Picture yourself on a massive cruise ship, as one of the thousands of passengers. Everything you need to survive is provided for, and there are quite a number of options available to occupy your time with. There are people with every imaginable background and profession among the thousands of passengers – if you need any assistance, there is someone who can help. Sure, the large vessel is not the quickest to maneuver, and it will not even fit in the small harbors. But by the sheer size of it, the ship can withstand various weather conditions, and you really feel quite safe onboard. Now, imagine that cruise lasted for 15 years. Yes, one-five. And all of a sudden you wake up in a tiny sailboat, in an open sea, with just one other person onboard. That sailboat is not going to move, unless the two of you figure out what it takes to make it move. There is nothing to eat until you learn to catch fish. It will not come to any harbor, unless you know how to navigate to one. Along the way, you will surely feel every wave tilting your entire universe. But the two of you have the opportunity to figure it all out, and embark on a journey of possibilities. If only that darn wind would start blowing!
That is pretty much how I felt starting up a business with a friend of mine, after 15 years in a corporate machine. Even the word I was supposed to associate myself with, felt awkward: entrepreneur. Heck, I am still struggling to even pronounce that one. Ent-reee-pre-noir… or something. The Finnish equivalent of it, ‘yrittäjä’, is not helping. I am what?
Now, having the first four years as an entrepreneur under my belt, I thought it would be a good time to reflect a little bit. I will address what I have learned to be some key attributes in getting a business going. Who knows, maybe someone who is just about to disembark from that large vessel, finds the following outtakes from my Captain’s Log useful.
If I had to summarize the essence of entrepreneurship in one word, this would be it. Does your company appear professional and trustworthy enough that any prospective client would consider you? If you were in their shoes, would you buy from yourself? Every choice you make as an entrepreneur boils down to this. You can establish numerous building blocks that help, such as professional-looking interfaces – anything from business cards to www-pages, from office location to attire – but at the end of the day, you cannot buy credibility. You have to earn it by walking the talk.
Waiting for a prospective client to ask you for a quotation on your product or service will be a darn long wait if they do not even know that you exist. Getting some media coverage can help – but it is a good idea to be critical and selective on what you sponsor or where you buy advertisement space, especially in the high-risk start-up phase. Explore other options as well: start a blog or get active in some professional forums of your target customer groups, or both, to build visibility. Make use of B2B-events for networking (will be a good idea to do some value analysis here on whether to buy a stand in such an event, or join as a participant). Get active in selected social media channels, and share meaningful content with the right hashtags.
What other companies you have as your clients? This is one of the first questions you are guaranteed to face in every prospective client meeting until your company name is known. If you do not have any reference, it is very, very difficult to walk away with a signed contract. On the other hand, having notable references will go a long way in establishing credibility.
Rather than defining your product or service to the maximum detail in the isolated comfort of your own pothole, get your half-baked ideas or demos to prospective clients. Observe, ask questions, and listen. Make corrections, and launch the version 2.0. Repeat. Involving your customers to the development of your offering is probably the best way to reduce sheer waste of money in the development phase of your NextBestThing. In this context, consider doing a trial project for a prospective client even for free – as long as they agree to act as your reference after a successful pilot.
From cruise ships to partnerships – smooth sailing! But seriously, having a few well selected partners, whose offering is not directly competing with yours but rather complementing your service menu, can make quite a difference in getting your new business going. You partners may fill any gap you perhaps have in your references, to convince a new client. Partners can also be useful sounding boards when developing something new. Also, jointly with your partners you may perhaps bid for more sizeable deals than any of you could alone.
Service is king
Once you build a reputation as someone who listens to their client, strives to understand their unique challenge, provides a custom-fit solution and delivers on it, you are onto something great! Your clients will remember how your service made them feel. On the rare occasion that some aspect of your deliverable does not meet customer expectation, the quality of your service can recover the situation. My argument: whatever your line of business, you cannot afford to offer poor customer service.
I feel the wind picking up, need to go now. After four years, I still cannot quite control the wind. But at least I can adjust the sail.