If I were to start a business right now and had no experience, no connections, no specific idea, and very little money, here's exactly what I'd do.
Step 1: Find an idea
I think everyone has an idea that a business can be built around. Where do you find it? The idea lives in a curious place between something you're passionate about, something you know something about, and something you're willing to put effort into.
Notice I didn't say "find your passion." Just starting a business around a passion won't cut it. Unless you've built a tribe of equally passionate people, you're only going to be building something for yourself. That's definitely not a bad thing. However, this article is about starting a business from scratch.
Grab a piece of paper. You are going to make a three-column list. Don't create an Excel or Google spreadsheet. Write this list out by hand. There's something about the process of physically writing down ideas that creates more opportunities for them. Remove distractions and try to focus on this task for 15 to 20 minutes (maximum). Let's call this exercise Thrusness, because naming things is fun and helps boost creative thinking.
The three columns to fill out for Thrusness are as follows:
1. 10 things you like doing that involve some form of work (example: painting, writing, singing, building furniture, coding websites, helping old ladies cross the street, etc.)
2. 10 ways you could put your work out into the world (example: online course, in-person class, e-commerce website, retail store, series of books, videos, etc.)
3. Review the first two columns, and in the third column try to write down 10 business ideas. One could be to teach a class about painting. One could be to create an e-commerce store that sells unique furniture. Just jot down 10 ideas.
I want to be crystal clear on this next point. You might not find your big idea during this first step. That's OK! This phase is similar to writing the first draft of anything--book, article, whatever. It will probably suck. The point is to go through the motions and allow space for your brain to start doing what it does.
If you're feeling advanced, feel free to sit down with another person or two and do a No Bad Ideas Brainstorming exercise.
Step 2: Read a few nonfiction books
The book I highly recommend to anyone starting a business in the time we live in (the digital age) is The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Ries's book will not excite and wow you. (Hey, I'm being honest.) But what it will do is show you the ropes on creating a business in our current fast-paced landscape (not the industrial age of old).
Another book I highly recommend is Pam Slim's Body of Work. This book really helped me when I closed the doors on IWearYourShirt and wasn't sure what the hell I was going to do with my life. Slim has some fantastic exercises that you can do right in the pages of the book (so I'd recommend going paperback on this one; sorry, Kindlers).
One last book is any book by Seth Godin. Any single one. I think he's written 452 by now. Godin is insanely smart, and his books contain practical knowledge as well as inspiration. Do yourself a favor and pick one up.
A note on reading books: Don't overdo it, and don't let reading drag on forever. A lot of people get lost consuming content from other people. They go down an endless rabbit hole of consumption because it's easier than actually building something or starting something of their own. Limit how many books you can read and how long you can read them. Whether you have a 9-to-5 job, 13 children, or are generally too busy to read, you should be able to read three books in the span of two weeks.
Step 3: Ignore your thoughts of self-doubt
If you don't have any issues with self-doubt and have an idea or two or 16, move on to step 5. Go ahead, skip ahead.
If you are struggling with self-doubt, I want to tell you one important thing: You are not alone! We all struggle with defeating thoughts, especially when it relates to creating a business.
Will anyone like this idea?
Will anyone buy my stuff?
Will people think my business is dumb?
Will I ever make any money?
Will people talk negatively about my idea?
Will I end up naked, homeless, starving, and trapped in a pit of scorpions if I start this business?
One of the ways I've overcome self-doubt--and try to help other people overcome it--is to judge myself only after I've put something out into the world. Self-doubt tends to build and fester before you share something, but typically dissipates once you've put something out there. And the more you put out into the world, the easier it becomes to have less self-doubt.
It's kind of like doing anything challenging in life. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
If you decided tomorrow that you wanted to become an Oscar-winning actor or actress, you would totally understand that you would have to take acting lessons, gain acting experience, and hone your craft (potentially for years). It takes time. It takes effort. It takes screwing up. The same is true for any type of creation or business. You just need to start and not focus too much on trying to be perfect.
Done is better than perfect! (Someone way smarter than me said that.)
Try to limit the crutches you lean on when you have fear or doubts: overconsuming content, distracting yourself with video games, or whatever your vice may be. By limiting how much you can escape, you force yourself to take action. It also helps you appreciate each article, book, or other thing you consume that much more, because you know you are limiting yourself so you can share your own gifts with the world.
Step 4: Did you come up with an idea yet?
If you did, awesome; skip to step 5.
If you didn't, repeat step 1. If you still didn't come up with an idea, go on a long walk or hike without your phone or any technology. Get away from any electronic distractions and let your mind wander. Space allows for creation.
Let's assume you have some type of business idea by this point. It doesn't matter if the idea is "good" or "bad" right now. Those words are actually irrelevant when starting a business. SnapChat exists and is valued at $3 billion (with a b!). Ideas are a dime a dozen. The trick is what's coming in the next few steps...
Step 5: Identify and find your potential customers
When you're first trying to find your potential customers, especially if they aren't already on an email list you have, connected to you on social media, etc., it can be a daunting task. Don't let self-doubt rear it's ugly head right now. Just accept the fact that finding and building an audience can take time and effort. If you're afraid of putting in time and effort, you probably should stop reading this article right now and go watch a few videos on YouTube.
