I was recently reminded of my first entrepreneurial venture and thought that sharing some of the lessons would be a helpful way to start the new year.
One semester in college I won a fellowship that included a very small stipend to defray the cost of living in Washington, D.C., so I could be a congressional intern. My own Congressman had more than enough volunteers, and so did the Congressman who represented the district at Cornell, so I cold-called until I found a good unpaid internship on the Hill with Congressman William Clay.
I knew I had to make some money if I wanted to be able to do anything more than commute to Capitol Hill, work all day for free, and go home. Inspiration soon struck in the form of a “Congressional Intern Summer T-Shirt.” I found a local northern Virginia t-shirt shop that was able to do runs of 144 (a gross) at a time, and, by chance I was living next door to a graphic artist who had one of the first Macintosh computers and early design software. We created the shirt with the words, and a variation of the Great Seal of the United States, replacing “E Pluribus Unum” with “under-paid-us – over-worked-us” in the same font.
I obtained some early “friends and family” money and bought the shirts for around $3 each, selling them for around $8. Threadless this was not, but the idea of $720 certainly went a long way in late 80′s Georgetown pubs.
For your new year’s inspiration, here are some practical lessons I learned from my endeavor in t-shirt entrepreneurship:
Indulge your passion and that of your customers: Once I had this idea, I was hooked. I knew I could create a shirt, sell it, and, more importantly, make people happy with it. Additionally, the shirt tapped the passion of the audience. Wearing a shirt declaring them a “Congressional intern” appealed to the ego of many of the political science majors, college Republicans or Democrats, and aspiring politicians working that summer. So find your passion and make sure it aligns with your customer’s needs.
Ignore the Doubters: A few interns loved the idea of a shirt, but several weren’t so sure. I trusted my gut and felt that I knew the market. I had a relatively small downside, and great potential for upside. My family was also slightly dubious. Things turned out well despite the doubters.
Find Your Market: Most Congressional offices that year had no budget to pay interns, so they had only recommendation letters to give to their hard-working volunteers. While my initial market was selling to interns directly, one Maryland Congressman’s office got wind of my venture and bought 10 for their staff. I had found a way to sell in volume by targeting a different customer. And, in the days before email and cell phones, those office managers had a much better network than the interns. They passed me along to other office staff and helped me sell out quickly.
Ignore the Competition and Implement: A few interns cornered me in the hall and told me they were going to compete with me. They wanted “in” on my business or they’d start their own. They even threatened to report my sales in the offices to Capitol Hill police. I suddenly had doubts—was selling on the Hill legal? Did I need to collect sales tax? (Hopefully the statue of limitations is long past on this.) While intimidated, I stood my ground and challenged them to go for it. No competing shirts ever materialized, and I successfully sold out. It’s easy to have (or steal) an idea, and much harder for the next person to do it better.
So in 2012, tap the passion of your market, ignore the doubters, do your market research, and implement your idea better than others. Sure, there’s much more to creating and running a fast-growing business, but luckily there’s not only my column, but a whole site and magazine filled with information to help you start your business. What can I report on to help you do better in 2012? Leave a message in the comments, and good luck in the new year!