The idea of starting your own business can be scary. The statistics say that there is a high probability of your dream business failing. But then again, there is a really, really high probably that your heart will fail at some point too. And when that happens none of your other failures matter anymore anyway.
A Safer Bet
But there is a way to practice safe entrepreneurship. It’s not perfectly safe. Just like there is no perfectly safe sex. At least not any that involves other people.
Do what you know.
If you want to become an entrepreneur, but your tolerance for risk is sweet n’ low, the safe thing to do is to start a business in an industry you have already worked in.
It turns out that entrepreneurs are 125% more successful if they’ve previously worked in the industry they start their own business in.
Keep on rocking in the free world.
This should be encouraging to those of you who are rockstars in your current job and think you could do it even better on your own. That’s what I did. Okay, so I am not really a rockstar. I am more like a bluegrass artist with a loyal local following, that consists mostly of my family and the hard of hearing.
After working for other advertising agencies for 19 years, I launched my own advertising and idea agency in 2016. Today, The Weaponry is nearly 4 years old. And I have been able to pour all of my industry experience directly into my entrepreneurial adventure. And in return, it has poured some sugar on me.
If you really want to start your own business, and I hope you do, consider starting a business in the industry you are already working in. Your experience and connections give you a major advantage. You do have connections don’t you? If not, work on building that parachute before you jump out of your current airplane.
Fun note: I am writing this on a plane as I fly to Florida to film the CEO of one of our greatest clients. We work with this great client because my friend and former coworker, Erin Lovett recommended us. But don’t worry. I won’t jump out of the plane. It would put a quick end to my 125% advantage.
When I set out to launch my own business I had no idea what I was doing. So I talked to a lot of successful entrepreneurs. I wanted to learn as much as I could about how to launch and run a company. I was looking for the standard tips and tricks. What I quickly discovered was that there are no standard anythings. Everyone I talked to had their own recipe for success. Or what I call a successipe. Which is a mashup of success and recipe. Admittedly, successipe works better as a spoken word than as a written word. But I have no editor deleting this. So it stays.
Don’t Reinvent The Wheel
When you are learning a new skill or craft, is is a great idea to talk to people who have already done what you are attempting to do. Ask questions. Listen. Observe. Borrow or steal proven plays from someone else’s playbook. It’s how we capitalize on other people’s experiences and mistakes. Which allows you to grow faster than bumbling and fumbling alone. #peeweeherman
A Memorable Encounter
As I prepared to launch my own advertising agency I met with a very successful entrepreneur. I was extremely excited to learn from him, because I greatly admired him as both a friend and a businessman. Over the course of our conversation I remember 3 pieces of good advice he gave me:
Do NOT name your company The Weaponry.
Perfect your elevator pitch.
Focus on your Pro Forma.
This was a trifecta of good advice. All 3 points were grounded in decades of experience. But none of this advice fit with my world view. Or my approach to business. Or my appetite for risk. So I didn’t take any of it.
I love the name The Weaponry. I love that it sounds strong and provocative. I love that it elicits questions. If you want a great conversation starter tell people you work at The Weaponry. When people ask about our name, and people always ask, I have a great answer that always wins people over. I’ve written about our name in the post: What In The World Does The Weaponry Do?.
I am not trying to play it safe, or avoid a raised eyebrow. In fact, I like a good raised eyebrow. I’ve been getting them my whole life. Today, 3 years into my entrepreneurial journey, I can tell you that The Weaponry’s name has been a powerful weapon for our business.
The Elevator Pitch
I hate the term elevator pitch. I have never once found myself on an elevator with a couple of floors to pitch for my one and only chance to woo a client. It’s a bullshit term that assumes we have one specific offering for our customers. That is not how The Weaponry rolls. And I knew that from the very start.
My sales pitch is not a sales pitch. It is a conversation. It focuses on unmet needs. If you don’t have any unmet needs my elevator pitch is not going to work anyway. And if a potential client ever tells me I have :30 seconds to sell myself or she will bang a gong (#PowerStation), I know we are probably not right for each other. I have written about my disdain for such nonsense in This is where I encourage you to pitch your elevator pitch.
