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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

Cowrkr gives you accountability while you work solo

(ENTREPRENEUR NEWS) Being accountable for your own accountability is a tall order. Join Cowrkr and let someone else do it for you.

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My boyfriend and I have always had a great appreciation for film and television, as well as the writing that goes into it. We always talk about different project ideas, but never get too far in execution with the busyness of real life.

Last night, I finally thought of a way that we can help each other bring our projects to completion, and that is simply by holding each other accountable. I suggest that each week we could have a new task that is due by 10 p.m. Sunday night.

We both have ideas for scripts, so the plan is to start off with having a plot synopsis and character list due the first week, having an outline due the second week, and so on. This will not only help keep us on track but will also help in terms of formatting ideas.

While I’m grateful that this little plan has come together, I know that most people aren’t working on similar projects to people they are close with. Therefore, they may need to look elsewhere for accountability.

Now freelancers and entrepreneurs have the opportunity to be matched with a fellow freelancer or entrepreneur to help hold each other accountable for their respective projects. Meet Cowrkr.

“This is an initiative to help makers keep themselves socially accountable by getting them to build publicly,” says cowrkr developers.

Users sign up and give some info regarding what project they’re working on and what they’re shipping. It works by connecting two makers at a time and cowrkr works to help each maker keep the other accountable until each project is completed.

Once a project has been completed, the makers then end their accountability relationship. When their next project comes along, they will then be assigned a different maker.

Cowrkr’s website does not give a ton of insight as to how the algorithms and matching systems work, but it is an intriguing idea for freelancers and entrepreneurs looking to take their individual projects to the next level.

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Business Entrepreneur

The top 10 startup cities in America

(ENTREPRENEUR NEWS) If you’re thinking about launching a startup anytime soon you may want to check out this list on the top 10 cities for startups.

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The digital revolution is in full swing, and some cities are setting themselves up to capitalize upon these innovations by supporting startups.

In order to “better understand the U.S. cities driving the digital revolution,” several groups have come together to rank which cities are making the most of the tech startup boom.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1776, the U.S. Chamber Technology Engagement Center, and FreeEnterprise.com have teamed up to publish a report called Innovation That Matters (ITM).

The report analyzes and ranks U.S. cities on such factors as startup capital, the connectivity of startups, startup culture, the availability of worker talent and specialization, and more. Data was taken from surveys of entrepreneurs and businesspeople, startups, and leaders in public and private sectors.

J.D. Harrison, senior director of strategic communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that the “digital revolution has the potential to make winners of some cities and leave others behind.”

The study aims to find out which cities “embrace this shift to a digital economy and actively support technology startups,” arguing that these cities “will be the best positioned to unleash the power of high-impact innovation and cultivate vibrant, thriving communities.”

The top ten ranking cities are as follows:

10) Portland, Oregon because every city needs a nickname, has been dubbed the Silicon Forest, referencing its leadership in green tech.

9) New York City, New York. The largest tech hub on the east coast.

8) Seattle, Washington. Home to Amazon.com and several other tech firms, with Microsoft’s headquarters in nearby Redmond.

7) Dallas, Texas. Dtown moved up significantly by increasing startup connectivity and tapping into a large, diverse workforce.

6) Atlanta, Georgia. The “most improved” city on the ITM list, moving up 15 places to number six due to a surge in financial, educational, and health tech industries.

5) Austin,Texas. Home of The American Genius, Austin has become a “haven for tech-savvy millennials seeking good-paying job opportunities.” Besides hosting many tech startups, Austin still has a relatively affordable cost of living.

4) San Diego, California. San Diego is full of cybersecurity, Big Data, robotics, and software startups.

3)Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Also known as Philicon Alley, moved up from number eight by deregulating and becoming more business-friendly.

2) San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay also ranked number two last year. The seaside neighbor to the Silicon Valley has been doing a great job attracting seed funding these days.

1) Boston, Massachusetts. This is the second year in a row that Boston has topped this list, due to its large number of startups and robust entrepreneur population.

How does your city rank?

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Business Entrepreneur

Customer surveys tell more than just satisfaction

(ENTREPRENEUR NEWS) While they can be annoying for the consumer and cost time for the company, customer feedback surveys are crucial to your business.

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While Richard Dawson, Louie Anderson, and Steve Harvey may not be able to personally help you with customer service, what they have in common can. Surveys, and personalized follow-up attention in general, help clients and consumers know that they mean something to your business.

For the sake of this article (and the fast-paced, technological world we live in) I am going to be speaking about surveys. However, I want to share this anecdote first.

I used to work front desk at a salon and part of my job was to follow up with new guests about a week after their appointment.

Now, most of the time, my calls went to voicemail, which were never returned; but every once in awhile a human answered.

After going through the spiel of why I was calling, I could almost always sense a sound of surprise from the other line before the person answered my question. One conversation in particular left me realizing how important this seemingly useless task was.

I called an older woman and asked her about a recent appointment she had at the salon. She thanked me for calling and then went into detail about how great the appointment was and how much getting her hair done meant to her.

Before we hung up she said, “thank you again for calling. A salon has never done this before.” It then hit me like a ton of bricks just how significant something as small as a callback is.

If you have the time, definitely make those callbacks to clients as it could be very meaningful. However, it’s understandable that most of us may not have the time in our schedule for personalized phone calls.

So if that’s the case, don’t forget about surveys. I know most of them will either go to spam or go unanswered, but the mere fact that you’re sending it out shows clients and customers that you care about their business.

And, for those surveys that do receive responses, it can be extremely beneficial for your company as you can get insight into what works and what doesn’t. There’s really no disadvantage to this tactic, so remember to make time for that follow up with existing clients rather than just focusing on getting new ones.

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