How to Turn an Idea into a Business Follow the advice of three women who have already succeeded and are willing to share their secrets.
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Lots of people have brilliant ideas for great gadgets, gizmos or thingamabobs, but only a handful end up getting their new products to market. We spoke to a few hardy women entrepreneurs to give you an inside look at what it takes to turn an inspiration into a real, revenue-generating business.
Bag it or bust!
Sheil Caldwell's husband was a victim of the economy and lost his job a little more than two years ago. Caldwell, owner of Baggonizer LLC, a Pennsylvania company, says she didn't have a business plan or a huge slush fund to draw from. Armed with meager savings, a lot of sacrifice and an idea, the former cosmetologist knew one thing: At 43, she was not willing to stand behind someone else's chair for eight hours a day. She spent the next year sourcing manufacturing vendors, strategizing, networking, blogging and creating a web presence for her product, a reusable bag organizer that helps green consumers manage all their reusable shopping bags, "from car to cart to checkout."
First Caldwell did a name search and fictitious name registration. Then she registered the business with her state and opened a bank account. The bank account enabled her to do business with various vendors, so she could buy supplies, arrange shipping, and select and register domain names for the website. At the same time, Caldwell also began to work on her branding strategy. This former stay-at-home mom researched the industry and developed a business plan and a marketing plan, which now targets large and small grocers for private-label sales as well as corporate America for promotional giveaways. She notes that her current plan is far removed from what she first sketched out.
Taking a dream and creating a tangible revenue stream involves a real investment of time and dollars as well as diverse initiatives. Caldwell repeatedly test-marketed her product. For six to seven months during that first year, Caldwell invested hundreds of hours doing online networking, as well as attending face-to-face business gatherings, getting feedback from consumers on her idea and design, and finding and meeting with mentors.
Caldwell's startup tips for newbie women entrepreneurs
Believe in yourself. "Put yourself out there. Nothing pushes us to perform more than a simple need to do so. Commit. When you commit, you are accountable."
Results are possible
Despite having no business experience, Caldwell's steadfast passion and creative use of meager resources got her through some of the difficult first steps. Caldwell's Baggonizer officially launched when she started marketing it to various food retailers in September 2009 and directly to consumers at the recent Pennsylvania Governor's Conference in Philadelphia. With the support and guidance of mentors, suppliers, fellow entrepreneurs, activists, columnists and friends, Caldwell is confident the company will succeed.
Building on experience
Lisa Dull, 49, and her partner Regina Ewer, 47, have been working full time on growing a T-shirt business since December 2008. (The business began as a part-time venture in 2000.) Empowered Zone is an apparel and handcrafted sterling silver jewelry business. It features inspirational, one-word mantras and Dull's and Ewer's trademarked Empowered symbol. The company was born by a happy accident when Ewer was making a pair of earrings for their first company,Regina Marie Designs. An errant dollop of sterling silver revealed a confident little symbol/person, and the duo decided to launch a new company around the design.
The partners hired a trademark attorney right away, as they knew they were going to sell their products mostly online, so they wanted to register both the company name and the unique design. "Trying to do it on our own was very lengthy, time-consuming and confusing. With an attorney who specializes in trademarks and copyrights, we were able to add several additional classifications to our initial application, which saved us a lot of money and time. Trademarks generally take one year to clear--a big cost, but one that was well worth it," Dull says. Another necessary step: working with a local banker to get a business loan, which gave the partners seed capital to purchase materials and to cover exhibit fees associated with trade shows and expos.
Dull says the top three ways they marketed their new venture were network, network, network. During 2009 they have been participating in numerous cause-related athletic events, trade shows, and health and wellness expos. Dull says these face-to-face venues are working well to promote the Empowered Zone T-shirt and jewelry line.
"We have found numerous leads and additional opportunities to exhibit at more shows just by talking to people, which we're not usually able to do since we do not have an actual brick-and-mortar store," she says. At every event the partners cheerfully pass out discount coupons for use in their online store, and when the opportunity presents itself at larger events, they provide organizers with coupons for attendees' bags. That fuels better booth traffic and sales.
Dull says they tried ads in local newspapers without success. They had better results with editorial coverage, garnered via persistent submission of press releases to local newspapers and magazines. They also work hard on keeping their website updated with new and fresh content, including an Upcoming Events page that encourages event attendance and direct purchasing options wherever they are exhibiting.