The Pro Forma
Pro forma refers to a method of calculating projected financial results using certain presumptions and projections. It’s a very finance-centric approach that simply isn’t how I process the world. In fact, in these early years of rapid growth creating a pro forma feels like fiction writing.
In our first year, The Weaponry started with no clients. So our projections would have been $0 in revenue. Then, we started acquiring clients, but we had no retainers or contracts guaranteeing how much the clients would ultimately spend. So what could I project? Totally made up numbers? In years 2 and 3 The Weaponry doubled in business. I could neither predict nor plan on that type of growth either. What to do?
The Kite Flying Method
What I use instead of a pro forma is what I call the Kite Flying Method. When you fly a kite, your goal is to get the kite as high in the sky as possible. This is a matter of wind and string. To fly the kite higher and higher you let out string, little by little, based on what your wind will keep aloft. You can’t plan your kite height ahead of time. You have to react to the conditions, in the moment, based on the wind you have to work with.
To do this right I always play it conservatively. I let out less string than the wind would support. This keeps tension on the string and keeps the kite in the air. You also have to know the difference between sustained wind and a short term gust.
All of this is to say that we invest only what our revenue allows. When revenue increases, we can spend more. We have a wish list of positions we would like to hire and resources we would like to have. But we only hire or buy what we can clearly cover today. I have also written about this in a post called If you want to be an entrepreneur start by flying a kite.
There are a broad range of ways to be successful. Don’t let anyone make you think there is only one approach. You have to find what works for you, and your unique set of beliefs. It is great to have a Mastermind Group to turn to. It is wonderful to study others who have done or are doing what you aspire to do. But you don’t have to emulate them. In fact, you can do just the opposite if it feels right to you. Study, learn and listen. Incorporate the things you like. Or invent your own approach. There is no right way. Be your own boss. Be true to yourself. And do it your way.
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In 2015 I decided to launch a new advertising agency. I already had a vivid image of the agency in my head. So I began mapping, sketching and listing every detail of the company. I considered the business from every angle. I even created a Life Stage chart of the yet unborn business. It was like What to Expect When You Are Expecting. Except I was expecting a bouncing baby business.
The Elevator Pitch
However, there was one detail that start-ups typically obsess over that I skipped entirely: the Elevator Pitch. It is supposed to be the centerpiece of a startup’s marketing efforts. If you’ve never heard of an elevator pitch, the idea is that you have to summarize the essence of who you are, and what you do, in a short statement that you could deliver to a captive hostage on a brief elevator ride. Apparently, lots of entrepreneurs stalk high-powered executives on elevators, thinking it would be a great strategy for winning their affection.
I’m not buying it.
I hate the whole concept of the elevator pitch. I think it is the most overrated, over-discussed element of salesmanship. And entrepreneurship. And elevatorship.
Sure, it is important to be able to succinctly talk about your business. Your Great Aunt Petunia doesn’t have enough time left on Earth to waste it on your full story. But I have never bought anything or hired anyone because of a brief discussion I had on an elevator, escalator or Wonk-avator.
In fact, I have been in business for two years. And not once have I found myself in an elevator with someone who told me I had 10 floors of verticality to perform the sales pitch of a lifetime.
Instead of scripting and performing an elevator monologue to an audience that never shows up, which feels a little like writing an acceptance speech for an award you didn’t win, I take the opposite approach.
The Quiet Game
I play the quiet game. You know, it’s that game where you see how long you can go without talking. I was terrible at the Quiet Game as a child. Scratch that. I was the Cleveland Browns of The Quiet Game. But today, as an entrepreneur, I am quite good at it. When I meet a marketer, I don’t whip out a polished sales pitch and throw it at her. Instead, I listen.
