Starting a New Business? 4 Things to Do & to Avoid

“I’ve got a great idea. Where should I start?”

I’ve started 5 businesses – some have done well, others have failed very well, some TBD. When I get this question, here’s what I tell people:

  1. Summarize your idea on 1 page and as a one-liner. Brevity forces clarity. The idea can’t just be an amorphous mass floating around in your brain. For the one-pager, sections might include the problem you’re trying to solve, the solution, why the solution is unique or better, and supporting market trends.  If this seems intimidating, then start by just writing everything you’ve got on the idea – maybe 5-10 pages. Then, start chipping away and organizing it to get it to 1 page. This forces you to make decisions on what your idea is and isn’t. The one-liner just takes that further, and is great for social settings. “So, what do you do?”  You can even experiment and “try out” a few different versions to gauge reactions. Speaking of which…
  2. Start with easy, cheap experiments. Read “The Lean Start-Up.” I guarantee that there are several free/cheap ways to validate your idea before you go all in. Set up a quick website and run a couple hundred dollars of ads to see if people sign up with their emails? Talk to 10 people in the space and hear what they’d do if they could start from scratch again?  In one of my companies, we set up a website with millions of public data points and studied the web traffic patterns. Google “lean start up experiment examples” and you’ll get plenty of good ideas you can do in the next 30 days.
  3. Recruit your team. The 1-page business brief you wrote now becomes your key document to recruit. Who has a passion for the business? Are they particularly interested in a certain aspect? Do you have the right people around the table to get this off the ground? Think of your “team” broadly – business partners, informal advisors, peers to bounce ideas, networkers who can connect you, and people who may end up working for/with you. There’s a lot of pros/cons about going solo vs. team-based. My experience is that most start-ups are complex enough (even a “simple little” coffee shop) that you need at least a team of 2 to cover the plethora of complementary skills needed.  It seems that more often than not, one person is good at selling, and one is good at details.
  4. Listen and learn. Listen especially to customers.  Learn the ropes by working under someone more senior. Read books by entrepreneurs you respect. Usually, the market is trying to tell you where your business needs to be. So find out the truth. But like all things in life, it’s a delicate balance. Hold on to your core beliefs and passions, while being willing to course-adjust based on new insights.  Several times in my career, we’d offer the “main entree” and as an after-thought, offer up some “sides.” Turned out the market didn’t care about the main entree at all, but couldn’t get enough of the sides.

And now, 4 things to avoid.

  1. Don’t forget to involve your spouse. Are they on board with this? Starting up a business has significant financial risk and takes more than full-time commitment. It’s stressful. While your spouse doesn’t have to be involved in the business (in fact, it’s often better that way!), you will need your spouse’s support.  My wife can’t explain what I do to her friends, but she has been my #1 supporter and sounding board.
  2. Don’t go into business with the wrong partner. Apart from your family, your business partner will likely be the most important relationship in your life. It’s like getting married – look for the 3 C’s: character, chemistry, and competence.  But at the same time…
  3. Don’t go it alone because you’re scared someone might steal your idea.  Great ideas are easy. Actually executing on the idea with the right people the right way is really hard. So, share your idea. Get feedback. But of course, be discerning.
  4. Don’t go too fast, and don’t go too slow. Clear as mud? Too fast is plunging ahead without thinking things through. There’s a difference between fast and reckless. Take risks, but be calculated.  Meanwhile, too slow is thinking about the idea for months and years and never doing anything about it. Even if you have a full-time job, you can do steps 1 & 2 in 3 months with just one evening a week. Don’t be one of the many who just dreamed but never did. I started my first company while working full-time. Three months after I left the full-time world forever, this “side” project company was acquired.

What other questions do you have?

Ready? Enjoy the journey.

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