Some of us have grown into entrepreneurship. Some of us were born for it. Opportunista Ayda Akalin falls into the latter camp. This Opportunista is a Born Business Owner. The Founder & Managing Attorney of Aghnami Law Corporation, Ayda shares how as a young child she had a particular experience that would ultimately lead to her discovery of entrepreneurship–even before she knew what it meant to be an entrepreneur. Ayda also candidly discusses THE most important lesson she learned in building her business and the one essential trait that an aspiring entrepreneur must have to make it. From managing clients to cash flow, this Opportunista has put in the work, the effort, and the time to create a business and a life that she loves.
Let’s meet Ayda and learn her story.
Name: Ayda Akalin
Location: Los Angeles
Title & Company: Founder & Managing Attorney, Aghnami Law Corporation
Industry: Legal Services
Education: J.D., Loyola Law School Los Angeles
How did you figure out that you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I wanted to be an entrepreneur from very early on, even before I knew what the word “entrepreneur” meant. As a kid, I was always very enterprising and resourceful, and I was fortunate to be raised by parents who encouraged me to take risks and fail. I loved making and selling things — whether it was friendship bracelets, hair wraps, candles or t-shirts — I enjoyed the challenge and excitement that came with making that first sale.
Some time in junior high school, our class was having a candy drive to raise money for charity. Every day, I’d fill a giant Ziplock bag full of assorted candy and sell it to my classmates in between (and during) class. I soon learned that you could buy candy in bulk from Costco for cheaper than at the regular stores. So I begged my dad to take me to Costco so I could stock up. I ended up selling a lot of candy and making extra money. That was my first lesson in arbitrage. I was just so excited about it. One of my classmates turned to me and said, “hey you’re pretty good at this, you should be an entrepreneur.” I had no idea what that word meant, but I immediately went home and looked it up in the dictionary. After that, I made up my mind for good — I was going to be an entrepreneur!
What advice do you have for an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to start her own business, but doesn’t yet have the idea?
I think it’s important not to romanticize this notion that, to be a successful entrepreneur, all it takes is a good idea.
Ideas are free and plentiful; it’s the execution and perseverance that matters most. Being an entrepreneur is hard work. You have good days, and you have really crappy days. On those crappy days, you need to be able to self-motivate and power through. That’s where passion comes into play. You should choose to do something that you care genuinely about.
As an immigration lawyer, what gets me out of bed in the morning is knowing that I am helping people and that my efforts directly impact and affect the lives of immigrants looking to build a new life for themselves in the United States.
What was the greatest challenge you faced in launching your own business?
The greatest challenge I faced when I first launched my law firm was that I had no clue how to run and operate a business. In law school, they teach you how to spot issues, think critically and analyze legal problems, but they do not teach you how to operate a business, manage cash flow, or delegate tasks.
As an entrepreneur and a lawyer, I had to learn very quickly how to wear different hats. In the beginning, I was the CEO, the attorney, the CFO, the bookkeeper, the receptionist, and the VP of marketing! Realizing and overcoming this challenge took a lot of hard work, and I read as many business books as I could get my hands on. I read books about cash flow, books about management and delegation, and books about building a strong company culture. I spent time with other entrepreneurs and learned that they, too, were facing similar issues. In retrospect, those challenging times are now some of my most cherished memories.
What are the three most important lessons you learned in launching your business?
- Cherish Your Customers/Clients: Be a true advocate for your clients and treat them well and really do your best, no matter how small a matter it may be. Understand the power of your reputation. My business was built on referrals from satisfied former clients. The people they refer are often pre-vetted and pre-qualified, making my job a whole lot easier than if they had just contacted me at random.
- Manage Your Cash Flow: They say Cash is King, and for a good reason! Without proper cash flow, your business is constantly at risk for going bankrupt.
You might have the best business idea and even have paying customers, but without proper cash flow management, you are at risk of failure. It’s easier said than done, but this was THE most important lesson I learned. To start, try to set aside a fixed percentage of each sale into savings. Do not touch it unless it’s a true emergency!
- Create a Schedule That Works for You and Stick to It: When I first started my own business, people would always say things to me like, “Oh it must be so great to be your own boss and work whenever you like! You can do whatever you want!” While this sentiment may be partially true, when you have your own business, you are always on. So even when you’re not working, you’re still obsessing about your work. It can create an imbalance. Creating a work schedule for myself and sticking to it was very helpful for me because it allowed me to not feel guilty about my free time. I never thought I would enjoy structure as much as I did when I became an entrepreneur.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are looking to save time, money, and resources in launching and operating their business?
