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I Knew I Had a Great Idea When...

How do you know when you're finally on your way to building a successful business? Seven entrepreneurs share their stories.

Starting a business is a bit like falling in love. You make a few initial forays into a relationship, then at some point you realize you have something real and lasting. For many start-ups, the trick is recognizing when you've transitioned from a good idea into a legitimate business.

I asked several business owners when they knew their new venture was going to stay solvent. Maybe their answers will help you know whether you've made it--or are still in experimental mode.

Adam Witty, founder and CEO of Advantage Media Group

"I was in a diner in Oklahoma on a Saturday morning eating a hearty breakfast of eggs and ham. As I was perusing my email, I noticed a publishing inquiry from the vice president of marketing and product development from one of the largest consumer brands in the world--a name that every reader would know. Advantage had published books for hundreds of entrepreneurs and CEOs, but when we received that inquiry through our website, I guess I knew we were going to make it." 

Kathy Steck, owner of DinerWear

"When I started my business, I took classes through the Small Business Administration, including a 10-week course that helped me fully flesh out my product and my business. I got my first order while taking this class and was able to celebrate this first milestone with my fellow entrepreneurs. But it was my first big order of over 300 units that made me realize that my business was more than a concept. Nine boxes, packed and ready for shipment (I took a picture), demonstrated to me that this was all for real."

Peter Hames, co-founder of Sleepio.com

"I'm a big believer in New Year's resolutions. When I quit my job to start Sleepio.com, my resolution for the coming year was "to put one person to sleep." Our idea was potentially crazy--a serious online sleep-improvement program delivered by animated virtual sleep therapist The Prof and his narcoleptic dog, Pavlov. We slogged away and built a cruddy prototype, then invited a handful of long-term insomniacs to try it. By December 31 of that year, we had managed to cure four insomniacs whom we'd never met, after following the program for just six weeks. And they all loved it. That's when I knew it was going to work."

Nitzan Yudan, co-founder and CEO of Flat-Club

"I started Flat-Club to help alumni and students of top universities find short-term accommodations within their trusted networks. We launched in London Business School with five apartments and within two weeks had 70 apartments posted. We kept growing by word of mouth, but it all changed when we had some media coverage and universities started to contact us asking to join. In one week, we had seven universities asking to join Flat-Club. By the end of that week, while having a drink with my wife, I realized that this business was for real. I said no to two job offers I had, from American Express and Deutsche Bank, and focused only on building Flat-Club. I realized everything was going to change. I didn't sleep that night at all."

Alex Furmansky, founder of Sparkology (an elite online dating site)

"I knew we were legit when I started recognizing strangers in a city of more than eight million people--from MTA subway cars to charity auctions--as clients of Sparkology!" 

Scott Ferreira, founder and CEO of MySocialCloud.com

"Back in July 2001, I had a call with one of Sir Richard Branson's friends, Jerry Murdock. I had a meeting at USC, where I was a student at the time, and it had run over, so I had to take Jerry's call while trying to bike back to our office, which is a solid 20- to 25-minute bike ride from the far side of the USC campus. Unfortunately, my phone was almost dead when we started the call, and after just 15 minutes of talking it totally died. I started biking as fast as possible, thinking I had just totally blown our chances to ever get Jerry to listen to us again. But I rushed back and plugged in my iPhone, frantically waiting for it to turn back on. When it finally did, I had several missed calls from him and redialed immediately. When he picked up and we started right where we had left off despite the 10- to 15-minute gap, I knew this was going to happen." 

Tracy Higginbotham, president of Women TIES

"The exact moment I knew my business was legit was around 10 p.m. on September 17, 1996, the evening of the first wedding I was hired to manage. I was looking out at beautiful Skaneateles Lake under a starry night as the music of the band and the laughter of my clients filled the air behind me in the country club. I was so relieved the wedding ceremony and reception was a success for the family I was hired to help. The other reason this moment has been cemented in my mind is because that first big wedding client was my husband's boss, who owned a multimillion-dollar company. My husband said to me as I left for the evening, 'I hope the wedding goes perfectly, or we'll both be out of jobs in the morning.' Not the most comforting thing to say, but it was truthful! So when I took five minutes to relish the success that evening looking out at the lake, I knew I could run my own business and be successful. I have made sure to relish successful business moments ever since. I've also been successfully running events ever since that day."

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Last updated: Nov 28, 2012

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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