I want to make it crystal clear that customers are not followers, subscribers, fans, or otherwise. Customers are typically complete strangers who will give you money for something you're doing on the internet.
Finding your potential customers looks something like this:
A. Send personalized emails to your friends and family saying something along the lines of "I'm thinking about starting a business selling XYZ thing to ABC person. Do you know anyone who might be interested in talking with me about this? I'm not trying to sell anything at the moment. I just want to talk to a potential customer and get some feedback." Important: Do not mass email this type of request. Actually, scratch that. Don't ever mass email people.
B. Search Google for forums, blogs, anything related to your idea. Unless you're creating something that's never ever ever been done before (which I don't recommend for your first business), there will be people already talking about what your business is about.
C. Share information freely about your business in multiple places to attract your potential customers (subreddits, Medium, forums or blogs, LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups, local meetups, events, etc.).
D. Competition is a good thing. Why? Because that means there's already a market for your product. There are already people who've purchased the thing you are going to try to sell. That's good, I promise you.
This is not the time to compare yourself with existing business owners or to accept unsolicited feedback from people. Feedback is dangerous. It must be taken seriously only when it comes from people who have experience doing what you are doing or are your potential customers. Feedback from anyone else can wait.
Step 6: Have actual conversations with people
Once you find your customers, have real conversations with them. If you can, sit down with people at coffee shops. Skype or other video chat services will work, but make sure you're face-to-face.
The conversations you have with potential customers should go something like this:
When you talk with people in person, or over Skype, you can hear their tone. You can understand how deeply something bothers them. You can really get a sense for what is most important to them. You can't get that via an email or survey (there's no tone identifier).
Make sure when you're talking with people you aren't dominating the conversation. You should be guiding the conversation to get the information you need to build your business.
Step 7: Build the smallest, simplest version of your business
We live in a time of wild business valuations, venture capitalists galore, and stats that say nine out of 10 business owners fail in their first year.
You shouldn't need funding for your first business. Heck, even if it's your 14th business, you should probably build a prototype or simplified version of your business before trying to get funding.
I started my IWearYourShirt business with a $150 Flip video camera and about $100 in plastic hangers. I bartered to get a website built. I took a photographer to a $30 lunch to get some professional photos taken. The term for this is "bootstrap." You should do this to the best of your ability.
The one thing I wish I would have started with my business was an email list. Social platforms change; the email algorithm doesn't change. If you can offer value to someone and have the ability to send an email to their inbox consistently, you'll build trust and strong relationships. This is the one marketing strategy I'd advise every single person reading this article to have.
Do you want to know why nine out of 10 business owners fail in their first year? It's because they overspend, they overmarket, they overcommit, and they stop iterating. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in business is to make assumptions and hold on to them like they're precious diamonds. Swallow your pride, listen to your customers, take feedback from your critics (if they have experience doing what you're trying to do), and be open to making changes.
With all of that said, start with the smallest, simplest version of your business. You might have a feature list for an iPhone app that's 20 items long. Cool. Keep that somewhere safe, but start with two or three of the items. Get people using your app. Get people paying for it. See what your customers are actually doing and saying.
No matter what you are trying to build, start small, and just get a version of what you're building out into the world.
Step 8: Don't overpromote in the beginning; scale slowly
Many people want to come out of the gates with a kick-ass marketing and promotion strategy. They want all the media appearances, all the tech articles, all the things. Your business isn't ready for this stuff. You need to focus on honing, shaping, molding your business with your first paying customers. Focus on building something so good that your first customers bring in your second set of customers. If that doesn't happen, you're doing something wrong.
No amount of marketing, PR, or advertising will trump the power of word-of-mouth. Build something worth talking about and worth sharing. If your business isn't worth talking about or sharing, why are you wasting your time working on it?
I see people all the time doing marketing and advertising when they know their product or service isn't working well. I've even asked them why they're trying to bring in new customers when their business isn't quite ready. Their answer? "We'll fix that stuff later. We just need revenue coming in the door." Wrong.
I'm all for getting people to pay for things before they're launched (example: Webinar Ninja). But once you're business is out in the world, you don't need to be promoting it until your customers are happy, there are no support complaints, and you feel comfortable with the state of the business.
Step 9: Give a crap
Honestly, this should be step 1, but I figured it would be a nice way to round things out.
If you don't give a crap about the business you are building or the customers your business will be serving, then you should stop what you're doing immediately. That type of business may work for some people, but not for me and not for the people I'd like to be talking to via these articles.
Caring about your customers and your business is not a tactic. It's not a tip. It's not a hack. It's something that should be engrained in you because you're a good human being, and you want your business to make someone's life better or to help make the world a better place. I'm not saying you need to create the next Red Cross or Unicef, but your business should solve problems for people and improve their lives in some way.
If you don't give a crap, then move on. If you've started a business and you're thinking about walking away, but don't know if it's the right time, ask yourself this question: "Do I give a crap about this?" If the honest answer is no, then it's time to close up shop. If the answer is yes, take a break and do some soul-searching. Then dig in and fix whatever is broken.
You can do this. Your idea is good enough. You are good enough. You just need to put in the time and effort, and be willing to stick with it.
All business owners struggle at one time or another. Some struggle constantly. As long as you care about what you are doing and it brings you and your customers value, then you should fight through the tough times.
Getting started in business is easier than it's ever been. The trick is to just get started.