Wednesday, May 25, 2011

 

Ten rules for starting a business

I'll never forget the very first day of Heinz Marketing. It was just me, a laptop and a (pending) business license. I had a meeting with a new client in downtown Seattle in the morning, and a prospect in the afternoon. My mid-day office? The public library.

It was exciting. And terrifying. Still is. If you've started a business, you know what I mean.

I think sometimes about what I would have told myself then, based on what I know now. Which instincts I'd reinforce as sound, which lessons I wish I'd have learned earlier.

So to remind myself and possibly to help others, here are my 10 recommendations when starting a business.

1. Build & print stuff later
My first business cards were freebies from VistaPrint.com. My first Web site was a $9.99/month GoDaddy.com "Website Tonight" template. I had those for at least eight months, until I had the revenue to create a brand and build more professional assets. My first clients, the people that knew me, didn't care about my business cards or Web site. They cared most about what I could do for them.

I still don't have a brochure. Or letterhead. Or anything else that businesses "need" (so they say), but that I've somehow managed to do without. I know other folks who have started businesses and spend thousands up-front on materials that mostly sit in their boxes gathering dust. Save your money, or better yet, spend it on things that build pipeline and preference among prospective customers.

2. Start building your network as early as possible
Three years before I started the business, I begin more actively networking. Every day. I started my monthly newsletter. Began working on my first book. That network (which continues to grow through daily activity) fueled my first two years worth of clients. I hate to think about where I'd be without that network when I started.

This might not help those who have already started a business, but for anyone anywhere with even the twinkling that you may someday want to do it, start building a network. Meet people. Follow up. Stay in touch. Automate as much of that as you can via newsletters, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever you're comfortable with and your network is already using. Don't overthink the tactics, just get started and do it every day.

3. Obsess about delivering value daily
No matter what you're selling, this is the most important thing you'll do. It's about showing up. Treating their business as your own. Constantly thinking about their objectives and how to achieve them (including and beyond the scope of the product or service you're directly offering).

Value isn't defined by you, it's defined by the customer. Or the prospect who might still make a referral. Or the past customer who has a new project for you. The best entrepreneurs I know obsess about value and it permeates their organization.

4. Hire only when it hurts
You will always have more to do than what's currently on your plate. You will always feel stretched by the current book of business you have. You will always feel like another one or three people is more than justified.

But especially for a new business, hiring is expensive. It adds significantly to your costs, and there's a lot more soft costs in managing people than you might expect. No question, most businesses can't grow and scale without employees. But think thrice before pulling the trigger, and make sure you really need it.

5. Surprise people
This is related to delivering value, but goes well beyond that. This is also the small stuff. Sometimes superficial stuff. Send a client an article you found related to their business. Don't just email it, but clip it out and send it with a hand-written note.

Send a thank you note, for something they did or simply for being a customer. Remember details. Follow up. Ship it overnight instead of ground. Make referrals. Few of these things take a lot of time, and together they might take 15-20 minutes out of your day. But they add up in a material way.

6. Look bigger than you are (and avoid things that make you look amateur)
I may have printed my first business cards with VistaPrint.com, but they looked pretty good. They were clean, included a mailing address, and featured business email that tied to my URL. If you're using a Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo email address for your business, buyers will assume you're small and amateur.

People like working with companies that are small, but they don't like working with amateur. As a new business, you immediately need to prove to the world that you're serious, that you're professional, that you can be trusted to achieve the objective or solve the problem that the client has.

7. Get a mentor or three (or an advisory board)
You don't know what you're doing, by definition. Others have been there, and even if they haven't been exactly where you're going, they've been around the block long enough to have a perspective you need.

Think of the 2-3 people in your life right now, people you already trust for advice or would like to get to know better. Invite them to be a mentor. It can be as simple as a bi-monthly lunch where you bring a short set of challenges to discuss. Or you can create a more formal advisory board that meets quarterly and helps you tackle opportunities and growing pains.

8. Schedule time off and stick to it
You can't work all the time. Even if you love it, even if parts of your business feel like fun, you have to step away. If you have to, literally schedule evenings each week in which you put away your computer and phone when you walk in the door at night, and don't look at them again until morning.

Better yet, do the same thing for a 24-hour period over the weekend (say Saturday afternoon to Sunday afternoon). Get your spouse or significant other to help you stay accountable to this if you need the help. But this will force you to be a bit more efficient during your work time leading up to those breaks, and it will make you more energized when you pick things back up.

9. Exercise and eat better
Make time for this, too. Sign up for a 10K a few months from now and shame yourself into sticking to a training plan. Bring your lunch to work more often. Be really careful about what you eat and drink when traveling (and consider getting up just 30 minutes earlier to hit the hotel gym briefly).

You will feel better, have more energy and endurance if you do these things.

10. Think big, triage, then focus & get stuff done
You will not run out of ideas. If you let them, they'll keep coming and they'll all sound really good. But you aren't going to be able to tackle even half of them, not anytime soon.

Let your mind wander, think big, but write it all down and review your list often. Separate what's vital to the business now and what can wait until the next time you review the list. Stay laser-focused on what's most important and get those things done.

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