“My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. Instead, he got a safe job as an accountant. When I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job, and our family had to do whatever we could to survive. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” –Jim Carrey
One day I hope to get a chance to travel around the country a bit and meet more of you in person. If we were talking over coffee, or a pint, and you told me you were going to start a business, these are ten of the top things that I would share with you. Some of these pieces of advice could have saved me months, or even years of my life. All of them I wish I would have learned when I was younger.
1. Test your idea as quickly as possible. Is there a demand for your product or service? Are people asking for it? Find out before you spend six months working on it. If you want to start a business making outdoor furniture, make a table and put it up on Craigslist and see what the demand is like. Better yet, get a picture of the table off the internet and put it up for sale and see if anyone responds. Have them contact you via email, not phone. This will give you time to build the table if you find a customer.
A little over a year ago I had the idea to start teaching people more in depth about what I do. I ended up talking with Penelope Trunk for five minutes and she talked me into offering consulting. So that day I put up a little page on this site offering consulting. That led to me consulting for dozens of people all over the country over the course of the next year. I very quickly saw the demand. Once I knew that the demand existed, and improving on everything that I had been teaching in the consultations, I built ApplianceSchool.com with a friend of mine and it’s gone very well.
Don’t build it and expect them to come. Make darn sure they will come before you spend an enormous amount of time and money building it.
2. Take feedback seriously, especially from customers. If you aren’t interested in getting feedback from those that you are trying to help, then you are are just creating a business for yourself and it will most likely fail. Customers are willing to give feedback if you are willing to ask for it. Sometimes you don’t even have to ask for it, you just have to listen. When I first started selling appliances, I took note of what people would complain about when they would first see an appliance. They didn’t like scratches, or rust or getting a machine that wasn’t thoroughly cleaned. They wanted the power cords swapped out for them on dryers and the appliances hooked up. There were many other things things that I learned were important. One by one I addressed each of these issues and now very rarely hear anything but how please people are with the whole transaction.
3. Think differently. The best way to create a business that will succeed is to do things differently and better than other people. Come up with new problems that others around you aren’t already addressing.
Let’s take used products for example. There are already a lot of people selling used products, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do things in that space differently. Can you figure out a way to save people money or time? Can you make the process of buying those goods easier? Can you figure out a way to make the experience a more pleasant one? Can you figure out a way to make delivery cost-effective? Come up with better ways of doing things, and the best way to do that is by not thinking about what everyone else is doing.
4. Give yourself a chance to succeed. I think most of the people that give up quickly do so because they start off without an attainable goal in site. Then the hurdles come, they lose site of the goal, the hurdle becomes an impassible monster in their eyes and they quickly give up. Maybe the goal is to sell one product, or get one new paying client or sell one app.
Remember, reaching a goal can be like running a mile uphill in a blizzard…without any clothes on. No matter how hard it is getting things to take off, you can’t give up. You must focus on that goal. Eventually you will get there, even if it’s through some other route.
5. Be careful who you listen to. Find people that think differently than their peers. Find people that are wrestling with how things should be done, and aren’t just doing things because that’s how they have always been done. Seek out people that are willing to be misunderstood by others because they are convinced there is a better way. These are the types of people that you want to be learning and getting advice from.
In college my wife and I met and were engaged within a month, and then married 5 months later. Many people on campus at our smaller college were all very concerned that we were making a big mistake. People don’t just meet and get engaged all in one month, they were all saying to themselves. They were judging our decision purely based on how everyone else has always done things. At the same time, we would have these conversations with a few older married couples that told us these crazy stories of how they met and married in even a shorter amount of time than us. They were happy, and still married! We listened to the crazy ones and ignored everyone else. We are going to be celebrating 10 years of marriage this fall with 5 beautiful children.
