Sunday, 11 November 2012

#1. Getting In The Right Frame Of Mind - Think Like An Entrepreneur

I like to think of anyone who produces and sells something as fitting in one of these three categories:

· Hobbyists – these are people that enjoy making jewellery, fixing clothes or repairing computers, but it hasn’t really crossed their minds to make a business out of it. They are happy selling the odd thing every now and then and making a bit of money to cover their time or materials.

Tagline: It is very hard to make money from this, although it can be a fun way of making a bit of pocket money. You can't really charge for your labour, and the only people who make money are those who are offering something really unique and are lucky enough to get their name known.

· Sellers – these are people that one day started making something (or offering a service), managed to sell a few things and thought ‘I think I have a business!’. They want to make their business go further, but they tend to focus their time and energy on producing things rather than on managing the business or reaching out to the market.

Tagline: I’m glad my things are selling, although I’m really unsure about who my market is, how to get to them, what to charge for my product/service or how to build a brand. Still, it supplements my income, so I will keep doing what I’m doing now and hopefully it will get better sometime.

· Entrepreneurs – these are the people that have thought about what they want their life to look like and decided that the best way to get there is by working on projects by themselves or with a small number of people. They have identified what they’re good at doing, what people will pay them to do and what they are naturally hardwired to do, and found  the convergence point that will be the basis of any business they start.

Tagline: I value having the freedom to live life in my own terms, and not having to depend on someone else’s idea of what my life should look like to make a living. I also enjoy helping and inspiring others, and I want to use my skills to build a business that does exactly that, whilst it allows me to live the way I want to.

Hobbyists don’t really want to have a business. They do what they do primarily for their own enjoyment, and anything else than that would probably be detrimental for them as they don’t want to devote time and effort to doing things they really don’t want to do - they would end up hating their hobby. Sellers want to put in the time and effort, but many times they don’t know where to start – they resort to reading everything they can find about target markets, branding, marketing and sales, only to get more confused with all the contradictory, overly technical or not applicable information they find. This tends to make them seek refuge on creating things or working on their service, so they feel productive without having to deal with the rest.

Entrepreneurs though, are a different story.

What’s so powerful about thinking like an entrepreneur?

Have you ever thought about how your business came to life? Was it accidental, or did you plan to take the leap for a long time? Whichever way it happened, chances are you discovered you were good at something (be it making a product or offering a service), realised there were some people out there willing to pay for it and set up shop hoping it would lead somewhere.

Once of the things that strikes me the most about some people I’ve come into contact with is that they became business owners accidentally. In Clinton IL, Andi Burkholder from Squeaky Clean Soaps has built a little shop that sells functional and customised soaps. When asked how she started her business, she said “I had made my soaps initially as functional, personalized gifts for friends and relatives and when I received such a positive response and encouragement to sell them, I took the plunge. It’s a great creative outlet for me”.

Quite a few miles away in Birmingham UK, Liz from Beads Crazy sells her jewellery from her Facebook page. I spoke to her recently and she told me: “I started making jewellery a couple of years ago but then I had my son last year and the pregnancy was a nightmare so I stopped. As he got a bit older I decided to start doing it again, for my sanity, and after learning to make Shamballa bracelets I had loads of comments about how nice they were so I decided to set up a page and I'm getting loads of orders”.

I’m sure you can relate, or at least know of a few people that started the same way. Some of them are doing well, but most of the people I’ve talked to are either not doing as well as they’d like to, or are doing okay but think they could be doing better. When I asked Marco, owner of White Pelican Vintage, how he felt about his business, this is the answer I got: “Today? Good, but that could be because I've had 5 sales since yesterday (two of them repeat customers who love the shop). Now, if you asked me this 10 days ago, when I went 8 days without a sale... I might have a different answer for you”. So why does this happen? Why do people that felt motivated enough to take the plunge once, feel like things could be going better but they don’t really know how to make them better?

I’d say the problem lies in people getting stuck in the “seller” category and not being able to transition to an entrepreneurial way of thinking. When you start a project on a whim and not think of how you want to live your life, what problem you’re solving, why you’re doing what you’re doing and how it fits the bigger picture, you’re bound to get stuck eventually.

Now, how are we going to fix this?

The Life You Want

Think of the definition of an entrepreneur we looked at earlier – someone who decides on the kind of life they want to live and builds a project around that idea. Now, that is a pretty powerful motivation to make that project work, isn’t it? Certainly more than thinking “I knit scarves and sell them and it’d be nice to make a bit of money this way to pay the bills”.

The problem a lot of people face after they start their business accidentally is that they don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs, partly because this is a word we tend to associate with people that have money to invest, very specific and marketable skills and a huge network of people ready to help them. Please, please, stop thinking like that. When you strip the word entrepreneur of every association with big names and the flashy aura, you’re left with an individual that uses their skills to solve problems and make money to live the life they want.

