Starting a business? Start with a service.

I’m going to get into trouble writing this post. I think people might comment (in this post or privately by email) who will chastise me for suggesting this. I can predict the emails now.

But I’m here to tell you that they are wrong.

Regardless of what the experts tell you, start a business that offers a service.

Years ago, I started my business as a freelance writer. Although different aspects of my business changed (including what I wrote and who I wrote for), I always came back to the one key element: I provided a writing service for other people. It was my default position.

Later, I branched out into other things — selling infoproducts, writing ad-based or affiliate-based content, and more. But writing was always there, always funding that expansion and always putting food on the table.

I’m a big fan of starting a business by providing a service to other people. That service could include something you do (as in my case — writing — or perhaps it’s something else, like renovating houses or consulting on social media or being a plumber, etc.). If you find a group of people who want what you sell, and you market to that group effectively, you’ll always have work… and you’ll always have income. And if you ever want to make more money as a service provider, you can always increase how much you pitch and how much you charge. That’s true security as a business owner. There’s a very simple link between the work you do and the success you enjoy.

A service also makes you relevant and keeps you sharp. It keeps you in the game. It helps you establish and strengthen your position in the industry. It gives you a “laboratory” that you can experiment — see what works; see what doesn’t.

And no matter what happens, you can wake up and make money… and you’ll always have the confidence that more money is just a few phone calls away. (If you have the right service to the right group of people, of course).

Once you have a service established and in place, then you can extend to other monetization opportunities: Products, information, etc. These are awesome because they are “do-them-once-and-profit-continuously” opportunities. Often, they require a lot of work up-front but then can become serious profit generators in the future because the hard work is done initially and all you need to do after is market them.

And eventually, product sales might even outstrip your service sales so you get to the point where you don’t earn much money at all from services. And a lot of the gurus will tell you that starting with a product is the way to go because they can generate a lot of profit.

But I think you should start with a service. Find something you do well and provide it to a well-chosen market.

Products (whether physical products or infoproducts) are good to sell and can boost your income considerably. And products are often heavily promoted by the gurus as THE way to monetize your business. But here’s what they don’t tell you:

  • Cost and effort: Products take a lot of work up-front to do well. Physical products may require that you pay for them to be imported or manufactured. Digital products require time spent in writing and design.
  • Risk: Along with the effort, there’s a considerable amount of risk offering a product that is designed and created… but then turns out to be a dud.
  • Income and timeline: Products are (often) not a windfall. They trickle money in — and sometimes it’s not a lot of money at all. Yes, you could eventually get to a point where your product business is bringing in decent cash from product sales but in the very beginning, you won’t be lighting cigars with $100 bills.

Now let’s compare those same factors with a services offering:

  • Cost and effort: Services don’t need to be “created” so they take zero dollars to do. (You might point out that some services require costly tools or training. That’s a good point but I cover it in my next point)…
  • Risk: If you offer a service and no one buys, you haven’t lost much. You can adjust your service to offer it to a group of people who do want it. Or if you want to make more money, you can offer different services. In other words, services are much more agile. (And as for the point about expensive tools, here’s what I think: If you have the tools required to do the job then you probably have the experience and skills necessary. If you don’t have the tools then find something else that you can do).
  • Income and timeline: With services, you can potentially earn a good living right from day one. The more you sell your services, the more the money comes in. It’s fast and it’s relatively substantial (compared to the profit you earn from most products).

Once you start selling your services, don’t stop there. If services are the only thing you sell from now until you die then you run the risk of capping your income and burning yourself out. However, if you start with services and then start adding products or other “passive” monetization opportunities, you can grow your business further while always having that income from services.

The naysayers of this idea will point out that services limit you by taking your time and capping the amount of income you earn in an hour. It’s true that services pose that risk. However, I’ve seen enough people who dreamed of starting a business but couldn’t earn enough money from products to earn enough income when they needed it.

What I’m suggesting is not a popular recommendation, and it’s not surprising that products are hailed as the best business choice over services. But I think a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs could become actual entrepreneurs right now if they stopped trying to find the perfect product to sell and instead focused on the service they could offer.

