Entrepreneurship #3 - 3 Ways to Start (and 3 Ways Not to Start) Without Something to Sell
I’ve worked a lot with entrepreneurs who are at day zero of entrepreneurship. By that I mean that they have some kind of desire to start or own a business, maybe some field or market they know that they like, and maybe an idea for a product or service. Some get started and grow a business, but some stall and never get started. Here are some observations of how to start - or how to stall. They are certainly not inclusive - you can start or stall in many other ways.
Do. Start Building Something
It seems obvious in hindsight. Do you lack a product or service? Well, start building one! Don’t get hung up over the fact that it isn’t perfect or ready to launch. Build something. Show it to people. Find out what they like or hate about it. Make it better. Show it to more people. Learn more, build again, learn more, etc.
The key point is that you are engaged in the market. In Lean Startup terms this cycle is called Customer Discovery. Eventually it gets to the point where you can confidently launch and start charging customers. But, at first you can just enlist them as free test subjects during your design and build cycles.
One of the young entrepreneurs I’ve recently met is creating a tabletop board game. With feedback, he has already made over a dozen versions of his product, each one better than the last, each one gaining user-informed fidelity. Is he selling yet? Nope. Is he learning a lot and improving his product for eventual launch? Yep!
Do. Find a Mentor In Your Field
Not everyone who owns a business in your field will view you as a competitive threat, especially when you haven’t launched anything yet. A second way to learn about your field is to find someone who is already good at it - and talk with them.
Let me be clear - I mean someone who has real operating experience in your field. I’m a generalist entrepreneur coach, but if you ask me about starting a food truck business I know nothing of the details. But I have seen a friend who is a food truck operator help a second friend start his own - and even help inside the newbie’s truck on opening day. Not every business owner sees their field as a zero sum game - find someone who sees the field as abundant, and you can learn a lot.
Do. Read and Write - Become an Expert
We live in an era of open and prolific communication. Want to learn all about your field? Read, read, read. Or listen, listen, listen. Or watch, watch, watch. You don’t necessarily even need to Google search for experts anymore. Twitter is full of them in just about any field you can pick, free to follow and read (so is Substack and other platforms like it). They can lead you to podcasts or videos, too.
Personally, I use Twitter for exactly that, following topic experts in the fields I want to learn more about. Any new entrepreneur can do the same.
In addition, once you start to gain significant knowledge, you can also write about your field. Posts, comments, podcasts, videos. That can help you to gather a following before you launch a product. You can not only read, but also write, on Substack and other media platforms for free.
Don’t. Just Write a Plan
Some newbies think that writing a huge business plan or pitch deck is necessary to get started. Don’t get me wrong, some amount of planning is cool, but eventually you really do have to quit planning and start doing. That huge plan will probably break on the day after launch anyway.
Incessant planners sometimes think that writing a thorough plan is the key to unlock funding. That a plan is all it takes to get investment. They eventually learn that investors know that an entrepreneur with a plan but no market engagement or traction isn’t a good investment. Plans are fairy tales - engagement is real.
One of my friends was a plan writer who mapped out at least two startups that went unfunded. Eventually, he learned to code, started to build as well as plan, and is now working with his second funded startup.
Don’t. Wait Around For a Co-Founder
Some potential entrepreneurs make the mistake of thinking they can conceive an idea that they know nothing about implementing, but that an experienced co-founder will magically arrive to save them. Nope. What cofounder would want to work with you if you haven’t taken at least some steps yourself to engage the market - and just expect them to do it all? Yikes! If you need a co-founder, start engaging the market and become someone who a co-founder would want to work with.
Don’t. Wait Around For Big Funding
I’ve known plenty of would-be founders who never started because they weren’t totally funded for development, launch, and 2 years of operating runway. And others who did start, but with an approach that didn’t depend on having all that in place on day one. It may be a generational thing, stemming from the old industrial era when new ventures had to have huge financial resources to spin up manufacturing plants. Today, most new businesses are different and don’t require that level of financial setting. Plus, even if you are planning a manufacturing venture or expensive bricks and mortar venture, you can find ways to ease into it - starting with white labeling, outsourced manufacturing, renting, and other ways to start small - until you can build the financial resources to make your own plant. Just waiting and getting no’s from a variety of different investors won’t help.
One of my favorite local food businesses started with a simple and inexpensive food cart, expanded to a food truck, and then eventually moved to a bricks and mortar restaurant. He didn’t wait for enough funding to buy a building.
It’s All About Engagement
If you’ve read this far, you know the secret sauce is engagement. Starting means engaging in your market or your field. How you do that is open to your creative interpretation. Any way you do it moves your forward.
I’ve pointed you toward a few directions that could help - perhaps you’ll find others.