How to start a business when you DON’T have a product or service

I’ve always aspired to be a business owner, even when I was a kid. And I would stay awake at night dreaming up business ideas. In high school and college, I obsessed with the question: “What product or service should I sell?” I remember coming up with and discarding so many ideas.

I think the need for a product or service actually held me back from taking action.

When I finally started my business, it was out of desperation to get out of a job I hated — I couldn’t stand it anymore so I quit on the Friday and on Monday I was “in business”, even though I didn’t fully know what I was going to sell.

Even though I didn’t start with a product or service, here I am today with a fully-booked writing/consulting practice that primarily delivers copywriting for real estate investors.

And that was a huge lesson for me. I would love to go back and tell my younger self this lesson. (And it’s the exact same lesson I tell EVERY aspiring entrepreneur who wants to start a business and may or may not know what they want to sell).

Understanding this lesson will transform your new or existing venture, bring in more money than you ever thought possible, and eliminate all the worry and frustration that most business owners face about where their next sale is coming from.

Here’s the lesson:

YOU DON’T NEED A PRODUCT OR SERVICE TO START A BUSINESS

The ONLY thing you need is to find someone who has a problem and then solve that problem.

That’s it. Find a problem and solve it.

And the great news? There is no shortage of problems in the world. And, people are willing to pay (sometimes a lot) to have their problem solved.

I started a business once and it struggled because I tried to sell what I thought needed to sell. But the second time I started a business — after quitting the job I hated — it was different. On the first day I decided I was “in business” I connected with a friend who had a problem that I could solve. And I solved it. He became my best-paying, longest-lasting client, and I only recently dropped him as a client when our businesses evolved in different directions and I was no longer able to solve the new problems he faced. (Good news: Someone else is helping him now).

BUT WHICH PROBLEM SHOULD I SOLVE???

There are a million problems out there — from the relatively simple need of learning how to read sheet music all the way to a larger-scale need of solving global hunger. You can’t help them all. So consider the problems that your knowledge and skills and passion and industry contacts can solve.

I have a friend who is very skilled at analysis and she has been in management for many years. She feels somewhat trapped by her position and she’s been at it for so long that she isn’t sure how to make the move away from the job she has. She doesn’t realize how valuable her analytical skills and industry contacts are (well, I’m trying to tell her!). Here’s what she needs to do (and, if you’re in the same position, here’s what you need to do)…

  1. She needs to think about all the problems out there that her analytical skills and industry contacts can solve.
  2. She needs to find the people who are facing those problems.
  3. She needs to offer to help them solve those problems… for a fee. Some won’t want help but some will.
  4. Then she needs to solve those problems.

Voila! She has a product or service to serve a ready market.

Find the point where the problems of the world intersect with your skills, knowledge, passions, and contacts.

Heck, if you don’t feel that you have skills, knowledge, passions, and contacts, that’s okay too. (When I started my business, I had passion and a bit of skill but that was it.) You can figure out the rest. Just go and help someone.

HOW DO I MAKE MONEY SOLVING PROBLEMS WHEN I DON’T HAVE A PRODUCT OR SERVICE?

If you’ve never helped anyone before, I would just go out and help them. Maybe ask for some money to cover any expenses you might incur. But mostly just invest your time and effort to help one person.

With that success story in hand, figure out what it was worth to that one person and set a price around that, then go find other people with the same problem.

Boom. There’s your business plan to start your next business… or your next 10 businesses. It really is that easy.

And you don’t have to actually know the solution before-hand. You just have to know the problem and have some confidence that you can figure out how to solve the problem with the combination of knowledge, skills, passion, and contacts that you have.

MORE EXAMPLES

What I’ve been telling you applies to every single industry or niche or sector or marketplace (or however categorize yourself).

A friend of mine is a musician. He’s enjoyed a bit of national recognition but his marketplace is primarily regional — Western Canada. For a long time he’s been “selling” (although he would never use that word) his concerts. But one thing he does pretty well (and he’s getting better and better at it) is that he positions himself as a problem solver. He knows that his concerts solve a problem, just as all products and services do. He identified the group of people who have the problem and he’s been marketing to them and positioning himself as THE solution to their problem.

I know someone else who is trying to start a nursery school in a small town. Frankly, they’re struggling to find clients, even though their marketplace should be able to sustain the business. I’ve been trying to help them understand that they can’t just push their nursery school concept and then wonder why people aren’t signing up. Instead, they need to figure out what problem their nursery school solves and tell people the good news that their problems are completely solved by signing their kids up.

I’m starting another brand (because I don’t have enough already — haha) and the only reason I’m starting it is because I’ve noticed that there’s a problem that is not being solved. I’m not 100% sure how I’m going to solve it but I know I can so I’m putting the pieces in place for it right now.

