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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

Freelancers, this new social site will enhance your networking experience

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) Contra promises freelancers a new way to flex their experience by leveraging professional relationships in a bold take on networking and – at its core – hiring in general.

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Birds eye view of two women networking at a table with colorful interconnecting pattern on a concrete floor.

In the modern technical world, freelancers act as nomadic one-off hires that come aboard to complete a job and then are released back into the void. The rise of the gig economy and similar services has delivered new opportunities for those who need work and those who want to provide it, with entire platforms built around this idea of temporary employment. This is certainly viable and has given individuals more reach than ever before across networking systems.

However, these services tend to have some limitations – each job is isolated and usually cannot guarantee follow-up work with the same company. Workers may not be building themselves up meaningfully – lasting relationships with businesses aren’t guaranteed, interactions with colleagues might be brief, and long term freelancing might be viewed negatively. It can function alongside a career path, but is not necessarily a replacement for it (or at least is more difficult).

Maybe this could be blamed on the status quo and attitudes regarding employment, where extended tenure at the same company connotes loyalty and merit. There’s been some push against this in recent years given the way widespread platforms have enabled job seekers, but the hesitancy remains. Corporations want to hire quality candidates, but favor in-house employees that have proven themselves.

This is where Contra comes in, aiming to improve how freelancers function in the greater context of their industries. Based on their pitch, it does this by first placing a larger emphasis on networking, and then uses this as a way to reframe how we think about freelancing’s efficacy. Contra suggests that professional relationships hold more significance than traditional metrics. After all, referrals are king.

Put another way – people are your best bet to securing continued and new jobs, so let’s turn away from things like how long you’ve been somewhere and instead favor referrals, offering a path to focus on what you’ve done. As co-founder Gajus Kuizinas says, “…We are giving people the tools to describe their proudest career moments, publicly thank the people with whom they’ve worked with, and begin accepting inquiries for future opportunities.”

The hiring process might need a modern refresh

Maybe Contra isn’t saying it in so many words, and perhaps this is a harsh way to think about it, but maybe our current models for evaluating employment are misguided. There’s an emphasis placed on working at the same place for an extended period of time and at prominent companies. Those aren’t bad indicators by any means – there is something to be said for working at well known and established corporations.

But this can be hazy and gloss over what exactly someone did, which can hurt or diminish their contributions. If we focus on the positive, proactive question here of hiring qualified individuals, then what is the best thing to look at? The work.

Nothing is as accurate as looking directly at the results someone has produced – that is what matters. Quality outweighs where you were or how long you were there. Turn the attention away from “this is a series of one-off projects all over the place” and instead zero in on how all of those things best represent someone’s skill set.

This brings up a second problem – how can you best show this when trying to get new gigs? Sometimes a portfolio can’t speak primarily for itself, or legal contracts prevent divulging assets, or someone may not be the best at selling themselves. Even with a killer inventory of projects, there are still hurdles to overcome.

A one-two punch: Looking directly at what matters

Contra has a solution for this – flex those high profile relationships you’ve made. If you’ve got people eagerly talking about what you’ve done, they absolutely will show off your work. And they’ll do it with a level of excitement that will make a solid and lasting impression. After all, they’ve already received the fruits of your labor, and they’ll happily talk it up.

It’s a brilliant approach that puts a bigger emphasis on reinforcing your experience through the use of those around you. Contra’s solution is elegant – let’s allow our users, contributors, makers, and freelancers have access to a platform where they can build out a network of people who can vouch for them, and then actively utilize that social aspect. Keep your resume and portfolio, sure, but use it in tandem with those who will elevate you.

It’s a move toward something more alive.

Contra’s Community Lead explains, “Before joining the Community team at Contra, I was a freelancer who desperately wanted to make new connections with clients and other freelancers. Though — don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just want to network for the sake of networking. I wanted to make relationships with people who I could learn from and be inspired by. When using other freelancing sites, I realized I needed more from these platforms, not a quick one-off project with strangers (I don’t dig transactional interactions).”

It’s like a supercharged LinkedIn – instead of just listing out a bunch of static bullet points and hoping that coworkers drop by for a kind word, Contra’s hope is to take that latter part and make it the central focus. It’s a one-two punch of having a network of willing hype people alongside a portfolio and/or resume. This can include other freelancers, established employees at respected companies, or even well known veterans striking out with new startups.

The benefits don’t stop there – now a freelancer has greater access to mentors and inroads to bigger companies. Contra is providing solutions to things that plague the independent consultant route by creating support during all parts of the networking process – education, securing relationships, building upon past successes, improving a portfolio, and creating a network of reliable, helpful colleagues. It is empowering a freelancer to realize their true potential.

Voice over text

By providing a social backing component to the networking, job hunting, and freelancing process, Contra effectively resolves many of the shortcomings such a career path might adversely afford. It helps build out a way to repeat contracts, levels the playing field by projecting experience and results, and provides ways toward self improvement. It gives voice to someone by building up a support team – there’s safety and strength in numbers.

In a way, this feels like a modern and refreshing take on the freelancing process – something a bit more real and personal in the business world. We are social beings – let’s let others speak for us at times, even when it comes to our professional lives.

