Ask the Expert: Tips for Starting Your Own Business During a Pandemic — and Beyond
Looking to start your own business? Here, we take a look at some smart tips for anyone looking to jump out of the office and into the great unknown. Photo: GettyImages/ Maskot
The global pandemic has left us with an economy split down the middle, with stock and real estate markets doing just fine, while unemployment is as bad as it’s been since the mid-90s with no real sense that anyone knows what’s going to happen next.
So on the surface of it, it may seem an odd time to go into business for yourself.
But peek beneath the surface, and you’ll see there’s no such thing as a bad time to go into business for yourself. In fact, the timing may be slightly better than usual when things are at their choppiest.
A quick look through history will tell you that fortunes are made when times are tough. There’s the old, possibly apocryphal but pleasingly brutal adage that goes something like, “buy when there’s blood in the streets.” But a look through corporate biographies will turn up dozens of generationally wealthy families, from the Westons and the Simplots to the Boyles, the Bronfmans and the Gallos, who all got their start during some of the most disastrous economic periods of the last century or so.
Mike Brcic is a serial entrepreneur, currently of Wayfinders, who once ran the entrepreneurship program at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. I met him a couple of years ago on one of Fiji’s minor islands, where he’d taken about a dozen entrepreneurs whose companies were worth between $1M and $10M to help them take their businesses — and perspectives — to the next level.
Brcic, who knows about entrepreneurs, thinks this is about the best time to be starting up that he’s ever seen — and he has some tips for anyone looking to jump out of the office and into the great unknown.
It’s not about the idea, it’s about the customer.
The piece of advice Brcic gave out most often to his budding entrepreneurs was to “fall out of love with their idea and fall in love with their customer.”
Brcic says that far too often, people who are thinking of going into business get an idea into their head and see everything else through it — the better mousetrap, the killer app, the ultimate coin exchange — which can blind them to what their potential customers might actually pay money for.
“What they care about is having a problem solved,” Brcic says of your future market, “and, in my mind, the biggest issue for businesses failing, it’s not lack of capital, it’s not bad marketing. It’s just that they’ve created something the world doesn’t really want.”
Find out what your customer wants.
Talk to people. When people come to Brcic with an idea, he always tells them to go away and not come back till they’ve interviewed 20 potential customers.
Does that sound like a lot? Start by identifying just one person, preferably outside your immediate circle of family and friends, and during the interview ask them to point you to one more person they think might be interested — and then go from there.
“People would always grumble about this one. ‘This is a waste of time. I want to start marketing right away. I want to start selling.’ And, you know? Just trust me on this one. You’re potentially going to save yourself hundreds or thousands of hours and thousands of dollars by just really honing in on this,” he says.
It can seem like everyone’s got a Kickstarter, but there’s a reason: It’s going a step further than asking people if they would pay for this or that service or product; it’s asking them to put skin in the game. If your crowdfunding fails, it’s a good indication your business would have done so, too.
This is not a rehearsal.
One of the most basic but most powerful insights Brcic has on the subject of pre-gaming your business is that there is no pre-game. It’s all game. So don’t ever just put something out there. If you’re going to start a crowdfunding campaign, throw your back into it.
“It’s a big undertaking and you’re launching a whole marketing campaign,” he says. “And you need to take it seriously. You need to map out your strategy. What does it look like the week leading up to it? What does it look like on launch day? What would it look for the first week after that? How are you going to pick up steam again once it’s losing momentum?”
It’s all about the niche.
Everyone wants to be big, but before you go big, you need to get very, very specific. And whenever you think you’re being specific enough, try to get more specific.
Figure you target, say, women in Toronto aged 25-35. “That’s still a couple hundred thousand people,” Brcic says, adding, “I want you to go even more narrow than that. It might only be 100 people, but that’s your starting customer audience and you if you know where to find those 100 people, then you know their problems.” Which means you’ve got a better shot at solving them.
Prepare for success.
Sometimes the thing that kills your business is that it’s going too well. Just like you should negotiate every contract as if there’s a billion dollars at stake, set up every business as if it’s going to be the next big thing.
“I’ve seen it happen so many times,” Brcic says. “The big thing that kills products and businesses is the cash flow cycle. And I’ve seen lots of product businesses go under. Not because they didn’t have enough customers, but because they had too many.
“And all of a sudden they’ve got orders pouring in and they’re ordering products that the customer is not paying for until they get shipped. They’re paying through the nose to get this stuff built and manufactured and, they don’t understand that gap between suppliers and customers well enough.”
Prepare for failure.
Your idea is important. Your marketing plan is important. Your supply chain is important. But over the 25 years that Brcic has been living among entrepreneurs, the most important predictor of success has been the ability to deal with disaster.
“It really just comes down to resilience,’ he says. “This ability to take punches and keep getting back up. I’ve coached hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years and the thing that made the successes stand out was just their resilience and ability to just keep going. Pretty much any success I’ve had, it’s because I’ve just kept going.”
There is never any time like the present, but this particular present is especially auspicious. UCLA sociology professor Ivan Light calls the sort of people who arise from times like this “survivalist entrepreneurs,” and they are a hearty breed. Born of hardship, practical and able to weather storms.
As Brcic sees it, “It’s a fantastic time to be an entrepreneur, to be in startup mode; the barrier to entry is so low these days. You can get a Squarespace website up in a day and have a beautiful, professional looking website with this platform that costs $3 a month. You can put out a few blog posts, videos, get on Clubhouse, and immediately start talking about something that you’re passionate about and start getting customers right away. … And after you do it for long enough, the thought of going back to a day job is pretty hard to stomach.”