11 Business Lessons from the Heart

By Tom Harnish on 25 November 2010 (Updated 5 January 2011) 0 comments
Photo: Wuka

Here are some lessons I learned while attending the Business School of Experience. Keep in mind, "experience" is really just another word for mistakes. Learn from my experience, so you don't have to learn from yours.

Do Your Homework

Bright ideas are common; people who can turn them into a business are not. Don't let your enthusiasm keep you from doing your homework.

When starting a business, ask yourself:

  • Is there a real market? Can I really create this product/service?
  • Can I win? Can my company and product be competitive?
  • Will it be worth it? Will it be profitable? Will it support my philosophy, strategy, goals, and objectives?

Build a low, likely, and high model in your spreadsheets, and do some sensitivity analysis. If start-up or roll-out takes longer and costs more than estimated (it always does), what effect will it have?

A clear view of reality, more than anything else, will determine your future. Business is no place for wishful thinking. Dreams, yes. Fantasies, no.

Dig Deeper

Google is your friend. If you think what you have is unique, think again. Dig around and find out what else is out there that's similar to what you're contemplating. Learn what works (or doesn't) from others who have tried it. Indirect competitors can be as fierce as direct ones, and they don't even do it on purpose.

Find an association that covers what you do, join it, and wring out their reports and statistics. Order a franchise package for a company or product similar to what you have in mind. They're required by law to tell you the downsides and upsides of the business. Ask for advice; you'll be surprised how willing people are to help.

Think It Through

Play a movie in your head about how this all will work, and write the script to make it happen. The written document isn't the point, the thought process is. If you can't envision success, how can you achieve it?

It's very easy to become enamored with an idea and focus on the product, not the market. Spend a lot more time thinking about the market than you do on developing intricate details for your product/service. Who are you going to sell to? What do they look like? Where are they? How will you reach them? Will they buy? What will they be willing to spend? You probably will improve your concept because of this thought process.

Keep in mind that you are a bad market sample; if you like it or your family likes it, it doesn't matter. Will other people be willing to spend real money to buy it? That's different than someone saying they like the idea if you ask them on a street corner or in a meeting. Hold out your hand and see if they put money it. If they do, you're on the right track.

Do the Numbers

Figure out what your budget needs to be. Be realistic; if you don't have a lot of money, you can't just spend less on development, production, promotion, or staff. If you don't spend enough, quality, market awareness, or distribution will suffer.

Ignore what you have in the bank, define an accurate budget, and then compare what you think you need with how much you have to spend. If you don't have enough, don't just do it anyway and hope for the best. And remember, when (if) you move forward, you have to stick to these numbers! If you spend twice as much on ads, production, or rent than what's in your plan, you're headed for trouble.

Plan your cash flow, not your profits. You can't spend profit. You can grow so fast, you go broke. If you don't understand how that can happen, visit FindingMoneyAdvice.com.

Make a List

Create an action plan. List the things that need to get done, and then make sublists for all the big things. Keep doing that until you can't break the tasks down any finer. Then put them on a time line. Some things have to be done long before others. There is no point in rushing off to market when your product won't be done for another six months, for example. This mental process is almost like a business simulator. It allows you to think through what it would really be like to run the business. Who's going to answer the phone? What if you need more cash for supplies or raw materials? Who will be the company spokesperson for TV interviews? Involve other people who will be working with you so they can help think it through too.

Prototype

Test, refine, test some more, and then build. Remember, when you test, a "no" answer is as useful as "yes." Few ideas are perfect right out of the box. And many successes are discovered by accident. If your idea works and the market likes it...go! If people don't, make some changes, big ones if you need to. If you can't or won't...WALK AWAY. Don't be pig-headed and press on because you can't accept that the whole thing is a bad idea. You'll be tired, broke, and angry when you fail.

Entrepreneurs are notorious for not taking no for answer. But two thirds of businesses fail within 10 years.

Promote It

Success isn't just about products and markets, it's about making sure people know you have a product that will solve a problem for them, it's worth the money, and you can be trusted to deliver it. Publicity is cheaper than advertising, so do something (tastefully) outrageous. Attract some attention.

Be Involved

You're a key member of the team. If you've convinced your spouse, a bank, or a VC that you have a good idea and you've created a company or launched a new product, your job has just begun. Sitting in your office pouring over spreadsheets won't build a success. Your enthusiasm, dedication, and knowledge will. Share it. It will rub off on employees, advisors, investors, and even customers. Then hire people who are smarter than you are.

If you don't like the people you're working with, or if you don't trust them, something's wrong. Start by taking a careful look at yourself. Are you trustworthy? Are you a hard worker? Are you fun to be around? Life's too short; have fun and encourage the people you work with to have fun too.

Measure performance based on results, not attendance. It doesn't matter where, when, or how people work as long as they get the job done. If you can't define what acceptable results are, how can your people possibly be successful? Remember, if they aren't, you aren't.

Look Both Ways

After implementation, look back at where you've come from and ask yourself what you might have done differently. Learn from mistakes and successes. And look ahead; the road may have changed while you were busy starting up. Make changes if you need to, be agile, and adjust. Managing change is the hardest job you'll have.

Celebrate

You only have one life to live, so enjoy it. When you have a little success, celebrate! Make sure the people who contributed have a chance to enjoy your success too. You couldn't have done it without them.

Share It

“All who would win joy, must share it; happiness was born a twin.” — Lord Byron

"Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared." — Siddhartha

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