Sadie Knight from GlassRaven started her website design and development business after the birth of her second child, having worked at a local web firm up until then and knowing she wanted to have more time to be with her family. She started with little money, and after finding support in a couple of parenting website - home worker forums (where she also found her first clients) she has recently completed a website design for the NHS. In Pakistan, Syed Balkhi, started designing and developing websites at the age of 12. He now runs the successful Uzzz Productions website offering web services, and his blog for Wordpress beginners currently attracts 145,000 unique visitors a month, which gives him a freedom other university students don’t have.

If creating a great business in order to live a great life is the way to go, the natural question is - how would you like to live your life? Most of us have a very rough idea of what we want out lives to look like, but I’m sure you know whether you’d prefer working in a nice little office somewhere doing regular hours, or you’d rather work from home at times that suit you so you can spend more time with your family, or what you’d really like is to be constantly on the move, being able to do your job from whichever location you might be in as long as you have an internet connection. You probably also know whether you appreciate having time to do all the things you love doing more than having a lot of money, or you’re happy to give up the time and bring in more money by devoting more time to your business.

Let’s take it a bit further. I’d like you to try and (yes, I’m giving you homework) imagine waking up tomorrow in a life that makes you happy. Don’t worry, this is not one of those new age motivational visualisations that will make money magically appear by imagining it in your hand and sending positive vibrations. I hate those. I just want you to imagine waking up in a house and city that you love living in, with people or pets you love (or alone, if that’s what makes you happy), doing things you love during the day, meeting good friends, cooking or eating things that make you happy, going to places that make you feel good, going to sleep and still feeling great. You can do this for one day or a few days in a row if you take homework very seriously.

What does your day/week look like? Where do you live? What kind of work do you do? Who do you spend time with? Where do you go, what do you eat? Would you agree with the statement “I’m quite confident I would be happy if my life looked like this”? What this gives you is an idea of what kind of business model would fit this ideal life of yours, so you know that if you want to start a dressmaking business so you can stay at home with your family, you would be good to go by devoting a room in your house to it, but if you’d like to live somewhere different every 6 months and work on the go, having a lot of physical stuff linked to your work or having to physically be somewhere every Monday at 3 will make that kind of life very difficult and you’re better of starting a business based on a service or selling a non-physical product.

This is important because it means that when you are working on your business, you will also be happy with the life you have created for yourself. In other words, you will create a business that will support your life while you live it in your own terms, and not the other way around,

What can you offer?

Another reason people get stuck in the “seller” category is that they’ve jumped in the middle of it and thought about everything else afterwards. This is especially true when it comes to “accidental” entrepreneurs, as they started their business by offering whichever product or service they were offering at that particular moment due to some encouragement they happened to get. Again, it’s great to take the plunge, especially in a situation when you know you won’t lose a lot if it doesn’t quite work. But there’s a better way of doing these things.

A worth mentioning characteristic of entrepreneurs is that they have identified what skills they’ve got, what they enjoy doing, what people would be willing to pay them to do, and what they are naturally hardwired to do. Let's look at them more closely.

· What are your skills? What are you good at? It’s quite common to have one main skill pop into your head, such as sewing, programming, writing, making jewellery, cooking or hairdressing. Chances are though, if you’re good at one thing you’re probably good at a few other things too. Perhaps you’re great at talking to people, or organising yourself, or speaking in public. If you’re finding it hard to think of things you’re good at, ask someone that knows you. You could be surprised at what they say.

· What do you love doing? You can literally list anything here (we’ll weed through it later), from talking to people, writing, giving speeches, working with computer or creating things to spending time outdoors, taking care of animals, eating cake or travelling.

· What would people pay you to do? They probably won’t pay you for eating cake (if you find a market though, please let me know), but there is people that would be happy to pay you for writing, coding, speaking in public, fixing a dress, creating a ring or organising their work. Even things that initially might not seem worth charging for, like travelling, could be turned into a business by writing reviews or recommendations of places visited or creating a crash course of the most common phrases used in the language of the countries visited.

· What are you hardwired to do? In other words, what are you naturally good at? This is a tough one, because you normally start picking up the things that come naturally to you and the things that don’t over a long period of time. For example, I love strategizing, brainstorming and coming up with ideas. These things come naturally to me, and I find it easy to accomplish tasks based on that. I also find it easy to pick up general technical notions of how something works, but if I have to do anything that requires huge technical knowledge I realise I have to try a lot harder, and I often get frustrated or lose interest very quickly. For this reason, I’ll never start a business writing code for websites (it would fail very quickly and I’d cry a lot), but I’m always over excited about offering business advice to my clients.

The trick here is to come up with a converging point among those four areas. However, and since it’s hard to determine what you’re naturally talented at doing, we should focus on the first three. Think of three overlapping circles and the point in the middle where all of them join. If you can find something that you can do well, you love doing and people would pay you to do, you’re already ahead of a lot of small business owners, purely because you’ve got skills, passion and a market. It’s quite likely that you’re feeling stuck because you only have two of those at the moment.

