It’s Not What You Know. It’s Who You Know.

connecting[1]Isn’t that the truth! A few months ago, I met with a friend who is a very successful entrepreneur and asked him for advice about launching my new business. He responded that you already have everything you need to launch your new venture: expertise, passion, and most importantly, your network.

My new company isn’t going to look anything like yesterday’s companies. Business development will likely be more important than human resources. And I spend a lot of time meeting with really smart people who can help me figure out the future. I would bet that everyone you need to know to build a successful startup is within 3 degrees from you on LinkedIn or FB.

“Who you know” is a two-way street. I can’t stress this enough. I also spend a fair amount of time helping other people build the network. This is critical. And, you can’t believe what you learn by giving advice or connections to someone in need. By so doing, you have also earned the right to reach out and ask others for help.

A few tips for increasing “who you know”:

  • Get involved in some organization or association related to your start up. Begin giving back now!
  • Online networks are a treasure trove. If you “meet” someone who could help you with your startup, contact them. There is no online equivalent for a live conversation—face to face is ideal, but virtual is great too.
  • Conferences are expensive, but dollar for dollar, and if you use the opportunity to network, you get the best value for your investment.
  • Connect with people who are in between jobs, especially those who are pretty high up the food chain. They have time, and a little more perspective than people in very busy jobs, so they often have great ideas and advice and connections for you.

If you want a primer on building your network, check out the book: The Connect Effect, by Michael Dulworth, who is an expert on building personal, professional and virtual networks.

Charting A Path Through The Desert

DesertA few months ago, I transitioned away from running my first company, O’Donnell Learn.  That first Monday morning, I went into the office, sat down and thought, “now what?”

Starting a business is like charting a path through the desert.  There is nobody but you to figure out how to spend your time.  And, you have to be very disciplined about your time.   You have to plug along and put all those pieces in place so that you have a business (with customers) when you cross that desert.

Here are the primary ways that I spend my time these days:

  • Networking—meeting with      people who can help me get this off the ground, and helping others get      their initiatives off the ground.
  • Researching the market to      understand the problems and pain points, the need, and how my company can      uniquely fill that need. This involves hours of reading, and also speaking      to customers, experts and potential partners.
  • Planning the offering or      product.  This is a staged activity,      called market development.  Work with      customers every step of the way to shape your offering.  Right now, we are creating a two-minute video      that demonstrates our offering, which we will take to customers for      feedback in prep for creating our detailed product requirements.
  • Putting together my      advisory board and founding team—finding the perfect people for it and then      recruiting them to join me.
  • Articulating the vision      and message—then trying it out on others and then rearticulating it.  This takes a long time for every      business and new offering.  Getting      it right is essential!
  • Developing the business      plan and pitch for investors.

Wow.  That is a lot to get done!  And, I need to be very disciplined so that I am not scattered all over the place.  Here is a video I found that gives three great tips for time management.

Your Customer IS Your Business

There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.
Sam Walton

Bridge-to-Customer_iStock_000005355437XSmall[1]A business requires customers—not eyeballs or clicks, but people or organizations that are willing and able to pay for your offering. So, who is your customer? We recently advised a high school STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) company that is looking to expand its market share. I asked them: who is your customer? The answer: Superintendents.

Hmm… this needs to be narrowed down a lot more. In order to build a business, you need to be very targeted about who your customer is. First, is the superintendent really the decision-maker, or just an influencer? Who will drive that sale through for you and who is going to sign off on the payment? Secondly, you likely won’t have access to most superintendents.

A little startup will never have the bandwidth to target “superintendents”. You need to find a segment, a niche. That could be: private/parochial schools, districts with huge STEM initiatives, reform movements around STEM. You get the drift. Start with a group that you can find and identify, and get them to be customers—yes, paying customers. Then, you will have a business that you can scale and expand.

One other note, many startups try to expand too quickly, to be all things to all people. As I launch my new company, I am going to keep this in mind, and make sure that I get it right with that first group of customers before trying to expand out too aggressively.

Turning Your Cocktail Napkin Into A Business Plan

Yikes. I have been staring at napkin sketchmy computer for the past hour getting myself psyched up to begin writing my plan. Last night, when I drew my idea on a napkin for my friend, Jen, my idea was perfectly clear… I know that in order to get started on funding activities, I need to write the business plan. If you find this daunting, you are not alone.

Where do you start? Here are a few things that I have learned—having written dozens of plans over the years. First, to warm yourself up and get ready to write, jot down your story (free flow, top of mind):

  • Why are you doing this?
  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What is your business? This is where you turn that picture you drew on the napkin into a brief statement.
    Who is your customer? In education, this is usually a little complicated. Usually there are multiple layers of customer: your end user (students, teachers, parents); adopters (teachers, institutions). Also, what segment of customer are you targeting? There is a big difference between the elite universities and community colleges, between remedial education and graduate degree programs.
  • How will you make money? This is important! What is your revenue model? And what basis do you have for assuming your customer will buy what you are offering? It’s really helpful to look at competitors and comparable companies (which may not even be in your space) to help you figure this out.
  • Why you? What do you uniquely offer that would make someone want to invest in this business? That would make a customer want to purchase your offering?

This should get you ready to start writing. A few other tips:

  •  Start with the executive summary. Get the sketch down on paper and then fill in the details.
  •  You will likely need to do a lot of research to craft your story or strategy. That’s normal. Make sure you keep a log of what you learned in the research (including statistics and sources), as you will need it for the plan.
  • I like to start with outlines and then fill in the easy parts first, rather than trying to be linear. Also, worry about organization and editing later. Just get it down on paper.

There are a lot of places you can go for ideas about how to structure a business plan. The Small Business Association site, How to Write A Business Plan, is a good starting point. Two other good sources: Entrepreneur, Your Business Plan Guide, and Inc., Writing A Business Plan.

Top 8 Things I Learned The First Time Around

checklist[1]I have already done the entrepreneurial journey a few times and have advised or rode shotgun with dozens of other startups. So, I have seen some patterns and am going to be sure that I adhere to these tenets in the next go around….

  •  Your customer IS your business
  • Know who you are: stick to your vision and values
  • Get the right people on the bus
  • Build it and they will come…NOT
  • Cash is king, so bootstrap every step of the way
  • Set goals and measure them
  • Nourish your mind, body and spirit
  • Make time for relationships, pay it forward

In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be exploring each of these.  Meanwhile, if you are interested in the perspective of some entrepreneurs way more successful than me, here are two:
Seth Godin’s Top Ten Things Every Fast Company Entrepreneur Needs To Know, wisdom from the marketing guru, as reported in Fast Company

Top 12 Tips for Small Business Owners from Barbara Corcoran, the real estate mogul, featured on Shark Tank

Kids Need Structure…Me Too!

This TED Talk by Colin Powell is worth 15 minutes of your time. It’s about how kids need structure, and how structure is derived from setting expectations.

Lack of structure is such a big part of the college completion problem. So many students, of all ages and backgrounds, come to college unprepared to create their own structure and realistic expectations. Structure can be as simple as a study schedule; instead of hanging around playing video games every afternoon, hit the library. When you are stressed out juggling school, work and family, this is the time to be sure you have structure around sleeping and eating.

General Powell’s eloquent message also applies to me as an entrepreneur. I have found that you need to set aside time for critically important but not so urgent things like networking, thinking, or keeping up with the industry research. Part of structure is setting goals, and then systematically tracking the metrics for these goals. It is so easy to let these things slip; then, before you know it, you are pedaling as fast as you can to catch up. If you pay attention to structure, you will chart the path to success.