What problems are out there that you have some combination of knowledge, skills, passion, and contacts to solve? Great! Go out and solve it.

Starting a business when it’s hard to start a business

I was recently contacted by a friend of mine who is interested in starting a business. She is dabbling in the business now — on a VERY part time basis — and wants to get serious. So we talked about what that looked like and how to get there.

She described for me what her aspiration was and then she shared her frustration at having made a few attempts at starting a business but struggling to even get off of “Step 1”.

After a long conversation, I realized that there were two things holding her back. I shared both of these things with her and I hope that she took them to heart… but time will tell.

SOME CHALLENGES ARE EXTERNAL

When you’re starting a business, there are many things you need to know before you start. (Some businesses you can start with very little capital and preliminary work but other businesses require a bit more). The more complicated and regulated your target industry is, the more work is needed to start.

My friend who wanted to start her business is starting it up in a relatively regulated industry and she was running into roadblocks left and right. Unfortunately, these roadblocks were deflating her confidence in her ability to move forward.

I gave her a few ideas about how to overcome this part of the problem of starting a business. I’m sharing those same ideas here with you because I think they’re good for everyone:

  1. Before you start the business, become an expert on the business! List all of your questions and actively seek out the answers. Expect to list even more questions as you go but work hard to answer each and every question.
  2. Talk to successful entrepreneurs in the same industry. This isn’t always easy to do because some people who will become direct competitors won’t want to help you but if you move out of your immediate area of business, you’ll find more people who are willing to help. Interview them. Shadow them. Volunteer to help them.
  3. Many industries have at least one governing body/advocacy organization/association — something that acts as a clearinghouse of information. Regulated industries often have more than one place. Take the time to get to know this organization and mine their resource library.

There will be plenty of external challenges as you start a business and most of them can be overcome with education. Heck, even the external challenges that SEEM like they can’t be overcome with education can still be overcome with education! In my friend’s case, she was having trouble raising money to buy some of the start-up equipment. In this case she needs to get educated about how to raise capital, borrow money, understand finances, find investors, etc.

SOME CHALLENGES ARE INTERNAL

As I talked with my friend about her business goals and what she had done so far to work toward achieving those goals, it became apparent that there were several times she started working on some aspect of her business and then suddenly stopped because of a perceived obstacle. However, her description of each obstacle indicated that it was usually a very minor point that could be overcome with some education, creativity, or tenacity. She listed obstacle after obstacle and I kept pointing out ways that they could be overcome. (Granted, it’s probably a lot easier for me to see the solution, since I’m slightly removed from the problem and I’ve overcome some of those same issues in my own business already). Frankly, I think she was just overwhelmed by many small perceived obstacles so that collectively they sounded big… it’s so easy for that to happen!

For those internal challenges, I think education can overcome it a bit but I really think it’s important to talk it out with other people. You might not always find solutions to the challenges you face (and I didn’t solve every problem that my friend faced!) but another perspective can sure help when things seem insurmountable.

There are many obstacles to starting and growing a business. That’s just the way it is. (Hey, if it were easy, everyone would do it, right?). But obstacles don’t necessarily make it impossible to succeed. You just have to push harder and find a way.

As my conversation wrapped up with my friend, I told her that either she would find a way to make her business goal goal come true or she would have to admit that it wasn’t that important to her at all. That’s a harsh truth but it is the truth nonetheless.

Why I’m remodeling my house (instead of hiring someone else to do it)

I’m remodeling my house: A brand new, reconfigured (and expanded) kitchen. Same with the upstairs bathroom (put in a claw-foot bathtub!). Downstairs, it’s a similar story: We had some unused space so we tore down some walls and expanded the downstairs bathroom so it now has a shower.

I’m doing a lot of the work myself. Here’s why:

When I run the shower or plug something into an outlet or flush the toilet, I expect those things to work. Most of the time, those things do work and all is well. But once in a while, something is amiss and I hate not knowing what that is.

If you own a home, you probably know what I’m talking about. A great example is the inner workings of toilets. If a toilet suddenly stops flushing (or never stops flushing) do you know what to do? When I first moved out on my own (after living at home and then in a college dorm), I had no idea. Blown fuse? Leaky sink? Plugged drain? I had no idea what to do with those things.

And I HATE that I didn’t know.

When the option came to do some renovations on the first house I owned, I wasn’t in a financial position to hire someone else so I started doing them myself. One reno after another taught me more and more, not only about house construction but about many of the things I didn’t know… not to mention, some of the more complex renovations were lessons in project management.

I just read a story about the founder of Chrysler (although I’m not sure if it’s true — I haven’t been able to verify it). Supposedly, Chrysler spent all of his life savings on a car, which he then proceeded to take apart bolt by bolt until it lay in pieces on the floor. Then he put it together. Then he took it apart. Then he put it together. This made him an expert in that particular car and from this experience, he was able to build and innovate his own car.

