Nothing happens till you sell something

For two weeks now, I’ve been encouraging about to become newly unemployed CFalls folks to rise up, figure out the value they can deliver and start their own business. Now it’s time to sell something.

This might be the part you’ve been dreading. Sorry, but you need to get over it. Selling the right product to the right person so they can do what they need to do (or get what they want) is honorable work. That sour stomach you get about selling is because you’ve experienced so many bad salespeople inflicting the hard sell on someone who had no interest in their product. That’s not what you’re about to do.

As I stated last week, the process is not easy. One of the things often used in the tech business that can make it easier is a process called “Lean Startup”. Lean Startup uses a process that is perfect for people starting out on their own – the use of the word “Lean” is intentional: This is not a process that requires that you order stationery and business cards, have a sign installed over your newly rented office and start pouring money into furniture, advertising, and so on.

Stay Hungry

The good news is that it takes advantage of things many hungry, underfunded entrepreneurs would do anyway: Spend as little as possible on stuff you don’t need, focus on a solution customers actually want, refine it quickly with multiple interviews / discussions with your prospective customers and swallow your pride long enough to ask for the sale.

If a “Startup Weekend” happens to pop up somewhere in the area in the meantime – take part in it. These events are often focused on technology-based ideas, but this is NOT a requirement and you don’t have to be a tech person to participate. The things you will learn by starting a business in 54 hours over a weekend will benefit you greatly, as will the relationships you build. The folks that often take part in these events are usually highly connected, entrepreneurial and happy to provide feedback on your idea and make introductions for you.

Nose to nose, toes to toes

Now is not the time to decide you need to take a college course, read the 27 books all entrepreneurs must read before starting a business, produce a detailed pro-forma for your banker, take a Udacity course on Lean Startup, etc. While the free Udacity course is good (for example) and the reading and pro-forma might serve you at some point – now is not the time for that.

Now is the time to get nose-to-nose, toes-to-toes with the people who you think are best suited to take advantage of what you want to do, discuss it with them and ask for the sale. Until you do that, get some feedback, ask for the sale, repeat (often) and start to get some feedback and reaction to your proposed offering,

It’s ok to tell them your business is new – they’ll probably figure that out anyway. They should quickly be able to figure out that you know your stuff based on how you position your offering and how you discuss how you intend to make it worth their investment.

Listen. Really listen.

One of the most valuable things you can hear during these conversations is “No, that’s not what I need.” You can either turn off and move on to the next person, or keep listening and keep asking questions. You know the process, product, solution you’re selling. It’s ok to ask them about the problems they’re having, what keeps them up at night, what makes them worry every day, and so on. If you ask the right questions and truly listen to what they’re telling you, you will find them making comments about things they invest time and money in to solve a problem. It might be a patch, but that’s ok.

They will spend time and money to get through something, solve something and/or perform a workaround simply to get some work done. Their workaround or process to get them by might seem crude or even ridiculous to you – that’s an indication that the problem is important enough for them to spend money on.

How can you make that better? Cheaper? Faster? More efficient? Safer? More dependable?

Sell that.

Why do they want to disrupt your market?

The big word in the startup world is disruption, as in “We will disrupt the what-cha-ma-call-it market.” Thinking about last week’s discussion about buying a new vehicle, let’s talk about what disruption is and why “they” want to disrupt our market.

Some examples of disruption

Paypal disrupted the credit card merchant account market. Old news, but it’s a good example. At the time, it was a substantial effort for a small business to get setup so their clients could pay them with a credit card – particularly if there was a web site or phone sales involved. You could do it, but the fees and the startup obstacles put in place by the banks offering merchant accounts were a time-consuming hassle. The assumption was that you weren’t as “real” as a business selling hard goods out of a retail location. Paypal knew better and treated these businesses with honor rather than suspicion and contempt.

Ultimately, Paypal made it easy to get a merchant account. They made it easy by allowing you to manage it online. Finally, they made it more secure by creating a layer between the client and the small business taking the payment. The client gained because they didn’t have to reveal their card number to the small business. The small business gained because the “layer” that kept the card number out of the hands of the small businesses meant Paypal took on the security requirements and many of the risks of card payment fraud. More secure equals less hassle. Easier and less risk for all involved.

You can find many other examples of disruption in the finance-related sector – all of them based on eliminating the annoyances and artificial barriers established by long-term players in that field.

Other examples include Uber (Is the cab business focused on being a high-quality customer-centric experience?) and SpaceX (Is the defense / aerospace business is designed to provide the best bang for the buck?).

Why do they want to disrupt my market?

Simply put, because doing business with you or your peers (or both) is a pain in the keister. When you make it hard to deal with you, you create opportunities for startups that don’t mind doing things differently.

How do they disrupt my business? Mostly by taking the hassle out of it. Those who disrupt your market talk to your clients and identify the things that drive them crazy about working with you. What keeps you from doing that? Nothing other than you being stuck in “We’ve always done it that way” mode.

