Tag Archives: Side business

Kill Business Plans?

Maybe it’s just my feed and the websites I frequent, but there seems to be a growing movement to encourage new businesses to scrap a business plan. While I’ve actually written about how a “business plan” with the structure that the bank wants to see or we learn about in school may not be the answer, I think it’s a disservice to be advocating forgoing the plan entirely.

The major reason that I say this is that typically those who are advocating leaving the plan in the mind of the entrepreneur and barrel forward are those who have seen a level of success in their business. So while it’s good for them that they’ve made it and maybe they never had any sort of plan down on paper (which I would contest in many cases is likely a romantic lie), run-away success stories unfortunately don’t make up the majority of businesses.

I would be more interested to hear from failed business owners who never did any business planning. I wonder what they would say in hindsight. Whether they thought that a bit more planning would have given them a better chance at success or maybe prevented them from taking the leap in the first place.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about business ideas and a large number of them end with a quick Google search and the realization that there are a huge number of companies doing the exact same thing already. Either that or after trying to write down a rough plan for the business (even a one-pager in bullet points) you realize that the idea looks pretty weak at second glance.

Whenever I see an article, Tweet or whatever about how business plans are worthless, I tend to think that the author means in their current form. I couldn’t agree more that a business which doesn’t yet exist trying to forecast five years of sales is a pointless, but the backing information that gives some legitimacy to your assumption that people will buy what you’re planning to sell is never a bad thing. At the very least it can be a thought exercise for you to explore as many aspects of your idea as possible.

So don’t dismiss creating some form of business plan in order to chase the image of being some sort of renegade entrepreneur who doesn’t play by the rules and makes all the right calls from their gut. While planning should never get in the way of action, taking some time to determine the right action to take will go a long way.

Can You Service a Startup?

I’ve noticed something recently that everyone seems to have the ability to service startups. At least that’s what they would have you believe. A listing of skills on LinkedIn got me thinking about why this is.

The profile I was viewing was of someone who was no doubt very intelligent. A double professional who, I’m sure, has forgot more than I will ever know. Regardless, though, none of the experience listed had anything to do with startups, but there it was listed in the skills section.

Why were they so comfortable putting it there, though? I have a couple guesses and would love to hear yours, too.

First, I think that it has to do with size. They had done a lot of work with bigger businesses, so how tough could a new, smaller one be?

Maybe it was because this individual was relatively young and young people all have an inherent knowledge about startups, seeing as they’re the cool new thing.

Honestly, whatever it is, I think that there is a healthy level of ignorance mixed in, whether unintentional or not.

All small businesses, startups in particular, can be a different beast. My guess the “my skills will scale down” theory goes out the window once you start setting up corporate structures, funding rounds, personal finance implications, grant requirements, fast growth, etc. These are likely all things that wouldn’t be experienced to the same extent at an established business.

I have first-hand experience with this.

When I was first setting things up with the business, I happened to be with one of my account friends one evening. Since it was top of mind, I started asking him 101 questions about finances, taxes, company structure, you name it.

He wasn’t really answering my questions in any great depth and I finally said, “I thought you were supposed to be an accountant. What gives?”

He looked at me as replied, “Kevin, I’ve never dealt with a company anywhere near as small as yours. The amounts you’re talking about are so immaterial for the companies I work for that they wouldn’t bother looking for them if they were missing from the books.”

First, sobering thought. Second, that was a breath of fresh air.

Although he could have impressed me with a bit of knowledge and likely made it up as he went along, he had enough confidence to simply state that he knows nothing about the subject we’re talking about. If I really wanted answers I should go to someone who specializes in small businesses.

So I did.

My Best Interest?

Well, end of another month and time for some random blog / life related thoughts from me. Ironically I would have thought these would be the least read, but they actually do pretty well, so I keep doing them. Not that I have any better ideas most of the time.

Time to rip off the bandaid: If you don’t know I’ve been on the job hunt for the last little while. I’m enjoying the conversations and the prospect of new opportunities is always exciting. There are just a few things that have been worrying me lately.

