I tanked 2 businesses (and succeeded with 1) so you don’t have to!
A Collection of Tools and Tips for Building your Business
So you want to start a business. You’re not alone, many people feel that running the show is their ticket to fulfillment, autonomy, and that coveted work-life balance. But there are many stumbling blocks between having that itch and kicking back, awash in professional satisfaction while your income rolls in. Below, I’ve put together a list of all my favorite resources, tips, and tricks for navigating different hurdles to help you on your journey.
Step 1. The Idea
If you’re just starting to form your idea, here are some books that might help:
Business Model You — if you’ve got a vague idea of what you’d like to do, but are wondering how best to approach it for you and your life, this book will walk you through designing your life and business in a more holistic way.
Sprint — if you’ve got a vague idea of your area of interest, but aren’t sure what specific problem you want to solve or how you’d like to solve it, this book outlines a 5-day, Design-Thinking style sprint, to move you from idea to product.
Step 2: The Business Model
Thinking through the nuts and bolts of a business model, from your unique value proposition to customer channels and revenue streams… can be a common hurdle. It seems like some people’s brains just work that way, and others struggle. The book, Business Model Generation, and the business model canvas it’s based on, are wonderful and visual ways to walk through the details of your business idea, making sure there are no unwanted gaps in your planning. Written by the same folks who brought us Business Model You, this has more focus on the business and less on how it fits into your life.
Step 3: Know your user
If you don’t already, take some time to really understand who your target market is. At this stage, you’re better off being too specific rather than too general. For instance, coaching is something anyone can use, but if I market to anyone I’m marketing to no one. Instead if I think about my end-user as Ted, a 31-year-old city-living professional American male in his 3rd job feeling kind-of antsy, who spends his free-time on Reddit… well now I’ve got something to work with. Many people I speak to are afraid if they write to Ted, they’ll lose everyone else, but marketing wisdom (and my personal experience) proves this isn’t the case. I’m much more likely to connect if I get specific.
So how do you define your user? Here’s a worksheet.
Step 4: The Savings/The Psychological Safety Net
Depending on what business you’re going into, there’s probably a period of time when you will not be making a full living from it. There might even be a period where you can expect no profit at all. I highly recommend finding some people who are in a comparable business (maybe in a different city or customer base so there’s no risk of competition) and asking them to talk to you about the true start-up costs. How long was it before they could quit all other work? How long until they were making a comfortable living? Talk to more than one person, and then figure out what kind of safety net you’re going to need to be able to live through the lean months or years. It might be financial, in which case asking questions like “how much do you need in savings (like an actual number)?” and “How long will you need to keep another source of income?” are useful. However safety can also be having someone who can provide urgent child-care if you get a last-minute job, or it just having a group of positive friends who can inspire you, guide you, and pick you up when you’re down. These are things to concretely figure out and get into place EARLY in your plan to start a business, I’ve seen them derail too many people when they go ignored!
A note on money issues:
Many people who are in business for the first (or second, or third) time find themselves having to confront their personal issues with money. In traditional work, you have to negotiate for your salary at most once a year. In running your own business, you have to know, ask for, and insist on your worth every day. Most of us Americans have some pretty solid baked-in money issues, and if you’re not sure what yours are, you might want to check out this book by Jen Sincero (You are a Badass at Making Money).
Step 5: The legal and financial nuts and bolts…
Will you form an LLC or an S Corp? Do you need to hire a lawyer or will you do it yourself? What about an accountant? What about taxes? What exactly is payroll tax? Do you need a separate business account for your business? There are many details to consider when you go to open your own business, fortunately, my buddy Claire Montana Jencks wrote this phenomenal e-book that covers pretty much anything you’d need to know about your early financial and legal decisions.
Step 6: If you haven’t already TEST YOUR STUFF!
If your product or service isn’t already being tested by end-users now is the time. Before you get into how you sell your thing, you need to know your thing works once it’s in people’s hands. Find some users who aren’t friends and get them to use your thing and give you detailed feedback, maybe even watch them use your thing — make sure it works and that if you can get someone to buy it, they’ll be happy they did.
Step 7: Define Your Brand
When your customer interacts with your products or services, what experience do you want them to have? What do you want them to walk away feeling? A tool like the brand deck can help you quickly and concisely hone in on a few key traits you want your brand to have. This kind of clarity will not only help you sell your product but will also help you communicate with anyone you might hire to work on your business…
What do you need? Consistent colors, fonts, and maybe iconography that relates to your brand words. What do you not need? A logo.
