Guest Post by Dan Scalco. Dan is the Director of Growth at Digitalux and blogs at GrowthSignal.com. He specializes in SEO and Conversion Optimization. When he’s not working hard to bring in more leads for his clients, he enjoys fixing up his old motorcycle, playing with his dog Max, and binge-watching documentaries on NetFlix.
When it comes to starting a new business, a little planning goes a long way.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a launch, but laying groundwork prior to that is critical to success in both the short and long term. Luckily it’s possible to build a solid foundation in just a few short days, while avoiding critical new business mistakes. Here’s how to go from floundering to polished in the course of a weekend.
Step One: Validate your idea.
Many businesses fail because they were started on a whim before determining whether there’s a real market for the product or service being offered. Too often, would-be entrepreneurs barrel full-steam ahead to product development or designing fancy business cards. They eventually pay the price when customers don’t come knocking.
For a business to have a chance at success, it’s critical to validate demand for its product or service. There are a number of simple ways to do this. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Create an online survey. Use a simple tool like SurveyMonkey and send it to your contact list to gauge whether anyone would be interested in buying. Make responses anonymous to ensure honesty. And try to send the survey to more than just close friends and family.
- Create a mock landing page with an opt-in form. Then run ads promoting the product or service to see how many people (if any) sign up.
- Scope out the competition. Contrary to popular belief, competition is a good thing. It demonstrates demand for a particular product or service (otherwise those companies wouldn’t be in business). If nobody’s doing what you intend to do, that may actually be a red flag. If others are already doing it, consider how you can distinguish the business by doing it better.
Use the results of these tests to refine your business’ offerings (or scrap them and start over). Don’t invest in product development unless there’s demonstrated interest. Save those resources for when you know they’ll be wanted.
Step Two: Write (short) business and marketing plans.
You won’t have all the details or be able to plan for all contingencies. That’s okay. There’s no need for a business plan that’s set in stone. Instead, use this plan as a catalyst for structuring your efforts and thinking through some of the finer details of business development.
Focus on writing a “summary” business plan:
- Include a brief description of the company’s values, vision, mission, and long-term goals.
- Include your market research from step one. What have you learned about the industry, competition, and target customers? How can you distinguish the company from the pack (i.e. what is the business’ unique value proposition)?
- Consider how to best market the company, and how to measure the effectiveness of those efforts.
- What will the company’s sales process look like? How will you generate leads and close sales? This one’s especially important.
- Sketch out an operations plan. What resources are necessary to produce and deliver the product or services? Describe the people and roles necessary to achieve this workflow.
- Outline a financial plan for the business that includes start-up costs and revenue projections for both the short and long term.
Let these plans be living documents that evolve along with the company. In the early stages of the company’s growth, revisit and refine them often.
Step Three: Gain funding.
Not all companies require start-up capital, though many do. If you’re in the latter camp, there are several ways to obtain funding:
- Government grants. These vary by industry, so research whether this is an option for your company.
- Peer-to-peer lending. Also called P2P lending, this method of financing consists of funds being exchanged between individuals without companies as middlemen. Prosper and LendingClub are great places to start. Just keep in mind that loans often come with strings attached.
- Crowdfunding. It helps to already have a large base of support that can publicize a campaign and help it gain traction from the beginning. The most successful campaigns are unique, fill a hole in the market, and rely on a well-executed publicity strategy.
- Bootstrapping. This method requires resourcefulness and the ability to cope with insecurity. But the pay-offs can be great. That’s because bootstrapping allows you to set the terms for how the business moves forward. You won’t be constrained by investors’ timelines or demands, and the company can evolve organically.
Step Four: Determine your ideal customer demographic.
Dial in on who you’re selling to and why they might be interested in your product or service. Understanding what makes customers tick is critical to establishing a successful marketing strategy and building brand loyalty.
