If You Think You Want to Start a Business, Read This First

Free business advice from the CEO of Union Station. No business degree required.

APW + Squarespace AltCorie Hardee_Christine Han Photography-1

“Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. ” —Guy Kawasaki

Raise your hand if you have a really good idea for a business. Now raise your hand if you have no idea what to do next. Yeah, I totally feel you (say the half a dozen startups, apps, and inventions living inside my head right now). If I’ve learned anything from being on the business side of APW, it’s that lots of people have awesome ideas. But taking an awesome idea and turning it into something that can get customers and money? That takes work. And when you’re at square one, sometimes the hardest part of getting things off the ground is simply figuring out exactly what that work should look like.

I remember when I first started my business, I would cling to any free advice I could get. With a few hundred dollars on an already overspent credit card to my name, I couldn’t exactly afford to invest in advice when I needed things like cameras. So one of my favorite parts of our partnership with Squarespace this year is getting to sit down and peek inside the brains of smart, successful women entrepreneurs and then give you guys access to all the good info. (For more of those articles and interviews, check out the rest of our #PinkEntrepreneurship series right here.) While most of us don’t have business degrees, or savings to invest in our companies, or any connections to speak of at all, the secret is that the early stuff, the fundamental information you need to get things started, usually comes from experience. And it’s way better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than your own.

This month, we had the good fortune to get Corie Hardee, longtime APW sponsor and founder of Union Station, a company that lets you rent bridesmaid dresses instead of buying them, to sit down with us and spill all her best advice on starting a business and succeeding at it. And let’s just say Corie knows her stuff. Union Station was launched as Little Borrowed Dress in 2011, inspired by the four bridesmaid dresses that were gathering dust in Corie’s closet, and has now grown into a company that circulates over ten thousand dresses. Corie has a business degree and was able to invest her life savings into launching what is now Union Station, so her situation is a little different from most of us starting businesses right now, but it also makes her a damn good resource. Plus, despite that business degree and her company’s success, she’s still come up against the common challenges faced by other women entrepreneurs. You should hear the stories she’s told us about trying to pitch a wedding business in a room full of male investors. And today, she’s boiled down everything she learned in those meetings and on the ground with her company into nine questions that can help you figure out if you’re ready to take your idea somewhere. Because the first step of getting other people to take your business seriously is to take it seriously yourself. So without further ado, here’s Corie in her own words:

LBD Dresses 1_Christine Han Photography

1. Do you have a problem? Every good idea starts with a problem you personally have. I had been a bridesmaid before. I had never re-worn the dresses. I realized that with Internet clothing rental companies, there was already an existing new business model that would make it possible to rent bridesmaid dresses. It’s just that no one was doing it. So I knew I at least had that problem. But the other first step you have to take is make sure there are enough other people who have that problem too.

2.Is your problem worth solving? When I started Little Borrowed Dress (now Union Station), I took a five-week leave of absence to make myself comfortable with the idea that this was a business worth investing in. And I say “investing in” because it was my personal money I spent. (Little Borrowed Dress required a fair amount of overhead to get started, so I put in around $30,ooo to get it off the ground, which was pretty much all my savings.) Since I had experience in investing, I looked at my idea the way an investor would. Would this business be worth investing in? In those five weeks, I wanted to prove two things:

  • That the market was big enough (aka there were enough people who felt like they had the same problem I did).
  • And that I could prove those people would pay enough for the solution to make it a viable business model.

To prove there were enough people like me, I ended up doing interviews with about fifty or sixty brides who were planning their weddings. I reached out to everyone I knew and asked, “Who do you know that’s getting married?” I tried not to talk to people who were my friends, because your friends are always going to tell you they like your idea. You don’t want that feedback. If your idea is dumb, you want to know before you throw your time and money at it.

3.Have you done the research on your customer? When I did those interviews, I didn’t lead off with, “I’m thinking of starting a bridesmaid dress rental company, what do you think of that?” I led with, “How are you making this decision? What things are hard about this process? How are you choosing bridesmaid dresses?” This approach can help you gauge the interest in your idea, while also helping you craft how you approach it. For example, I knew the problem was bridesmaids buying dresses they would never wear again, and brides were conflicted about asking them to invest in them. What we found in the interviews was that brides were more concerned about the color of dresses than they were with style, so we decided to offer more color options in our collection, but limit our styles to two or three classic ones. Talking directly to brides helped us identify how we should approach our idea. And it also gave me confidence when nobody said it was a dumb idea.

4.Have you done the research on your industry? I think with a lot of people, their first instinct is to say, “Oh, I don’t want anyone to steal my idea.” But ideas are so easy. A good idea is one-tenth of what makes a business successful. So much of it is how you execute, and just perseverance. So I just talked to everyone. I’d talk to florists and planners and I would ask them, “How do you get customers?” Read everything. I looked for blogs that related to starting a business. I actually found APW because I was trying to put myself in the shoes of brides and wanted to know how they would be getting information. I forced all my friends to try on countless bridesmaid dresses. I would go in and pretend to be a bride. I tried on so many dresses that after we launched the business, I wouldn’t go shopping for so long. Which was good because I didn’t have any money to spend anyway!