When starting out, keep your expenses as low as possible. Today, in most professions, you can work from anywhere so long as you have a laptop and an Internet connection. Startup costs are lower than they have ever been. Use this to your advantage. Also, network wisely. Time is your most important asset so be careful how you spend it. Don’t waste time with people that you don’t like, doing things that you don’t enjoy, and talking to people who don’t inspire you. Finally, learn to delegate! Figure out what you are good at and focus on being great. For everything else, learn to delegate to the right person.
What do you think are the three most important skills and/or traits that entrepreneurs must have and why?
The most important trait for an entrepreneur to have is grit. You need to be ambitious in the pursuit of your vision and goals. You have to have the courage to stick with it and persevere for the long term.
As far as most important skills, number one is learning how to properly manage yourself and second is knowing how to manage and delegate to your team. A good entrepreneur knows what she is good at and what she sucks at. For what you are naturally good at, it is important to hone your skills and become great, be the best. This takes time and discipline, so be patient. Naturally, there will also be things you are not so good at. This is totally acceptable and ok! Hiring and putting into place the right team is key. If you don’t learn how to delegate early on, you will have a very difficult road ahead of you. It’s important to hire people who are smarter than you, who are great at the things you are not so good at. I would be nowhere today without my team!
What do you love most about what you do?
As an immigration attorney, I have the unique opportunity to meet and work with some of the world’s most talented and promising individuals. I love that I get to see firsthand, the direct positive impact immigration can make in people’s lives.
What have you learned about yourself both personally and professionally in launching and operating your own business? Did anything surprise you?
I was surprised at how much I love operating and running a business! I never have a boring day.
How are you working to increase your productivity as an entrepreneur?
I am being mindful of my time and the types of matters we take on. I’m thankful to be at a place in my business where we get to choose our clients as much as they choose us. Life is too short to work with people you don’t like, on matters you don’t enjoy. While we are always up for a challenge, at the end of the day, I want to work with people and companies who have the same values that we have as a company.
Entrepreneurship is full of highs and lows. What has kept you from giving up?
Early on, I decided that quitting was not an option. I took it out of my vocabulary altogether. On days when things get tough, remembering and reflecting on why I became an attorney in the first place helps me keep going. Knowing that I have a dedicated team and clients who rely on me also keeps me motivated.
As an entrepreneur, wife, and mother, what advice do you have for women entrepreneurs juggling multiple roles?
It’s okay not to be perfect at everything. Make sure to prioritize spending quality time with your family, if that’s important to you. You cannot get that time back. When I was getting ready to have a baby, I was really nervous about losing business or not being able to cover my overhead. I spent my pregnancy planning and working very hard to save as much money as possible and build a buffer that would carry me through maternity leave. I also booked and completed cases in advance so that my leave would not interfere with our workload. Finally, I trained my team to survive without me. We practiced this for months; I would say, “Just pretend I am not here, or I’m totally useless and you need to survive without me. How would you do this?” It worked out very well. I was able to enjoy lots of bonding time with my baby without taking away from my business’s bottom line. I am so thankful for that.
How are you creating your own opportunities to live your best life?
I make sure that I determine the way my life looks and feels. It’s my responsibility to make the best of it and to create a life that I adore. I make sure to hold myself accountable for my own happiness.
Ayda is The Opportunista.
Three words to describe yourself. Ambitious. Adventurous. Resourceful.
Favorite way to unwind. Enjoying a chilled glass of wine or kombucha and a cheese plate in the backyard with my husband.
Your biggest pet peeve. People who are rude to waitstaff. Not cool!
You can’t live without: It used to be sushi. Now I’m thinking it’s my son…my, how things can change in just a year!
Tell us a secret! I am a huge nerd and know the names of almost every news anchor and political commentator on CNN.
Let me know in the comments: How has Ayda’s story inspired you to create your own opportunities to live your best life?
Learn More from The Opportunistas
Check out my first issue of Opportunista Insights – Stronger Than You Know: 10 Ambitious Women Help You Face The Challenges of Entrepreneurship – to read about the tough challenges that 10 women entrepreneurs have faced, and most importantly, HOW they’ve overcome those obstacles.