Many companies create a customer avatar—a fictional person who encapsulates the desired demographic. For example, Lululemon refers to their ideal male customer as “Duke”. Duke is stylish, athletic, hard-working, witty, and successful in business and life. He’s 35 years old, loves outdoor sports, and makes $100,000 a year.
Imagine how much easier it is to create a targeted marketing campaign for “Duke” (or Gina, Malcolm, or Brittany) than it would be to sell to “young people” or “animal lovers.” The latter two options are much too vague. Dial in on your ideal customer’s attributes by considering the following:
- Their age, gender, race, and social status (i.e. income, education, and occupation)
- Where and how they spend their time. Are they workaholics? Partiers? Crazy about the outdoors? Do they live in Berkeley, CA, in downtown Paris, in the farmlands of Iowa?
- What they need (and how the product or service fulfills that need). Consider the specific benefits the ideal customer would want to derive from your product or service. How do they decide what to buy? When and how do they purchase the product?
Taking the time to imagine yourself in the ideal customer’s shoes (maybe even literally) will help you create a marketing strategy that appeals to the right people and compels them to buy.
Step Five: Build your website.
A business’ website should be designed with the customer in mind. Detail the benefits of the product or service in a way that immediately captures the attention of your ideal customer (good copywriting is key). And make sure the website’s interface is user-friendly.
Also keep the business’ goals in mind while developing the website, and create clear calls to action that align with those goals. For example, a company’s messaging and calls to action will vary depending on whether it’s trying to sell products online, build an email list, or motivate customers to turn up at a brick and mortar store.
There are two ways to build a website:
- Hire a professional. This can be expensive, but the cost can be worth it if the person knows what they’re doing and is responsive to your needs. Develop a clear vision for what the website should convey before enlisting professional help.
- Create your own. Pre-made template services such as SquareSpace or Wix are popular options. They’re relatively cheap and easy to set up, which makes them a great option for bootstrapping businesses. The downside is these sites offer less customization. But it’s easy to start with a template and build a new site once the company grows.
Step Six: Choose a business structure.
The eyes of many aspiring entrepreneurs glaze over when legal topics arise. But choosing an appropriate corporate structure is critical to maintaining essential business functions down the road.
Most startups operate as a Limited Liability Company (LLC) or an S Corporation (S Corp). Either option limits the owner’s liability to the amounts invested or loaned. Because these entities qualify as “pass-through” structures, the owners can often write off start-up costs as losses on personal tax returns and avoid double taxation.
Keep in mind that making the business public or fundraising through private equity may not be possible with pass-through structures. That’s one of the many reasons why it’s critical to determine the right corporate structure for your company’s needs. If the terms prove confusing, consult a professional accountant.
Step Seven: Start marketing yourself.
If you do the work outlined in the previous steps, this process will be surprisingly straightforward. Keep the company’s values, goals, and ideal customer in mind in all interactions.
Here are the top four ways to get started marketing your business:
- Start by reaching out to family and friends and asking them for referrals to potential customers or clients. Offer a referral bonus if people could use the incentive.
- Use free publicity. Yes, this really exists. Services such as HARO let you position yourself as an expert in a given field. Guest blogging or pitching posts to publications in your industry are other good options.
- Invest in email marketing. It’s a great way to reach both potential and loyal customers, and track customer engagement. The best email campaigns provide value to readers instead of just inundating them with hard sells. Read up on best practices, create an opt-in form on the business’ website, and start building your list. The sooner the better.
- Start networking. It’s a cliché because it’s true: Who you know can make a huge difference when it comes to business success. If you’re not already well-connected, it’s time to start networking. But don’t throw yourself at the feet of anyone who will listen. Instead, enlist a strategy for developing high-quality relationships with influential people in your industry.
Here are some more ideas to get your new small business off the ground ASAP.
It may seem like a lot, but investing time and thought in each of these steps is well worth. Once you have a solid foundation from which to launch a business, the rest can be figured out on the go. Do the legwork now – thank yourself later.