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How to Go Solo Without a “Big Idea”

shibuya_crowd2.jpgTired of your job? Dreaming of striking out on your own? Eager to transition into a career that builds on your strengths and interests rather than competencies developed through happenstance? Ready to pursue what you love rather than stick with what’s boring—but hard to give up?

Join the crowd.

Maybe there’s just a thing or two holding you back. Maybe you lack a “big idea” around which to build your own business. Maybe you’ve yet to discover what you love to do. And maybe, like many, you don’t fully understand your own strengths and interests.

Not to worry. Here’s a plan for going solo, even without a so-called big idea—and even if you’ve got only a shaky grasp of your capabilities and interests. The single requirement is that you are currently employed.

First, a word about the Big Idea. Here’s what James Allen wrote more than 100 years ago:

A man should conceive of a legitimate purpose in his heart, and set out to accomplish it. He should make this purpose his supreme duty, and devote himself to its attainment, not allowing his thoughts to wander away into ephemeral fancies, longings, and imaginings.

While Allen was talking about self-control and personal development, he might as well have been offering powerful wisdom to aspiring entrepreneurs. His advice to conceive a legitimate—or a great—purpose, then single-mindedly pursue it, is precisely the way entrepreneurs go about building middle-market or high-potential businesses.

But what about those of us who lack a great purpose, yet desire to be self-employed or to run our own businesses? Some people conceive of and pursue a great purpose, but let’s face it: Most of us do not. Nevertheless, Allen has powerful advice for us, too:

Those who are not prepared for the apprehension of a great purpose, should fix their thoughts upon the faultless performance of their duty, no matter how insignificant their task may appear. Only in this way can the thoughts be gathered and focused, and resolution and energy be developed, which being done, there is nothing which may not be accomplished.

This is precisely the way many of us can become entrepreneurs—maybe not great entrepreneurs like Mohammed Yunus or Bill Gates, running businesses destined to change the world—but at the least we can create “lifestyle ventures” that provide us with a satisfying livelihood. So for those lacking a great purpose, a “big idea,” or even a clear direction, here is a step-by-step guide to going solo.

1. Commit Yourself to Going Independent on a Specific Datecommit_sign.gif
First of all, decide that you will go solo a year or two years from now. Set a specific date. Once you make this resolution, everything you read, hear, feel, touch, and search for will seem different—life takes on new shades of meaning when you know that you’re going into business for yourself. Don’t worry about what kind of business you are going to start. That comes later.

2. Concentrate on Your Current Work
Read that James Allen quote again, especially the part about about fixing your thoughts on the faultless performance of yourfocus_sign.gif duty. The problems you experience at work today will provide invaluable hints for your future business, whatever it may be. Focusing wholeheartedly on the tasks at hand may seem like a roundabout way to achieve your goal of independent business ownership, but actually, it’s the quickest way. An old Japanese proverb refers to a foolish traveler who encountered a steep mountain blocking his path. Rather than hiking around it, he decided to save time by climbing over. But the treacherous summit forced him to descend and walk around—the very choice he first disdained. The moral translates as “when you’re in a hurry, take the long route.” Focus on the job you have now; do it better than anyone else and without compromise.

3. Let Your Job Teach You
Imagine you’ll be forced to leave your job two years from today. Imagine your workplace as a classroom where you will not only learn skills but identify market needs you’ll serve a couple of years from now. The work assigned to you today—the work you’re involved with right now—will take on new meaning and start to glow with the promise of instilling new skills, new knowledge, better understanding of customer needs—and will gradually reveal opportunities awaiting you.learn_sign.gif

Whatever you’re working on—accounting, sales, personnel management, clerical work, heavy labor—will become invaluable when you start your own business. Engage yourself deeply in your work and it will teach you invaluable lessons (you may even learn to like your job; deep concentration has that effect).

Find something you enjoy at work. When I worked for Kodak, many aspects of the job grated, but I enjoyed the occasional involvement with market research, and that had a big impact on my subsequent career. Even if you’re an unhappy fast food worker, you should find some aspect of your job likable. Maybe you got a kick out of training the new guy, or supervising the kitchen for a few hours when the night manager was late (if you can’t find anything you like, you’re out of luck).

4. Discover Your Core Competence
Use your work not only to develop new skills, but to identify your core competence: the thing you do best. For anyone lacking free time and capital, the best way to start a new business is to identify and exploit your core competence.

discover_sign.gifHow? Performance appraisals and comments from coworkers help, but customer input is most valuable. If you work directly with customers, ask them straight out: What is it about my work that you value most? You may be surprised at the answer.

I’ll never forget the day I asked a critical customer what he found most valuable about our services (and this was after I started my business!). It was a tremendous relief, because he valued a secondary service—the one I personally most enjoyed—over the primary service we were offering. We promptly changed direction, with tremendous results.

Hint: Finding something you like and discovering your core competence go hand-in-hand.