If you aspire to start a business, think about what services you could provide. What could you do well that other people might be able to hire you for. Use that as your starting point, enjoy the fast income you can earn from it, and use that income to fund expansion into other monetization opportunities.

Case study: Increasing profitability with passive income

Businesses survive (and thrive!) by continually generating income. But as a business owner, it’s easy to get caught up in a vicious cycle of performing a service, getting paid for it, performing another service, getting paid for it, etc.

That turns into a treadmill because you become dependent on that income and if you are not able to do the work, the income dries up. Additionally, you can’t grow beyond the time you have available to perform the service.

Therefore, if you are a business owner who wants to grow your business, you need to do it with passive income. Passive income is sometimes misunderstood. Some people think of it as “do-nothing-and-make-money”, which is basically impossible.

Rather, you should think of passive income as “work-once-and-get-paid-on-an-ongoing-basis”. That’s a big difference and successful passive income generation does require some initial investment of time, money, and effort.

Building passive-income-generating assets for your business is a great way to transition your business from a active (service-dependent) income to passive income. (If you’re looking for some ideas about passive income, check out this blog posts 5 levels of content monetization).

One of my clients came to me with that very problem. She is a well-known expert on the topic of finances but she was on a “treadmill” of services — consulting and speaking — that prevented her from growing her business a lot more. She had published one book, which helped her gain that expert status, but it was time to do more.

I brainstormed a few different options to help her generate some passive income and the one we decided to build first was an e-course that people pay to take.

First, we built a free e-course that provided great content. Second, we created a paid e-course that provided an advanced version of the free e-course. With so many people attracted to the free e-course, we were able to promote the paid e-course to a targeted, highly-interested audience, and people started paying my client for the course.

Just that one course wasn’t enough to completely replace and exceed the income my client was generating as a consultant and speaker, but that wasn’t her goal. Rather, she wanted to create a steady stream of income that continually trickled in, which is what is happening right now as people subscribe to her e-course.

And the best part is: Now that this e-course has been built once, it runs automatically and requires very little effort on her part to ensure that it continues. So the investment she made once will pay for itself and continue to pay her over and over again for years to come.

What is (business/financial) security and how do you achieve it?

One of my clients is a large corporation that contracts a lot of consultants. I had a recent conversation with an employee there who was wondering about life of a consultant. We were “comparing notes” about the difference between being a consultant and an employee. They said that even though there were drawbacks to employment (such as being at the mercy of a manager, as well as having little control over increases in pay), they mentioned that the comfort and security of employment far outweighed the uncertainty of being a consultant.

They wondered how I can sleep at night, knowing that once the project ended, I would need to find more clients. They pointed to other consultants who were contracted by the company who struggled through “boom/bust” careers and sweated the days leading up to the end of a contract.

I mentioned that I didn’t lose a wink of sleep at night. With or without this large corporate client, I’m fully booked through 2016 and have a waiting list of people who would hire me once I have some availability.

I’m not relating this conversation to you to boast. Rather, to make a point about security: Employees think they have security because they are part of a union (at least in the case of this particular company) and because there are many other people involved in the longevity of the business… and perhaps there’s some value to their tenure at the company. And entrepreneurs (and consultants and writers, etc.) seem to have less security because they are not only responsible for delivery but they’re also responsible for client acquisition. And it seems like they live from project to project.

Security is a funny thing: As an entrepreneur, I’ve had my share of sleepless nights in the very beginning of my business; those sleepless nights came from the gnawing question of “will I find enough clients to pay the bills this month?”. Today, I sleep well because my business is in a different place now.

But even more than the list of clients I’m fortunate enough to have, I recently realized that there’s something else that makes me feel secure.

SECURITY IS EVEN MORE THAN HAVING A JOB OR CLIENTS RIGHT NOW

What inspired this realization came from an old podcast I stumbled over in a forgotten folder on an external hard drive I was cleaning up. There were several podcasts — some of them too old and irrelevant to be valuable — but one of them was quite interesting, compelling, and inspiring. It was an interview with Jay Abraham. In the podcast, Abraham was describing his own journey in his career and how he got his start. He admitted that he started as a clerk and didn’t really contribute anything to the company he worked for. Deciding to change that, he immersed himself in becoming an expert in business and sales.

