Twice a week I work out of a coffee shop, it’s quiet for the most part, that’s why I like it.
Inevitably though, someone will wander in there for a break from work and sit down for a bit at a nearby table.
It happens at least once a week, like clockwork, about 20 minutes into their coffee, I can see them out of the corner of my eye glancing up.
Then it happens.
I hear the question:
“Can I ask what you do?”
(translation: why on earth is this guy in shorts and a t-shirt working on a laptop from the coffee shop, doesn’t he have a real job?)
So I tell them I run a small business and then explain that it allows me to arrange my hours around my priorities.
And you can imagine, when people see me at the gym on a Wednesday during business hours, or when Alyssa and I both drop off the kids at school (instead of just one of us) when everyone else is at work, I end up having a lot of discussions with people about how to start a small business.
Typically, the conversation goes like this:
Them: “I’d love to have a business, I’ve always wanted to be my own boss.”
Me: “Well, why don’t you? Do you have something you’ve been working on?”
Them: “Oh, no. Not yet. I have this idea but I don’t have the [time/money/support/knowledge/team] to get started. Maybe when [I save more money/the kids go to college/I make the right connections/learn how to code/get a partner/find an investor].”
Me: “I thought I’d need a lot of that too, but it turns out you don’t. I started small, on the side, and then as it grew, I devoted more time and resources to it.”
Them: “Well, that’s YOU.” (Then they usually give an ironic chuckle that tells me I’m pretty near crazy for imagining they could do something as frivolous as start a business on their own.)
Me: (changes subject) “How about them Seahawks…?”
The opposite of a “Just-add-Magic” business
I know it’s hard to believe, but I didn't have some magic wand or secret stash of cash or influencer network that allowed me to create a profitable business overnight. Most of what I’ve done has been on a shoestring and in the wee hours of the morning or late at night, around my “real” job.
I started TWO profitable businesses with no capital (other than money to purchase the makeshift desk I got from a garage sale and stuck in the family room), and I’ve helped over 100 other aspiring small business owners do the same. It IS possible. It’s actually MORE than possible — it’s totally do-able, if you have the right plan and the right mindset.
In fact, I think it’s exactly BECAUSE I started small, on a shoestring budget, that I was able to design a company that has grown profitably to the point where it supports my family and allows me to live the lifestyle I enjoy (including taking time off in the middle of the day to walk around the lake, workout, go for coffee, or pick the kids up from school).
Here’s the three-part formula I used to launch each of my businesses, and which I now use to coach others in our Side Biz MBA program:
- Define what you offer and the problem you’re solving.
- Find people who need it and offer it to them.
- Test, tweak, and try again.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
It is, but…
Don’t mistake “simple” for “easy.”
Those three steps hold a lot of hard work!
Let’s walk through each one:
1. Define what you offer and the problem you’re solving.
Oftentimes, aspiring business owners start with a vivid dream of a 100-person team offering an Amazon-like assortment of products and services to their target audience. They envision an open-plan office space with a huge version of their logo on the exposed brick wall. Project managers and admins and maybe an office dog or two are running around, answering phones, sending quotes to clients, and going out to fetch your double latte. It’s great to have that level of specificity and vision, but no wonder you are stopped dead in your tracks when you try to figure out how to get from here to there. It’s too big a leap!
Instead, start with the most minimal, small, definable version of your product or service. Don’t think that no one will pay for it because it’s too small; not true. You’re more likely to (a) get to market and (b) get customers or clients and (c) get valuable feedback if you go granular rather than large-scale. The book “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries calls this a “minimum viable product.” That means shipping fast, shipping small, and learning along the way. There’s no time for perfecting. In fact, perfection is what’s keeping you frozen right now!
The more precisely you can define the problem that you’re solving and the solution you’re offering, the easier it will be for people to understand the value you offer and why they should trust you.
Mo' Problems Mo' Money (or no problems no money)
Jon was working on a podcast and building an online course for the longest time trying to teach small business owners to be better educators and teachers. It was great. It sounded good, but he wasn’t honing in at all on a real problem for a specific group of people.
It wasn’t working.
Then he changed focus and created http://www.electricianslibrary.com/ where he now helps a VERY specific group of people with a VERY specific set of problems.
In this case, newer electricians to the field that need to know how stuff works so they can do their job and get promoted.
Problem: Need a place to turn to everytime for electrical knowledge so they don't look bad on the job!
Not so surprisingly, he started getting interest IMMEDIATELY when he switched to helping people with a problem they actually had and started focusing on a very specific group
Here's an image of his website.
2. Find people who need it and offer it to them
Do NOT make this complicated. If you want to launch a vegan/paleo meal delivery service in your hometown, make a list of people that you know who might be interested, and a list of where people interested in vegan/paleo ready-made food might congregate. Then email your list of friends and family and saying, “Hey, I’m launching a vegan/paleo meal delivery service. I am testing my process and menus. Would you be interested in being one of my first guinea pigs?”
