Monday, September 12, 2016

Review: How to Start a Business That Doesn't Suck

Clarke Hits the Mark, Business-wise
This highly informative and entertaining book reached me just when I was wondering whether my own little business was going to survive, going into its fifth year. Clarke cites the Small Business Association as indicating only 20% of start-ups make it five years. If I’d read this book sooner, my chances would be brighter.

Clarke starts tongue in cheek (one hopes) with a prologue, “Why You Should Definitely NOT (Under Any Circumstances) Start a Business.” You’ll work harder than ever, have less family time and more expenses, create products or offer services few people want, waste money, hire dolts, and probably fail. “I won’t sugar-coat things for ya. Starting a business is as difficult as sitting through a Justin Bieber concert with your niece.”

Still want to start one? OK, on to the rest of the book! After all, Clarke went from being broke to owning five profitable businesses and having the freedom “to work where and when I want….”

Chapter 1 explores whether you really should start a business. Clarke quotes Churchill (yes, Winston Churchill, that notable Brit), “Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Hard to know when courageous persistence devolves into stupid stubbornness, though. Clarke advises that we “emphasize learning over results” at our beginning, as the results will often be ugly, or at least money-losing. “You’re going to fail when starting a business. A lot.” You see, it’s not about how hard you work, it’s how much value you create for others, a trickier deal. Since you will likely fail, try to do so quickly to learn rapidly what doesn’t work. Try to produce the Minimum Viable Product (or service) and learn from your customers’ comments. To succeed despite your setbacks, you will do better if you find a good reason besides money for having this business.

Chapter 2 deals with coming up with a good idea for a business. Clarke closes with some action steps: list three things you know a lot about, three you are passionate about, three audiences you’d like to serve, three “glitches” you notice that deserve fixing. Some overlap among these could be the sweet spot.

Chapter 3 directs you to stress-test your proposed business idea. Who is your ideal customer? Does your customer have an “urgent, painful or obsessive motivation to reach a result or find a solution…”? You should be selling results, not products or services. Is your fix unique? Is it hard for others to offer what you do? Do you really care about your customer?

Chapter 4 advises you to spy on your competition, to know what the others are offering and how. “Read everything you can in your industry.” List your competitors. Pretend to be a customer of theirs. Spend 10 minutes brainstorming about what you can adapt from what they are doing.  

Chapter 5 tells how to create products or services others will buy, except Clarke warns, “here’s the harsh truth: nobody cares about your products or services.” They only care about what’s in it for them. This means you have to get to know your customers really well. Even talk to them! Many of them! Imagine the ideal product or service for them, then create a so-so prototype. Improve it to “good enough.” Make it pretty. Sell and improve.

Chapter 6 shows how to create a business plan, if you must, and you will need it if you are to get others to invest. It even helps keep you on track. Start with your 30-second”elevator pitch” that tells who the customer is, what problem you solve, what they will achieve, and how you will help them achieve it. Only then mention your business’s name. Read Clarke’s chapter to get more details. Check everything with a lawyer and an accountant.

Chapter 7 tells about branding yourself…no, not with a branding iron. This includes business name, logo, slogan, and mission statement. Emphasize, surprisingly, what your business is NOT, to help find your niche. Get good advice from others on cool name, logo, and slogan, such as “don’t leave home without it.”

Chapter 8 tells how to get funded but advises not to, if you can possibly avoid it. Calculate your needs. Foresee your problems. Create a prototype, at least. Tell a compelling story. Ask for money…if you must.

Chapter 9 is devoted to taking care of “all that legal crap.” Again, get a lawyer and an accountant to help. “Protect your business name.” Don’t let others copy it. Decide what legal structure you’ll have (mine is an LLC, for example). “Get all relevant state licenses and insurance set up beforehand.” If you have partners or investors, get all the ground rules clearly stated and agreed to.

Chapter 10 is “How to Avoid All the Stupid Business-Launch Mistakes I made.” That’s “business-launch mistakes,” not “business-lunch mistakes.” Clarke starts with a fine quote from Drew Houston, founder of Dropbox, “Don’t worry about failure, you only have to be right once.” Really quite inspiring! I mean it. Here’s Clarke’s advice I have been reluctant to take: “Set up your email opt-in system.” He means services such as Aweber or Constant Comment or MailChimp, which keep track of your contacts and help produce automated responses for those who accept your premium to be put on your mailing list. Set up a “spiffy” and “professional” website. Plan to handle customer service issues right from the start. Track business revenues and expenses carefully and separately from personal finances. When you hire, hire those who are NOT like you, but rather, like Adrian and Rocky (my analogy), are people who “fill gaps.” Finally, have clear goals, measurable, with deadlines, and rewards for achieving them.

In his epilogue, Clarke encourages us to take the big step and start the business we dream of, offers to help with his Drive Thru MBA program, and gives us his email address,

I plan to see his site, maybe get some help. He has written a hell of a fine book.



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