I have had great conversations with many potential entrepreneurs this summer. Two questions are asked to me more than any other. The first question is “Where do I start if I want to create my own company?” The second question is “How do you find time to run your company and also attend business school?” I will answer both of these questions in this article as well as explain the power of creating a cloud company which is the next evolution in web entrepreneurship.
It can be difficult at times to run a company and go to school, but it is by no means impossible. I don’t have any superhuman characteristics of endurance like Wolverine or mental abilities like Professor X. In fact, I can be pretty inconsistent at times in regards to my work ethic. I’m also TERRIBLE at doing administrative tasks. The reason why my company has succeeded thus far is that I created an autonomous system that fulfills the needs of the marketplace. It is a simple goal, yet it can be difficult to implement if one doesn’t have a clear framework to think about the situation. My aim is to provide a road map so you don’t have to go through the same growing pains as I did.
The ancient Greek scientist Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” The system that I have created is my lever and fulcrum. It allows me to accomplish a lot with much less effort compared to doing everything on my own. When an entrepreneur does everything on her own, she severely limits the growth and viability of the company that she started. Under the “entrepreneur does everything” scenario, there is a linear relationship between time and money. This means that for every X number of dollars that you earn, you have to work Y number of hours. Therefore, to make extra money, you have to work extra hours. The problem is that there are only so many hours in the day and who wants to spend all of their time working?
Many people gravitate towards the scenario mentioned above because that is what we have been conditioned to think. Before most people become entrepreneurs, they are employees for someone else. As an employee, you usually get paid by the hour or on a salary. To be a successful entrepreneur, you need to have a paradigm shift in thinking from a linear to an exponential relationship between money and time. Also, you want to make the relationship between money and time weaker; meaning that you make money whether you are in your office or on a beach in the Caribbean. Creating an effective system is a key step in the paradigm shift. The system should work with or without you.
Creating a system is important for any type of company, but the added benefit for web entrepreneurs is the ability to leverage cloud computing. Cloud computing is where the data and software applications for your company are stored on the web through third party vendors. In cloud computing, the web software applications of the different companies “talk” to each other, which further automates your company and simultaneously reduces the need for management. A second benefit of could computing is that it allows an entrepreneur the ability to access their data from any computer or mobile device in the world with an internet connection. This means that you can separate your work from any one physical location. Third, cloud computing reduces the need for large upfront investments, allowing for better cash flow in the early stages of a venture. If you want to know more about cloud computing check out this short video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hplXnFUlPmg&feature=related
Cloud computing allows an entrepreneur to leverage the internet’s power without being techy. Currently, the important traits needed to build an online company are the ability of implement effective processes and the ability to communicate well with customers. Thankfully for me, I was trained as an engineer and process management has become second nature. However, I have found over time that effective process management can easily be taught to anyone who wants to learn. Below I will take you through the six steps that I follow when creating any new system or company. I will also let you in on some of the tools that I use to pull everything off. Over time, I will write additional articles to go over each part of the checklist in more detail.
I am believer that necessity is the mother of invention. A basic goal of an entrepreneur should be to solve the problems of a consumer while making a profit through the process. There are two major categories of needs: blatant needs and latent needs. Blatant needs are those issues that are obvious to everyone. The first thing that comes to mind is if there was a cure for cancer or hair loss. Latent needs are those dormant problems that we don’t realize need to be solved. Most entrepreneurial ventures are in this realm. For example, I didn’t know I needed an iPod until I actually received one as a present. Try to take my iPod away from me now and see what happens to you! Needs and opportunities are always there. We just have to drive ourselves to find the practical ones that are directly tied to our expected customer base.
Once you understand the needs of the consumer base that you want to serve, next you need to develop an effective strategy to solve the problems that customers face. Strategy class in business school teaches frameworks such as Porter’s Five Forces. The five force framework is intended to provide a clear way for business professionals to determine the competitive intensity and attractiveness of an industry. Although it is useful for analyzing large corporations, it has a major faulty assumption. The underlying assumption is that business has to be competitive and that any change is considered a “threat” to the marketplace. With five forces, it is assumed that business has to be head to head competition (at the very least, that is the way the concept is taught).
From my experience, business is not like war and there are plenty of unfulfilled and profitable markets for potential entrepreneurs to enter. An example is Great Black Speakers’ position within the speaking industry. When I started thinking about the concept in October 2006, there were plenty of bureaus that had a long history of providing high quality speakers to organizations around the world. I also noticed that there weren’t many bureaus focusing specifically on African-American speakers and the college audience. Given that I knew quite a bit of information about both of those subjects, Great Black Speakers was born to serve that market. So, in a crowded industry, there was still a lot of unfulfilled market potential that made the competition irrelevant.