I want to hear what potential clients talk about. I want to hear what challenges they are facing. I want to know where their pain points are. I want to identify their greatest unmet needs. I continue to grow and transform The Weaponry in response to the unmet needs of our clients. Because we are focused on solving client problems, we grow in the direction that our clients’ needs dictate.
If you want to collect more great clients and grow your business, don’t practice your elevator pitch. Practice listening. Play detective. Or doctor. Listen for the discomfort, the bottlenecks, and the solution-less problems your clients and potential clients are facing. Discover their unmet needs. And you’ll have found your next opportunity.
*If you found anything of value in this post, please consider subscribing to this blog. You’ll receive two fresh-baked posts via email each week. Oh, and you may also dig this post I wrote about My Vanilla Ice Philosophy. Vanilla Ice himself liked it. And Tweeted it. And hung it above his bed (ok, that very last part might not be true).
Entrepreneurship is a thrilling game. I started my own adverting and idea agency almost two years ago. Building my business has been the most fun and exciting chapter in a career full of fun and exciting chapters. If you think you’d like to play entrepreneur, I have a few insights to share. But I should warn you, I don’t have an MBA. My business philosophies come from life.
Creating your own business requires four elements:
Vision to see what you want to build.
Optimism to believe you can do it.
Will Power to keep you moving forward.
Money to pay the bills.
The first three inputs are about attitude. If you have a great attitude, you have 75% of the requirements covered. Then there is number four. It has ruined many a good business. It’s the proverbial turd in the punch bowl. And there is no way around it.
Money, Money, Money, Money
It isn’t enough simply to have money. The real challenge is that you have to invest your money at the proper pace. If you spend too little you don’t grow, you don’t mature, and you don’t get closer to your ultimate vision. But if you spend too much, you die.
In order to thrive, you need to find the sweet spot between these two pitfalls. This is the game of business finance in a nutshell. And if you remember your shell history, the nutshell beat out both the eggshell and the clamshell as the perfect container for simple summations.
So how do you know when to save and when to spend? I have developed an approach to spending money that influences every purchase, every hire, and financial commitment we make at The Weaponry.
The Kite Flying Method.
I think of spending money like flying a kite. Once you get a kite in the air, you have to decide if you are satisfied flying it ten feet above the ground. If you are not, and I hope you are not, you have to let out more string.
You let out more string when the wind increases. Not before. This sounds simple enough. But the key is knowing the difference between winds and gusts. A gust is temporary. If you let out string because of a gust, you are in trouble. Because when the gust stops, your line will go slack, and the kite will plummet to the ground. This is bad.
The wind is your income. The string is your outgo. If you want your business to soar to impressive heights, you have to let out string. But always let out less string than the wind can support. That tension you feel is profitability. It is what keeps you in control. Always maintain that. It will keep you soaring for as long as you want to play.
How often do you take a good long look at your job? Once a year? Once an hour? Once a never? It is really easy to stop evaluating your job and simply accept it as your reality. Then years go by, and your job search muscles atrophy to the point where you can barely lift your interviewing suit off the hanger.
Many of us accept our jobs as necessary, but not special. Your job provides the money you need for critical things like food, clothing, shelter and a mobile phone. However, the ‘necessary evil’ mindset leads many of us to jobs that are just… fine.
But life it too short, and the workday is too long for fine.
I have reevaluated my job-love frequently throughout my career. But instead of job-hopping I have used my evaluations to tailor my jobs in ways that kept them feeling enjoyable, dynamic and growth-oriented.
A New Lens
A couple of years ago, while mentally jogging, I began thinking of my job as clothing. It made me consider my personal style, the image I want to show the world and my personal comfort. In that context it was clear to me that my current job didn’t fit me. The size, style and cut of the clothing was nice. But it just wasn’t for me. Clothes are highly personal that way.
So I decided to do something about it. I got all idyllic. I thought a lot about the perfect job. I thought about the perfect place to work, the perfect kind of work and the perfect culture. I even started a blog about it. Maybe you’ve read it.
