Call it what you like. Procrastination. Fear. Necessary preparation. Regardless, the fact is that many new business owners fall into the trap of spending days, weeks and months staying "busy" without actually doing business. Designing business cards and setting up spreadsheets are just some of the tasks that, though necessary, make it tempting to put off doing business. After all, it's more fun to choose fonts than to make cold calls.
It's true that starting a business requires a certain amount of preparation, or as Robert Spiegel, author of The Shoestring Entrepreneur's Guide to the Best Home-Based Businesses, prefers to call it, "pencil sharpening." Luckily, we're here to give you 10 specific ways to move past pencil sharpening and put those pencils to work.
1. Make a List
Making lists is a common denominator in businesses that have moved forward during the startup phase. "People take time-management classes and use various electronic tools, daily planners and software, but all these tools essentially [help make] lists," says Spiegel. "Having a list [is] the most important way to keep procrastination away."
Keep the list in front of you so it's always visible. Says Spiegel, "What worked for me was to color-code the list, drawing [colored] lines beside items [to denote] whether they were to be done today, tomorrow or this month."
2. Take Baby Steps
It can be overwhelming when your to-do list is changing and priorities seem to be wrestling each other, but starting with small, manageable jobs can help thwart fears and minimize anxiety. Focusing on what really matters often comes down to having discipline and a clear vision.
Ruth Ellen Miller, 43, and her father, Jack Miller, 76, had a lot of time on their hands in the early '90s when they started NoUVIR Research in Seaford, Delaware. The company produces a light that helps museums preserve artwork and historical documents. During more than three years of R&D and pending patents, the partners knew where their priorities lay. "It was always our goal to stop the damage happening in museums," says Jack, "but while awaiting patents, we had to pay the rent, so we did some consulting." Annual sales are now $1 million to $5 million.
NoUVIR's philosophy is also framed on the wall for everyone to see: "Plan big. Start small. Don't borrow." Says Jack, "That's our motto, and we never forget it."
3. Find a Customer
If you don't have customers or clients, you don't have a business. Yet finding and committing to that first customer can be a difficult hurdle for many entrepreneurs.
Don Fesenmeyer, 44, owner and founder of Don's Custom Countertops in Longmont, Colorado, recognized the value of customers from the get-go. He says, "Without a customer, you are simply not in business. You have to bring in business first, then build the rest. The biggest thing you can do is try to get customers and business, then use it for leverage in financing. We started with a single customer whom I'd been working with at another company. The second customer came from a referral, and so on. With current sales at $2 million, we are growing at a 30 percent to 35 percent rate."
4. Forget Perfection
It might seem ideal to have everything in place exactly as you envisioned, but perfection doesn't pay the bills.
Barrie Shepley, 42, and Sheldon Persad, 38, co-founders of Personal Best Health & Performance Inc., an integrated health and performance management, coaching and training firm in Toronto, Ontario, knew that being perfectly prepared in the beginning was not an option due to a shortage of capital, even though their business plan and corporate goals were clearly defined.
"Ideally," says Shepley, "we would have loved to have high-tech equipment available to conduct extensive physical testing for our clients. But rather than waiting, we jumped right in, working from a small office with little more than basic testing equipment, a desk and a telephone." That's about as far from perfection as a business could be.
"After a couple of months," says Shepley, "we were finally able to buy a computer and a testing bike."
Less than perfect paid off for Shepley and Persad. Now their business averages more than $1 million annually and includes corporate facility management, seminars, high-performance testing and training camps.
5. Talk Business
Believing in yourself and your business might sound like hokey advice, but if you don't believe you're truly in business, as opposed to "starting a business," how can you expect anyone else to believe it?
Change your choice of words when you're out in the world. Talk about your company like it is a business, not like it's about to be a business--"I'm trying to start a business" sounds noncommittal. Even if all you've done is print your own business cards, saying things like "I own my own business," or "I have to get back to work," will get the word out that you are serious.