And then he said this about business/financial security: “I realized that security is nothing more than the faith, the confidence, and the trust you’ve got in yourself and your ability to perform.

I’ve been thinking about that statement pretty regularly ever since I heard it. I think most people believe that security comes from having a specific dollar figure in the bank and a job and a decent insurance policy.

And that might be true for some but it’s not true for me. Or for other entrepreneurs I’ve met. For me, a sense of security doesn’t come from those things. I’ve had them and I know that they can disappear.

Rather, Abraham’s statement revealed to me a reason why I feel very comfortable living the life of the self-employed: Because I know without a shadow of doubt that if everything came crashing down around me today, I could be up and running right away, serving new clients and building a profitable business from the ground up… even if I had to start with new clients and zero dollars and no website. My sense of security comes with my knowledge that I can deliver something of value to people who need it.

HOW TO GET SECURITY FOR YOURSELF

Jobs come and go. Money comes and goes. Clients come and go. Technologies come and go. Strategies come and go.

So how do you get security? Regardless of whether you want to work for someone else or for yourself, you need to build up in yourself the disciplines and knowledge and skills and mindsets that will allow you to deliver.

You need to know your strengths and understand who needs whatever you bring to the table. And you need to always sharpen yourself — to become better and better so that your employer or your clients or your target market consider you indispensable.

Indispensability comes from just what I’ve described above: A combination of disciplines (focus and willpower), specialized knowledge (in whatever category you work in), related skills (sales, negotiation, and others), and mindsets (positivity and opportunity-seeking, and probably others).

Whenever you want to build an even bigger foundation of security, you need to increase those elements of indispensability — either by deepening your existing ones or broadening them to acquire others.

Current project: Technical writing for an insurance company

Most of my work is as a copywriter for real estate investors. But that wasn’t always the case. I used to do a lot more writing for financial audiences not that long ago. In fact, one of my favorite clients was an insurance company that I did some technical writing for a few years ago.

Well recently they called me up again and were implementing a new piece of software and were looking for some more technical writing from me. I jumped at the chance to work with them again because they are a great organization to work with, plus I have several friends there (and who doesn’t want to work with your friends?), plus — even though I mostly do copywriting now — I like to keep my technical writing “muscle” strong. (Here’s the difference between technical writing and copywriting, in case you’re curious). I get other benefits, too: I get to do a bit of training/support/interaction with end users (which is something I don’t always get to do as a copywriter) and I also strengthen my management “muscle” (which is something I don’t always get to do as a writer who works alone) and they are kind enough to give me an office at their downtown headquarters, which I use when I’m working there because I love downtown Winnipeg.

Here’s a brief description of the project: The insurance company has partnered with a software vendor to provide a software application that will be used by its own staff, plus there’s a related implementation with third-party partners to have them use a related software application… The goal is that everyone (internal and external) can communicate faster and clearer. I can’t tell you much more than that right now but I can tell you this: It’s a MASSIVE project with some of the best companies in the business and I’m privileged to be working on it.

Here’s what I’m doing: As a technical writer, I work with other writers and trainers to understand the software itself and then to create policy and procedure documentation that will be disseminated throughout the organization to get all staff members up-to-speed so they can perform their duties with minimal impact to productivity and with maximum benefit to the insurance company’s customers. Now, writing policies and procedures may sound boring but I love it. It’s a very different flavor of writing than copywriting but in some ways you still need to be able to write good sales copy as a technical writer in order to “sell” the reader on why they should start using the software.

A project this big — which is complicated and time consuming and there are a bazillion moving parts — was a challenge to take on and continues to challenge me whenever I’m working on it. And I’ll be honest: There are days when it’s a challenge to juggle everything I’ve committed to do for this client and for my other clients. But I’m having more fun now than I’ve had in a long time and that’s directly related to the degree of challenge that I’m facing right now. I love it!

If you want to see more of what I do as a very occasional technical writer, check out my technical writing website at WinnipegTechnicalWriter.com.