Snap It could be one of the highlights of my application (depending on the job), but I also have a little anxiety about how it could have a negative effect. Even while interviewing for my last job the completely fair question of “Do you plan on quitting once your business becomes big enough?” was asked.

While I don’t really see that happening, it can be hard to concisely explain, and that’s assuming I get an interview. Seeing that someone has an ownership stake of business on a resume may be a discounting factor. It’s hard to get the time and energy commitment from a few paragraphs.

The second, possibly more glaring worry, is this blog. While I don’t think that I write about anything too controversial (stem-cell research and Iran’s new ability to refine nuclear materials come to mind), this blog is still opinion based and much to my horror, not everyone always shares my opinion.

I’ve had more than one situation where someone has spoken to me about something they didn’t agree with or ow they took something personal. While I love the discussion, I don’t want to be alienating people. Taking a stance on anything will mean that there will be people on the opposite side, which isn’t always an easy thing.

So is it in my best interest to keep writing?

Being a stubborn person, I’m going to say yes. What I’ve been saying in this blog has been true to me and if there is anyone who chooses to discount me as a person based on it, the relationship was likely to be short-lived regardless.

While I love to have my opinions and defending them, what I love more is the conversation that comes from opposing views. Some of the people I would consider my closest friends and I have extremely combative relationships, but I’m weird that way. If I go for a drink with you and we end up arguing the entire time about something meaningful I would consider that a pretty good night out. What can I say? I had an exciting upbringing.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have restraint. I know there’s a time and place for debate and a time to get on board. Some disagreements aren’t worth having and it may be best just to move on and I can usually do that very well, too. The good thing about my style is that as long as the discussion stays academic I won’t be taking any of it personally and there is no strain on the relationship.

So I guess I should say sorry to anyone that I’ve ruffled the feathers of in a post or two. I still love you.

Scalable Skills

Being a business grad can be a tricky thing. Regardless of the program that you went through, the exact technical skills required for any job were not something that you likely learned in school. I’m sure it’s like this for all people starting jobs, but I like to write what I know.

What’s more is it seems like there’s a very strong bias to those who have done the exact thing that a company is hiring for when filling roles. Regardless of how well you did anything in the past, if you can somehow make your experience sound like it fits in the box that they are lumping things in, you’re the type of person that they want!

While I’m not saying that a level of proficiency related to the position being hired for is important, I do think that there is something to be said about a person who doesn’t have direct experience, but has a related skill set. That way you have someone who has obviously learned a similar job and your company gets the opportunity to train them. You’re not hiring some other company’s bad habits.

All of this, in my mind, is yet another reason that a side business is a great idea for any new grad. While you likely won’t get the exact experience that is needed for a job you’re applying for, there is a high likelihood that you will have done something related. The key is being able to communicate that your skills are scalable.

Talking about my experience (again, writing what I know), I’ve been intimately involved in the development, evolution and re-development of a product. In financial management, marketing, sales, project management, service delivery, customer interfacing, researching and now hiring. There’s likely more.

Would any of those experiences be to the same extent as if I was working in one of those functions at a larger company? Likely not. Are they still valuable and show that I’m not only able to learn what is needed, but identify what that need is? Yep.

I’m here to tell you, anyone can do this.

Even if you don’t want to start a business for yourself, there is always some crossover in your job or volunteer work. Just because you had a certain title doesn’t mean you weren’t exposed to other skill sets, so make sure that you really think about what they were and how it felt to perform those tasks. They may end up coming in handy in the future.

How Not to Ask For a Favour

I wrote a post for today, wanting to link to this article, but I realized it was on my old blog. It’s pretty good, so I decided to repost and save the new one for next week!

I am not ashamed of saying I’ve ask (and received) what I would assume is more than the average number of favours in my life. Through volunteering and working for charities, along with having a support network of people with many more skills than I have, I am never afraid to ask for something.

Conversely I have been asked to perform many favours, which have had varying levels of success. Owning a pretty cool service business and being known as someone who volunteers a fair amount has apparently allowed people to feel as though approaching me may benefit them one way or another. I always appreciate the interest, regardless of whether or not I help out, and make my appreciation clear to the asker.

