I get asked a lot of questions about starting a new business. I love it because as soon as I hear someone’s inflection start to shift to a question-asking pitch, the professor switch flips on in my brain. I can’t help it. It’s like a Pavlovian Response...minus the drool. Ok, maybe a little drool. That’s only because I get excited for people when you with start to express your entrepreneurial tendencies.
Today I want to cover the first critical steps to getting your business idea out of your brain and into the real world.
This post is my response when you ask me what you should do FIRST when thinking about starting a business. It’s not an all inclusive answer, just the literal first things you should do. Ideally I would’ve got to you before you started soliciting advice from the near infinite places online spouting business growing advice. This would literally be the conversation I would have with someone over an adult beverage at the bar after they found out what I do.
If you did start Google’ing then you’ve probably seen that some entrepreneurs, coaches, and consultants wave their fingers in the air and proclaim that you work as hard (and as fast) as you can on getting to your Minimum Viable Product out the door. Then once you’re bought in on that idea these “experts” proceed to do a not-great job of explaining what a Minimum Viable Product is because they are only vaguely familiar with the LEAN Startup Model. (Fun fact: The LEAN idea came from Toyota factories in Japan in the 1980’s. It was designed to smooth out processes and reduce waste on auto manufacturing lines. Sorry, I thought it was fun.)
Can’t iterate if you don’t ship, right?!
While I agree with that I tend to shy away from fancy startup buzzwords and break things down into actionable chunks that you can put into practice without needing a crash course in the Lean Startup Model. This post is about doing something today to move the needle on your business idea….today.
Ok so below are the literal first things you should do if you’re planning on giving your business a fair shake. A few these may seem administrative in nature and by extension not as sexy as other things on your to-do list but they are important. You need a solid foundation before you build literally anything and going through the motions here will force you to really think through how you want to be branded, viewed, and even how you’re going to deliver on your value proposition.
1. There is no such thing as the perfect business name.
Seriously, I can’t tell you how many chats I’ve had over coffee where there was no forward progress being made in starting a business because of a naming issue. My advice is to pick something simple, something you like, and something that can translate to a domain name pretty easily. Then pull the trigger. Clear over clever always wins. Even come up with a few options because after you settle on a name or two you’re going to need to try to pick up your domain name. If your business name changes, after you have give your company a name, over time that’s fine, you can always add domains or run your business under a different name than your company. “Doing Business As” accounts are easy to fill out and your bank will still cash the checks - which is the important part. Also, it’s really easy to forward lots of domains to a single site so don’t worry about wondering if your audience or customers will be able to find you after a while.
2. Get separate bank accounts ASAP.
If you think you don’t need a separate account for your business because you haven’t made any money you’re wrong. I’m willing to bet that the business you are starting is planning on making money. It can get really tricky to keep business money and personal money separate when you are a solopreneur or brand new business. The IRS doesn’t care how big or small you are, they will always find a way to get their cut. While you can get your accounts (PayPal included) set up with your personal Social Security Number you would be better off applying for an EIN number. That’s the tax identification number you’ll assign to your business name. Applying for the EIN, Employer Identification Number, is easy and you get the results right there online through the IRS website.
3. Work on your Minimum Viable Audience. (This is a big big big topic so here’s the high level overview.)
Up to this step you have an idea for a business, you have a name (even if it’s going to change) and you have set up a separate account. Now is the time to start working on your audience. Start building your little piece of the interweb because that’s where most people are going to look for you. Defining your audience, creating content, and developing relationships with your audience is critical to building relationships with people. It’s not going to happen overnight so the key here is to be as consistent as possible with what/how you share and the value you deliver to people.
Most of the time people don’t really know what they want or what to expect from you. In developing your audience you will get to know their pains and how you can better deliver value to them - in turn building a better product out of the gate. Another benefit to building an audience is that you will have a group of people to share your business journey with. They can’t buy if they don’t know that you exist and they won’t buy if they don’t know, like, and trust you. The trick here is that there is no perfect number for the audience. You don’t have to wait until you have an email list with thousands of people on it. Just get a few people involved in a conversation and leverage the places you already interact online. My recommendation for you is to think about your content distribution like a tree. Your website is your trunk and in the beginning pick one or two branches to really invest in - think Facebook and Instagram. You’re going to want to go where people already are and create/share content with the goal of getting people to care enough to follow you back to your site to learn more.
4. “Perfect is the enemy of good” - Voltaire.
Your business is brand new and your audience and stakeholders know that. You can’t know what works and what doesn’t if you don’t have a feedback loop. You get to having a feedback loop by actually selling something. So start (trying to) selling. Call it a Beta, give away a few for free, or just let people know it’s Version 1.0. How ever you want to handle getting your work into the hands of the people that need it is good enough - just make sure it ships! This is definitely going to take some dedicated business development work because you are making and selling first and then asking questions later. If audience development is your inbound marketing, working on your sales game is your outbound marketing. You can also start interviewing if you’re really stuck wondering how to solve the problem you’ve identified. The challenge with interviewing is that you won’t know what people actually want or get really honest answers until you ask them to take their wallets out and buy right then and there. This step has a lot of potential for decision/analysis paralysis. Up until know you are playing business. Selling something crosses the threshold of actually putting your work on the line and delivering. So don’t dwell over perfect and just get something out in the world.
4 Continued. Keep iterating and keep selling.
As you start to build a community around your brand and your work there will be more opportunities to get your stuff in the hands of people that need it. Work on building momentum and work on asking lots of questions for more feedback.
5. Get your paperwork and documentation in shape.
This may or may not happen right away, it really depends on how fast or slow you grow. When you are starting a business there are a lot of things that can pull your attention away from building a business. My advice is to focus on doing just enough business development to communicate your business’s value and to get something to market so that you get to your first payments or sales. Once you start to get a few paying customers in the door you can parlay those funds to deal with all the application and license fees your city or town will need for you to do business where you live. Check your City or Town Halls for sure but most likely you will eventually need a business certificate or permits to operate your business. After you officially exist in the eyes of the government you can go on and work on getting the appropriate insurances, etc. My approach is to get your business making money first and use that money to grow and cover the costs of being a business. It’s a little “building the plane while it’s flying” but validation is better than sunk costs in my book.
I need to reiterate that these are not the only things you should be doing when you’re starting a business. I’ve glossed over a ton but like I said, if we were having a drink at a bar and you asked me what you should be doing - this is where I’d tell you start. This list is also a great test to see if you’re as serious as you think you are when it comes to building a business. While few in number things like taking the time to build even a minimum viable website and brand presence can take some real time. If you’re really ready to try to build a business then it’s time to roll up your sleeves, solve a real problem, tell some good stories, and see if you can get someone to pay you to help them through a transformation.