If I started my business from scratch again...
Here's how I would go about it (ahhh - hindsight!).
1. Get Creative Before You Get Practical & Logical
Often when we go into business, we are accompanied by many fears about how it won't work, how we won't make enough money, and what we need to do to prevent becoming the 15% of small businesses that close their doors in the first 5 years. We jump right in to researching the competition, creating services and pricing, branding, building a website, and the hundreds of other tasks involved in starting a small business. We put much of our focus on the things that we think will make money.
Before you bury yourself in that To Do List, stop for a moment, and consider that this small business you're starting becomes a great success. I know that imagining abundant success can feel unrealistic, slightly egotistical and, to the superstitious, surely tempting fate but here's the thing; I think a lot of people "fail" because they just didn't stick with it, and they didn't stick with it because the business they started wasn't aligned with who they are, what they love to do, and what matters most to them in life.
So, the very first thing I recommend to fledgling entrepreneurs is that they envision their ideal life in great detail and without limitations. Write it down, reflect on it, refine it and, with eyes closed, imagine and feel it. Don't be afraid about locking yourself into an unchangeable dream because of course it's going to evolve, but don't let that fear prevent you from creating a starting point and a direction that's truly aligned to the most perfect life imaginable. Now, from this place, you can craft a business vision and goals that are aligned with what matters to you.
2. Create a LEAN Business Strategy
A business plan can seem like an awfully daunting task to many small business owners, and for good reason. If you're old enough to be old school like me, you imagine it to be this massive, multi-page document containing all sorts of data and statistics and research findings. Many folks create business plans like this and never refer back to them. Granted, if you need to secure funding, you might have to go through this grueling task but, for the rest of us, it's completely unnecessary. Start-ups are not smaller versions of large companies. They are constantly evolving, highly dynamic and adaptive entities that must learn, respond, and grow.
I'm an advocate of a SIMPLE, essentials only business strategy document that includes a business vision, target audience, problem statement, solution statement, LIGHT competitive research, services/products & pricing strategy, budget, and year one business goals by quarter. Don't spend a ton of time on this because it's going to change a lot in your first year of business BUT don't skip it either. It's important to have a direction and something to measure progress against. Think of it as an evolving plan that you review and update every quarter instead of a static, never to be seen again document.
You've heard it before--if you don't define a brand your customers will do it for you--and this is true. Google the word "branding" and you'll soon discover that the brand of a company can be its most powerful asset and so it only makes sense that you should focus a lot of time, effort, and perhaps money on this task. For small businesses, branding can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to upwards of $15k, but many entrepreneurs don't have this kind of budget. Still, branding (not just visual identity like logo & colors, but a full brand strategy) truly is important. So, what to do?
First recognize that during the first year of business, you are partly in discovery mode and what you learn will shape year two of being in business, including your brand. This doesn't mean that you should completely ignore branding, which is a strategy doomed for failure. What it does mean, however, is that since things will likely change quite a lot, it's typically not a good idea to blow your entire budget on branding. Don't spend too much money on a logo - a creative text logo is just fine to start with. Do carve out a day to define your brand personality, values, messaging, niche (the more niche the better), and the experience you want your clients to encounter when working with you. Do spend time to identify your ideal clients, especially the problems they are facing, their emotional triggers, and how you are helping to solve those problems. Put this all together in a one or two page document and use it to guide all your customer touch-points. Refine it as you learn. Get help for the pieces that you feel completely stuck on.
It can make sense to spend more money on branding in year 2 of being in business, once you have a better grasp of how things are shaping up.
In year two of being in business, my skills had improved and my services were in high demand. It was time to raise my prices. I started to offer highly custom websites, often including all sorts of bells, whistles, and animations for a minimum of $3500 (often charging $8000 in the end). There was no shortage of clients coming through my doors but something didn't feel quite right. It took me a while to figure out that I was putting all the emphasis on a fabulous looking, custom website, while ignoring the very important things that go toward its success. I go into more detail about what's important for a website here but, in short, spending lots of money on a custom design is not a good investment when you're just starting out on a tight budget. Focusing on the meat and bones of the website (it's goals, content, clear navigation, SEO, CTAS, the buyer journey, tracking tools and more) IS important and worth spending some money.
5. Processes & Systems
If there are repeatable steps involved in carrying out your business from the get-go, document them and follow them. Automate what you can, create templates and checklists, and become as consistent as possible with how you interact with your customers. Good processes WILL IMPROVE your bottom line, save you oodles of time, and help your customers feel like they are dealing with a pro. As with everything, your processes will evolve as your business grows, so review and refine as you go.
Think about the customer process from inception to completion, as well as how you will support the customer once the job is done if applicable. Make a flow-chart. Don't, unless absolutely necessary, sink a ton of money into software or services until you've been in business for about 6 months when requirements will become clearer.
Take advantage of free trials with companies like Freshbooks and Dropbox. If this isn't your strong point, let me help you, because it is very much mine. I love creating order out of chaos, especially someone else's chaos.
Here's a few examples of processes & systems you should sketch out from the start:
- End-to-end client process (lead-->prospect-->new customer-->existing customer-->support)
- Tracking your time so you can perform checks and balances against your pricing strategy
- Invoicing & tracking payments, obviously
- Accounts payable so it's easy and automated
- Data storage (e.g: Dropbox, Google Drive, OneBox, etc.)
- Customer Relationship Management (where to store all your customer info, and how to track communications)
- Online scheduling (if you have an appointment based business)
6. Real Research
A client of mine was starting a home-inspection business and we decided that one of his very first Get Clients Now goals should include reaching out to five realtors in the area to introduce himself and his services. To make it extra memorable we decided that he would leave each realtor with a box of cupcakes (police like donuts, realtors like cupcakes). While he forgot to pick up the cupcakes on the day (can't blame him, he was excited and nervous) he boldly hit the streets armed with his packets of info and a mighty fine attitude. This experience, although scary, was invaluable. Not only did my client make a lasting impression on his prospective customers, he also learned some valuable information about what would help his chances of securing a sale and getting more business.
We've all become so used to relying on Google for answers, but nothing beats hitting the streets or picking up the phone to talk to real people, preferably our ideal clients. We want to find out what they're really looking for, or how they feel about what you or the competition have already provided them. I know it's not easy, especially if you're an introvert like me but you must get over it just do it, I promise you and your customers will benefit as a result.
7. Draw a Line in the Sand
Give up on making everything perfect before you hang out your shingle, it's not going to happen and is often used as an excuse to avoid starting your business for real. Draw a line in the sand by identifying the absolute MUST-HAVES (which will vary depending on who you are, your clients, and your industry) that need to be completed. Once completed, OPEN YOUR BUSINESS. You are going to learn far more after you have a few customers under your belt than you are through analysis and research. Yes, you'll have some uncomfortable start-up hiccups and bumps. However, there are plenty of ways to set-up your first customers so that they will not only forgive you, but they will understand and applaud you. I've seen it happen, over and over again.
Schedule a quick chat with me. It's on the house.