A forewarning: I’m an entrepreneur running a successful business without any sort of business schooling. I majored in Industrial Design and Italian so you won’t find any fnacy MBA lingo here, just a straightforward real-world perspective.
Hold Your Horses
I was fortunate to have the time to let my business idea mature and evolve while I was still a student in college. I was able to explore various opportunities, research and survey the market, interview experts, and flesh out a pretty strong business plan before we were ever under pressure to turn a profit. In hindsight, this incubation period was crucial for the success we’ve had in the last three years. As soon as you launch your concept into a full-fledged business, you’ve got overhead to worry about and expenses pile up out of now where. The extra time gives you the chance to think through more scenarios, experiment with different models, and get everything in line to take your competition by surprise. Getting a startup off the ground is hard enough, and near impossible if you’re trying to figure out your model while providing and marketing your products and services. Spend as much time as possible in the nest to make sure your wings can carry you after you lunge into the wonderful abyss of entrepreneurship.
Websites are Expensive
We don’t have a brick-and-mortar store. All our customers book online and come from all over the world. I anticipated this, so I was prepared to invest in a website that would be the entire face of the company. First lesson I learned? Websites are expensive, and almost always take twice as much time and money as even your most conservative estimates. So plan for this, and have backup options in place in case the process gets caught up or scrapped. Remember that the first version or two of your website is just a trial run, a birth by fire. You have an idea of what you think you’ll need from your website, but you won’t really know until customers are using it and buying goods. Pencil sketching out on paper is much cheaper than paying a programmer to click around on his mouse, so work through ideas on your own first. Brainstorm functionality, do benchmark research, find sources of inspiration, and pay attention to user experience that minimizes the clicks it takes to book or buy whatever you’re selling.
Network like Crazy
You’ve heard the saying: “It’s not what you know, but who you know” and nothing could be more true. In business, it really comes down to people who can open doors that would otherwise be closed, who you need on your team to take the business to the next level, and who in the end, buy your product. I’m in the service industry, so finding professional, charismatic people is our top priority as they are our real face of our company. They’re the people our customers interact with, so they’re the tangible front lines of our image. I have learned it’s important to treat them well and challenge them in their personal growth and career goals.
As a new guy in the industry, it’s hard to get the time or attention you think you deserve. I used to be offended when administrators wouldn’t take my calls, or by organizations that weren’t interested in working with us. I’ve realized everyone is simply waiting for us to work out our startup kinks, streamline our processes, and develop a reputation for quality and service (who can blame them?). This can take years, so be patient, and figure out how you can be an asset to the people you want to work with: Can you make them more money? Can you make their life easier? What can you offer them without expecting anything in return? Put yourself in their shoes. If you can’t provide a solution that they desperately need, what need is there work with you? Selling is an uphill battle, but if you’ve developed and maintained personal relationships first, oftentimes that greases the cogs of the negotiation process down the line.
I look back fondly on the days before my competition started copying our innovations. Once you’ve refined your concept, you’ve got a plan, and you’re ready to launch, hit the ground running. Hard. The first 18 months is crucial to lay the foundation and establish yourself before others come up on your rear. It takes initiative, forward thinking, insight, and some serious hard work to stay ahead of the game. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, and constantly examine your products and services to see if they’re vulnerable. What’s stopping anyone else from copying or taking what you’ve worked so hard for?
When I first started my company, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting out of it. But as time goes on, you learn you are part of the eco-system which could allow you to move on to bigger and better things. Build your company from the ground up by developing assets, property, proprietary information, IT, emails, professional contacts, client lists, and more that create a total package, just in case you find yourself in the right place at the right time.
Andy Steves hails from Seattle, WA and finished his undergrad at the University of Notre Dame back in 2010. He took advantage of ND’s annual business plan competition and after winning the grand prize, decided to launch his tour company, Weekend Student Adventures, for American students studying abroad in Europe. Since 2010, he’s enjoyed showing 2,000+ young backpackers around in the top 10 destinations across Europe thanks to the help of his all-star local guide team. Check us out at www.wsaeurope.com, and stay up on the latest at www.facebook.com/wsaeurope!
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