The real estate market is a great example of how businesses get disrupted. Zillow produced a website that allowed would-be buyers to identify properties for sale before they were ready to contact a Realtor. Will they still have to work with a Realtor at some point? Probably. Before they “get serious”, are they required to deal with the barriers that most real estate firms put in place? Before Zillow and the like, it was all but a necessity. At that point, you did things their way on their terms. Today, you don’t have to engage a Realtor until you’re ready to take some action.

Could Realtors have opened up MLS to web access before Zillow appeared? Yes, but they didn’t. Could they have made it easier to shop before getting signed up with a Realtor? Yes, but they didn’t. Instead, the MLS was used as a wall around the property-for-sale inventory. Until Zillow and similar vendors provided access to this data (or a subset of it), there was little if any pressure on real estate firms to implement such systems or radically improve their processes to make them more client-friendly.

Eventually, they figured it out and created a new Realtor.com that competes with Zillow and similar sites.

Realtors are not the target

These types of problems are not unique to Realtors. They are common to many businesses.

If you look at these disruptive new businesses, they’re usually focused on eliminating the market’s pet peeves.

Referring back to last week’s car lot experience, consider the business model that Vroom.com has put together. It’s not perfect, but it does a nice job of eliminating the horse biscuits from the buying process. And yet, there’s not a single thing they’re doing that local car dealers can’t do.

Will they notice and adopt the best parts?

And in your market, will you?

Starting a New Business: Part 2 – Are you ready?

selliner_see
Creative Commons License photo credit: elbfoto

Last time we talked briefly about things to consider in the early going of the business you just started.

We talked a little about the product/service, but focused mostly on some basics about licenses/permits and getting supplies with a little taste of business model talk.

The reality is that we shouldn’t have talked about most of that stuff, but we had to start with that conversation because it’s the type of thing new business owners expect to hear.

You might be thinking “I’ve already got a product, I’ve already got a business (even if it’s only a few days old) and I need to know what to do to start. NOW. RIGHT NOW. So help, already…”

Problem is, that’s not the best place to start if you want to build something lasting.

Fake left, go right

Sorry for rushing ahead last time, but I wanted to get you into analysis mode just a little bit before we moved ahead (or back) to this step.

We did talk briefly about the business model and I hope that provoked you a little. Ideally, it made you think that you might not have all the info you need to work out the details of your model. Those of you who thought hard about it probably wondered if you didn’t have a lot more work to do.

You do.

Before you order those business cards, buy those supplies, determine your costs and set your prices…you need to research your market.

This means far more than doing a keyword check to see how many Google searches there are for “gold plated harmonica” (if that’s your business), much less finding out if GoldPlatedHarmonica.com is available and at what level the competition is already delivering these items. Those things are just part of the process.

Questions, questions

How much do you really know about the market you’re entering? Assuming the market isn’t brand new, have you researched industry product, service, supply and performance trends? What do they indicate as areas of opportunity? Areas to avoid? What are the emerging product/service trends in this market?

Are you familiar enough with your prospective ideal customer to enter their market? Or will you stand out in the wrong way and alienate your business from them?

Who buys gold plated harmonicas? Where do they live? What kind of stores do they purchase music supplies in? What else do they buy at the same time? How many are sold per year? Where are they purchased – online, in stores or both? How many are purchased annually? Are their peaks and valleys in purchasing habits? Are there peaks and valleys in supply? Are there legislative, import or similar issues that you must deal with at startup or on a one-time basis? Are there any liability concerns for the product and its use?

How many do they buy over their lifetime as a purchaser of gold-plated harmonicas? Is there a progression of better and better purchases? Is there the possibility of referrals by your existing customers to others who favor gold-plated harmonicas? Are there opportunities to render service, deliver purchases or offer training classes?

At what age do people start upgrading to gold-plated harmonicas? At what age do they stop purchasing? How do people decide to be in the market for gold-plated harmonicas? What do they buy in the year or two prior to moving up to a gold-plated one? Where can you buy replacement parts? Is there a repair market or do people replace them? Is there a scrap market? (they are gold-plated, after all)

Who dominates the market today? Why do they dominate the market? What will you do to set yourself apart from them? Is it possible to partner with them?

These questions come into play when writing a marketing plan but many of them also have bearing on your business model / business plan.

Are you asking enough of the right questions? Are you doing the research necessary to assure that your business plan / model make sense given the market of available buyers?

These questions are not intended to scare you out of a market. Quite the contrary, they are intended to make your entry strong enough to keep you there.

Twitter and The Echo Chamber

Echoe LosAngeles Graffiti Art
Creative Commons License photo credit: anarchosyn

Today’s guest post comes from Twitter founder Evan Williams.

During this Tekzilla interview, he was asked for advice to give to tech startup businesses. His response really applies to all new businesses.

Part of his response was “Do something awesome”, which might seem a bit obvious, but he made a very important point about what he calls the “echo chamber”.

Check it out. Maybe there’s something awesome in there for you to take back to your business.

PS: He mentioned that their API team is just two developers. Think about that for a minute, if you’re in the software biz.