5. Score Some Small Successes at Work
Build a track record of successes during your one or two-year “get ready to solo” period. You don’t need huge wins; small successes will do. Just try to do your work better than anyone else could do it. Your successes will point to your core competence, build your confidence, and give you some “talking points” to describe your accomplishments to future customers.go_for_small_wins_sign.gif

Use your final year or two at your job to learn everything you can about running a business. Remember, people who are successful as salaried workers also tend to be successful as independent businesspeople.

6. Define Your New Business Based on Your Core Competence
Once you’ve defined your core competence, you’ve defined your new business. If you’ve been paying attention at work, you will have discovered a number of work-related problems that are fixable using your core competence.

define_the_biz_sign.gifHere’s a hint: It’s easier to sell something that reduces costs than it is to sell something that promises to increase revenues. That’s because businesses will immediately buy your product or service if you demonstrate they will save money by doing so. So the quickest “instant business” is to sell a subset of your services to your current employer (as a contractor, not as an employee) for half your salary (or more). Your employer gets the same or better benefits at lower cost, and you work from home or go in twice a week, eliminating useless meetings, employee “chat” time, and unnecessary commuting (see why concentrating on your current work is so important?).

Now you can sell your service or products to other customers, too.

7. Acquire Your First Customers with Freebies
But let’s suppose converting your employer to a client is impractical or undesirable. Here’s another way: “Buy” your first customers.

While planning our Do-it-Yourself Import Center service in 1994, we faced a Catch-22: We had no exporters for visitors to see, and no visitors to encourage exporters to sign up. So we built simple Web sites for about a dozen companies, for free, to “populate” the service before launching. That encouraged consumers—and other exporters—to use our service.use_freebies_sign1.gif

You can do the same thing. Let’s say you’re going to start a financial planning service. Promise six friends or acquaintances you’ll take them out to dinner if they let you practice your new service by giving them a free retirement planning session or financial analysis. Following dinner and the consultation, invite them to become “clients” of that one-time service at no charge in exchange for writing testimonials for your business. Most will happily agree, and afterwards you can point to your satisfied “customer base” when cold-calling or talking with people you don’t know. Prospects feel safer when they see a customer base in place (and you may convert some of your “freebies” into paying clients).

8. Set High Gross Margins
People without business experience often misunderstand why markups on common goods and services seem so high. A book that costs $2.50 to manufacture, for example, sells for $20 or more (if it didn’t, writers, editors, publishers, distributors, and retailers would have absolutely no incentive to create and sell books). It’s amazingly expensive to make goods and services conveniently available to buyers.

set_high_margins_sign.gifSo aim for a gross margin of seventy to eighty percent when you start out. If that’s too high, try to achieve at least a sixty-percent gross margin on your product or services. That may sound aggressive, but you’ll be surprised how fast cost of goods, cost of services, overhead, and other expenses add up.

Service providers such as accountants, consultants, and software programmers achieve high margins naturally because they’re essentially selling only their labor. Also, even if your marginal profit is lower, you can create a very good business by selling high-priced items such as jewelry, collectibles, or automobiles.

9. Strive to Work On Rather Than In the Business
Michael Gerber fans will immediately know what I’m talking about: There’s a huge difference between working on your business and working in your business. That’s a whole new story for later posts, but it’s one key to balancing fortune and fulfillment—and to keeping your passion from being suffocated by administrivia.

soul_shelter_greenhouse.jpgWell, there you have it: How to go solo without a big idea—or even without a lot of clues. We’d love to hear how you went solo—or how you’re planning or contemplating your own entrepreneurial journey.

This post is dedicated to Soul Shelter reader Robyn, who starts her new business this month. Congratulations, Robyn!

You may also enjoy:

Three Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting My Own Business

Entrepreneurship: A Primer

Three Questions Seekers Must Ask Themselves

6 Comments to How to Go Solo Without a “Big Idea”

On Mar 28, 2010, Bill Jenkins commented:

Thanks for this great blog.

On Mar 28, 2010, by Tim commented:

You are most welcome :)

On Jul 30, 2010, Arunkumar Suraparaj commented:

Wonderful, energetic, positive ……
Proud to shout it here, that i will be going solo with my Big Idea soon …..
Best Regards
Arun
Singapore

On Aug 2, 2010, by Tim commented:

You go! We’ll be cheering you on :-)

On Jan 24, 2011, Brent commented:

This was a really helpful post and my first time stumbling on the site. I think that the outline is incremental and logical, which can be reassuring to those of us still in a day-job who would like to radically change things but are either unable or incapable without small steps in the right direction. The best part about it is setting the date. Goals, along with keeping a singular focus on both work and the impending change seems to me an elegant way of balancing how to bring two things that seem far apart and watch them come closer to more attainable. Thanks again,

On Jan 24, 2011, by Tim commented:

Thanks for reading — and more power to you in your quest!

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