I was skeptical about Radio Shack’s Super Bowl commercial. And then I watched it…

Radio Shack is pretty bland… and it has been for as long as I remember.

I suppose there could have been a time when their business model was cutting-edge-meets-convenience: They could have been the go-to place for consumer technology with convenient locations in the mall. But if that was the case, it was decades ago… before I was old enough to pay attention to those kinds of things. By the time I was a teen, and shopping for my own electronics, Radio Shack was the place you went when you didn’t have a lot of money or choice or discernment.

They’re the place you buy extra cables because you just happen to be in the mall anyway. They’re quickly bypassed and even more quickly forgotten. I haven’t seen them advertise on TV in… well, ever.

So when I saw that Radio Shack was putting a commercial in the Super Bowl, I was surprised and skeptical.

And then I watched it.

Wow.

Frankly, it’s awesome. Watch it for yourself and then read why I think it’s awesome.

The commercial comes right out of the gate as both funny and self-effacing. “The 80’s called. They want their store back.” It’s funny because it’s not just a saying — the phone actually rang — turning a cliched insult in something even funnier. Plus the clerk’s perfect delivery of his line. Plus it instantly positions the commercial as self-effacing.

The fun really begins as the 80’s pour through the door. This is extended punchline of the commercial, where things really get good. An onslaught of stuff from the 1980’s bombards the commercial: Hulk Hogan, Alf, John Ratzenberger’s Cliff Claven, Mary Lou Retton, Eric Estrada, Chucky, Jason, the DeLorean from Back to the Future… and I could go on and on. Even the music and the animation (Awesome references to Q-Bert AND Ghostbusters AND the California Raisins!) contributed.

Here’s why the commercial is so remarkable:

  • Radio Shack was honest about their shortcomings and that seems to be nearly impossible for any company to do. I’m sure that many companies have great self-effacing commercials that were killed by the legal department or at the executive level because no one wants to admit that there is something catastrophically wrong with the company. Conversely, Dominoes is a company that recently won a lot of respect for its apologetically honest portrayal of its shortcomings, and this is a good lesson for any company that is famously flawed to use honesty in its marketing.
  • They were self-effacing. Poking fun at yourself is hard. If you don’t get it exactly right, you come across less than genuine, or you come across too harsh (which isn’t funny). It’s hard to do in person and it’s even harder to do in marketing. There is a hard-to-find sweet-spot and Radio Shack found it and executed perfectly.
  • One of the things that makes this commercial great is that it’s not just a couple of 1980’s visuals but A LOT of them. If they only had guest appearances by two or three 1980’s icons, the commercial would have fallen short. It would have been just another cheezy cameo. But it wasn’t. They stuffed the commercial to overflowing with 1980’s icons, and that made all the difference. Bonus: Because there are so many 1980’s references in the commercial, you have to watch it a couple of times to spot them all. I’ve seen the commercial more than half a dozen times and each time I see something new.
  • They played to a combination of nostalgia and anticipation. Their intended audience would remember how bland Radio Shack has been in the past. But they would also remember all of those great icons with heartfelt nostalgia. And then, they vanished from the commercial and the message (of cleaner, brighter, more modern stores) finished the commercial.

Here’s what Radio Shack has to do next:

Okay, they’ve made a great commercial. But that’s just the beginning. Now they have to deliver on their promise. They have to create stores that are modern.

But I think they may have to do something else, as well. It’s okay for them to occupy the lower-end of the consumer technology spectrum, if that’s where they want to be, because there’s a market for it and because their store locations are perfectly located to reach that audience. But they can’t just sell the same stuff in more modern-looking stores. They have to do more. They have to offer better stuff while still working within the budgetary confines of their target market. They might even need to cut back on the variety of inventory in their stores.

Alternatively, we could see them move their company in a different direction and aim for a place a little higher up in the consumer technology spectrum. We’ve seen other companies leverage clever commercials to revive their flagging images (Please refer to any Old Spice that stars Isaiah Mustafa).

I’m looking forward to the changes at Radio Shack. If they deliver on what the commercial promises, we could see a very compelling turnaround for the company.