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The very first thing you must do when you launch a business

When you launch your business, there is something you must do at the very beginning, and it’s not what you’re thinking a lawyer would advise.

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As a lawyer, you’re already anticipating my answer. You’re wrong.

If you know me as a business attorney, you might expect that my answer to this question would be “incorporate.” If you know me as a partner in a small business lender, you might expect that my answer would be “raise money” or “capitalize the company.” You likely have your own answers – design a great logo, create a website, invest in great accounting software… the list goes on.

I had a “meet and greet” with a prospective law firm client a couple of weeks ago. The company sells audio fixtures and equipment for music shows and festivals. Their work is apparently top notch, their reputation and brand are growing, and they have more work than the three founders can handle right now.

After telling me all of that great news, one of the founders, somewhat sheepishly, confessed that they hadn’t spent much time getting their legal or financial house in order. He was noticeably ashamed that they hadn’t done anything along these lines – hadn’t formed an entity, hadn’t opened a business bank account, nothing.

It’s refreshing to see founders think this way

The founders looked at me, waiting for me to tell them that we needed to get right on these things. I probably should have followed their cue, piled on just the right amount of additional shame, thrown in a healthy dose of fear that the IRS and a slew of unnamed (but aggressive and formidable, mind you) regulators would be right on their tail, and signed them up as new clients straight off. But I didn’t. I patted them on the back. Not literally, but I had no shortage of praise for them.

It’s refreshing to see founders with their hearts and minds rightly focused – on sales, landing customers, wowing customers. So many entrepreneurs spend far too much time behind closed doors, tweaking pro forma models, sprucing up pitch decks, writing wonderful form customer contracts, etc.

All these things have value, but they are a distant second to getting out and finding a customer. In my book, that’s priority number one – get a customer, make a dollar.

You’ve been trained to think about liability, and I don’t blame you

I can hear you now – “But, Brett, if I don’t form a corporation or limited liability company to house the business, I’m personally liable if something goes wrong.” Yep, you might be. But you are also going to be personally liable for a business failure if you spend all your time focusing on back office stuff and don’t get out there and bring in some income. Besides, a company with no customers and no operations is in very little danger of being sued.

I realize that it doesn’t take long to form an entity, so obviously I am being a tad extreme to make a point. And since I am a business lawyer, I want you to form an entity. Better yet, lawyers like me want to be called upon to form that entity. Those other things I talked about – pitch decks and marketing strategies – are important, too, so go do them. But you better be out there operating, selling, and closing at the same time.

Businesses don’t build themselves. They need customers and income.

The Lean Startup Method gets a lot of attention these days. What I love about it is its focus on action. Do stuff, try stuff. Put products and services out there, sign up customers, gather feedback.

Don’t spend two years behind closed doors making your product perfect, particularly if you’re creating a new product or service that the market hasn’t seen before. Guess what? “Perfect” is perfect in the eye of the beholder. The market may flat out not want what you are building, at least in the form in which you are planning to initially put it out there. So make something and get it out there. Keep some of your powder (money) dry to make changes based on feedback.

What do the most successful brands have in common?

In the business classic, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr. identified a common attribute of hugely successful companies – they have a bias for action. They try stuff, they tweak it, they learn from it. They aren’t afraid to fail, and a lot of this failure should occur in the marketplace, with real customers.

When I launched a mortgage company in 2001, my first startup where I had the reins, I initially spent too much time behind closed doors when I should have been out selling. I was fresh off a stint with one of the largest corporate law firms in the world. In the world of high-end law, you spend a lot of time making things perfect, dotting i’s and crossing t’s. That’s what our clients wanted us to do and they were willing to pay us well for the work. Everything is overstaffed – at least it used to be. Documents get revised again and again, fixing punctuation, making everything beyond perfect.

That mindset cost my own company dearly

That mindset is in sharp contrast to the “git ‘er done” mindset most companies should have when they launch. I brought that bias-for-perfection mindset into my new venture and it cost my company the strong start it needed. Plus, there was that part of me that didn’t want to get my hands super dirty, wrangle with customers, etc. I wanted to build something pretty and let others do the heavy lifting. I wanted to play puppeteer and direct others from on high. Customer service? Sales? Ugh.

Think you need your website just right to get out there? Afraid to show up without your business cards, which are still at the printer? Think your logo needs a little work and don’t want to launch without it being done? Get over it. No one really cares about your logo. It’s so unlikely to make a difference in whether or not you close your first sale.

