The question I get asked the most (after, “Can I just pick your brain?” anyway) isn’t about marketing or PR or economic development. It’s, “How do I get going? How do I know if this idea is a good one?” and its asked by people who want to launch a business. Usually, they’ve thought about it so much, and for so long, that they can’t see clearly anymore. Or at least, they’re afraid they aren’t seeing clearly and therefore can’t tell a solid business from a shaky one.
I’m not primarily a business coach, but I’ve worked with lots of start ups and routinely help businesses owners wrestle with these type of questions. My Twitter bio says,”Passionate about strategy before tactics,” and this process – this digging deep and knowing what drives a business’ profit, people, points of connection; where they are and where they need to be in the market; what their stories are – must be the bedrock of successful integrated marketing and PR strategy. Businesses who’ve been around a while can have a hard time with these questions, much less entrepreneurs. And the fear generated by not knowing the answers, but thinking you ought to know the answers, is what keeps many great business ideas just ideas.
Here’s the truth: Bigger businesses are usually already spending money in some way on marketing and sales. Sometimes lots of money, and often with disappointing results. We walk them through the hard questions before we ask them to spend any other dollars on any other marketing because throwing good money after bad makes no sense. And they have some data we can analyze, some history we can use. Startups don’t. Sometimes they have lots of data about the marketplace, or it can be found. Sometimes each individual member of the team has some history in the field… but there’s often not one day of history of the new business, being a business, doing its thing, to analyze.
And it’s OK. Here are the three questions I tell my start-up clients they need to ask and answer to help figure out whether the idea is solid:
- What Are You Selling?
List three (only three) actual products or services you can sell (not offer… sell means people will buy them). “PR services”is not an acceptable answer. “Helping business with less than 500 employees tell their story through public relations, using both traditional and new media channels” is much better. Be as specific as you can. You may have many more ideas than just three. Choose three… focusing is part of the process. In one recent meeting, a new client was sharing the preliminary plans for a business catering to the busiest of people, Moms. The laundry list of things the target market “might want” was long. All of the items were viable, but packaging and successfully marketing them all was not. By focusing on only three basic ideas to start, the picture of just which Moms would be most interested (and most likely to trade dollars for products) emerged. If you have trouble coming up with three specific products or services you can package and sell, perhaps you need to invest a more time in the thinking-about-a-business phase before you go forward.
- Who Will Buy It?
Not “who is your target market”…. again, the key word here is BUY. List three buyers. Be as specific here as you can, too. Rather than “Busy Moms,” try “Busy Moms with more than one child where the oldest is less than 7 years old and the household income is $40,000 or above.” And perhaps your second buyer is a busy Mom with only one child, but higher income, or a mom who works full time outside the home and has children who are middle school or younger at home. If you have trouble coming up with three specific buyers, revisit your What Are You Selling? list. Perhaps you need to rethink the products if the marketplace is limited.
- How Can I Tell My Story?
Now that you now what you’re selling and who needs it and has the money to buy it… this question is about how do you reach them. Where, exactly, do busy moms with two small children and at least $40,000 in income get their news? Information? Entertainment? Where do they hang out physically and online? What venues, events, channels, ideas are a good fit for your product? Come up with three (yes, three) ways you can reach your buyers. If you have trouble with this, you may need to refine your buyer specifics a bit and then try again. Yes, this is what we do for a living, and we can help. But most about-to-be-business-owners want to be a part of this process because they are passionate about their idea. Thinking about how to connect buyers and products is something they enjoy.
Working through these questions doesn’t mean you’ve got a business plan (but you’ve got a good many basics answered) or that you’ll have a successful business (we haven’t touched on the money needed to stake and launch, or market, or treating your business as a business, etc.) but it does mean you probably have a solid business idea. So what are you waiting for? Get on out there and do your thing!