Empowered Zone startup tips for newbie women entrepreneurs
Every solopreneur needs to have a team in place: a lawyer, accountant, banker, graphic artist, printer, IT person, insurance and financial representatives, etc. Don't get caught not knowing where to obtain the services of a reputable person when necessary. Per Dull, "If you shortcut, you get cut short."
Listen to what people are saying to you, sort out the silly or impossible stuff, and focus on the tangible things. Don't be overwhelmed by the total picture. Make a list of all the tasks you need to accomplish, and cut it in half. If you get one or two done, you are progressing. Refresh your list daily, as things change in the blink of an eye. Dull says the greatest attribute in being a smaller business is the ability to change quickly to meet economic fluctuations as well as trends.
Network, network. Start in your own backyard and join as many organizations in your local area as you think can benefit your business. Most organizations will allow you to attend the first meeting for free. This is a good way to see if that particular group would be beneficial. Trade links and opportunities (coupons, promotions) with local businesses.
Be a sponge. Soak up any and all information pertaining to business practices, and then apply them to your particular business.
Results are possible
According to Dull, sometimes it's as simple as following your gut. She feels strongly about letting instincts or the inspirational "light bulb" propel actions, the way Empowered Zone became a reality. With patience, a good support system, belief in yourself and your capabilities and not being shy about asking for help, amazing progress can be made.
Birthing a Virtual Business
What if your product is an online information service? How do you decide the format, the best way to reach your target audience and the method to monetize it? Amanda Steinberg did all this and more with a newborn and toddler in tow. Steinberg is the founder and CEO of Daily Worth, a free daily personal finance e-mail for women. Steinberg's eureka moment occurred when she turned 30. Though she had made six figures for years as the owner of Soapbxx, a New York-based web agency, she was appalled at what she had saved, and she was frustrated by the lack of fiscal savvy and market insight that many of her female employees had.
"We make less than men, save less than men and retire with less. Women also live longer and take more time out of the work force than men to raise children," a frustrated Steinberg says. After assessing her own lack of knowledge and fiscal stability, this intrepid entrepreneur decided to create a business that would help her and other women get informed and in the black.
Steinberg tapped her experience as a web marketer and a consumer. Instead of starting from scratch, she decided to model her new company's format after that of Daily Candy. The popular city-focused daily e-mail, featuring the latest news in fun, fashion, food and culture, sold for $100 million two years ago. Steinberg figured out the assets she could tap into (she figures she spent the equivalent of $10,000 designing her brand and developing the site's back end) and people with whom she could negotiate (her head writer has a small share of equity ownership in the company). Then she bartered for other PR and sales services, and hired writers from her network of friends and neighbors. Steinberg also identified three proven revenue streams: sponsored e-mails, classes and white labeling her content for corporate use, and strategic viral-based initiatives.
"I have friends with big networks, blogs and e-mail lists. I approached whomever I thought would be willing to promote DailyWorth, because it's easy for them to drop a mention and hyperlink into their communications," says Steinberg, whose list has grown to more than 3,000.
Smart startup marketing
In an online business the number of people on your list determines your influence, growth and success. Steinberg is growing her list through a combination of viral activity (including polls and studies), paid online advertising and press coverage. She's expanding the DailyWorth brand through tiers of activities that meet diverse market segments, from women who are currently in debt to those who are saving 20 percent of their income. Says Steinberg, "We want to meet you where you are, so the polls we'll be conducting will help us identify the needs of each segment." She also reached out to influential bloggers in her space, asking for guest blogging opportunities, and she became active on Twitter.
Steinberg's startup tips for newbie women entrepreneurs
- Give yourself a realistic time frame to roll out your new venture (DailyWorth took six months).
- Keep a tight rein on expenses, and don't give up. Steinberg has always bootstrapped everything, and she's failed on many occasions. "I've been trying this over and over (launching different businesses) since I was a senior in college, dedicating significant time and a good chunk of money (around $10,000)."
Results are possible
As a result of her due diligence, networking, research and time invested, Steinberg has strong prospects lined up in every sector and is benefiting from press coverage, including the recent
"Compounded Interest: Expanding a Financial Website for Women."
So if you have a nifty idea for a cool new product or service, you can take it to market with a lot of sweat equity, a healthy dash of resourcefulness and funding, and lots of homework. If you model your actions after the three entrepreneurs we profiled, you'll have a much better chance of creating a strong brand, understanding your target markets, choosing the right advertising venues, and crafting winning marketing campaigns that tap into the needs and wants of your demographic markets.