How to Start a Business When All You Have is an Idea
One of the scary things about being an entrepreneur is having to tell people what you do for a living. The irrational fear is that when you say, “I’m an entrepreneur,” that people will hear, “I’m recently unemployed.” Most of us feel like imposters in the first place, so having to explain your new entrepreneurial venture to someone who works for IBM or Google or the State Department or [insert household name here] is enough to make even the most confident among us want to hide at home until all the people go away.
But, even though I expect people to scratch their heads in confusion when I tell them what I do for a living, most of the time, I hear this:
“I’ve always wanted to do something like that.”
Stuck in the "Don’t Haves"
Lots of people dream of having their own businesses, and some of those people even have an idea for a business, and some of those people even have a good idea for a business. What’s holding them back?
When I talk to people that are on the brink of starting a new venture, a lot of the time they feel paralyzed, unable to take any action because they are so focused on what they don’t have.
I don’t have a logo.
I don’t have an LLC.
I don’t have business cards.
I don’t have the right credentials.
I don’t have a website.
I don’t have any prospects.
These “don’t haves” are excuses masquerading as caution, convincing would-be entrepreneurs that before they take any steps toward making their venture a reality, they have answer every question, plan for every contingency, have every resource, and predict every detail of the journey before they even get started.
What’s the Least You Can Do?
I propose taking the opposite approach, which will be music to the ears of slackers everywhere.
What is the absolute least you can do to get started?
The concept of minimum viable offer is simple, but powerful: create the most basic, simplest possible version of your product or service that you can still justify selling. If your minimum viable offer is good, and customers respond positively to it, then you can invest in the improvements that would make your offer complete, better, or more robust.
Making the Mental Shift
This approach represents a crucial mental shift for anyone that is starting something new. If you are going to really take action toward a new venture, you need to shift your thinking away from all of the million things you will have to figure out in the future and focus on what you need to do now to keep moving forward.
One of my clients is starting her own interior design business after working for years at a big, corporate architecture firm in D.C. This mental shift has been hard for her because her frame of reference for design work is her old job: a super sophisticated, well-resourced, corporate version of interior design. She used to have all the best software, strong brand recognition, beautiful office space, and a full-fledged marketing machine at her disposal. So, when she thinks about trying to land clients with just her laptop and her wits, she (understandably) is overwhelmed and tempted to quit before she even starts.
To move forward with your minimum viable offer, you will need to accept that the fact that you are in start-up mode, and that means there are things you don’t have, questions you haven’t answered, and resources that aren’t available to you. It’s ok.
Benefits of the Minimum Viable Offer Approach
Embracing the concept of minimum viable offer also brings strategic benefits.
- Avoid investing in something that won’t work. Earlier this year, I had the idea to create an intensive, one-day, business-planning crash course specifically for interior designers. I wrote up a description, circulated it to some prospects, and waited for the registrations to roll in.
Guess what? Not one person signed up. And, though I was disappointed, it didn’t matter one bit. I lost my initial investment, which consisted of about two hours of thinking and writing. On top of losing basically nothing, I gained valuable insight into the needs of my target audience. Testing your minimum offer before it is fully fleshed out allows you to avoid sinking time, effort, and money into a flawed idea.
- Embrace iteration. Getting your minimum viable offer into the hands of customers can give you valuable insight, allowing you to modify your product or service using real-world information.
After my intensive workshop idea flopped, I was still convinced that there was a demand for the content, just delivered in a different form. That experience inspired me to re-work the content into a 12-month program that I have been piloting with five clients for the last six months. This program has been a great success, but I never would have created it without testing the failed program first.
- Force creativity. Sometimes working with less is a good thing; constraints force you to come up with creative solutions to your problems that you might not have come up with if you had more resources. As the David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried explain in their book, Rework.
"Stop whining. Less is a good thing. Constraints are advantages in disguise. Limited resources force you to make do with what you’ve got. There’s no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative."
Just Get Started
Most people don’t need an expensive website, custom branding work, office space, or even a full product to start selling something. Businesses start all the time out of garages and at kitchen tables, and with simple, half-developed prototypes. Just get out there and test your idea in the real world.
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