“But, Brett, what will I say when they ask for my business card?” How about, “I ran out.” Or, “I’m having more printed.” Don’t feel comfortable with those responses? How about, “Business cards? We’re not using those anymore. We’re getting ahead of the curve. They’ll be extinct within three years.”

Say anything. Or nothing. My point is, don’t use any of these things as excuses for not getting out there and landing customer number one.

I learned my lesson in the mortgage company and, for a while, I had the FICO score to prove it. We burned through our capital quickly and our perfect logo, ideal form independent contract agreement, and meticulously organized company files weren’t recognized as currency by our vendors. Those were some lean times for me.

If you have more money than Google, you may never have to get your hands dirty

But if you don’t have a bottomless coffer, you need to have a sense of urgency about getting out there and bringing in customers (and, if you’re the leader, you better be out there showing your team how it’s done).

We got it turned around after I got off my high horse, felt the fire under my arse, and started hustling to bring in customers and build relationships. Along the way, I happened to learn a thing or two about what our customers wanted. Imagine that: a president who understood what it was like to be on the front lines.

Sure, I learned. But I am hoping that you don’t have to sport a 508 FICO score for a couple of years because you learned the hard way like I did. Tweak your pro forma, spruce up your pitch deck, get the messaging on your website just right, hire an awesome business attorney (hint, hint), but, please, pretty please, get out there yesterday and land a customer. Bring in the first dollar. Yes, you. Get hungry, get dirty. Interact. Try. Learn. Tweak your offering. Sell more. Git ‘er done. Everything else can wait.

#BusinessLaunch

Brett is The Startup Shepherd – part startup consultant, part angel investor/financier, and part business lawyer. A six-time entrepreneur and recovering “left brainer,” Brett particularly enjoys helping startups and rapidly growing socially-conscious companies.

Business Entrepreneur

If you’re easily distracted, you’re more likely to thrive as an entrepreneur

(ENTREPRENEUR) If monotony and boredom at work- well bores you, it’s possible you may fit with the other entrepreneurs with a quick and constantly changing career.

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When Bill Gates was a kid, he knew he liked messing around with code. He couldn’t have known how it might evolve, but he was willing to live in the distraction, focusing on details when needed, but always learning, moving on, taking risks and growing in the process.

Some of the most successful folks among us are not content to sit and make widgets every day. They cannot thrive in a detail and focused work environment. So, it may come as no surprise to know that people who are more easily distracted are also more likely to thrive as entrepreneurs.

According to this study, if you are intelligent and get distracted more easily, those two qualities combined will likely enhance your creativity. And, that creativity and ability to use distraction as an advantage can be channeled to create new things, jobs, companies, etc.

For those of us who are more easily distracted, who enjoy doing different things every day, and who like learning, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests a good option is to find a career path that provides the right amount of distraction and which is a great fit for your personality. If you do that your talent is more likely to be apparent because you are playing to your strengths. Also, if you are working in your sweet spot you will be more productive and motivated.

Maybe not surprisingly, the top job for those who live in distraction is entrepreneur. The term “easily distracted” often comes with a negative connotation, but considering an entrepreneur is taking risks, making things happen and creating companies, ideas, products that may have never existed, this spins that idea on its head. Entrepreneurs are the chief cooks and bottle washers of the world. They ideate, create, hire and inspire. None of that is possible in a monotonous work environment.

“Unsurprisingly, meta-analyses indicate that entrepreneurs tend to have higher levels of ‘openness to experience,’ so they differ from managers and leaders in that they are more curious, interested in variety and novelty, and are more prone to boredom — as well as less likely to tolerate routine and predictability,” according to the HBR story.

Other careers that are great fits for those of us (me included) who enjoy distraction are PR/Media Production, Journalism and Consultant. What these fields all have in common is, there is never a dull moment, switching from task to task is pretty commonplace, and you will do well if you can be a generalist – synthesizing information and weeding out the unnecessary.

Not sure where your strengths lie? Here’s a quick quiz to give you some feedback on how curious you really are.

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Business Entrepreneur

How can a small business beat a large competitor moving in next door?

(BUSINESS) How do you stand out when a big competitor moves to your neighborhood? Reddit has a few suggestions – some obvious, some not so much.

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Small businesses, especially restaurants have been hit hard by lockdowns. Many closed for good this year, and those that are still hanging on are in a precarious position as their local economies shift.

