I was talking with a friend the other day who recently started a business pursuing her passion. She was able to move into securing billable work relatively quickly through word-of-mouth and her network of contacts. As she is branching out, she is looking to develop a more formalized statement of services and marketing messages. The thought of it all, she lamented, was bumming her out. She wanted to DO the work but found herself needing to spend more time than expected to set up the business. Unfortunately, this is not at all unusual. Many people start a business to do what they love and then realize there so much involved in starting a business that its becomes hard to find time to do the “fun” stuff you started the business to do. You need more hours in a day to do both. That’s why it is crucial to find something that drives you – a passion – so it can feed your energy rather than drain it. The best book I’ve found for exploring solutions to this dilemma is The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. If you’re starting a business and haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
We were talking about her business – a service many people could use – but I was (in my normal boot-in-the-butt form), asking who her target market was. Had she chosen a niche? What was her marketing strategy? The blank but overwhelmed stare told me what I suspected: she didn’t know. Now this is a really smart lady, but she was visibly frustrated by not having answers to questions that apparently nagged at her as well. What she had discovered is a trap many entrepreneurs fall into: shoot first, ask questions later.
I see it all the time. I have an idea/skill/talent/product. I think it is cool, that people need it. My friends and family see the need or the value, but that’s as far as I’ve gone to validate my idea or my fine tune my approach to the market. And when the capital requirements tend to be low, it is tempting to just quickly hang out a shingle and call it a business without doing any serious primary market research. In my experience, this can be deadly.
So my friend is commenting on how hard it is to get things set up while also delivering, and that she doesn’t have time to do any market research. The best advice I could think to give her: just listen. Talk to everyone you know about what you’re doing and then – and here’s the part many entrepreneurs miss – actually listen to the feedback you receive. Now I’m not suggesting you pay attention to the naysayers who tell you that you’re crazy (we all get that at some point). Ignore that, unless those naysayers are also your target customers. Actually going out and sharing your concept/product/service with potential buyers who have no reason to tell you they love it is the best way to get real feedback. You have to be open to what they say and fight the urge to defend or sell something, at least until you’ve fully explored their objective thoughts about it.
Even better than hearing from potential customers is to talk to existing or past customers. I’ve been surprised a number of times when I asked the question “Why did you buy from us?” and didn’t get the exact answer I was expecting. Where do you think the “Boot in the Butt” came from or how I came up with my title Chief Muse? Both originated from my clients and my students.
So many times, your customers can be the ones to provide you with better marketing copy than you could ever come up with because they talk about what they value. You see yourself through their lens, highlighting what is important to them. Their comments are likely to be about the benefits they receive, not the features you’re offering, which can be and often are different.
The more you hear your customers and adapt your products and services to match their needs, the you will come to actually meeting their needs. And if what you offer already provides that benefit they’re looking for, you might find an opportunity to tweak your message so that it is in their words, not yours, giving you insight future customers can relate to.