Even if that story is apocryphal, it’s an inspiring lesson in the value of tearing something apart and rebuilding it to know how it works. (Which reminds me: My car is making a funny sound and I *should* bring it to the mechanic but if I took my car apart…”)

THERE’S A BUSINESS LESSON HERE

I hate being befuddled by a problem. I want to learn the solution — not just have it done for me but figure out how to do it myself. I own a writing business (which is sort of manifested in a few different forms, depending on the kind of writing) and I regularly take apart my business and put it back together again. I am always “lifting the hood”, trying new things, experimenting, tinkering, remodeling. I’m sure it drives my friends and my blog readers crazy.

There’s a drawback to all the business-remodeling: It seems like my business is in a constant state of flux. But there is also a benefit: I know my business inside and out. If my business ever breaks, I can fix it instantly.

Recently, I added a new line of business (which I bought from another business). It’s completely new to me. I’m learning as I go. And I’ve hit a couple of setbacks in that business, which are requiring me to tear it apart and put it back together again.

How well do you know your business? Which aspects of your business are still a mystery to you? What happens if something breaks in your business and needs immediate fixing; could you do it?

6 invisible problems of success: Why sales funnel overload is a bad thing for your business

A successful business is good… unless the business becomes too successful too quickly. When success strikes suddenly, 6 difficult-to-see problems threaten to destroy your business. Here are the 6 problems that you’ll never see sneaking up on you:

You sell less per person

As the number of contacts in your sales funnel increases, your ability to focus on the relationship with each individual diminishes. Therefore, the percentage of contacts who move from one stage to the next decreases. It’s an invisible problem because you have more people going through your sales funnel so it’s hard to notice that you’re actually doing more work with less success. It’s a serious problem: It impacts your cost structure and you end up spending more time and money per person (when, in fact, your goal should be to spend less per person).

You are forced to spend more on gap filling

In an emergency, priorities change. Last year, when a freak rainstorm flooded my basement, I was willing to pay a considerable amount of money to clean it up — far more than I would normally want to pay in a non-flood situation. Likewise, when the “emergency” is a greater-than-predicted onslaught of sales funnel contacts, you’ll spend whatever is necessary to keep things going, even if it costs considerably more. Some examples include overtime for staff, making more resources and bandwidth available, and rapidly scaling up infrastructure. This is an invisible problem because you don’t always realize that you are reacting. It seems like you’re addressing the need. However, when the dust settles, and your sales funnel returns to normal, you’ll end up with a large bill and plenty of unnecessary infrastructure that you’ll have to support.

You run out of inventory

If you sell products, your inventory is physical stock. If you sell services, your inventory is time (and sometimes information or ability or inspiration). When the number of contacts in your sales funnel increases predictably, you can increase your inventory predictably. However, if your sales funnel increase is sudden, you might not have time to increase your inventory accordingly, and you’ll burn through any excess stock quickly. This is an invisible problem because, on the one hand, it is good to clear out your inventory. But unless you can increase your inventory to the right amount, you’ll end up turning away people who want to buy from you… and this problem can plague you for a while to come as you play “catch-up”.

You’ll lose track of the pulse of your business

Successful people know what is going on in their business at all times. If there’s a small blip in one area of the business, they can focus in on it and fix it. They handle challenges while they’re small, BEFORE they become problems. However, when you’re run off of your feet from a flood of sales, you are no longer fully aware of what’s going on in your business. This may not seem like a big problem, since you’ve always had a handle on your business before, and since this onslaught is probably a temporary bonus. However, the sudden rise in sales can mask the seriousness of the problem: When you’re not aware of your business, you’re not in control of your business. Risks increase while productivity and profitability decrease.

No evangelists

As your business increases — and your busy-ness increases! — it’s easy to ignore the post-sale relationship. After all, you’re so busy dealing with the current situation. That might seem to be an acceptable solution now but it’s a serious invisible problem because it will have a costly effect in the future: You have to work harder for each new Audience member and Lead, so each sale becomes less profitable.

You don’t build for the future; you only react to the present

Scaling a business intelligently is key. You need to make sure that your business grows at the right speed — a slow-to-moderate growth that is manageable. You can build for the future by creating new products, trying out new marketing methods, exploring new partnering relationships. But when you’re overloaded, you end up ignoring these things just to keep your head above water. For a very short term, that might seem like the right decision. However, it’s an invisible problem because it hurts your long-term business: You end up “treadmilling” through the same products to the same people at the same price. There’s no growth because you don’t have time to move your business forward.

These 6 invisible problems of success are serious. They don’t just bruise your business in the short term. Rather, they can permanently harm (or even destroy) your business by keeping your focus on the immediate problem rather than the future opportunity.

Click back here tomorrow and I’ll you how to avoid these problems.