Another note. Someone doesn’t have to be an accomplished entrepreneurial all star, or be an expert in a given field for them to be a wise person for you to listen to or get advice from. You can learn things even from little children. You would be wise to not count out all those around you simply because they don’t seem to be qualified to give you advice. I think we’ve all experienced moments in our lives where we could have helped someone in a significant way had they only been willing to ask for it.
6. Realize the importance of optimism. When starting a business, it helps to be optimistic that you are capable of building something in the world that doesn’t already exist. You also need to associate with others that are optimistic. Hang out with people that have overcome obstacles, or that have often been underdogs. These types of people tend to view all obstacles as merely speed bumps that only temporarily slow you down.
Doubters are a dime a dozen. They go through life like snipers, always trying to pick off anyone willing to go out on a limb and try something different. Stay away from these types of people.
7. Learn to ask for help. If you can’t get the product made, or the site built, or the book written, you need to ask for help. If you have deep pockets, you might be able to get away with paying someone else to do certain tasks. If you don’t, you might have to take on a partner. A common trait in entrepreneurs is a willingness and desire to do everything ourselves. That’s a good trait, and often it’s essential to the success of an entrepreneur. But you also need to recognize that there are times that you need to bring in help. It’s better to own 50% of something than 100% of nothing. It’s amazing how stingy we can be over things that don’t exist yet.
8. Find someone locally to meet with. Find someone else to have coffee with or beers with on a regular basis. If you are within 100 miles of a warm ocean, someone to go surfing with. It’s great to have people that you email, or Skype, but find someone or a group locally that is going down a similar road. Tell each other war stories. Challenge each other and most importantly, encourage each other.
Some of the most life changing moments that have occurred in my life, and business over the past 5 years have taken place with friends in coffee shops or over a pint. (Here in Portland, the beer and coffee is some of the best anywhere in the world.)
9. Schedule in rest. Pick at least one day a week that you are not going to work at all, at least on your business. The temptation for most people starting a business, myself heavily included, is to work seven days a week. This is especially the case as you begin to experience some success. A lie creeps into your head that says that the business will somehow fail if you take a day off. We look at it like it’s a big house of cards that will implode if we spend a day lounging in the backyard reading a book, or on a hike with our family.
Take at least a day off. Don’t think about your work. Rest. You will come back refreshed, thinking more clearly and will put yourself and a your business in a much better position to succeed.
10. Don’t worry about failing. If the idea you are working on doesn’t take off, learn from it and move on. I once made a website that sold mini RC helicopters. There was only one kind of helicopter for sale on the site. I used a free $100 Google ad-words coupon to advertise the site. After a week went by, and I burned through my $100 in advertising, I had gotten one person to purchase a helicopter from me and pay via Paypal. Then, the guy immediately called the number to make sure the purchase was legitimate, only to have my wife answer because I was in the shower! I made about $8 after it was shipped.
At the end of that week, I went and looked at some of the bigger online RC stores and learned a number of things. First, there was no reason or space for me to compete in the already crowded online RC marketplace. Second, if your site doesn’t look somewhat professional, people won’t purchase what you have for sale. Third, I needed a good explanation for why people should buy from me. I didn’t have one. Fourth, sell where you see demand. Local demand doesn’t always translate into online demand, and online demand doesn’t always translate into local demand. I had a bunch of people locally at the time wanting to buy the helicopters from me, so I assumed that I could effortlessly sell them online, even while competing against well established competitors. I was wrong.
All this to say, I learned a ton, and have this past year put many of the lessons I learned into practice when building ApplianceSchool.com. Many business ideas won’t work out, but they can all be learned from.
Fear of failing causes many people to watch from the sidelines, and many others to tread through life on eggshells. Failure is when you don’t even try. Failure is not learning from your experiences. Failure is playing it safe and not risking your time, money and resources to try and accomplish something that you really want to accomplish.
Remember, you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love. So go out and start a business. Take risks. Do things better and differently than other people. And have fun.
What are your thoughts? Have you learned some of these lessons the hard way? Have you seen the importance of any of them? I’d love to hear your stories. Hope you all are well!