Usually whether I am asking or being asked there is a mutual level of respect and if the answer is “yes” or “no” we part ways with pretty much the same relationship we had before. However, in the past couple weeks there have been a couple instances where I have really not appreciated the way which I was asked to do a favour. Here’s some background and a recount of them:

Charity

Operating a business focused on events leaves the door open to a fair number of charitable asks for in-kind service donations. It’s my policy that I will support one charity per year (the slot is filled and I don’t see it opening). It’s not like I’m not open to helping anything else out, but it would have to be something very dear to me.
I thought this was a good policy and have told other charities something to this effect, adding I will keep their information on file and contact them if anything changes, which I honestly will. Most seemed understanding of this and having worked in the industry (charity) I can assure you it’s not an uncommon response to get, if not on the polite side.

Recently I was approached by an individual from an event committee about doing an event. I sent them the above response and took down their information for my files. A week or so later I get a follow-up email asking if I would reconsider, thank you for asking, but no. This is when it got squirely.

The next message I had articles attached and a link to a video showing (without giving too much away) how much the people this charity supports needs the charity. I responded back saying that I never thought the cause wasn’t a good one, but I am currently not looking for any other cause to support. I can honestly say I did my best to be polite.

While I appreciate the passion for the cause, I don’t appreciate being harassed. If another message comes back I think that I’m forced to find a supervisor or someone else at the charity to bring into the situation, hoping they can mitigate it.

Personal Favours

A shorter story, again about the business, I was approached by someone I know to see if I would work an event for them. I want to point out that this is a for-profit event, where they are making money. Also I don’t know this person very well and haven’t spoken to them in months.

They asked (via text) if I would be willing to donate the photo booth for this event. I responded thanking them for the interest but declining, to which I received NOTHING. No, “Thanks anyway!” or “Oh well, hope you can still make it out,” or “K.” Complete radio silence.

This I find even more annoying than the previous situation, because at least charity lady proved that she is legitimately interested in my product. The no response proves to me that my decision was right, as they were just trying to use me.

As a somewhat related note, don’t try and sell me on setting up an event for free because it will be “good exposure.” Do you know what else is good exposure? Events that people pay me for.

I’m going to end this saying that 99.9% of the time when someone asks me for help it’s very nice, respectful and considerate. I appreciate it and get good feeling knowing I can provide some sort of benefit to a fellow human. I just wanted to throw these two stories out there to see if anyone else has had a similar experience and as a cautionary tale.

Millennial Entrepreneurs

Last week a friend sent me an article about how Millennials are twice as likely as the general population to want to start their own business in the next year. While I’m sure that there are many factors that contribute to this statistic (where they are in their life cycle, unemployment double the national average), but I think that there is something more hardwired than any of the more macro reasons.

This is more of an observational statement, but it is something that I’ve heard so much of that I can’t help but start believing it: The Millennial generation, my generation, thinks that they (we) are entitled.

This statement typically raises my ire, because as with all generalizations, it obviously doesn’t apply itself to all individuals. However, when I’m forced to take a long hard look at how I know that peers of mine have acted (and I sure hope that I haven’t), I can definitely see where that conclusion can be drawn.

Since university and beyond I have known people that think they should have a job with complete autonomy and flexibility, along with a six-figure salary with the title “Social Marketing Guru” upon walking into a company. And don’t even get me started about any entry-level position with “Guru” in the title.

Although someone may be able to find this, I would wager a bet that it would be the exception, not the norm. That is exactly the issue, though, we have been taught all our lives that we can do anything and are special, therefore we always identify with the exception, rather than the rule.

So this entitlement, I think, is a major reason that Millennials want to go into business for themselves. After being in the job market for a few years they realize that they can’t do everything that they want (making what they want) right away, but realize if they are their own bosses, then it’s completely in their control. Or so they think.

