Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.
Q: I’m an entrepreneurship major who has a lot of ideas for new ventures. The one thing my college education hasn’t taught me, which always holds me back, is where to start. How do I know what to do first? I feel so lost! -- Taylor Matysik, University of St. Thomas, United States
Regardless of how new you are to the process of starting a business, feeling lost or overwhelmed is understandable and for many people, simply part of the process. A degree in business doesn’t always include training in the practical skills an entrepreneur needs to start a company, and even when it does, actually applying what you’ve learned can be daunting. Once you’ve graduated, you may find that you need to keep topping up your skills with online courses, mentoring programs and - most importantly - real-world experience.
The good news is that a great business starts with a great idea, so you’re already well on your way.
The first step: Before you start doing anything practical, settle into a place you find relaxing - I regularly work from my hammock at my home on Necker Island - and envision the company that you can create based on your best idea. It should be a company that you can believe in, heart, soul and wallet.
Are you enthusiastic about how this business will make a difference in people’s lives? This is crucial, because if you love your work, you are far more likely to persevere despite the long hours and struggles that are an inevitable part of an entrepreneur’s life - and your successes and celebrations will be all the sweeter.
You mentioned elsewhere in your note to me that your minor is in the recording arts, so I presume that you have a passion for music. Have you spotted a gap in that sector? Having started my career in the record industry 40 years ago, I can tell you that it’s a fun ride. With the explosion of music services on the Web, there are sure to be new opportunities.
Next is the Mum Test, a method I’ve always relied on when deciding whether to pursue an idea. Ask your mother for her honest thoughts on your plans. If she glazes over when you describe the new venture, return to your hammock and start over. If she gets excited, you could be onto a winner. As a lifelong entrepreneur herself, my mum is an excellent judge on such matters, but even if your mother isn’t business-savvy, she’ll have your best interests at heart.
The next steps involve risk, which may be why you’re hesitating - the risk of putting your idea out there and of committing your time and resources. Some people hang back at this stage, trying to perfect their plan, and then end up spending more time on it than actually running the business. Successful entrepreneurs don’t wait for the perfect moment -- they create it.
Develop some samples of what you intend to sell, and when you’re happy with your product or service, begin the best and cheapest form of market research you can -- ask your friends, family members, neighbors and social media followers to try it out. If the reaction is negative, consider tweaking your offering. Don’t let this process get you down: A few changes do not mean that your idea wasn’t a good one -- this is merely the first of many adjustments in your plan. Flexibility and the ability to solve problems creatively are great qualities in an entrepreneur.
Once you’ve made those changes, try selling small batches of your product or offer initial introductions to the service wherever you can -- online, door to door, at street fairs, and so on. Continue asking for feedback, and keep in touch with those customers. Make sure you get the branding right: Does it stand out? Do your brand values attract eager customers? Will they also attract talented employees?
As your customers’ reactions become strongly positive, you’ll need to start thinking about providing more of the product or service, and of short-term concerns. St. Francis of Assisi said: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Practical matters will start coming up, like how to distribute your product and how to manage cash flow. It may be time to begin pitching your idea to potential investors and distributors, and also to start hiring and delegating.
If you’ve followed the steps above, you may soon realize that I’ve pulled a tiny prank on you: You’ve now got a working startup, without ever having set a launch date. Great work!
And good luck with your new business!