I concluded that the specific place I was looking for didn’t exist, yet. So I started the advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry. Today, I couldn’t be happier. Everything about it seems to fit me. It seems the people working at The Weaponry are enjoying their experience too. Perhaps because we set out to make this a really enjoyable place to work. Perhaps this is because, like fashion designers preparing for a runway show, we have been able to pick people for our team that we knew would look good in our jobs.
Now, back to you.
Today I want you to think of your job as a piece of clothing. It could be a dress, a suit, a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a blouse or jacket. I want you to think about the fit and feel of your current job. Think about the style and the silhouette.
Now, let’s evaluate.
14 Questions To Ask Yourself About Your Job, If It Were A Piece Of Clothing.
Do I like wearing it?
Does it fit me well?
Do I choose to wear it as often as I can?
Would I only wear it if everything else was in the laundry?
How would I feel if an old boyfriend or girlfriend saw me wearing this?
Is it out of style?
It is well-tailored to me?
Does it make my butt look big?
Am I excited that I own it?
Do I get compliments when I wear it?
Does wearing it make me feel stronger, more attractive or more fun?
Could I really benefit from removing it from my closet?
Is it the right style, but too big or too small?
Do I cringe when I see the types of other people who wear what I’m wearing?
Here’s the reality: Your job really is like a piece of clothing. You wear it more than anything else you own. Yet many people would be better off donating their jobs to Goodwill. You may think your current position is better than nothing. But I know many people who would look better wearing no job than the one they currently have.
You have more career options than you realize. You have the ability to create your own job, perfectly tailored to you. Don’t ever forget that. The more you enjoy your job, the more you enjoy your life. As far as I know, we only get one shot to get this right. So find something you love to do and a place you love to do it. If you find it doesn’t exist, make it yourself.
There was a time when side hustles were frowned upon in America. And I’m not talking about the Post-Disco era. Having a second gig was discouraged because employers didn’t want anyone else owning any of their employees’ cranial space. Including the employees themselves. This is ignorant. Quite to the contrary, (delivered in my best British accent) I wish everyone at my adverting agency had a side hustle.
Throughout my career many of my team members have had interesting micro-businesses. I’ve had coworkers who created and sold posters and prints, invitations and greeting cards, cupcakes and macaroons. They’ve been DJs, authors, children’s book illustrators and whiskey makers (although not necessarily in that order). Given the innovative and interesting cast of characters I’ve worked with I expect there are plenty of other business exploits I know nothing about.
I have had a small side business for the past 10 years. I make t-shirts under the brand Adam & Sleeve. AdamandSleeve.com. In 2006 I had an idea for a t-shirt that I really wanted. So I made a few. Other people requested them. And I realized that if I made enough to sell, I would get the t-shirts I wanted for myself for free. I’ve learned about sourcing, quality control, vendor relations, production, distribution, finance and customer service. Even better, I really enjoy it.
But a funny thing happens when you create your own business, even a micro-business, like selling micros. You develop a deeper and fuller understanding of all of the elements of business that your clients face. You better understand the contraints of time, money and resources. You understand the risks. You understand why they want their logo bigger.
Too often we only see a small sliver of what our clients are facing. Like the four blind men who are trying to describe an elephant based on the part they are touching. So we can’t understand why our clients don’t just upgrade all their gadgets and gizmos, or hire someone more savvy than my Grammy to handle their social media, or fly us all to Tahiti to research how far away it is.
Once you walk a mile in someone else’s cash register you can understand their reluctance to spend money. Once you have received a letter from an attorney you think twice about claiming you serve the world’s best cup of coffee. And once you realize how hard it is to hire and retain good help you understand why the client didn’t just fire that lump of a salesman who landed in the marketing department.
So don’t be too quick to discourage your people from creating their own side business. It can be energizing, insightful and rewarding. It will help them develop empathy, which is one of the most important advertising skills. And properly managed it will pay dividends for them, for you and most importantly for your clients. Oh, and if there are any extra dividends left over please send them my way. I have another business idea to fund.