The transcript was recorded and edited by Jenna Gyorfi
The Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In June 2020, Julia Skupchenko from Lockdown Economy spoke with Bisila Bokoko, CEO of BBES International, a New York-based business development agency that has been on the market since 2012 helping entrepreneurs to become an internationally recognizable business and grow.
Bisila shares how she learned to be flexible and adaptable during and after the lockdown. While running a business that thrives on the personal touch, as well as being a speaker, being forced into a lockdown could have brought BBES to a halt. But Bisila did not dwell on what her business could no longer do. Instead, she focused on the new opportunities the lockdown situation generated. Bisila believes entrepreneurs are creative people and will always find a place to create something as long as they remain confident in themselves and their skills. Find out more of what Bisila has to say below!
What is BBES International?
Bisila: BBES International is a company that I started back in 2012 to help entrepreneurs that want to go international. Basically, one of the big dreams of every person with a product or a brand is to market themselves overseas. I like to provide that kind of guidance and give them the keys to open up to new markets and opportunities. I also help businesses to grow, people to grow, and I am a speaker.
How did you deliver your services before the lockdown?
Bisila: Before the lockdown, my business was very personal. It was all about people. Obviously, it was very intense when the lockdown started because then I had no business. When you advise someone, you want to look them in the eye and be in their company. You need to understand their facilities, their products, and their brand. It’s why I travelled so often. I like to be with the companies that I advise. Also, in my role as a speaker, I need people to speak with — to have an audience. I had eight months booked in advanced and everything fell down. When the lockdown started, I was in Spain and I had to run back to the United States before they closed the frontiers. I was asking myself “Now, what?” because my business is so personal. It was a big question mark for me on what were going to be the next steps and how that was going to impact my business.
When the lockdown happened in your country, what was the first action you took?
Bisila: My first reaction, like everyone else’s, was surprised. I was one of the people that didn’t believe this so much. I was skeptical and thinking it was not going to be so huge but it became very huge. The first two weeks were weeks of trying to ask myself what I should do with my business. I was a little bit paralyzed. Then I realized this could be a tremendous opportunity. I need to reinvent myself through this situation. I have learned through my own journey as an entrepreneur that no matter what happens you might face an emotion. Fear is the first thing that comes and then maybe doubt. All of these emotions, you handle them. You look them in the eye, accept that they are there, and then you take action. My action was then to create a YouTube channel where I could continue doing the kind of advice that I gave before but I am going to come from a place of humanity. Just share what you have with others. I have material that I normally share in conferences so I could share this material with others, not in the same way of course because human touch is great but a different way.
I also have to negotiate different rates. At some point, doing it for free, which is scary because you think, “If I don’t have income, how am I going to survive now?” I realized that the only problem I needed to solve was to stay active. Once the lockdown finishes, and if I had gone three months without activity just asking myself what to do, people will forget about me.
I realized that no matter what, even if I don’t have the income I was expecting, being an entrepreneur is an act of service.
That is the number one rule of being an entrepreneur — understanding why you are an entrepreneur.
You mentioned at the very beginning you had fear and you were not sure about the lockdown and what to do with your business. Were there any specific thoughts or something else that helped you get through to the other side?
Bisila: I understood this was not going to be the first time. We will always be facing something. Sometimes you face it personally and sometimes globally. This was not my first crisis as an entrepreneur. I understood that it was ok to connect with the fear and understand where it was coming from. If you deny the fear, it isn’t good because it will come out somewhere. Then I decided I needed to relax and be confident in myself. I realized that no matter what happens, I am still an entrepreneur and I have ideas. You know that your knowledge and ideas are going with you even if the world changes if you need to change businesses or go to a different city. You still have your gifts within you. So that’s what I told myself. Maybe I need to make changes and maybe New York will never be the same, but I could be that same person. I have the gifts that made me become an entrepreneur in the first place. Sometimes we forget as entrepreneurs that our gifts are not outside the global economy. The thing is that when you have that drive to create something and you just jump to offer something to others, that skill is within you. Once you understand that, no matter what is going on around you, you will find a place to create something. Creativity comes from a place of calmness and confidence in yourself.
That’s a beautiful thought. It is very inspiring. Have you connected to your previous clients or current clients during the lockdown? And if so, what was the interaction?
Bisila: Most of them wanted to put things on hold. The first thought people have when something is going on is to stop everything, particularly the things they do not consider essential. If you are a luxury because you take care of personal branding, like me, all of these things that are extra services are things that they don’t consider as essential. In this case, my clients froze and the first reaction was that they needed to stop. I understood that because I am also an entrepreneur and that people were having a problem with cash flow. As an entrepreneur, if you are having a cash flow problem, the first thing you do is to see where you can cut expenses. I understood that and I was still present. I told myself not to get frustrated and to be there for them. Sometimes it's better to continue to provide service, which is one thing I have continued to do, to some people for them to know that you are doing business as an act of service. That it’s not all about the money. If you are able to nurture that relationship through these times, not only thinking about yourself but about everybody else, what’s going to happen is that it will pay off. Whatever you give is going to come back to you. I stayed in touch with all of them. Actually, some people who I have not heard from in a long time came back. You might be surprised when you are open to just give.
You mentioned that one of the things you started was YouTube channel videos. I am aware that has been a thought for many people as an alternative to what they were previously doing. So how do you assess your competition? What was your market research? What was your thought process?