Last week, a user on r/smallbusiness asked a timeless question that is especially relevant right now. Reddit user longbottomjr writes: “We have a strong competitor moving in next door in a few months. Our restaurant is one that pays the bills but […] I feel that if this new competitor takes up enough market share we will lose our restaurant. Can anyone chime in with resources/ideas I can use to help put together our plan of action?”

Comments quickly pointed out what common sense would dictate.

First, ensure the basics are covered. Being clean, quick, friendly, and high quality will take you far, no matter what competition you’re up against. And as u/horsemullet said, “Customer service also happens before someone walks through the door!” So make sure that your online hours, contact info, menus and social media accounts are up to date and accurate.

Another point emerged that is less intuitive: Competing businesses will naturally gravitate towards similar locations. This is a well-established phenomenon known within game theory as Nash’s Equilibrium. In the restaurant industry, this is actually a good thing. It brings entirely new customers to the area and ultimately benefits all the other nearby businesses, too.

Take advantage of the attention by offering something other spots don’t, like loyalty rewards, specials, unique offerings, or meal deals.

Speaking of the area, a great way to stand out from larger competitors is to build relationships with the community you serve, as u/sugarface2134 emphasized. “In my city there are two Italian restaurants in the same location – just across the parking lot from each other. We always pick the smaller one because the owner truly makes you feel like a member of the family.”

That’s an advantage of being a small, local business that all the money in the world couldn’t buy. Get to know your customers personally and you will not only create loyal regulars, but friends as well.

One of the top rated responses, from u/seefooddiet2200, made an often overlooked but critically important point.

“Talk to your staff and see if they have any ideas. These are the people that are working every single day and may know one or two ‘annoying’ things that if they were switched would make things easier. Or maybe they see that there’s specific things people ask for that you don’t serve. Every single [one] of your employees is a gold mine of insight, you just need to be open to listening to them.”

That is applicable to any business owner who wants to improve their practices.

Ask employees what they think, especially the ones who have stuck around a long time. Not only do they know the ins-and-outs of their jobs, but this builds rapport and trust with your staff. A good boss realizes that employees are more than their job descriptions. They have valuable thoughts about what’s working and not working, and direct access to customer’s opinions.

Good luck, u/longbottomjr! We’ll be rooting for you.

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Business Entrepreneur

How a newly funded coffee delivery startup is thriving during COVID

(REAL ESTATE MARKETING) Seattle’s Joe Coffee finds successful funding in hyper specific clientele and operations even mid-pandemic. But how did they do it?

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Amidst a pandemic, you might not expect a small company with limited clientele to thrive. Yet, Joe Coffee, a Seattle-based delivery service, is doing just that.

Joe Coffee, an aptly named coffee runner, has received millions in funding, a large chunk of which was raised mid-pandemic. Their mission is simple: to bring coffee from smaller shops to local consumers, especially without endangering either party.

There’s a lot to be said about Joe Coffee’s valuation and mission, but what’s more intriguing is their unlikely success.

A food delivery service that focuses on coffee may not seem that niche, but when you look at Joe Coffee’s determination to stick to the Seattle area, coupled with its staunch resolve for frequenting smaller shops (e.g., not Starbucks), the service begins to look pretty specific–and, in an economy that honors sweeping solutions, this is a welcome change of pace.

The way their service works is fairly simple: Joe Coffee provides shops with signs and information on how to order through the Joe network, then consumers are able to download and order through a mobile app on all of the usual platforms. Joe Coffee takes a nine percent cut of the order total, credit card fees included.

In return, customers are able to order from their favorite, local, non-chain coffee shops, both supporting them and sustaining their caffeine addiction at a time where alertness is paramount and grouchiness is all too common.

What’s truly interesting about Joe Coffee’s example is that it demonstrates an availability for small services with extreme specificity in terms of operating capacity. By sticking to unique businesses in a relatively small metropolitan area (as opposed to, say, multiple cities), the service is more likely to be successful in execution and delivery, thereby solidifying its relevance to both consumers and businesses alike.

And, by playing into the need for curbside pickup or home delivery these days, Joe Coffee only furthers the perception that its service is necessary.

If the country begins to reopen–whenever that happens–it will be no surprise to see Joe Coffee maintain a relationship between consumers and smaller businesses in the Seattle area. For anyone offering a similarly niche service, this is a perfect example of a company to which you should pay attention.

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