Can you solve a problem?

People that have an entrepreneurial mindset are constantly looking for problems to solve. It’s inherent to them. They walk around looking at businesses, products and services and think of ways to improve them, build something on them or use them as the basis for a spin off in a unique way.

I’d like you to try and do just that next time you’re out, or milling about your house, or talking to someone, or at work. Did someone mention something that posed a problem to them? Did something annoy you? Was it because it wasn’t working properly, or it was so incredibly hard to use that there must surely be a better way of doing it? How can it be better? You don’t need to come up with a full business plan for your idea, just a basic notion of how it could be solved.

The reason I want you to do this for external things and not for your business is because it’s very difficult to think of ways to change something you’re so invested in. You sell scarves, or pottery, or website design services, and you can’t possibly see how doing this solves a problem that hasn’t been addressed yet. Sure, you make someone warm, or someone’s house pretty, or someone’s site look professional, but so do a lot of other people. So look for problems externally, or problems you might have that are not related to your business. Chances are, these problems are not unique and a lot of people in a similar situation would benefit from a solution.

What happens when you start looking at opportunities outside your immediate circle is that your brain gets used to thinking in terms of how doing something can help other people. Charlotte, the sister of a friend who lives nearby, had a lot of babysitting experience but was finding it hard to get bookings. After overhearing a couple outside of the Hilton hotel mention that they couldn’t go to certain event that night because they had the kids with them, she decided to approach the hotel with a babysitting service they could offer to their guests. While she waits for an answer from them, she’s working on designing the service so she can offer it to other hotels.

In Dorset UK, Joanne launched Charlie Moo's to offer handmade, eco-friendly party bags with child appropriate content after getting disheartened by the rubbish party bags his son received at parties. A similar approach was followed by Andi (who we met earlier) when she started using her soaps to fill party bags, coming up with designs as great as this. Marleena from Taitaya offers brooches that are beautiful and functional, as they serve as closures for clothes as well as for gathering things like curtains. started as a way to address the problem a lot of people face when they decide to help a charity – not knowing where their money will end up due to lack of transparency, and finding it difficult to find a cause they completely identify with – by offering individuals the chance to micro-finance a project of their choice by connecting lenders with people that need a small loan.

These are all great ideas that solve a problem and work as a business. If you start looking around you and start finding solutions to problems in your everyday life, you’ll soon find that new ideas constantly pop into your head, and chances are you’ll be able to relate some of them to your business. Why should you limit yourself by believing you are just a scarf seller? You might have started as one, but your real skill is that you can knit. Can you think of a way in which knitting can solve a specific problem? Perhaps creating a more functional design, or offering knitting lessons for busy people as a way to de-stress themselves? You might offer web design services now, but you might realise there’s a niche group that would benefit a lot from having a similar service tailored to them. The possibilities are endless, and the feeling that you are helping people gives you the extra push.

Okay! I’m thinking like an entrepreneur! Now, how does this help me?

What you need to realise is that part of why you might be feeling stuck is because not knowing how to move your business forward and resorting to doing the same things all the time has probably left you feeling very unmotivated. It’s very hard to get people excited about your business when you’re not excited yourself.

When you start seeing your business as a way to get the life you want, you rediscover the things that make you feel passionate and you love doing and you constantly think up new ideas to try and help other people, you become unstoppable. You have all the motivation in the world because you’re doing this for yourself, loving what you’re doing and helping people along the way.

This doesn’t guarantee that your business will be a success. You still need some kind of strategy/one page business plan and you’ll have to work your buns off, but it puts you in the best frame of mind to do it.

Next week…

Next week we’ll get more specific about what we’ve covered in this post, and we’ll be looking at what happens when you start your business, how to address common fears and setbacks and how remaining flexible and trying new ideas can help you.

Thank you so much for reading. I hope this helped, and do let me know your thoughts or ask me any questions in the comments below. And feel free to share it with anyone you think might benefit from it!


  1. This is great - very well written and very inspirational!
    While reading your post, I couldn't stop thinking: you should make it into a book (e-book?). You write really well! I've ploughed through so many "How to start your own business"-type books. The closest in the subject addressed is "Kitchen table entrepreneur", and what you write so far is way better and more up to date.
    As for me, I am definitely in a "seller" state, and it's getting boring. But hopefully it will change - thank you for the advice.
    Looking forward to the next post!

  2. Thanks Sonya! I have indeed thought about that. I'm planning to collect the whole series in an e-book when I'm done with it, which will most likely be available for download here. I will also include everything that has been left out here for the shake of not making you all go through a gazillion words.

    I think the problem with some of those books you mention is that they tend to be very generic and it's hard to figure out how to apply it to your business. I'm trying to be more approachable and specific, starting with some motivation and moving onto the more technical stuff later on. I'm really glad it helped you, and I'm sure by the end of the series you will have a lot of ideas to work on :)