Bisila: The first rule for me, maybe not for others, is to never look at the other guy. I stay in my way and I know what is my way. I don’t look right and left, otherwise I get confused. You have to stop comparing with each other. I think this is a big fear. People focus so much on what the competition is doing and what other people are doing that you forget why you are doing what you are doing. You just do what you do and someone will connect with it. So when I started the YouTube channel, I did it and I said even if I only have one like or one subscriber, its ok. I am just starting out like everybody else. So many times we give up our power to create because of the victim mentality. The victim is always thinking about others — “this person has this,” or “this person has that”. That is what I call the victim mentality. We have to be in the creator mentality. The creator mentality has no time to focus on what the competition is doing. Even if the competition is doing great or they are copying you, know that you are doing something amazing. That’s why they are copying you. In this case, think about your path, your thing, and don’t be distracted by what is going on around.
Bisila: You are absolutely right. This connects to the entrepreneurial drive and the gift that you mentioned before. What is the situation in your market right now? Is it still under the lockdown? How do you assess the near future?
I think for the next few months, it’s going to be pretty slow in my particular case. I’ve already made a forecast that this year if everything continues to open and there isn’t another situation, I foresee that until October or November, things will not get back in my business to normal. I also know a lot of things move slowly. I cannot expect the same prices or the same fees that I was charging before so I have to do judgment. I know that eventually, it will be a hybrid situation between the physical and the digital. Probably the prices will normalize in the end. But it is going to take a while and I already know that. I think one of the good things about being an entrepreneur is to be prepared — to understand reality. So now it’s going slow but then it will take off again.
Let's hope so! You mentioned that you are also a speaker and that you had bookings for eight months ahead. What advice can you give to other speakers that are out there that are thinking what to do with themselves?
Bisila: I think that for the companies that organize these events, it’s extremely difficult because no one wants to have the responsibility of putting people together and then for something to happen. Also, they don’t want to put the speaker in danger. I think it’s important that we reinvent the whole speaker thing. There are many ways to deliver messages to reach people. So that’s one of the reasons I created the YouTube channel. Not everybody has to do that but people could use this time to write great books, give tips to people, use Instagram — there are so many platforms that we could use. Everybody has a platform that feels better. Even people that don’t like themselves on camera, which is perfectly ok, you could make a blog. You could do many things to expose yourself. It’s a matter of time. The same way we moved from videotape to CDs, the speaker world is also evolving. It’s going to be part of the digital. Of course, eventually, people will be back together and will love to listen to people. But we also have to be more creative. The whole industry is transforming and we need to understand this is happening. We live in a different world where things transform and we have to jump into the wave of change.
I hear in your words that you accept what comes and try to adapt. It sounds to me that your message goes to the people that speak not just for the money but also for the joy of sharing what is in their heads with the people. In that case, all the different methods you mentioned could be an excellent way to do that.
Bisila: The money will come. Any entrepreneur wants to make money. An act of service does not mean we don’t love money. I love money. I know everybody wants to make money and we need it to live. The only thing is that it’s going to take some readjustments. Then we are going to be able to reveal the field in a way that our fees will be a profit of every part involved. Right now everybody needs to make adjustments. Part of being an entrepreneur is to be flexible and adaptable. When we are flexible and adaptable, we know that in the end, it is a win/win situation because the whole economy is changing to get to a more comfortable position. I think if we are paralyzed and say “the business has gone bad,” or “I cannot pay this bill” then we are telling ourselves a narrative that is not going to take us out of this situation. It will put us deeper into the situation.
So if I understand correctly, your vision is that eventually things will normalize but it will be a completely different world. As long as we are staying active, doing something, whether it’s for money or not for money or just for service, as long as we are listening to the wind of change, it's going to be alright. Is that right?
Bisila: I am totally positive and optimistic about it. What this situation has taught all of us, is, first of all, we need to be very flexible — from one minute to another everything could change. We were thinking that we could have control over anything, but we don’t. Entrepreneurs are perfectionists; we like to have control over everything. For me, the biggest lesson I learned was that I could not control everything and its fine. I could flow with the situation and be flexible and adaptable. The economy we know is changing, the world is changing. We realize how many issues are coming forward that people are discussing. We have to ask ourselves is this the world that we want the way we were living? Or will we have a different more holistic approach, where people can do business from a better place, and eventually we all will win. We will also be comfortable because we all are looking for comfort and to be comfortable we need to have prosperity in all areas of our lives.
Absolutely true. I like what you said that we are all building the new world, one entrepreneur at a time. Thank you very much Bisila for being here with us.
About the Guest
Bisila Bokoko is a Former Director of the Spain-US Chamber of Commerce in New York, CEO of BBES International, a New York-based business development agency that represents, promotes and markets brands internationally. She is a Founder of BBLP African Literacy Project Bisila Bokoko whose mission is to promote literacy among African people. Bisila Bokoko is considered one of the ten most influential Spanish women in American business. Former director of the Spain-US Chamber of Commerce in New York, CEO of BBES International and Founder of BBLP African Literacy Project Bisila Bokoko whose mission is to promote literacy among African people. BB has created a collection of wines called “Bisila Wines’’ made in Spain, which has received international recognition. Since 2010 she has been working closely with the UNCTAD with the EMPRETEC program, supporting emerging entrepreneurs from all parts of the world. Recently Bisila has been awarded by the UN Hospitality Committee with the 2019 Citizen of the World Award, and she is the recipient of the 2019 International Award by the Spanish Federation of Women Managers, Executives, Professionals and Entrepreneurs (FEDEPE). She has also been awarded by Ideal Woman organization in Equatorial Guinea, the Entrepreneur of the Year Award by Women Werk, Inspiring Leader Award by the University of New York (NYU) among others along her career.