The Best Business Strategy Is the One That Makes You Money


You're in it to win it, right?

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I have started a number of micro-to-medium-sized businesses over the years, and I have made the same mistake almost every time.

That mistake? Spending money before making money, which—surprise!—isn’t the best business strategy. Because if you’ve got the cash, it’s much, much easier (and more fun!) to buy logos and business cards and supplies and seminars and memberships to various online services (“Ooh, I’m gonna need Photoshop!”) than it is to actually go out, sell something, and actually bring home some money. Mmm, business!

All of this is basically business porn that people use for bizturbation.

Of course, you do need a domain name, and then a website, and presumably a logo. And at some point you want to create legal documents and get insurance and figure out if you want to be an LLC or a corporation. None of these things are stupid. But they’re side notes. You can do all of these things and still not have a business. So today, in partnership with APW and Squarespace, I’m sharing what I’ve learned you actually need to start a business.

the essential truth of starting a business is…

Let’s pare it down: The only thing that is actually literally essential to having a business is that someone pays you money for something. If you’re feeling a little intimidated by the process of starting a business, it’s nice to just focus on one thing. Figure out something that people want to pay for, right now, without you having to pull metaphorical teeth. Then do or make the thing and get the money. Use the money for the other stuff, as needed.

The MVP—or minimum viable productmethodology has been around for years, popularized by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup. According to Ries, “the minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” That is, before spending all your time and money building something you’re not sure anybody wants, create the minimum possible version that you can sell, and launch it in order to collect feedback and information. Then revise based on that feedback.

For software companies, an MVP is often actually a service—as in, before we go and build an expensive app, how about we just solve your problem personally, one-on-one, and see how that works for you. Are people willing to pay? Is their problem not quite as expected?

I’m so big on spreading this idea because I talk to a lot of women who want to start businesses that are not software companies. And when you google “MVP” (and really, a lot of other useful ideas), you get shit that is entirely about software. And not every business is like software. If you’re making strollers or replacement heart valves, you can’t release a shitty beta version and then wait for feedback before you fix all the bugs. You have to see through all the Silicon Valley jargon (and sometimes macho bullshit), and peel away all the software-specific adages—and then you get a really fucking good idea about how to start a business.

In fact, this March, I spoke to a group of Girl Scouts about entrepreneurship “from big to small.” The Scouts had already been through an entrepreneurship exercise in which they formed a mock startup, developed a business plan, and pitched to venture capitalists—which is one totally valid way to be an entrepreneur, but certainly not the only way. A lot of people would just be delighted to make a hundred grand a year without having to answer to a boss, and while having the ability to do a lunchtime yoga class whenever they feel like it. The MVP methodology is a hundred percent relevant here! (And even if you do want to go the venture capital route, it’s pretty rare for VCs to invest in new entrepreneurs based on a business plan alone—you’ll want to show that you have customers and revenue, so you’re going to need to bootstrap anyway.)

So I talked with these Girl Scouts about what everybody was interested in, how you could help someone in that area of interest with a problem they have, and how to get your first customer with zero to $100. One high school student developed a totally viable plan to breed rare fish in her bedroom and sell them directly to rare fish aficionados (afishionados?) over message boards. She has direct access to the exact people who are willing to buy, and she can survey them and possibly take pre-orders before investing her time and money. Another had an idea to train “older people” who run businesses to be better at Instagram, and I was like: Wait, I am your target market, and I want that, except that I want you to just do it for me, you cool teenager, you! Feedback!

This brings to mind a fantastic interview on Autostraddle with Nathalie Huerta, owner of the only queer gym in the US. Huerta advises not to “get caught up in the sexiness of owning a business” and instead admonishes, “Never lose focus on sales. You don’t sell, you don’t eat.” Huerta notes that she bootstrapped her gym until (in the third year) a member who believed in her invested, and now she has more funding opportunities popping up, all from relationships she’s formed. Her happy customers are helping her expand.

non-tech MVP in a nutshell

  1. Find a group of potential customers that you actually have access to. (If you can’t get access, that’s a problem better discovered sooner than later!)
  2. Survey them and find out their pain points. This might seem tedious, but not more tedious than sitting on your ass once you’ve spent your savings making something no one wants.
  3. Develop the minimum possible solution to that problem, which might just be coming over to the person’s house and solving their problem in person.
  4. Work out an offer—an actual product or service in exchange for an actual amount of money. Don’t ask people if they would pay you money, ask them to pay you money. Lots of people say they would buy something, but when asked to actually buy, they have a million reasons why not, or why not right now. Those objections are the #1 thing you need to know! For example, you could simply individually email the people you’ve surveyed and ask them if they want to buy your MVP. Provide a PayPal link. Actually ask the person to be your customer. Make it personal so it would be awkward for them to just ignore your email. If they don’t buy, thank them for helping you develop your business, and ask why the offer isn’t right for them. Get all the feedback. If a lot of the feedback says the same thing, do that other thing instead.