I tend to think that once many of the people saying they want to start their own business give it a try, it’s not going to be what they had thought it would be like. Often, especially as a starting entrepreneur, your time is not your own. You have to do tasks that you would rather not, but have to get done. Your time isn’t as flexible as you think it will be, because you are usually working as the service provider / product maker, as well as operations manager and sales person. Basically three full-time jobs for one person. And if you think huge money is coming in year one, I would think again.

So if you want to start a business and have romance in your eyes, it may be prudent to speak with a few business owners. See what it was like during their starting years and determine if it’s in line with what your expectations are. If it’s not, it may be worth it to start your business as a side-gig to see how you like it. Or to continue to be an employee for a few more years, because there is nothing wrong with that.

Product Planning

Confession time: The beginning of the company was pretty hasty. I wrote about our sorted history a little while ago, but to give you the cheat sheet for the purposes of this article, we basically took our first booking before we have a product and threw something together in about a week or so. Turns out it worked then and since, because we’ve not done over 100 events and don’t have a complaint yet.

Now it’s time for growth and we have to backtrack a bit. What I’m learning is a little planning goes a long way when it comes to product development. Not that what we had made isn’t perfectly fine for what we are using it for, but if we had thought through our growth process before hand we would likely be a bit further ahead from where we are now.

Since I truly hope to be a part of this process again, there are a few things that I have taken away from this experience that I will be sure to consider:

Determine the first iteration’s limitations.

As I said, the first version of the program is more than fine for what we’re using for it now, but it definitely has some limitations as soon as we want to do anything else. We probably would have known this when first building it, but honestly didn’t see the forest for the trees. We know what we wanted and didn’t think about what we may want in the future, which leads us to…

Have an improvement / growth plan.

Especially in the world of technology, as soon as your product is released the countdown has started to when it becomes obsolete. Knowing this, it is important to start working on the next version as soon as you can, and even better if you can plan a few versions ahead.

A common statement from Apple worshipers that the company already has the next 2 – 10 years worth of products in the pipeline. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s true. Not only that, but companies like that can very purposefully phase update releases in order to maximize consumer engagement and purchase cycles.

For us, there are some things that need to happen before the company can really enter a strong growth phase, so that’s what we’re doing.

Know when to abandon.

This is a little more out there, because I don’t think we’re at this place yet. Saying that, the cycle be 5, 10, 100 or 1000 years, but eventually every product will reach the end of it’s life. Being able to predict and plan for this can mean continuing to capitalize on the market you hold before it’s too late, or be able to make the appropriate plans to ensure that the business continues beyond the flagship project.

What’s in a Title?

After my last LinkedIn post I’ve had a few conversations with people about the LI community in general. Something that keeps coming up in that conversation is the level of importance placed on titles, rather than the description of the jobs. This isn’t something I had thought too much of before, but after my friends mentioned it to me, it was hard not to notice.

Other than the person’s name and picture, the job title is the highest importance in a LinkedIn profile. Company, education and actual experience is all secondary or lower. While this may be appropriate when comparing apples to apples, considering every company has a different culture and titling standards, the title could be very misleading.

I can use myself as an example.

Having a side business means that I can make up any title I want. My dad once joked that I should call myself CEO, because all “real” companies have a CEO and there’s no one who could stop me.

When “giving” myself a title, which appears essentially only on LinkedIn and my resume (don’t have titles on our business cards because we’re progressive like that) I settled on President. I a little reluctant to admit, but I did this for essentially the reason that my dad joked about: A company should have a president and why the hell not?

I didn’t really give the decision a second thought, until I said the title out loud. It sounded fake to me and I felt like a phony even saying it, but since it came up so rarely I didn’t do anything about it and it stayed like that for years.

What got me thinking about it again was when I started getting LinkedIn solicitations for other president jobs and services a president of a company may consider. To me it’s just a joke, but at the same time I was getting irritated by the irrelevant information that was coming my way.

I’m happy to say that at the time of writing this I’ve changed my title on the all important LinkedIn to simple Co-Founder. While it may seem like a bit of a demotion, I can assure you I will be performing the exact same duties as I was as President. The other little victory in this one is that I have set a goal for the company before we give out official titles, so there is now something to work toward.

