So, you have a great idea for a business. You believe in it with all your heart. (On your better days anyway.) Furthermore, you are really tired of the 8-to-6 grind. (Hey, didn't that used to be 9-5?) On some days you are absolutely certain that it's time to follow your dream and take the plunge into entrepreneurialism. But on other days the doubt, and yes, even the fear, are enough to make you pack your lunch and trek off to another day on the J-O-B.
Sound familiar? So, what are these doubts and fears really all about? Do other people feel like this? Sure they do; you are definitely not alone.
Some of the most common uncertainties that keep the would-be entrepreneur bound to his commitments in corporate America relate to the potential loss of financial security, fear of failure, fear of success (yes, you read that right), and lack of emotional support. Frankly, if you want guarantees, it's probably a good sign that you are risk-adverse...and perhaps not cut out to be an entrepreneur. But if you are close to making a decision between the security and familiarity of your day job and depths of the unknown in the world of small business, this may be the check-list you've been waiting for.
In his role as a top-level executive, Paddy Spence has helped numerous emerging brands leverage their success in specialty channels, and successfully cross over into mainstream markets. During his 18 years of executive management experience in the natural and organic consumer packaged goods industry, Spence was vice president of marketing at Kashi and created one the natural industry's first market research firms. Today, he leads the way in his own company as the Chairman and CEO of Zevia, a line of zero-calorie sodas sweetened with the natural sweetener stevia.
Spence knows firsthand what it is like to make a choice between an existing job and launching a business. "It's important to be aware of what appeals to you most when you make this decision; whether it's the idea of managing a business or building a business," says Spence. "For me, the excitement came when I had the opportunity to build something based on a cause that is significant to me."
So with his knowledge of the natural foods market and his personal mission to reduce the quantity of artificial products and sweeteners that people are consuming, Spence set out to build something new. Is it time for you to do the same? Let's take a look at what he cites as the main differences between his new role as a CEO.
"Building a business requires an ongoing level of sustained passion that managing and maintaining a business from a corporate position requires less of," Spence says. "To be an entrepreneur you need to have a tolerance for immense risk and the ability to wear a lot of hats. Inherently in a smaller, emerging enterprise you will be called upon to do the mundane and unexpected. Your bandwidth in terms of functional skills will be stretched much more. So if you want to be a specialist in one thing only, then managing a business via your corporate job is probably what you're built for."
So aside from recognizing whether or not you have entrepreneurial passion and ability running through your veins, what should you have in place before saying goodbye to your comfy corporate cushion? Paddy Spence offers some sage advice.
Watch for the signs: Spence began waking up in the morning thinking about that day's to do list rather than the next three months—or three years. This increasing short-term focus, along with feeling that work-thoughts were an intrusion when he wasn't at work, were both signs to Spence that he was ready to leave his job. He felt that he was maintaining something in his job rather than building something new and exciting. "When I realized that there was an opportunity to jump into a product category that 96 percent of Americans already purchased; that no one had used stevia as a sweetener across an entire soda portfolio before; and that I was already a huge fan of its all-natural sweetening ingredient," says Spence, "I knew it was a perfect match for me!"
Start with passion: Remember, what defines an entrepreneur is to go beyond thinking about it, ignore the calculated risks and do it.
Believe in it: Define a product, segment, or category that you really believe in and combine it with a business opportunity in that segment. This creates a fertile business opportunity. Stevia is a personal passion for Spence. Because of it he is able to live a completely sugar-free life; as an athlete, that's important to him. Spence took that passion and married it up with a business opportunity; a void in the marketplace. Stevia is a great sweetener and no one was maximizing its full potential—until now.
Know your players: Spence had a close-knit team of people with whom he'd worked throughout his career. There was a level of trust and camaraderie that eliminated a lot of the risk for him. "Personal chemistry is just as important as the written track record of an individual," he says. "It's great if you've done a lot on paper but I've never worked with you I don't know if we are going to have a strong work chemistry."
Have a plan: careful financial planning is critical right up front. "All emerging businesses need capital to grow," says Spence. "Understanding those capital needs and how achieve them is important going into it, as opposed to trying to figure it out as you go along."
Do your market research: Test and learn. Try things on a small scale. Begin with friends and family and get their input on what they think of your product or service. From there you can go on to larger control tests where you will identify measurable quantitative results and actionable changes you might make in your product offering. "The larger your sample size the more you eliminate bias," Spence says. "Start out with a small group and expand it to get feedback from hundreds or thousands." Today, our customers and retailers, such as Whole Foods, Target, and Kroger, are our test groups.
Hire a great PR team: Spence suggests looking for a firm that has been there before, knows how the bigger companies do it, who the players are, how to leverage opportunities, and how to identify areas where you can improve over your competition. Find PR people who share a passion for your product and can communicate your brand's message naturally.
Keep your branding simple: "You need to be able to tell the story of brand or product without it being a complicated story," Spence reminds us. "For us, our consumer value proposition is incredibly simple: Zevia has zero calories and no artificial sweeteners, it's all natural. So when I tell people it tastes great, has no calories, it’s all natural and it cost a dollar, that’s a pretty easy sell!"
One of my favorite tidbits from this interview with Paddy Spence is this important reminder: "You are going to learn from your experiences; both good and bad experiences. Regardless of what happens in an entrepreneurial or emerging brand situation, you are going to come out of that experience with more knowledge than when you entered. New risk doesn't make you dumber it makes you more experienced. If you have to go back to the corporate arena, you will be a more valuable employee than when you left."