If your customers want something different from what you expected, they might not be the perfect customers for you, but they’re not wrong. Find out exactly what this other thing is that they’re itching to pay money for! Do you really want to do your exact original idea more than you want a viable business? Say you want to offer postpartum personal training to new moms, so you ask some new moms to book sessions with you. Maybe they said they wanted a boot camp, but when you ask them to buy right now, they’re too tired to think about it (understandable), or maybe they do book but then don’t show up because, you know… childcare. Maybe some of your clients don’t really want to work out after all—they want to feel like they’re doing something healthy for themselves, to get a break from the baby, and to get some sympathy from others about what they’re going through. Maybe they actually want a fitness discussion group, with green smoothies. It’s a lot easier to sell things to people when you give them the thing they secretly want but no one ever really asked them about.

Once you have some customers, make them really happy and keep them in the loop about the changes you’re making as you upgrade from the MVP version to the bigger-and-better version! Ask for referrals; keep getting feedback. Use your actual revenue to brand the shit out of this thing you’ve built. You might even survey your customers about your new company name, logo, color scheme, and so on. Use your branding, website launch, etc. as opportunities to contact and thank your customers, and ask them, your ground-level members, to spread the word!

As you build that bigger-and-better version, that’s when you build a business you can scale (if that’s your goal). How can you remove yourself from having to intervene in every transaction, and have those functions completed by employees, contractors, or software? Outsource some functions as needed. Create systems and procedures so routine tasks can be streamlined, and you can focus on the broader vision for the company.

Sure, shit gets complicated around that point, but it’s a lot more motivating to figure it all out when you’ve got happy people giving you money, and wanting you to succeed.

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This post was sponsored by Squarespace. When it comes time to turn your MVP into a website, Squarespace is there to provide the creative tools to build it beautiful and build it easily, even if you’ve never made a website before and have no idea where to start. And with sites starting at just $12 a month, you can also build your website affordably. They even have an easy logo maker to get you started (no Photoshop needed!). In conjunction with our career series this year, Squarespace is offering APWers a 10% discount on yearly subscriptions when you use the code APW16 at checkout. Click here to get your website started today with a free 14-day trial from Squarespace.

Pink Line

i-am-your-doulaMeet APW BusinessWoman Brooke Reninger!

My name is Brooke Reninger and I am a professional doula. I provide expecting mothers and their families with supportive services in an unbiased, nonjudgmental way throughout their pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. Squarespace makes it extremely easy for my business to have a professional-looking website. These days, and in my career, a website is vital. Most of my clientele comes to me online in some way. Squarespace also makes it easy for me to run a pregnancy, birth, and women’s blog right on my website. These two things are absolutely essential to making my business easy to find online.

Jennifer Dziura

Jennifer Dziura is the founder of GetBullish.com and the annual Bullish Conference, taking place September 18-21, 2016 in Palm Springs, California. She believes in risk-taking, negotiating better by being genuinely willing to walk away, gentlewomanly living, gravitas, espresso, prosecco, and helping other women.

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  • anon

    Actually ask the person to be your customer. Make it personal so it would be awkward for them to just ignore your email.
    This is my social anxiety nightmare, from both sides of the request.

  • Sarah E

    <3 <3 <3

  • Kate

    I had a roommate whose entire life was devoted to bizturbation. He was very much a get-rich-quick guy who would throw money at completely untested business ideas. One of his last “businesses” before he moved out was pet-themed, and FOR MONTHS we got five million mailings a week from the countless mailing lists he had signed up for (seemingly every animal charity in a three state radius). My favorite were the letters from a city he had clearly never been to, but signed up for a business license in anyways. Though his energy drink “business” had been defunct for ages by the time he moved out, we still found all kinds of questionable powders and substances he had ordered online then stashed in the freezer.
    He was a real character. Who frequently took business calls on the toilet.

