Entrepreneurship Starts with Asking Someone to Buy


Remember to ask for the sale. You’ve probably heard these words of advice many times – whether in the context of a prospective deal, a request for a favor, or in an interview prep – and the first time you made the ask it was probably really scary. Asking for the sale is the first step to becoming an entrepreneur. When you ask someone to buy what you’re selling, you really know whether they will vote with their wallet and trust you to provide them with value.

My son has been talking about selling the friendship bracelets he makes for months. I heard about many potential business models. There was the “set up a stand at the end of the road” during the summer, the “find people at school to buy it” model, and several other less promising ideas. And the one that won the day today was “Mom? Can you give me your phone to take some pictures? I want to sell my bracelets to people I know and I hope you can post the pictures on Facebook.” The simplest business model sometimes is the best.

When you face a challenge, it’s really easy to say “I’ll think about it tomorrow” or “it’s not quite right yet” or “I don’t have all of the answers.” It’s really important to take the biggest small step you can take to move toward that goal.¬†You won’t get it right, but one step forward is better than no steps at all.

My son is now getting orders for his bracelets, learning how to fill orders, take commissions, and deal with inventory. He is selling these bracelets for a goal – earning enough money to buy a concert-level trumpet – and he’s also learning about the details of small business. (I believe there is some side negotiation with contract labor and his little sister.) What stopped him from doing this before? Inertia. Today he decided to ask for the sale and people are buying.

“I think it’s so cool that you would do this for me,” he told his Mom today, “thank you so much.” Very soon I think he’ll figure out that he did most of this for himself. We enabled him to take the first step toward starting his business – and I hope it won’t be his last one.

Donuts make everything better

photo by @grmeyer
Yes, they are #nom.

A couple of years ago, my wife started a donut business. Her purpose was simple: make delicious vegan and gluten-free food that people liked for a reasonable price. She test marketed batches of donuts, did some product-market fit work by selling in batches to friends, and then opened a market stall in a farmer’s market with her business partner. The business did well – they got repeat customers, sold lots of donuts, and became known at several farmer’s markets around Seattle. Yet the business wasn’t making money.

Donuts, it turns, out, are expensive when you don’t mass-produce them (and even then, you have to price them to match the expectations of the market). The component ingredients – fair trade cocoa, non-GMO soybean oil, organic sugar – and the permit fees and daily costs made the business more expensive to run than people wanted to pay for the end product. We still enjoy the donuts when my wife chooses to make them (like today). But she decided to end the business because running a business wasn’t the reason she got started making donuts, and the choices that she had to make to sell more product required changing the business so much it wasn’t recognizable.

Successful businesses deliver delight to their customers while managing to adapt to the changing business itself. When you look at the example of producing specialty donuts, you have a challenging environment (special ingredients, limited product life, and specialized demand from a certain kind of customer). If you focus on the variables you can control – how to cap the costs of the special ingredients, what to do to extend the product life, and how to market the product to a wider audience and get mass appeal – you can make that business bigger.

The business of producing frozen donuts in a mass-produced model didn’t match the original vision of delivering delicious food in person to a clientele that didn’t have a place to get tasty treats. My wife wanted to look the customer in the eye and hear their stories in person – and they were great stories! But you can only eat so many donuts.¬†Donuts do make everything better, but you can’t eat them every day.

If the original model had looked more like a frozen food business, it might have been more successful as a business, but wouldn’t have been anything like the experience of hand crafting food delights to an underserved customer that really appreciated that product (and told you so in person). Adapting to the changing business is the real challenge – maintaining the spirit of the idea while scaling the delight.

If you love customers, set them free

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/

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Do all of these things make your blood boil? When I first used the internet, I was amazed at the ability of computers to talk to other computers over long distance. I also marveled that email and later voice and video connected you like magic to your friends. And I was really disappointed to find out that most companies don’t actually want to talk to their customers.

Why are companies not listening?

There are a few who are: Amazon.com just launched “Mayday”, a system to allow instant tech support on your Kindle Fire device – this is a great idea! But try to get in touch with most banks, insurance agencies, or other bureaucracies and you’re likely to end up in phone tree hell.
The only conclusion that I can draw from the behavior of these other businesses is that they don’t really want to hear what you have to say, and that your voice doesn’t matter.

Your voice does matter. Dear companies (and CEOs and marketers): if you love your customers, set them free. Listen to their complaints and agree to feel a little discomfort. You might have to tell them, “I’m sorry. We made a bad decision, and I can’t make it better for you right now. And here’s what I can do for you.” Because in the age of social, where customers are always communicating among themselves, companies who want to provide great service need to respond and improve their relationship with the customer.

Without the customer, there is no business.

If you truly love customers, set them free. Let them leave. And find out why they are leaving. Customers want you buy what you’re selling for a reason. And if your reason no longer works for them, or they need something else, finding out what is wrong and understanding and solving the root cause is as important as saving that customer.

So don’t make it hard to leave simple transactional items like email lists. Do have a conversation when a customer is frustrated enough to want to take their business elsewhere. And learn from the experience so that more customers don’t feel the same way. When you solve the problem for the customer who wants to leave, they will come back. The customer will come back because your product is better, your service is better, and your overall experience is better. And because you listened to them and let them know it.

Starting from the empty page.

A blank page is a prison and the ultimate freedom. When the paper is blank there are no constraints. Anything can happen and a masterpiece feels (tantalizingly) within reach. Yet making the first line is the most important line because without making a line, your drawing goes nowhere. But you have to act because if you don’t make a line there’s no drawing.

Mixed Media Drawing by Greg Meyer
Mixed Media Drawing by Greg Meyer

You hold your breath and put pencil to paper. And then immediately feel the feedback of a great beginning or one that isn’t so great. And then the creation gets easier. It becomes possible to make more lines in the company of the ones you put there first. And refining the existing lines get easier because you can define them in relation to other lines on the paper.

But all is not perfect. Because when you erase the lines or refashion them you can see the echoes of what went before. The drawing gets an inevitable style and it starts to feel like it has your signature. It might be your best work yet. Or maybe not – because you can’t look back at your progress and see it yet.

Working on a startup is like making that first drawing on an that empty page. Some days it feels effortless to draw a new thing into being and on other days it’s the hardest thing in the world to spend the time drawing on your business canvas the way you know you should. Yet you keep going. On the best days, the feeling is incredible.

The solution to balancing out more of the ups and downs of of startup life? Practicing simple, mindful things that make a difference is never a bad way to start a day. What were the most important lines that I drew yesterday that I need to connect to others today? What shapes are not on my canvas yet that need to be there? Who should I ask for feedback to know if the drawing I’m making is similar to the one that they are expecting.

Drawing and business are not dissimilar – they both draw from a creative resource that’s not there every day. But creativity is not a zero sum game. Place creative people in the same room and suddenly there is geometric or exponential growth, creating amazing things out of raw materials. And sharing those drawings with a small and ever-widening circle of people is a frightening, intense, incredible experience that forces you to accept the drawing for what it is: a drawing. And then you can go back to the canvas and try again to make the same drawing a little better by incorporating what you learned yesterday.

Catch someone doing something right

photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewvenn/366986172
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewvenn/366986172

In my experience, successful organizations do a few things right when it comes to people. Not only do they do a great job attracting, discovering, and retaining people, they do a great job at “catching people doing something right.” What does that mean, exactly? Finding and celebrating individual effort is something more than rewarding someone for pulling an all-nighter when you needed them. It means more than naming someone the employee of the month and giving them a preferred parking spot. And it means more than just naming all of the people on a successful project team. But what else should you be doing? Continue reading “Catch someone doing something right”

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