Don’t worry about pricing at this point. You’re looking for feedback and testimonials, not a million dollars. So maybe in this case you’d charge people for supplies and a small delivery fee, but you wouldn’t charge them what you expect to charge clients a year from now. Your goal is simply to find between 5-10 people who would be willing to test your product or service, give you honest feedback, and provide a testimonial if they’re satisfied.
You don’t want a zillion people because you do not know what the heck you’re doing yet.
You don’t want just your mom or favorite cousin because you need honest feedback. You do want to locate volunteers who are as close to your prospective audience as possible. You want enough customers/clients to test, but few enough that you aren’t faced with quitting your job in order to keep up with your side biz.
Then you get to work. Got it?
Here's one more example:
When I was creating this business a few years back, my very first revenue was coaching.
Here's how I got my first couple coaching clients:
I signed up to volunteer with a group where I thought my “target market” (the specific group of people that I wanted to help) might be. I didn't even know for sure that they would be there.
In this case, it was a young professionals meetup group that was meeting for the first couple times.
I knew they were looking for some speakers, so I volunteered myself and asked if they needed an extra speaker for an event. (yes they could have said “no” and I wouldn't be out anything)
But they didn't, they said “yes”, I went and spoke on one of the same topics I coach people on.
It was 10 minutes long, and the conversations with people that happened immediately after that event, led to my first paid coaching clients at $100/hour!
Check out photo below: My first coaching clients are in this room. Do I look scared. Spoiler alert: I was
3. Test, tweak, and try again.
Here's what I didn't tell you before. That same speaking opportunity that I got my first paid coaching clients at, well… that wasn't my first one.
I had volunteered for another one a month prior. Guess what?
No customers out of that one!
I realized that, the people I wanted to help (and could help best) weren't at the first place I volunteered to speak. They simply weren't hanging out there. It was the wrong group of people!
As soon as I realized that. I instantly tweaked my approach!
You can do this too
Document everything. Make notes. Keep a journal. Ask questions. Be open to suggestions. Figure out where you’re spending your time, where the holes are, when you’re going to stab your eyes out with a ballpoint pen because you discover you hate figuring out costs per meal and labor rates.
When you expect that there will be bumps it's just part of the plan
Be prepared – things are NOT going to go like you plan. Clients will complain. Things will break. Deliveries will fail. Websites will crash. This is all great information — and all part of the process. You may discover that no one likes your favorite recipe for vegan stew, or that the price you thought you could charge for your meal deliveries barely covers food costs.
Don’t freak! Make note of the issues, do what you can to resolve them, and try again. This is not easy. But every time you discover something (like the fact that you’re losing $2 on every dinner you sell), thank your lucky stars that you started small, and you have this data NOW. The sooner you start, the sooner you can improve.Businesses don’t start when they have the “perfect” setup. I’ve interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs and successful business owners, and they were the ones who started in spite of an imperfect situation and persisted when things weren’t going quite as planned. Repeat after me: Imperfection is part of the process.
The coolest thing about these three steps is that you can start right now, today. You don’t need a small business loan. You don’t need an email list of thousands of subscribers. You don’t need celebrity endorsements, a business degree, or a partner with deep pockets.
You've already got everything you need
You just need your (not-so-perfect) idea, your free hours, and some hustle — and we’ve all got access to those three ingredients. Take your value, put it in front of people who need it, and watch how they respond. THEN you can start scaling and charging or charging more (or maybe even less).
Many people try to delay starting their business. Maybe it’s fear of failure, maybe it’s the false belief that there’s a long list of requirements before they’ll be “ready.” But here’s the truth: The sooner you start, the sooner you move through the inevitable growing pains ALL businesses experience.
Let’s say your business is going to require a six-month adjustment period as you test, tweak, and try again. Here's how the option of starting immediately compares to waiting until ____ happens.
Option 1: Start today
Be finished with the growing pains in six months.
Conclusion: Start sooner — get to a viable, self-supporting business sooner.
Option 2: Start 6 months from now
You’re STILL going to have to go through that growth period and it’ll be a full year from now until you’ve got a business that works (that is, if you manage to make it through another period of fear and anxiety and delay).
Conclusion: — Arrive Later (if at all)
I know this is scary. I know that putting your idea into the light of day and actually asking people if they find it interesting and valuable is risking your baby.
But here’s what I also know:
If building a business is what you really want, the sooner you start, the sooner you get through each step. And the sooner you work through those steps, the sooner you’re where I (and other successful business owners) are — at a coffee shop, playing with your kids on a Thursday afternoon, or in a cool hipster loft with your logo on the wall. Period.
Our tendency is always to think “I will do that when ____ happens” and when or if that finally does happen we realize that life has gotten more complicated or busy than what it was before.
Drop me a comment and let me know what I've left out and what hesitations you have about getting started.
I want to know! This could be your first step to getting started!