It also helps to look at companies and industries that aren’t exactly the exact same as yours, but are similar. Are there any other business models where someone has catered to your market? Look at any kind of parallel and see how they did it. I have also cold emailed dozens of people. And I am always shocked by what a rare occurrence it is that people don’t email you back. I emailed the former CEO of Bag Borrow or Steal and asked if he’d be willing to meet up sometime or get together for coffee. He ended up giving me such valuable information. But you have to be very bold when you contact people. And every time you reach out, you need to express why it’s valuable to meet with you.

5. can you justify the numbers? The other core thing we had to figure out was the numbers side. For us that meant figuring out how much it costs to manufacture a dress, how much shipping costs, and how much it costs to acquire a customer. (I actually totally missed that last one. I made the mistake of thinking, “If you build it, they will come,” but you need to pay to acquire customers. You pay in marketing, or you pay in giveaways.) And you don’t need to have a business degree to figure out these numbers. I would simply call UPS and ask about shipping costs. I would call dry cleaners and figure out those costs. I would just call people up.

6. Are you prepared for rejection? When I first started Little Borrowed Dress, I remember thinking that every single person who heard about our business idea, and came to our website, would obviously be a customer. We did maybe one hundred weddings our first year, and I remember thinking how each one of those weddings was so hard. I was literally bringing dresses to people’s apartments. And I remember thinking, “This is totally a failure.” But then I started looking into other e-commerce sites. And I discovered that conversion rates were like, two percent. Which means out of every hundred people who visit your site, two will shop. And I went to our analytics, and discovered that our conversion rates were like, 0.5 percent. So we weren’t too far off!

The hardest part of starting your own business is putting yourself out there, knowing not everyone is going to like your idea. That your rate of close (aka how many people say yes, either to your product or your business) is going to be very small. I’ve had hundreds of meetings where people have told me no. But it just takes one or two to make a difference.

7. Do you have an elevator pitch? An easy template to use for your elevator pitch is “We solve                           by doing                          .” Ours is easy. We solve the problem of having to buy an expensive bridesmaid dress you’re never going to wear again by offering dresses to rent. But if you’re doing anything technical, it can be easy to get stuck in the weeds. And over-explain. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to get caught up in every single detail. But what’s the core thing? I tell people to imagine you’re telling this to your seven-year-old (aka simplify it to its most basic form).

8. Do you have a logo? Ha, just kidding. A logo is the last thing you need. First, you just need to build a business, prove that it’s viable, and then you can make it pretty. For us, that meant the dresses obviously needed to look good. But everything else in those early days, from our photography to our ordering system, really wasn’t that great. In a way, though, that was a blessing. For example, we get emails from customers asking for more sizes or a different color from what we offer. And your first instinct as a business owner is always to be like, “Well, if this person is going to give me money, then I’m going to offer them whatever they want.” But before you can get there, you just have to prove the business works on a really small scale. Because if you try to get it all perfect from the start, before you know your business really well, you are liable to make mistakes that will impact your business down the line.

For example, when we were starting out, I wanted to build a backend inventory management system. So I called around and got the price from development shops, and it was really, really expensive. And there was no way we could afford that. So our very first year, we managed all of the dresses on a very complicated Excel spreadsheet (it was basically a very sophisticated library checkout system for dresses). Doing it that way gave us the information we needed to build out the automated site in a way that actually reflects the needs of our business. If we had built it beforehand, it would have just broken. We would have ended up spending more money in the long term, and would have had all this legacy technology we either needed to adapt or trash.

9. Are you ready? I think everyone who has a business is unsure of themselves. And I think the biggest thing to realize is that everyone feels this way. And the people who seem the most confident are actually the most insecure. But once you start to make friends with people you realize everyone feels this way. Because you’re putting yourself out into the world and saying, “Judge me.” If you’re struggling with that part, I recommend two books. The first is The War of Art. It’s not about business exactly, and yet it is. The other one is The Confidence Code, which is amazing, and grapples a lot with that fear of failure (for women, specifically).

In short, if you’re thinking of making the jump, definitely do your homework first. But if you’re convinced the business is viable, then make the jump and don’t worry about it. I think a lot of what people fear is this nagging thought, “If my business is unsuccessful, did I just kill my career? What will I do then?” What I underestimated back then was what I would learn. What I underestimated was how much more employable I am now than I ever would have been if I had stayed at my job. Because just going out there in the world to create something, you learn so much. In fact, I think that’s the last bit of advice I’d offer: to get back into the habit of learning. Because when you’re small, when you’re a kid, you’re constantly trying to absorb information. You’re a sponge. And with my business, I was always trying to do the same thing. Always ask why. Learn as much as possible. You can teach yourself anything. Google is how I figured this business out. I would Google things, then talk to people. Then Google more and talk to more people. And I’m still doing it.

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This post was sponsored by Squarespace. Thank you Squarespace for helping make the APW mission possible, and our dream of supporting #PinkEntrepreneurs a reality. The Squarespace mission is to provide creative tools that give a voice to your ideas, and a home for your business. In conjunction with the APW + Squarespace small business scholarship and our #PinkEntrepreneurship series, Squarespace is offering APWers a 10% discount on yearly subscriptions when you use the code APW15 at checkout. Click here to get your business website started today with a free 14-day trial from Squarespace.

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