Having a strategy is great, but it will mean nothing if you don’t have an effective way to execute it. If your strategy is where you want to go, the execution plan is how you plan to get there. For me this is the fun part and is usually the phase that determines my profits. Whenever I create a new plan, I put myself in the customer’s shoes and walk through the ideal state on what needs to happen to actually fulfill the customer’s needs. What’s important here is to understand the major tasks that need to happen and in what order to make your strategy successful. Often times, we can get bogged down by the details and lose the forest for the trees. There is a place for this, but not in the first run through in your execution plan. Step 6 talks more about the second and more detailed run through.
Just like any factory has tools to develop their products, your online company needs tools to effectively deliver services to the marketplace. This is where my love for the internet becomes intense. There seems to be a tool for almost any task that I need accomplished. With so many options out there, it is easy to become overly excited about the latest and greatest technology. Usually, it’s the simple things that work best. The great thing about many of the tools is that they are automated and that the tools are designed to integrate with each other. This is important as it significantly reduces the cost of implementation and is also easily scalable as your company grows.
Here is a preview of some of the online tools that I use and what I use them for:
iContact – Email Marketing Highrise by 37Signals – Contact Management Wufoo – Data Collection PayPal and Google Merchant – Payment Processing
Even with all of the automated web tools at your disposal, there is still a need for human interaction. At the end of the day, people buy your product or use your service. These individuals don’t want to talk on the phone to an automated system. Think about how frustrating it is when you call your bank and you get the sweet, woman voice of the computer. How often do you have to repeat what you want when you call? “I said two!!…Option two!” is what I usually scream out after the sixth time repeating myself.
There is a myth that hiring additional labor has to be expensive. This is because there is the faulty underlying assumption that the individuals hired will be full time employees. Furthermore, there is the fear of additional overhead expense due to the need for an office for the employees to work. When you have a company on the web, many of these problems disappear. This is the reason why it is difficult for me to answer the question “How many employees do you have?” My answer to this question is reliant on your definition of employee. How many people officially work for Great Black Speakers? I’m a solo operation. How many people work to help Great Black Speakers run? Currently about 15 or so people.
The web eliminates the need for individuals to be in the same office to communicate effectively. Here is a list of some key people for my company and where they live.
Me: Ithaca, NY Diana (the person who actually runs Great Black Speakers daily): Nebraska Assistant #1: Memphis, TN Assistant #2: Alabama Web developers (two of them) : India and New York
The list goes on and on with very many different locations. Where do you find this top talent? There is a website called Elance (www.elance.com) which is a source that people use to find individuals to do work for them. This site is one of the best things that has happened to my company and is worth you researching.
The last step on the checklist is to bring the system together and create a more detailed process for what you need to accomplish. In essence, it is aligning the critical tasks, tools, and human resources to push towards productivity. This is where I create a detailed work flow as to who does what? When do they do it? Also, how does the work get done? When you follow this step, what you are actually creating is an operations manual for your company. Having an operations manual makes your company sustainable for the long term. You will find that people move on from jobs and many business relationships cease over time. Your operations manual will make it easier to train others when this happens.
To quickly recap this step:
1. Layout the key tasks that need to be accomplished from start to finish to make your strategy work.
2. Layout the exact steps needed to accomplish each task. Be sure to be specific and don’t assume that the party knows anything. It is vitally important to be as thorough here. Include the tools and resources needed and also in what order they are needed.
3. Make sure that the processes of each step integrate with each other. There is nothing worse than building a system where work cannot easily flow from one step to the next.
4. Test the system out and make adjustments as time goes along.
There is a lot of upfront work when you are developing a system to earn income for yourself, but it is definitely worth it. Developing the GBS system is the main reason on why I was able to continue to grow Great Black Speakers and attend school at the same time. After you develop your first system, it becomes easier to create other systems for different ventures in the future.
The checklist mentioned above is a great framework for any company that you are trying to start. However, the results can be multiplied on the internet due to the low cost nature of the tools used and the ability to integrate tools with each other for greater automation and effectiveness. As the cavemen discovered many millenniums ago, you should not try to lift a heavy boulder by yourself. It is much easier to build a lever and fulcrum to move the boulder. It is much easier to create a system to move closer to your goals.