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Original Essays | September 9, 2013 5 comments
Editor's note: Chris Bolton is not only a former Powell's employee, he was also once the primary writer for this blog. So we are particularly proud... Continue »
Why Now Is the Best Time to Start Your Own Businessby Dave Pollard
Surely this isn't the time to be thinking of changing jobs?
Well, I've been helping and studying entrepreneurs for 30 years, and I would argue that this is precisely when you should be starting to create your own sustainable small business.
The key word here is sustainable. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, we've struggled through dozens of boom and bust cycles, and the bust cycles have hit front-line and low-income workers the hardest. Our industrial-growth economy treats people as just another expendable resource, to be "cost-cut" out of a livelihood if revenues don't meet targets; or if other costs rise; or if it's expedient to outsource their jobs or offshore them to another country. This way, the employer need no longer worry about their responsibility to them, or the steep cost of employee benefits.
If you want to protect yourself from indifferent employers, there is only one sure-fire way to do it: stop being an employee.
To many, the idea of starting one's own enterprise is frightening, even unthinkable. In my book, Finding the Sweet Spot, I summarize the fears of entrepreneurship and explain how to move past them: not having the skills, self-confidence, ideas, money, or time; not being able to handle the stress, the failure, or the loneliness; not knowing the "process"; and the fear that "the deck's stacked against entrepreneurs." But each of these fears is either a myth, or has a reasonably simple way of being worked around.
Once you get past these fears, you need a process: a proven method to create an enterprise that will succeed in good times and bad.
After working with over 150 entrepreneurs, I started to notice that a few of them maybe one in 10 or 15 had found a more natural, sustainable way to make a living. These entrepreneurs thrived in good times and bad. They loved their work. They were respected by and responsible to their people, their customers, and the communities in which they operated. They didn't work especially long hours. They had few debts and fewer stresses. They were the opposite of the archetypal small businessperson.
When I looked at what differentiated these sustainable, responsible, joyful enterprises, I found that there were clearly six things they did differently.
They discovered what they were meant to do. The work they do is in the Sweet Spot where their Gifts (the things they do uniquely well), their Passions (the things they love doing), and their Purpose (the things people in the world really need, that these entrepreneurs care about) intersect. This Sweet Spot is area three in the three-circle chart above. When I studied all the unhappy and unsuccessful entrepreneurs I knew, I found they were doing work outside this Sweet Spot, most often in area two (unappreciated work) or area five (work they did well but hated). So the whole first chapter of the book is about how to find that Sweet Spot for you, with lots of examples and exercises. It's really all about knowing yourself. Finding the Sweet Spot is a voyage of self-discovery.
They found the right partners. The biggest mistake most entrepreneurs make is trying to do everything alone. It's a recipe for failure and exhaustion. Natural Entrepreneurs seek out partners who share their Purpose, and whose Gifts and Passions complement their own. That way, everyone gets to do what they're good at and love doing. Chapter two of the book suggests how and where to find just the right partners.
They did their research to discover a real unmet need. Where most businesses start with a product, and then try to chase money and customers for it, Natural Entrepreneurs start with a need that no one else is meeting. They do that not by copying anything else out there, or by looking for ideas online, but by talking to lots and lots of potential customers (this is called Primary Research) and discovering something that people really need that no one is providing. So, chapter three of the book explains a simple but rigorous research process, one that draws on the processes used by the world's best research organizations.
They innovated a product or service that met a need in a unique way. The innovation process, which I explain in chapter four, enables you to iteratively imagine and then realize products and services that are significantly different from anything already in the market, so that you are not competing with anyone else you are creating a new market for something that you have already established meets a need not met by anyone else.
They made their organizations resilient to marketplace changes. Because they were so connected to their customers and so responsive to their communities, they knew what was happening before anyone else, and they perfected improvisational skills and processes that allowed them to adapt quickly to change, instead of locking into plans that inhibited their flexibility. Chapter five of the book provides examples of how to make your organization more resilient and improvisational.
They built strong, collaborative relationships and networks, and operated their enterprises on principle. They understood that powerful social relationships are the underpinning to all human enterprise, and that collaboration succeeds better than competition. And by sticking to principles of responsibility and sustainability, they ensured that these relationships were deep, trusting, and reciprocal. Chapter six explains how to build strong business relationships and networks, and provides examples of principles that engender trust, and guide responsible, responsive decision-making.
A young couple I know are an excellent, simple example of how this natural approach to enterprise can work. Paul was a scientist in a government department facing downsizing. Grace was a struggling journalist. They quit their jobs and spent their small savings traveling to Tibet and China to explore what they were meant to do.
When they returned, they had no doubt: their Purpose was to help people eat healthier.
Paul's Gifts include an exceptional capacity to engage and quietly persuade people. Talk with him for five minutes and he'll have you convinced of anything. His Passion is networking he loves to bring people together to solve problems. Grace's Gifts include the journalist's skill at perseverant digging she knows the truth is out there, and she won't quit until she finds it. Her Passions include organizing logistics is in her blood.
They partnered with some local farmers and then spent several months, every day, looking for an unmet need that would help them realize their Purpose, and an innovative way to meet that need that no one else had considered. They talked with a lot of producers and consumers of local, healthy foods. They considered setting up mobile farmers' markets in semi-trailers that would move from community to community. They thought about an online ordering system that would let local and organic farmers post their daily harvests, and let customers create a virtual shopping basket from these items that Paul and Grace would then pick up and deliver.
Each idea failed the innovation test, so they persevered. Finally they hit on it: In the city where they lived, there were dozens of restaurants that were trying to find quality produce that was locally grown and, ideally, organic. These restaurants would pay a premium for high-quality produce, with guaranteed delivery, provided someone else would do the work of identifying the right suppliers among the dozens of independent farmers in this market. The restaurants couldn't find this kind of product in the supermarkets or from the large-scale wholesalers they dealt with.
Their Sweet Spot business,100km Foods, was born. Paul and Grace's enterprise connects about 15 local farmers with some two dozen high-end restaurants. They put together the harvest lists, show them to the restaurants, make up the orders, pick up the produce, and deliver it. The business is booming, and since the recession began, it is doing even better people are more choosy about where they go when they eat out, and there is great appeal to eating well (and staying healthy) and giving business to local farmers. 100km Foods can't keep up with the demand, and may have to add more partners.
The important thing here is that this business began when the market was slumping, and it still succeeded, and is thriving. It's not high-tech. It required almost no capital to start (and both customers and suppliers were willing to invest if necessary they knew the idea was a winner). The customers do all the marketing Paul and Grace do no formal advertising, and don't have to. All they did was find a need and fill it with an innovative and unique offering.
You can do at least the first four of the six steps to finding your Sweet Spot and building a Natural Enterprise in your spare time. The book, Finding the Sweet Spot, gives you exercises and tips to get you started. My intent is that when you discover, like Paul and Grace, that you have a winning idea and the means to realize it, you can say goodbye to your precarious, wage-slave job and set yourself free.
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Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur's Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, published by Chelsea Green.