With the increasing spread of Covid-19, governments have been forced to shut down cities. Many businesses have been affected, and anxiety levels have risen.
Many brick and mortar business owners are looking for ways to launch online businesses. Professionals who have lost their jobs or are afraid they might lose their jobs are turning to entrepreneurship. As a result of the mounting fear and uncertainty, I invited members of my Rise and Lead Community to join me in a weekly online chat to share what we are experiencing at this moment.
It turned out that we are all experiencing anxiety, but in different forms. One thing that stands out is that everyone wants to survive – mentally, physically and financially. There’s so much uncertainty around what the future holds for everyone. But we are all hopeful that one day, this too shall pass.
When I look at the internet, it’s no different. Everyone is turning into a Covid Business Coach – there are tons of free courses online which have been generously donated by good people with good intentions.
The problem is that the number of these free offers – with all the promises of helping people secure their financial future – can be misleading to an aspiring entrepreneur or a small business owner. Yes, they will help us gain new skills and knowledge, but will they instantly make us rich? I’m not too sure about that.
So, I decided to write this article to remind aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners of what they need to know if they are considering starting a business during this pandemic. Also, going through a course may make you wiser, but not necessarily help you secure a financial future. Here is why.
You cannot become great at what you are still trying to learn.
Starting a new business is not as straightforward or as sexy as online entrepreneurs make it look. It is like building a house from its foundation, not sure of when the house will be completed before the owners move into it. However, starting a business comes with its benefits – it brings you fulfilment, puts you in the driver’s seat of your life, and gives you the freedom to support yourself, families and communities.
As a serial entrepreneur who has launched and managed three businesses, one social enterprise and one NGO, and mentored over 100 startups and entrepreneurs, I want to share my knowledge and wisdom on the six steps you need to take to build a successful business:
1. Get clarity about four important things.
- What is your purpose of starting? The obvious answer to this is to survive, to earn an income to support yourself and your family, to maintain a certain lifestyle and so on. Sustainable businesses must solve problems and create value in society. In my case, I launched Ataro Foods when I saw that West Africa cuisine was missing in the world food map. I wanted to bring this cuisine to the world food map. In the same vein, I started Rise and Lead when I couldn’t find a network that supports ambitious female leaders like me, so we can quickly rise and close the gender gap. So what is your purpose in starting a business?
- Who needs what you want to offer? Who is your primary target audience? Who are your customers? How do you find them? If you don’t attract customers to patronize you, guess what? You’re not going to be successful in your business. One of the most important things you need to do, and be very serious and intentional about, is trying to find customers who are willing to pay you for your ideas. When you think about your customers, you want to be sure of who they are. Where are they living? What is their income level? Are they male or female? But the most important thing is to ask yourself, what is it that they’re struggling with? What are the pain points? What do they need? Because you want customers who need the solution you’re bringing, your idea needs to provide a solution. Your idea needs to make sure to relieve people of their pain.
- What specifically do you want to offer in the market? What problem is your product or service going to solve or what value does it add? For example, think about what your customers are complaining about at this time. What can you provide for them? What value can you add that people didn’t know they needed? I always tell people that when I started Ataro, it wasn’t as if we were solving a significant problem for people. When we started, almost 90% of the people didn’t know anything about West African food. Of course, they could live without it. But I had to package it in a way that they would see the need; the need to understand our different cultures and understand the people and the food.
- What is your vision? When I talk about vision, I’m talking about what you desire. What do you want in your life, and how can your business help you to achieve it? It becomes something you’re passionate about; a driving force to help you become successful so that even when things are not going well, you will hold onto that dream until you achieve it. I always compare this phase in business development to building a foundation in a house. The foundation is an essential structure of any building. How you build it determines how high the house can go. Unfortunately, this is the phase that is most often ignored, especially when you are anxious to bring in cash. My advice for every aspiring entrepreneur at this time is to check inside and do some work following the guidelines below.
2. Brainstorm, formulate and test your idea.
Unlike the advice that tells you to create a plan, I would say get out your notes and start writing down your thoughts. At this phase, every entrepreneur is bombarded with a lot of ideas. There are no wrong or right ideas at this time. Just scribble them down on sheets of paper. You need to know that starting a business goes beyond your passion, but needs to align with your desires.
Why do I say this? Many people start a business that they’re passionate about, create a business plan and register the company, only to find out that nobody wants what they plan to offer. This is true with everyone trying to go into the online business world using a pre-written template that has worked for one business. It may not work for you if you skip the next step I’m going to discuss in detail. As a business mentor, the group I always attract are those who have started and struggled for months and years without any success. When I interviewed them, 80% of them had told me that they started the business because they loved the idea and believed that more people should love it. I always advise them to remember that starting a business is not about you, but about bringing value to others, depending on what value means to your ideal clients.
In brainstorming your business idea, ask the following questions:
- What is your passion? What is your expertise? Where do they intersect? How does it align with what you want to offer to customers? This process shows you exactly what you need to learn or where your strengths lie, and also what type of business to avoid at this time. I always advise you to start with what you already know. You can list all your passions and all your skills, like maybe your academic skills or perhaps job experience or something you’ve been helping people do. At this point, you don’t just have the ideas, but you’re coming up with possible solutions that you can launch into a business.
- How do you want to position your offer? This is where you decide on what you want to sell, what products you want to launch, how you want to compete, and how much money you want to earn. Then, think about how you want to stand out in the market because there’s so much noise out there. What makes you different? What is your value proposition to your clients? What makes your idea unique? The online world is crowded. How do you plan to stand out? Write them down.
