Henry Brown, June 29, 2017
You've got a business idea.
You want to turn your passion for dogs into a dog-walking business. You’ve fixed enough of your family’s and friend’s computers to start charging others to fix theirs. Maybe you’re ready to freelance as an internet marketer. In your head, you may already have a product, a store, or even a restaurant, and you want to strike while the iron’s hot.
You feel the momentum, the excitement and joy of starting something new. You’re ready to design your logo, print business cards, and maybe even a line of custom hoodies. And now you’re reading this…
Before you pull the trigger on those business cards, you need to test the viability of your business. That is to say, is your passion for dogs a business problem that people will actually pay to solve?
In this article, we’ll take you through refining your idea and setting the foundation for your business, which will give it the best chances of succeeding.
If people aren’t willing to pay for what you’re offering, your business isn’t going to work. Make sure people actually need your business. Don’t be a solution looking for a problem — you want to find the problem and build the solution as you explore it.
Start by identifying a problem or need, and then figure out how your business can help. You might love to walk dogs, but do a lot of people have dogs in your neighborhood? Do they need to hire someone to walk them?
The goal of this initial phase is to test a hypothesis, learn as much as you can, and use that information to create your business.
Before becoming a well-known source for deals, Groupon was a social media platform for social good called The Point. And a simple check-in app called Burbn became the prolific social media platform Instagram. As they developed, they adjusted their businesses to user feedback, and achieved success that they would have otherwise missed.
You need to have an idea of who your customers or clients might be. Maybe one day your business will serve a wide range of people, but you need to be specific about your audience when you’re starting out.
You don’t need fancy marketing to get your first clients. You need to locate them and then communicate with them.
With dog-walking, you can start by either posting on marketplace sites like Craigslist and Kijiji, or your local subreddit (or r/forhire if you offer a virtual service), in search of interested parties.
In the early days at PageCloud, we attended a lot of group events that we found through Meetup. The feedback we got from these events was crucial to our product’s development.
The goal of your early interactions is not to sell. You aren't trying to get their testimonials or their money, though it’s great if that happens. Instead, just talk to them about your idea.
You can see through experience whether you’re hitting the right points, whether your idea will make you money, and whether you can actually execute what you’re advertising.
Another way to communicate with these first potential customers is to build your initial website. Having a web presence, even a simple one before you officially start your business, can help you research, connect with, and establish credibility with prospects.
An easy, minimalist start is to “validate” your idea with a landing page. Just a simple, one page site, like social media scheduler Buffer did, to explain your concept and let visitors leave their email if they’re interested.
Then, share the link around to see what sort of interest comes in. These people may express intent to order your product or use your service (like by clicking a “Pre-order” or “Buy now” button, or looking at your contact page).
Then you have a way to communicate with them while you develop your idea.
Rather than having a “Coming Soon” page that announces a business may or may not appear in the future, your landing page shows off something that exists, even in its early stages.
You’ll then be able to expand what you’ve done with your website to social media built for business connections.
At PageCloud, our team built a landing page before we had a fully-functional product to see if our potential customers wanted to stay informed about our progress.
This website can help start more conversations. If you’ve got a website for your dog-walking business, you can answer the questions you hear the most. You can also print out your website’s URLs along with your phone number and post flyers in your local parks or in front of pet stores.
If you’re selling a professional service, LinkedIn and Facebook are great ways for people to discover your hypothetical business and check out your website. If you’re starting a food-related business, get active on Yelp.
You can also start conversations with potential clients, which can later be transitioned to email or phone calls. You can also test out marketing strategies in small doses, through writing and multimedia posts, to see what engages people the most.
Take a look at how other large and small businesses are doing it. You can go top of the ladder and take tips from Starbucks.
They may be a huge international business, but they still manage to make their LinkedIn and Facebook stylish and easy to navigate, providing information about their business and allowing customers to give their feedback at every turn.
By looking for local businesses or startups on LinkedIn and Facebook, you can see how ideas like yours are growing, and learn from their successes and mistakes as you’re just starting to make your own.
When you join these social media sites, you also create the opportunity to share messages and blog posts, participate in conversations with friends or in groups, and post ideas to get conversation and feedback from people you want to sell to.
When you’re engaging with others, write down the lessons and insights first thing right after you’ve talked to them. (Or, if you’re doing more formal informational interviews, ask if you can tape the conversation.)
Listen closely to what they think of your hypothesis, and whether your idea fits into their needs or not. Keep records of what’s working and not working for your potential customers.
Examine pricing, messaging, logistics, or any other sticking points to get a better idea of what you should remove from your business plan, or what you can change to improve.
Also, make a note of your missteps. This could be an actual journal, a spreadsheet on your computer, or a running document. If you’re at a loss, start with this template.
Whichever option works best for you, just find a way to keep track of your successes and failures, because any business is going to have some degree of both right from the start. Learn from those mistakes and grow.
For example, maybe you find that most people don’t need a dog-walker across three neighborhoods you were looking into.
However, as you go through your notes, you see something being mentioned more than a few times: while people’s dogs are well-fed and walked, a few of them felt guilty they weren’t buying enough treats and toys for their dog.
You realize your hypothesis (“This neighborhood needs a dog-walking service”) didn’t quite hit it on the nose, but that you weren’t too far off. You set a new hypothesis: “This neighborhood needs a dog toy delivery service”. The you go talk to some more dog owners to validate it.
You build a website for this dog toy delivery service, print out posters with your new website and staple them at bulletin boards near some parks, or in the parking lots of pet stores (with their permission of course).
A few days later, you notice more people are clicking on the “Pre-order” button on your landing page! You’re onto something.
As long as you go in with a flexible attitude, and an expectation that you’ll never stop learning, your business idea will eventually fit into the needs of the world. By following the Build, Measure, Learn method, you start taking your idea out there as quickly as possible, track how it’s being received, learn what works and doesn’t, adjust the idea and start the cycle over again. You keep doing that, no matter how successful you get.
Make sure your initial work is easy to change and readjust countless times. Don’t spring for a website design or expensive logo too early, when you may completely redesign them. Instead, make sure you have the freedom to easily and quickly adjust all of your content as your business develops.
Just like The Point changed into Groupon, and Burbn changed into Instagram, your business might change and become something entirely different than what you planned at the start.
That can be difficult to forecast and execute, as any idea you’re passionate enough to turn into a business is going to be important to you. But, you should appreciate figuring out early on what is (and isn’t) working.
The alternative is far worse — to get too far into a business idea, having spent lots of time and money trying to get it off the ground, before you realize it won’t work. Keep your options open and your idea easy to adapt.
Only after you’ve validated your hypothesis will you be ready to print those business cards.
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