    • Shawna

      Just got business licenses in two cities for my business so the idea of throwing money at business licenses you don’t need is (weirdly) the most horrifying part of this whole story! They are not cheap!

  • Shawna

    Thanks for providing renewed focus on the wisdom of starting with the bare minimum (MVP). I keep hearing from my colleagues who are also just starting out post-grad that it’s interesting to see “how cautious you are.” I don’t see it as cautious. Just trying to spend my two pennies on the things I actually need (or will be the best investments to help me grow) at this stage!! Keeping a list of the things I can expand to when the time is right.

  • ruth

    The “never loose focus on sales” quote really hit me like a punch – but I find it a struggle sometimes to apply these entrepreneurial strategies to my own ‘business,’ which is being an author. I’m not sure what the “ask” is when your product is your writing. On the one hand, I do have a sense of the market and where my series fits into that (my publisher presumably thinks there’s a market for what I write or they wouldn’t have offered me the deal) however, when it comes to polling individual reader’s opinions of what they want to read, there’s such a plethora that it’s hard to sort out any signal from the noise. Also, readers often don’t know in advance whether or not they’ll like a book till they’ve actually read it, and a truly great book can make its own market, i.e. no one was into wizard boarding schools before Harry Potter. So I really want to take advantage of all the great entrepreurial advice flowing from the tech field and apply it to my author career, but I’m finding it somewhat opaque

    • S

      I get you, I’m a writer too, and I want to play the hustle game! But at the end of the day art isn’t business. You can market an artistic product but I feel as though writing a work of fiction with some sort of checklist of things to provide to “customers” is completely missing the point unless you’re a ghostwriter. Sure, you CAN do it that way, and I guess it just depends on what your goal is for your writing. But polling readers on what they want to read? You’re right, that doesn’t make sense. Anyone will read anything, your job – and not even really your job, but your publisher’s job (though in part yours too, sure) is finding those people and selling them your book. I could talk to twenty people who are into sci fi, and they could tell me they want me to write science fiction and that I’d be great at it, but I’m not a sci fi writer and their interest in sci fi doesn’t negate the existence of people who AREN’T into reading sci fi. For me, I’d be happy to take requests for a story – for direct cash. Oh, you want a short story for your wedding, about love, featuring anthropomorphic animals with the names of you and your fiancé? For $100? DONE! But that, to me, is very separate from the creation of my art, which is what my writing is to me. But there’s room for both obviously! You can hustle as a writer on demand and then write true creative literary art in your spare time! Or maybe you don’t care about that part as much as the marketing business part which is also totally great and fine!

      • S

        I feel like I inadvertently implied that I think writing that is written for a specific commercial purpose can’t be art, and I don’t think that. If someone pays
        Me to write a novella about their dog as as astronaut you better believe I’m capable of doing that and making it good and making it literary and it would still be art. I guess I just mean I think it’s art that’s different to YOUR art, that comes from your own impulses and imagination. Just like I think fanfiction can be literary, I just think it’s also not the same as writing about your OWN literary world.

        • S

          …And actually now that I’m thinking about it, I bet people pay good money for fanfiction.

          • Sarah

            I used to be really into Harry Potter fanfic, especially by one particular writer. My favourite stories of his (Stealing Harry/Laocoon’s Children, for those of you playing along at home) were unfinished and he has no plans to ever return to them because he’s not into it anymore. I 100% understand his reasons, but if I ever win the lottery I’m going to contact him and ask him how much he’d need to finish them.

          • anon

            The fannish market is actually a gifting based economy, and while fanartists have slowly broken into getting cash for commissions (tho way below market rate), fanfic has no market. Anyone coming in and offering to write fanfic for cash would be a pretty obvious outsider.

          • chikzdigmohawkz

            To build on this, many fanartists sell commissions for specific situations – they need to raise money for better art supplies, or to get out of a certain living situation, or for medical expenses. And these artists tend to be well-established in whatever fandom communities they’re selling in, too.

    • joanna b.n.

      Here’s another take on what you’re saying… but it doesn’t give entrepreneurial advice. But it does explain why.
      http://momastery.com/blog/2016/01/20/three-rules-for-a-creative-life/
      (warning: it’s by a Christian writer, but just replace the god references with whatever works best for you if that’s an issue)

      • ruth

        This is a fantastic essay Joanna, thank you so much for sharing! While I’m not a Christian, I think her points are really universal: create, call it good, rest. I had been neglecting the second two! This was a good reminder

  • Ant

    Real question: I want to start making and selling my own yoga pants. I know that some ladies in my yoga class would be interested (they keep asking me where I got/how I made mine). Should I invest in a better sewing machine first (one that doesn’t skip random stitches, not a big pro machine)? Or does that count as bizturbation?