- Who will buy what you plan to offer? You could start by sending out surveys to assess people’s level of interest, or ask your ideal clients what exactly they need. You could also start by offering a webinar to check the level of interest, or just making an unconditional offer to see how many people are willing to pay for what you are creating. Whatever the case, pick up your phone, call your friends, and invite people who you think your product can serve. Don’t try to be ready before you start selling. Start immediately because you need to know how your product will be accepted in the market before you make any big investment of time and money. At this point, get ready to refine your idea or iterate if it doesn’t work.
3. Market and test your idea: Create and sell your minimum viable product
Most business owners do not conduct enough due diligence or research in advance — but rather, launch a business on gut instinct. The best products will not sell themselves, no matter how sophisticated and beautiful they look. The best idea can gather dust just because nobody embraced it – not because your idea is not good enough, but because they are not being positioned effectively in front of people who need them or because nobody understands how the idea is going to help them.
It’s important to test and verify your business idea before spending time, money, and efforts into launching the business. Thinking through the business idea and verifying its viability before the start-up will help to prevent business failure. Once an idea is verified, it’s important to promote the idea of using the right messaging and channel to reach your ideal client.
As a founder, your work is not only to develop ideas and believe that people, friends and families will embrace it. Your job is to step out there and find out what people need, go back and see what part of your idea can help them, and craft a story that people care about. This process is what smart marketers use every day to stay ahead of the curve, beat their competitors and position their brand to stand out in a crowded market.
4. Create a Business Plan.
You don’t have to be an expert in business plan writing before you launch a successful business. There are many free online business planning tools you can use. The most important aspect is to understand all the elements of the business plan, which includes your product/service offerings, an assessment of the marketplace and competitive landscape, your operations, marketing and human resources strategies, your financial plan, risks and mitigation strategies and your growth strategy. This plan will not only serve as an excellent internal communication tool but will also enable you to engage Board members and investors when you need them eventually. Completing the second step I mentioned above will assist you in filling out your Business Plan.
For example, when I started my first business – a clothing boutique – I didn’t have a business plan. Although the company did very well, I knew I could not sustain the growth. In my second business, a restaurant, I needed financial investments and the first question my bank asked me was to show my business plan. I didn’t have one, so one of the bankers gave me a template. It was so easy to fill out the template because I was very clear about what business I was trying to develop. I had already done my competitive analysis, customer interviews and cash flow. So, let your focus be on the clarity stage because that’s where the answers to your business plan question will most likely come from.
5. Build a strong Team
Entrepreneurship is not a comfortable journey, and nobody can grow a successful business alone. Depending on your level of vision for your new venture, you may need a board of directors, or you can decide to build a management team which is genuinely committed to your vision, and a network of people within and outside of your industry. I noticed that most small businesses I’ve come across in Europe always work for themselves. They try to build their website, craft graphics, and so they spend so much time, effort and money trying to learn all these tactics that can be done by virtual assistants. I applaud these solo entrepreneurs. Personally, I could never do that. For me, my strength is in strategy formulation, idea generation, marketing communication and organizing and leading complex projects with a team. Every other thing in between is delegated out to my 4 team members. It’s OK to start out doing everything by yourself, but it’s not sustainable. At some point, you need to plan to document all your processes and hire people to do them. When I launched Ataro, I wrote all the newsletters for 3 years. When I got busy, I dropped that ball. So as soon as I started newsletters in Rise and Lead, I hired two virtual assistants to manage that process. It’s not my thing to create graphics and schedule a newsletter. Business owners should focus on developing new strategies, building partnerships, and engaging in strategic work like marketing, building connections and collaborations, leading change and engaging in activities that generate revenue and reduce costs.
Building a Board of Directors from the start will help you to develop a sustainable company. Having a Board also adds to the credibility of your organization – you get the advice you need to grow a thriving business. Your Board should consist of lawyers, financial advisers, marketing experts, and operations people.
You may not think you need a Board at the moment. If that is the case, then you need advisors, mentors or coaches. Then carefully select your first team members and ensure you hire people who share your values and vision of growth.
For online entrepreneurs, you can hire virtual assistants from sites like Upwork and hire designers from places like Fiverr. I have used these sites for five years and still use them.
6. Be disciplined.
Take a look at all aspects of your Business Plan and meticulously implement your plan. The most important is your Financial Plan. The business revenue does not belong to you. Therefore, you need to pay yourself a salary from the start. Keep separate bank accounts and separate your funds from your company’s funds. Maintain a clear financial record. Make it a habit to have a monthly income statement, cash plan and cash flow, budgeting and budget analysis. These terms may seem too much for an aspiring entrepreneur, but you need to know this. You can start from step one, but know that at some point if you need to expand your business, investors will like to see these records. Being disciplined will help you to achieve this. Build transparent systems and structures; maybe not immediately, but keep in mind that you need them.
7. Develop the mindset of a leader.
As a leader, you have to be equipped to make quick decisions, drive changes, communicate your vision and values, lead yourself, observe self-care, lead your team and encourage everyone towards your vision. It can be a lot. But with proper planning, the right support and a passionate team, you can achieve all of this.
For example, when I ran a restaurant business and decided to create several branches and several sales outlets due to our customers’ demand, I was stretched beyond my comfort zone. My only saving grace was the fact that I found a business coach who guided me to develop myself as a leader and I learned how to build relationships and partnerships with my team, suppliers, customers and clients. Without that training, I was ready to close my business. So do yourself a favour and learn the critical skills of a leader if you wish to grow a business.
I firmly believe that you will succeed in your business endeavours if you follow these steps. And to avoid feeling overwhelmed, I advise that you start with the first step today and take it one step at a time, because knowledge is power only when implemented. Start by getting clear on what problem you want to solve for clients, what value you want to add and precisely who you want to serve. Continue with the rest of the steps as you go along.