As a take-away from this is to take titles with a grain of salt. I’ve stated before that human relationships and interactions are complicated and short-hands like titles can make it easier to be able to classify people we meet, but if there is a possibility of this person coming to work for or do business for you, it’s probably a good idea to dig a little deeper than what it currently says on a business card.

Don’t Hate on Multi-Level Marketing

… so long as it’s being done right.

I don’t know the reason, but it seems like I talk about multi-level marketing once a week. When I say “talk about” I mean on a higher, structural level. This is not including the countless Facebook posts and tweets promoting the many product lines that employ the strategy.

From what I gather from my conversations, not many people like multi-level marketing. They don’t like being pitched by friends and don’t think that the products are too good. In fact, there seems to be a wide level of scepticism of everything that is distributed this way. I don’t think that this distrust is completely founded.

From what I can understand, there are many quality products that are sold through these channels. I have friends and family who have bought them and I have yet to hear a specific, product-related complaint. I actually know many who have turned into repeat customers, so there has to be a product quality at least similar to what is available through more traditional channels.

It’s my opinion that when people are sceptical about product quality, the real reason they are being hesitant is that the distribution of the product is coming from someone they know. Not only that, but it is likely that they have at least been aware of (if not pitched) how to join the company as a sales rep. It may be their own narrow definition of how companies should be run that is holding them back. To me, 90% of what is done in a multi-level marketing system is happening in most other companies out there, you just don’t know as much about these companies because they are less front-and-centre.

When you boil it down, what I think the real problem people have with it is that it is selling based on personal relationships, which is an issue you have with a person, not the company. If you know someone who has signed on to be a rep and that’s all they can talk about, I will agree that it gets tiring. Conversely, you probably have friends doing something like this that you would never guess was involved. It is all about the choices of the individual.

People working at “reputable” companies can behave the same way. I really comes down to the discretion of the person doing the selling. I encourage any of my friends who want to try their hand at this particular form of business, but just remember: no means no.

Can You Make the Sacrifice?

I read an article recently that boldly stated that entrepreneurs can’t have girlfriends. Considering the author cited the reasons, among others, that in the Facebook movie Eduardo’s girlfriend burnt down his apartment and the “fan girls” were too young and hot, I don’t know how credible he is. That being said, it is interesting to take a look at the personal lives of successful entrepreneurs and other business leaders to see what sort of sacrifices have been made.

To add some context to this, I consider myself a realist, knowing that it is unlikely I can “have it all”. To be successful in a career or venture, there will be sacrifices on the personal side. To devote more time trying to be a successful friend/son/(eventually) parent will take sacrifice on the work side of things. There are only so many hours in the day, but that’s a burden we all live with. There’s no right or wrong way of doing things, we all just need to decide what we’re comfortable with.

Back to entrepreneurs, in order to dedicate the amount of time needed in order to become highly successful, it does seem there is a toll on relationships. There seems to be a fairly high divorce rate, but that is not black and white. To try a be a little more concrete, the story about the marriage contract Zuckerberg’s wife made him sign (allegedly including one night and 100 minutes of quality time with her per week) is an acknowledgement that entrepreneurs work long hours and many not always have time for their families.

Not only this, but income is often highly volatile and the investment that entrepreneurs make is rarely diversified. All the eggs are in one basket, so to speak, which can be terrifying to some. Not only this, but any cash flow will likely be going back into the business for some time, so personal savings usually get eaten up pretty quick. Combine this with the fact that you may have put your house or other assets up as collateral, and if an entrepreneur fails it could take years or decades of rebuilding to get their life on track.

To the right kind of person with an idea, this doesn’t matter, though. It’s a sacrifice that they’re willing to make in order to see their dream come true. This could be hard for others in their lives, though, it could be a hard thing.

Owning a business sounds great when you’re first starting out, but the sacrifices that are needed are something to consider. For some it could prove to be too hard to live the life that is needed, wasting time and money. Unfortunately no one can tell you the right answer, it’s all up to you.