    • Kate

      Would your first batch of customers even notice a few skipped stitches? Maybe show the skipped stitches to an honest friend and ask if they would notice/care if they had bought the pants at a store. Or sell your first batch with a discount saying they are samples/test products?
      Bizturbation: Immediately buying brand new or pro machinery when borrowed, refurbished, or used machinery would’ve been just as good/cheaper.

    • S

      I’m not a business lady but from my perspective it seems like you’re a sewing person and this would be very useful to have just as a life thing anyway. Sure, you could just plod along on your current crappy machine and churn out as many pants as it would take to afford the machine and THEN buy it but that just sounds like a lot of pain and I’m not sure what the point would be really. If you can comfortably afford it and want it and you need it to make the product then I vote that it wouldn’t count as bizturbation, just common sense.

    • Sarah

      The pants they’re admiring were made on the existing machine, right? I say just make the pants right now on the machine you have. Don’t offer a discount either, at least not until someone actually tells you they won’t pay full price because the quality isn’t quite at professional standard (I bet nobody will actually tell you this anyway).
      OR, if your machine is really so bad that you don’t think you can sell anything you make on it – or it would be much slower than a new one, meaning you’d work for twice as long to make the same money – then maybe get the new machine, but take orders and payment upfront so you have the money to buy the machine. Personally, if I was buying a product from someone I knew (and they weren’t an established business) I’d be happy to pay up front so they could get the materials etc.

    • k

      To me the quality of life difference between sewing hundreds of yards of stitching on a junky bottom end singer and doing so on a midrange is large enough that the actual quality of the product doesn’t even end up being in question. All it takes is two hours of seamripping out stitches of stretch fabric and you’re at a wash for hourly rate anyway

    • Ant

      All these comments are really helpful. They made me realize that A) yes, I would *love* to buy a new/better machine because I *love* buying machinery and B) I don’t absolutely need it because the most important thing is to just get started. Taking orders and payment in advance never occurred to me, but I can totally see that what works on the internet can also work in real life. Thank you!

  • Anon

    I’m really struggling with your “Only LGBT gym in the country” comment…. it’s patently untrue, it’s just the only gym in the country that MARKETS itself as such. For example, there was In Motion Fitness in Laurel, Mississippi was owned and operated by a Lesbian (though it has since changed ownership given the backlash from the whole “L Word Mississippi” backlash).

    • Ah, I took that from the Autostraddle article in the link, which says “the only queer gym in the US.” Good to know.

  • Dess

    I love that I can get awesome wedding advice, and awesome #hustle advice from the same place! *heart eye emojis everywhere*
    Posts like this one help me figure out what I want to be a hobby, and what I want to try to develop into a side hustle.

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  • joanna b.n.

    OMG incredible advice! Thank you!

    Also, if you don’t like step 2 – actually talking to your target customers, you might keep that in mind when you design your business (or think twice about the whole endeavor).

  • Rememberthe5th

    “Maybe some of your clients don’t really want to work out after all—they want to feel like they’re doing something healthy for themselves” – THIS

    In gathering Voice of Customer (talking to potential customers), find out the WHY behind the need they express, don’t just listen to the first thing they tell you. Someone will tell you what they think the solution is, “I want a stronger hammer,” or “I want a mommy bootcamp”, but when you look into the WHY the best solution probably isn’t a traditional one i.e. “I need something that drives nails into metal” or “I want to feel active and healthy again”.

    An non-leading interview guide can be really key here.

    • JR

      There’s a great framework by Clayton Christensen (who is awesome) called “jobs to be done” (here’s a good summary: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/clay-christensens-milkshake-marketing) that totally relates to this. He argues that most companies segment markets by type of customer or product, when they should be focused on the customer’s “job to be done” – what problem they are actually trying to solve. So this customer’s job is “feel healthy.” A boot camp is one way to feel healthy, while others are a walking group, a healthy cooking group, etc. If the job is “lose weight” or “complete a 5k” or whatever, the book camp is still a solution, but the alternatives (and therefore your competitors, and also how you want to structure your offering) are now different.

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