Starting a company requires a lot of thought and preparation. So how do you know when you're ready to launch your business? Although I haven't yet found any shortcuts, in the three-plus years since I started my company, I've identified several signs that can help you know you're ready to launch.
1. When real customers are willing to pay real money for your product or service, you have a real business. Start with the fundamentals: Who are you and why should anyone care? If you're not passionate about what you're doing, then why should anyone else be? There's a lot of noise in every category, so if you don't have a unique story to tell and a new approach or idea that excites you, then go no further.
Every great business is built on a great story so start telling yours to potential customers and see if they buy what you're selling. Testing should always be done with real customers, not with family and friends (who may only tell you what they think you want to hear so they don't hurt your feelings).
2. Create evangelists for your idea, and make sure they know how, where and why to buy from you. If you've already built a fan base for your new business, you're one step closer to your grand opening. This set of people who support your idea will help you find your early customers.
With that said, understand that it's critical to know your target audience, understand what matters to them, do your market research and refine your message to stay relevant to their needs. Listen to the feedback they give you, even if it's not what you want to hear. Listening isn't just a skill; it's an attitude. It's about building rapport, trust and ultimately a relationship.
What are you offering and how does that stack up to the competition? Start creating a sense of urgency to build demand for your product or service. What can you do to be the "have to have" instead of the "nice to have" in the category you're entering? Help your potential customers make the decision to buy both rationally and emotionally by understanding which features and benefits accelerate the sales cycle and why. And don't forget: You need a name customers can remember and a website they can find.
3. If the days (and nights) fly by and you have more ideas than time to address them all, you're moving in the right direction. If you can't shut off the stream of ideas you've got to make your business a success, it's probably time to start acting on them. But make sure you prioritize and focus on the crucial ideas so you don't get distracted along the way.
When starting a company, less is truly more. Do a few important things really well and be known for flawless execution. Own that space in your customers' minds so they'll always think of you first. Once you've earned their trust and respect in one place, you can parlay it into other areas later. Oprah didn't start off with a book club; that came after she built credibility with her core audience. Amazon began with books then expanded into toys and music after scoring with booklovers. Your reputation is the best asset you have, so build on your strengths as you go.
4. When you believe in your core that a bad day on your own is better than a good day at your desk job, you've got nothing to lose. Failure was never a consideration for me despite the fact that most startups fail. My business successfully leveraged my relationships and prior experiences so it really felt like the culmination of years of training for this opportunity. There's no substitute for doing your homework so you can be ready and aware when serendipity strikes. The important thing is to keep moving forward and learn from every experience. You can't wait for the perfect time to launch; you just have to course correct as you get more feedback along the way. Being an entrepreneur means making decisions without perfect information. Get used to it--or find another career path.
5. If you've made it this far, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. If I haven't scared you off yet, you may be onto something. How do you get those early customers you can later reference? Ask for the order! People value things they pay for so always charge a fee. Remember that your enthusiasm and curiosity will inspire others. Never give up on what you believe in: An entrepreneur is one who doesn't give up on a dream. As Thomas Edison once said, "I have not failed. I have eliminated ways that will not work so I can find the way that will work." Seek and you shall find your path to success. Great businesses start with great personal brands, so what's stopping you from building yours?
Paige Arnof-Fenn is the founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a strategic-marketing consulting firm whose clients include Fortune 500 companies as well as early stage and emerging businesses.