There it is again — during the monthly all-staff, folding laundry, walking the dog — that always-adrift thought pops into your head: I have a great business idea — but where do I start?
We know how you feel (excited! proud! scared! overwhelmed! all of the above!) — because we have been where you are at this moment. We know what it feels like to be unsure what your next step should be, worrying you don’t have what it takes to make your dream a reality.
Despite your uncertainty, you push forward (you always do!). Conventional wisdom tells you that your first step should be “Write a business plan.” So you start Googling, getting books from the library, panicking because maybe you need an MBA...
OK, let’s hit the pause button. We at Pepperlane have helped thousands of moms turn their great small business ideas into successful businesses, and we recommend you don’t worry about having a ‘business plan.’
“Yes, you need a plan — but you don’t need a formal business plan,” says Gail Goodman.
“Yes, you need a plan — but you don’t need a formal business plan,” says Gail Goodman, co-founder and Chief Product Officer for Pepperlane. “Who is a business plan for? Nine times out of ten, it’s for a bank loan. Most people with a new business idea aren’t headed to the bank on day one.”
“A plan and a business plan are different,” Goodman continues. “There’s a rigorous definition of how to write a business plan. And most of it is unnecessary for someone in the early days of mapping out their business. You don’t need that right now. You need an idea and you need to take that first step and validate the idea.”
Instead of getting mired in the “right way,” Goodman encourages you to do things differently. “Get your hands dirty and figure it out. Go fast and don’t worry about it being perfect,” says Goodman.
So, what does “figure it out” look like? Let’s walk through how to write your service description, get your first customer, and why you need to lean on and leverage your network.
Step 1: Nail your service description
“The #1 thing you need to validate is that your idea has merit,” says Goodman. “You can write a whole business plan about an idea and then find out it doesn’t connect with your target market. That’s a waste of time and energy.”
Instead, write a clear, client-oriented service description, says Goodman. “Get it crisp,” she adds. Other synonyms include tight, lean, direct, specific, niche.
“Don’t describe your business. Describe the problem you’re trying to solve for other people,” says Goodman. “Often our moms start from a place of ‘what I do.” instead of ‘what problem am I solving for my customer.’’
Pepperlane’s service description template gives you a simple, concise, and solution-oriented scaffolding to build from:
(Your company) offers (service offered), to help (target audience A) to (solve problem B) and then achieve (long term benefit).
Now you’ve gone from describing what you do to showing potential clients how you solve their problems.
“Start from your core expertise, then lift that up to why someone would hire you,” says Goodman.
Once your service description is tightened up, take it to your network for feedback. Ask your friends, family, and colleagues for real, honest feedback.
“Start by saying, ‘I’m doing some research on a business idea.’ I call it the ’10-Minute Can I Run an Idea by You?’ People are incredibly generous with their time if you ask,” says Goodman. “But be careful, good friends won’t tell you they don’t like your idea. Instead, try asking them if they have the need you are trying to fill. And then ask if they would hire someone to solve it.”
Asking your network for feedback on your service description will serve a dual purpose: idea validation and getting your first customer. Which leads us to:
Step 2: Get your first client
So, what’s your business idea? Bookkeeping, yoga instructor, marketing consultant, life coach, gift wrapping-service? Great — time to find your first customer.
Some might call their first client a guinea pig — we call them lucky. These are your friends, your colleagues, your tribe — and they’ll be thrilled to help you launch and test (and retest!) your business idea.
After you’ve run your service description by them and you get positive feedback, ask them for a referral, or maybe offer your service or a sample product to them for an introduction rate or barter in trade.
“Try doing it for one person. A friend, a neighbor, a sibling — anyone. Whether you get paid or not paid,” says Goodman. “Getting your first customer helps you do two very important things: 1) determining if you really enjoy doing it and 2) testing out your customer experience.”
Let’s dig into this.
It is critical to understand early on if you actually like doing the work. Because sometimes what sounds good in theory may not be enjoyable or fruitful in practice.
Take interior decorating. It’s one thing to redecorate your own home. It’s quite another to do it for somebody else — when you have to present multiple options, design according to their aesthetic (not yours!), work within their budget, create design proposals, and send invoices.
“These are things that you don’t have to do for yourself, but you have to do with a client,” says Goodman. “Doing a few first projects will also help you understand the things you need to ask to scope a project up front. And when you’re doing it for a friend or a colleague, do it as if they’re a real client. Write the proposal, answer their questions, get them to sign off on it, figure out the whole process — the selling process, delivery process and the post-sale process.”
Once you’ve landed your first customer and completed a project lifecycle take a step back and take it in: What works? What needs adjusting? What was your customer feedback? Most importantly, how did you feel? Are you still as excited and inspired as the day your business idea came to you? Great — that’s the truest idea validation.
Step 3: Find your community, find your way
Another part of the business-building process is shoring up your support system. Your current network might not have the right experience or might think they have to be “nice” in giving their feedback. You will need people to give you advice on the myriad questions that arrive for new business owners: from fine-tuning your service description or drafting a marketing plan to creating a social media calendar, you need to ask for help.
“Don’t do it alone,” says Goodman. “You can iterate forever and not get there. That is exactly why we created Pepperlane. So moms could create business for themselves, not by themselves. And we designed Pepperlane Boosts for this purpose specifically. You can read your plan or questions out loud to the other moms and get feedback. Everything is more real when you say it out loud, and our community is a safe place to do that.”
“These are other working moms in business, they’re sharp cookies,” says Goodman. “You’re going to get great feedback. If your idea is unclear, you’re going to hear that — but in the nicest possible way. And that’s important. They’re going to say to you, ‘I didn’t understand this or that part of your service.’ This is so valuable!’”
Clear, kind feedback is exactly what Kathrine Bright, now a Pepperlane community member, wanted when she was first deciding whether to quit her job and start her own business. The mom of two boys credits the Pepperlane community for inspiring and shaping her personal fitness program for postpartum women and young moms.
“This community is women like me who want to get better and know that you don’t have it all figured out yet,” says Bright. “They will help you find your vision or better articulate your business mission. This group of women know and understand the challenges of owning and growing a business with the collision of motherhood. I appreciate the neutral space to be vulnerable with peers who are ready and willing to help you succeed.”
Step 4: Progress, not perfection
Remember success isn’t linear — it’s twists and turns, it’s forward and backward, and, yup, a bit of upside down sideways, too. Don’t overthink how to get started with your business idea and definitely don’t expect perfection, says Goodman.
“One thing we see over and over is that women want to have everything figured out before they do anything,” says Goodman. “You’ll never launch. Get going and adapt.”
Bright agrees: “It doesn’t have to be perfect because you will learn what works and what doesn’t work along the way. The beauty of being a small business owner is you can change and evolve on your terms.”
Whether you draft a quick one-page plan or just start bulleting ideas in an Evernote, the only thing you have to embrace is finally giving voice to your business idea and taking the first step.
Running a business is messy. Starting your own business is very messy. There’s chaos and miscues, little slips and big fails. It’s going to be messy — wonderfully rewarding and messy.
Sounds like being a mom, doesn’t it?
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