One might think that a time like this, during the middle of a global pandemic, is not a good time to start a business or entrepreneurial endeavor. In fact, most people would probably say that this is the worst time to hang out a shingle.
Earlier this year, before COVID-19 was prominent in the news, I decided to take action on something I’d been toying with for a while: starting my own business. At a meeting with my mentor (who also happens to be my first client), he asked me, “So when are you going to file for an LLC? And what are you going to name your company?”
To that point, I had been waffling back and forth on the issue. Should I start a business or just do work as a “freelancer”? If I start a business, what should I call it? It has to be a good name, nothing too cliché or obscure or irrelevant. And so on.
That weekend, after a little research, I pulled the metaphorical trigger and filed for an LLC via LegalZoom, and shortly thereafter, Web and Ads LLC was born.
I’m still in the infant stages of getting this business off the ground, but I’ve already learned so much from networking with other small business owners and reading lots of business books and blogs. The answers to all questions are out there; you just have to search for them. (As Ecclesiastes says, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”)
After ruminating on what I’d call the “philosophy of business” for a few months, I have come up with a few initial principles that I believe apply to all businesses at all times. If you’re thinking of starting your own business (or already own a business but are trying to adapt to these strange times), maybe these will help you out as they have helped me.
Here goes, in no particular order…
Customers come first.
There’s an old saying that “the customer is always right.” Well, no, I don’t believe the customer is always right, but I do believe that the customer should always come first. (To show how much I believe that, my own business website is still under construction because I’m busy working on my clients’ websites!)
If there’s one business principle to take away from my rambling, it is this: “Don’t be desperate to sell; be hungry to serve.” That’s my mentor’s motto, and I understand it better now than ever before.
Any successful business exists to serve the market. That is, the business must serve its customers or clients. Even businesses that sell products or services to other businesses (B2B commerce) must put their customers (other businesses) before themselves.
To serve a market, there must be a desire that needs fulfilling. Humanity’s core desires stay the same: for example, to achieve status, to feel secure, to express oneself. The specific manifestations of those desires changes with time, but the deeper desire always remains.
Being able to fulfill desires is the key to being profitable in business. Do you think companies that make masks and do deep cleaning are doing well right now? Most likely, because they are fulfilling the customers’ desires to be healthy and not get sick.
Because desires and circumstances change, being able to adapt is also important. For example, I helped my mentor figure out how to conduct his in-person training programs via Zoom. He also offers an on-demand online course that his clients can subscribe to—something critical right now for a distributed workforce and business incentives to cut costs.
A business that takes care of its customers, that rolls out the red carpet for them and provides premium service, and that can adapt as times change, will likely never have to worry about losing business to other competitors.
Which leads me to my next point…
Ignore the competition.
I call my business a digital profit agency. I do “digital marketing”, but I don’t offer the full range of services that other, larger agencies offer. I build websites, but I don’t code from scratch or use advanced coding like web developers do. I do online advertising, but I tailor each advertising campaign to my individual client’s needs—and I don’t necessarily follow the conventions for online copywriting, either.
For example, I design websites for small businesses to convert visitors into customers—using many of the same techniques that million-dollar businesses and Fortune 500 companies use. My sites are simple and professional. They are designed to be fast and work on every device. But at the end of the day, they’re built to sell.
In short, no other web designer does quite what I do. No other business offers what I offer. I am unique.
Am I the biggest? No. Am I the most profitable? No. Am I the best? Yes, I am the best at what I do.
And that’s what every business has to be: the best at what they do.
I know there are hundreds, if not thousands, of roofers in my area. Some, perhaps many, offer the same thing: a new roof for your home.
But there is one roofer in my networking group who goes the extra mile to protect the windows and doors of all the houses his crews work on. He even uses ground tarps that won’t kill the grass they cover (very important in the Texas summer heat).
If he tried to be like all the other roofers in the area, do you think people would be more likely to work with him? Maybe, but probably not.
Instead, he’s found a uniqueness that sets him apart from everyone else. His shingles, materials, and work crews may be on par with every other roofing company, but it doesn’t matter because homeowners know he’ll take care of their property while working on it. And for homeowners who care about not having scratched windows and dead grass, they are going to choose this guy when it comes time to get a new roof.
So at the end of the day, you really shouldn’t have any competition because your business should have a uniqueness that others just can’t copy. Find it and shout it from the rooftops.
Prospect, prospect, prospect.
If you don’t have customers, your business isn’t going to be generating any revenue. And if your business isn’t generating any revenue, it may not be in business for too long.
In order to have a successful business, you should always be prospecting. I’ve heard some people say that ninety percent of your work hours should be spent searching for new clients. That’s probably true.
What is prospecting? When I hear the word, I think of an old guy with a beard panning for gold in the Old West. He spends all day down by the creek, dipping his pan into the silt and sifting through the sediment. A lot of dirt passes through his hands before he finds the sparkling bits of gold. And even though he sells what he finds and is happy, he still must return to the water the next day and keep panning.
Prospecting in business is not too different. Most of the time you end up with dirt—people or businesses that may politely entertain your pitch but really aren’t interested in what you have to offer.
But, if you have a great offer and fill a need, eventually you will find a gold nugget—a prospect who is excited by your offer, whips out his wallet, and asks, “How do I get this?”
Then the cycle will continue. You will sift through more dirt, and eventually find another nugget or two. Lots more sifting, a few more nuggets.
But the analogy breaks down in a good way, because customers are actually more valuable than little gold nuggets. And that’s because customers talk, and gold doesn’t.
If a customer is really amazed by your work, they’re likely to tell others about your business. Word-of-mouth is very powerful, and a recommendation from a friend is very convincing. An online review or testimonial is perhaps the best boon to your business’s reputation. And your business will start to grow, all because of a happy customer!
The analogy also breaks down because, in our case, what is dirt today could become gold tomorrow.
Just because someone says “I’m not interested” or “I don’t need that” today doesn’t mean they’ll still feel the same tomorrow. Change is one of the only constants in life. A customer who says “no” today may change their mind and say “yes” tomorrow. You just never know.
And for that reason, I don’t like to think of a “no” as a “no”. Instead, I like to think of it as a “not now, maybe later”.
If I have a really great offer and I know I’m the best at what I do, and I know a business could use my help, I believe eventually a “no” will turn into an opportunity. In fact, it’s my duty to offer my services to a business that I know needs my help.
Because if I don’t—who will? And if I’m the best solution to their problem—why should I let them choose anyone but me?
The Unifying Idea
I wrote it once but I’ll write it again: “Don’t be desperate to sell; be hungry to serve.” This is what every business should be doing.
The sales will happen and the money will come in. Be patient, be a humble servant, and be a giver. Always be learning and improving. Don’t be crippled by rejection.
If you have a product or service that you know helps your market, you have a duty—an obligation—to tell your market about it. If you can help someone earn more money, spend less money, live a better life—you owe it to them to tell them about your offer.
So, get out there and serve your customers. Ignore your competitors. And always be prospecting.
And above all, be hungry to serve.