In a new world where there are dozens of communities, why shouldn’t there be one more devoted to the job search and hiring process? Contra’s platform may deliver just that to networking as a freelancer. It will be exciting to watch.

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Business Entrepreneur

Small businesses must go digital to survive (and thrive)

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) A study at Cisco reveals how digitizing small businesses is no longer optional, but critical to success, thanks to the pandemic.

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Black woman working on a laptop on a couch, running her small businesses' needs digitally.

As digital transformation efforts ramp up due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study released by Cisco has highlighted some key insights into how small businesses will need to adapt in order to survive in the “new normal.”

The study, conducted by International Data Corporation (IDC), analyzed more than 2,000 small businesses across eight different markets, including the United States, Canada, Germany, Mexico, United Kingdom, Brazil, Chile, and France. Using a four-section index to assess a small business’s digitalization efforts, the research found that 16% of companies said they were “thriving and feel their businesses are agile and resilient.” While 36% stated they were in “survival mode.” Regardless of where they were ranked in the index, the study concluded that 70% of firms were in the process of ramping up digital transformation within their company due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide that was already present in the small business market, and it is forcing companies to accelerate their digitalization,” said Daniel-Zoe Jimenez, AVP, head digital transformation & SMB research at IDC. “Small businesses are realizing that digitalization is no longer an option, but a matter of survival.”

The study also highlighted several challenges associated with digital transformation. The three biggest obstacles that businesses seem to face during the process were digital skills and talent, budgetary issues (lack of funds or previous commitment of funds), and cultural resistance to change. Despite these roadblocks, 45% of companies surveyed stated that they expect over 30% of their business to be digital by 2021. And 32% responded that they are planning on developing a digital strategy. This included investing in talent with the right set of digital skills moving forward.

Those decisions fall in line with Cisco and IDC’s recommendations. These include creating a three-year technology road map and building a workforce with the right skills to succeed in a digital world. Other suggestions include finding the right technology partner, and keeping up with industry trends. Leveraging financing and remanufactured equipment can aid with cash flow and budget requirements.

As small businesses continue to adapt to consumer behavior and the whirlwind of ever-changing rules that have come with the coronavirus, digital transformation will continue to play a major role in the post-COVID world. According to the report, if half of the small businesses surveyed can reach the second-highest tier of the index by 2024, those companies could end up adding an additional $2.3 trillion to the eight markets’ gross domestic product (GDP), contributing to the global economic recovery.

As we approach the six-month mark of the pandemic, just when and how the “new normal” will emerge is still uncertain. But there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for small businesses — even if it’s faint green and contains zeroes and ones.

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Business Entrepreneur

Product Hunt is putting their money where their hunt is

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) Product Hunt is putting money where their hunt is by announcing a new Maker Grants service to boost small and independent creators.

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Meeting of product creators making their pitch for Product Hunt.

Product Hunt – a technology centric site that aggregates new products daily – recently announced a new Maker Grant program that is designed to identify and help startups get their products started with a $5,000 grant.

Since its inception in 2013 by Ryan Hoover, Product Hunt has been a success vehicle for numerous products and companies by giving them access to a large audience of potential customers and investors. Available as an app across multiple formats, it allows groups to post their ideas and get feedback from a number of sources through comments and an integrated voting system. Everything from books, podcasts, hardware, and games can be found on Product Hunt, with dozens of new entries every day.

And now, Product Hunt’s new venture is to give 3 promising products their own substantial grant each month in an effort to give back to its community by placing money into the hands of its followers.

In a statement in its press release, Product Hunt announced that, “We know that building products can be expensive work, and passion doesn’t always pay the bills. As a way of saying thank you to the community, and to encourage makers to keep building, this year we’re offering cash gifts of $5,000 to three makers each month.”

Users will be able to nominate Makers that they feel deserve the investment by filling out a form. Product Hunt will take these suggestions and make decisions from there. In terms of how this will all be done, the official word is, “We’re reviewing makers who launched in the previous month who we believe are shining examples of innovation, grit, and engagement with the PH community. We’ll also be prioritizing those who are bootstrapping their businesses or working on their side projects without the help of venture funding.”

The big takeaway here is that Product Hunt is championing its support of its Makers through direct monetary help. By giving back into their own users, it strengthens and encourages them to put their best ideas forward and believe in their own innovation. Whereas more standard and traditional methods of grants may require several layers of arbitration, paperwork, and other hurdles, Product Hunt is providing a fast track to capital by leveraging its existing group of passionate users. Even knowing where to look can be intimidating and overwhelming.

At a time when banks may not be the best option for grants and loans, seeing a company choose to instead redirect its own money into the hands of its users is uplifting (and even more so given the turbulent market in a pandemic-choked world). Product Hunt maintains that it will do this each month, and will listen to feedback as it continues to build out the program.

Product Hunt’s userbase has reacted with incredible enthusiasm and praise, with repeated posts expressing a huge level of excitement and gratitude. While there are still some questions to be answered, Product Hunt’s flexible and community-driven approach is poised to potentially change the lives of many Makers. It will be exciting to see how this all plays out, and hopefully will encourage other companies to follow suit in creating positive outcomes through financial support.

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