You (probably) don’t need a logo
Hot take, I know, but as someone who worked for years as a graphic designer, most businesses don’t need a logo, and yet they’ll spend a lot of energy, time and effort trying to get one, thinking that it’s a required part of being a “real business.” If you don’t have a product that someone is going to need to quickly differentiate on a shelf, then you don’t need a logo, at least not at this stage. I’ve seen too many people fall at this hurdle, shelling out money they didn’t have for a logo that it turns out, doesn’t fit what their business has evolved into 6 months down the road. So don’t lose sleep over a logo. Rant over.
Back to what you do need. Go to a site like KULER, pick out a handful of colors you like together. Colors that are going to work for your website, packaging, print materials — whatever your brand is going to need. Make sure you copy down the RGB values and Hex Codes (for replicating that color on screens) and the CMYK values (for replicating that color in print). If your color has a Pantone value, copy that down too — Pantone is a universal color system and is a great shorthand for communicating with printers to get a consistent color. Save this information for your brand guide (we’ll come back to that in a second).
Then go to a site like google fonts and pick one or two that go with your brand and are highly readable. You might need one font for your body text, another for headlines and you might even want a third really special one for callouts, but don’t get too complicated. You can make your life a lot harder by having a font no one’s computer can replicate, so for this stage in your business, unless it is very important, stick to those basic fonts.
Hire a Designer
If you want to hire a designer to work on your materials, head to places like the AIGA designer directory. If you want to add illustration to your brand, or custom iconography, you might check out dribbble. There are many places online to find designers and illustrators, but keep in mind that good designers and illustrators are not cheap, so budget accordingly and know that cheap work will probably cost you in the long run.
If you’re looking to save money by doing your design work yourself, sites like Canva are great budget-friendly options these days. Make sure that you understand the licenses of any templates, icons or photography you are using, protect yourself from lawsuits!
YOUR BRAND GUIDE:
This is a one-sheet pdf you can easily reference or share with others who might be working on your brand. It includes:
- Your brand guide words (from the brand deck)
- Your colors
- Your fonts
- Any rules — rules might include, never capitalize the business name, or never use these two colors together, or only use this font at 200% the size of this other font… anything that matters and will be consistent across all media should be on your brand guide.
- A logo or any collateral that has to look a certain way
Web Design is another MAJOR hurdle that leaves potential business owners stranded, scratching their heads. As the wife of a WordPress developer, and a longtime Squarespace user (don’t read into what that says about my marriage), I have a lot of thoughts on this. For 90% of new businesses, Squarespace has everything you need — they pay many people a lot of money to make sure that it is user-friendly, has great out-of-the-box design, and works for small businesses. My coaching practice was on a Squarespace site for the first 4 years of its life and it did almost everything I needed. I switched to WordPress when my usage needed to be more customized. I want to add things like a customer portal, classes, and pop-up email sign-ups — all things that Squarespace will allow you to do, but that they nickel and dime you for. WordPress will allow me a lot more control but it isn’t nearly as idiot-proof and if I didn’t live with someone who could help me if I accidentally blew up my site, I probably would have stayed on Squarespace a lot longer.
If you’re thinking of hiring a website designer, know that there is a LARGE range here in budget and skill. There are designers who are considered “template flippers” (think of someone who makes cake from a mix) and there are designers who will build you custom functionality from the code up (to stay with the metaphor I’m thinking some kind of molecular gastronomy here). Spending a few hours on google to understand your needs and what you’re buying can save you heartache and thousands of dollars here.
Step 8: Make sure you have the tools you’ll need to make your business go
This might be literal materials, it might be legal contracts, or it might be a physical space. Figure out the solutions to these things BEFORE you need them, and save yourself some headaches. I can’t give you tips on every tool ever, but here are some that I’ve found helpful in my service-based business…
Waveapps — a great entry-level invoicing and accounting software.
Calendly — phenomenal for booking appointments, and integrates seamlessly with google calendar.
Google Analytics — great for understanding what’s working and what isn’t and making plans.
Zapier — It’s hard to explain exactly what zapier does… Internet magic? But once you know how to use it, it feels great! I use this so that when a client books an appointment with me, it automatically gets put into a tracking document, which then populates my invoices — saving me cumulative hours of work a month. It’s probably not anything you need to worry about in step one of establishing your business, but it’s too cool a tool not to mention.
Google Docs and Sheets — I mean you probably know about them, but if they closed shop tomorrow, my business would too.
Step Whenever — When in doubt, ask for help
There are a million resources out there that can help you if you get stuck. I personally tend to find that people whose businesses are further along than mine are a phenomenal resource. One place you might find folks like that is SCORE — the Service Corps of Retired Executives, where knowledgable business people volunteer to help people like you get their businesses off the ground. Your local Small Business Association will also have gobs of resources to help you out.
Good luck entrepreneur!