Shepley humorously recalls how he incorporated this idea: "When people would call me at the office, Sheldon would answer the phone and ask them if they could wait while he checked to see if I was in my office. In reality, I was sitting right next to him, but we wanted our new clients to visualize a large, stable business, so having to wait 60 seconds for me would lead them to believe we were a larger organization."
Rewarding Yourself, Accountability and Dreaming
6. Reward Yourself
Rewards--we all love them. But it's time to get honest with yourself. On a weekly basis, ask yourself if you've really done anything worthy of a reward--something that will have a tangible impact on your business in the near future. Then choose your reward carefully and make it only as grand as the task completed. For example, landing a major client might be worthy of a celebratory champagne dinner, whereas getting the brochures in the mail probably only merits a handful of chocolate-covered strawberries.
7. Be Accountable
Find a partner, organization or another business owner to hold you accountable. This was helpful during startup to Jill Duval, publisher and founder of Albuquerque, New Mexico, business magazine New Mexico Woman, now published monthly, with annual sales of $275,000 and 42,000 readers. "I was sidetracked by things like phone calls, record keeping and organizing," says Duval, "but a group of us got together and decided to be accountable to each other at regular meetings. We each had a list of things to accomplish by the next meeting, and if those things were not accomplished, we had to pay $5 into a fund that we later donated to nonprofits or used to celebrate birthdays."
Whether you choose to buddy up with another business owner or be regularly accountable to a friend or family member, be sure to pick someone who won't let you off the hook too easily if you don't meet your goals.
8. Predict the Future
A sure way to determine if what you are doing right now is furthering your business is to look ahead. If you stay in the pencil-sharpening stage, where will your business be next week or next month? Chances are, you'll be in debt.
Guy Kawasaki, author of eight books, including The Art of the Start, Rules for Revolutionaries and How to Drive Your Competition Crazy, suggests that entrepreneurs use the following test to determine if what they are doing can be considered progress: "Would you call your spouse to tell him or her it's done? For example, you wouldn't call your spouse to [say] that you ordered stationery."
Do something today that makes you want to call home, and your odds of future business success dramatically increase. Or if negative motivation is more your style, picture your future if you don't take some steps forward now.
9. Remember Your Dream
When the going gets tough and it's time to tackle those things outside your comfort zone, keeping your initial dream in mind might be the motivation you need.
Jeff Jump, 38, president of Prentice Products, a custom print shop in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says, "It had been my lifelong goal to have my own business . . . it didn't matter what I had to do. I could have been taking out the trash, [but I was] still excited about it because I finally owned my own business. Now my vision is to grow the company so I [will] have a print shop in each region of the United States."
Changing goals and creating new dreams can keep your excitement as fresh as it was in the beginning.
10. Do the Hard Stuff First
When Jump purchased his business in 2001, it was clear early on that there were tough decisions to be made if he was to achieve his financial goals. "I had to eliminate some long-term employees in order to be profitable," says Jump. "I almost drove my business into the ground by waiting too long," he recalls. "I overcame [the problem] by taking the emotion out of my decisions." Jump had $2.1 million in 2005 sales and projects $3 million in 2006 sales.
Emotion can kill a business before it even gets off the ground. Human nature dictates that we are first drawn to the things that bring us pleasure, and business tasks are no different. By getting responsibilities that seem distasteful out of the way rather than avoiding them, we can more fully enjoy the other parts of business ownership.
Put Out the Welcome MAT for Success
Guy Kawasaki recommends you prioritize by weaving a "mat"--milestones, assumptions and tasks--for yourself. here's how.
- Milestones: "The first priority is achieving milestones," says Kawasaki. "Milestones are the handful of steps like finishing the design, shipping and collecting the first check."
- Assumptions: These, says Kawasaki, "are the key guesses you are making about your business. For example, how many sales calls a person can make in a day might be considered an assumption. As milestones are achieved, assumptions can be tested and revised based on results."
- Tasks: "Do [tasks] only to achieve a milestone or test an assumption," says Kawasaki. "Everything else is of secondary importance."