowing that we are striving to create a system, no matter whether we have a small or large company compared to competitors. Over time, we will become better than competitors because we are focusing on the system, trying to systematize and automate everything. Due to this, after a while, we will come to the point where we will outperform our competitors because our system will be better.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Firstly, don’t panic. Difficulties and problems will always happen, even if you are prepared. Assess the situation soberly and only then make decisions rationally and not emotionally.
Secondly, we have come up with a cactus technique. The cactus absorbs all the moisture and only then distributes this moisture. It means that you do not need to panic. Instead absorb all the information, only then distributing it gradually. For example, in the situation with the pandemic: we analyzed everything we could first and then began to gradually make decisions.
Thirdly, there should always be some kind of financial cushion that is set aside every month for a rainy day. It is recommended to set aside 10% of the monthly profit.
Next, it is very important to understand that sometimes during a turbulent time, it is better to just wait it out and not make decisions that could make it worse.
Finally, analyze only facts and not opinions. Listen to experts, colleagues, acquaintances, but only base decisions on facts. When based solely on opinion, you can make the wrong decision. Opinion is subjective and facts are objective.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Always earned, never given.”
I realized that in life it is always better to make money and not receive it as a gift from someone. Because when you earn yourself, you develop skills, connections and learn faster. When you everything is ready and done for you, you do not develop.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow my Instagram @ayanbirimzhan and our business account @health_project_kz