This month I’ve been reflecting on the many benefits of working with early-stage entrepreneurs. Most of my working life is spent on assignments with well-established businesses: three days with client A; a day with client B, and so on. Fortunately, this leaves me time to spend a few hours every week coaching entrepreneurs, each trying to turn an idea into a business. This is time well spent and I’m certainly learning as much from them as they are from me. The surprising thing to me is how many of these learnings apply equally to well-established organizations.
The first learning: Anyone can be an entrepreneur. I have worked with 13 different entrepreneurs over the last twelve months and they come from all walks of life: recently graduated students, healthcare workers, retirees, home-makers, corporate types and many others. Sometimes it’s an individual who already has a successful business in another field, looking to expand or diversify. Common features between all of them are enthusiasm, commitment and a hunger to make their idea work. It’s motivating and humbling at the same time to interact with, and try to help, such great people.
The second learning: Know the customer! We teach entrepreneurs to complete “customer discovery” – a process of talking to potential customers to find out if they really need the product or service the business is hoping to provide. The emphasis is on making sure the product or service solves a problem the entrepreneur can be sure exists. A few years ago, I was working with an international business with significant annual revenues and hundreds of team members, but it was building new products without really knowing whether there were customers for its new products. It wasn’t surprising most of the products were soon abandoned and the investments written off. So many entrepreneurs have an idea and start building a product or service to address a problem they perceive exists without actually confirming the problem is real and that customers are prepared to pay to solve the problem.
The third learning: Understand the economics. Who pays who, how much and how frequently? How does the service provider cover costs (and extract value, if appropriate) from the transaction? This is a fascinating one because most entrepreneurs start with a workable idea – a valid solution to a clear problem or need – but it takes them awhile to get around to thinking about the economics of the situation: how much will it cost to provide the solution and are there enough customers willing to pay? Frequently, it can be difficult to even identify who the customer is – a healthcare service in BC, for example, might be provided for the benefit of the community but it would normally be Interior Health that actually has to pay.
The fourth learning: Get (the right) tasks done. It’s easy to be busy. It’s more difficult to prioritize and perform the tasks which really move your business forward. Entrepreneurs typically tend to gravitate to the tasks that fall within their comfort zone – a software engineer might start building a website before they have really validated that there’s a need for the service they have started to build.
The fifth learning is the real point of this article: Surround yourself with the support you need. Nobody knows everything. Nobody can do everything that is needed to be successful in business. Luckily, there are so many ways to access specialist support. Perhaps to access skills you don’t have; to complete tasks that you don’t have time to address; or to give you a sounding board to develop a solution for a tough problem. Whatever it is, there’s lots of support available if you look for it. The entrepreneurs I’ve been working with all registered with a local technology accelerator organization here in British Columbia. For more established businesses needing help, just ask us, we have a diverse team of specialized consultants that can help.