Consulting

I had my second visit with business consultant Karrie Kohlhaas yesterday, and continued hammering out the most effective way to spend my time. Karrie is one of the first bona fide business-minded people I have had the opportunity to sit down with over a meaningful length of time, and as such, it has been a very intruiging process to watch her work.

As far as I can tell, a good business consultant is part entrepreneur, part investor, part psychologist, part buddy, and part client. It can be hard to toe so many areas. Take yesterday’s meeting. Karrie sees the research I have done on trying to determine the different target groups for the site. She sees that one of the groups is collectors, and that I have written that I believe that collectors are motivated by having a community of like-minded collectors. At this, she squints her eyes slightly, and in a split second I witness her thought process dart through a sequence something like “Real sellers don’t care about community” to “Though I suppose what that really means is its hard to say what these groups want,” at which point she’ll say something like “Hmm, that’s interesting. Community.” Because one of your roles is client, and the customer is going to get the benefit of the doubt when there is potential doubt.

This is surely the most difficult set of balls to juggle as a consultant, because on one hand you need to use your expertise to tell your client that you disagree, but on the other hand you need to instill confidence that leads your client to believe in themselves and become more productive. And though this is not altogether dissimilar from an employee telling their boss that the blink tags proliferating the new company web site sort of clash with the progress mankind has made in the last 10 years, it is different, because A) your boss isn’t paying you to tell him he’s wrong B) you’ve known your boss longer than 10 minutes C) you aren’t charging your boss $125 an hour and thus D) time is less of the essence. It’s extremely complex, and yet paradoxically, the complexities add up to the result that conversation has to move faster.

Analysis of the peculiarities aside, finding a good consultant can definitely be an extremely productive experience, especially if, like me, you’re new. Karrie’s part entrepreneur has helped me come up with catchy ways to think about and describe my business. The part investor has helped me be extremely needs-met-centric in my consideration of the site’s success. The part psychologist has made more observations on my nature in three hours time than many of my friends have tried in three years time. Part buddy chatted with me about how the body will steal back sleep cycles during the day if you don’t let it sleep proper. And part client wraps up all of the above in as rosy a container as can be expediently created.

I’m sure your mileage may vary by consultant. I picked Karrie by her prickly (in a good way), unorthodox profile on Biznik, which, in a nutshell, reminded me of me. Now that I’ve visited a couple times, I’ve been most impressed by her focus and follow up. This is a topic that I may revisit in a future blog once I have more data for comparison points. It can certainly go a long way toward helping one escape their own mind.

Be Better

In the last blog, I discussed the first half of the pivotal question for the great idea: How is your thing different and better? This time I’ll discuss the second half of that question.

To be sure, there are a lot of ways to be different than the competition. An eBay-like site that exclusively sold variously-aged Cheetos would pass the “different” test. Etsy would also pass the “different” test. So the question is, how can one tell if their idea is more like selling variously-aged Cheetos or artist-created handiworks?

The answer: ask around. This is a more difficult task than it sounds like for many entrepreneurs, because many of us introspective, visionary-types are used to listening to ourselves when an important question needs to be answered. It doesn’t help that other common qualities in entrepreneurs include the need for control and willingness to buck the norm. Simply put, most entrepreneurs at some point get used to living in a world of doubters and the short-sighted. So when it comes down to the most pivotal question of an idea’s existence, why would we turn to the same choir that has so regularly tried to stomp our initiatives… until around the point that said initiatives become unfathomably successful?

The first reason is that while people may not be able to imagine something better, they can often spot something they don’t like. Even if they can not absolutely determine why they don’t like an existing offering, asking people questions about their past experiences is instrumental in determining the relative degree to which certain opportunities exist in an established competitive landscape.

The second reason is that, if you’re asking your target audience, you are talking to the people that will ultimately determine your idea’s success. While human nature is naturally skeptical of all things “new” and purportedly “better,” ultimately it is the entrepreneur’s mission to dispel that skepticisim by creating a tangible product that resoundingly fills a need its competitors don’t. Without asking your target market about their needs and desires, what will guide you toward creating that tangible product that manifests your idea?

The third reason is that maybe you’re wrong. Yeah, you. Maybe your idea is variously-aged Cheetos. And if you spend thousands of dollars creating the perfect site for selling these, you will succeed only in becoming thousands of dollars poorer. Gaining feedback about your idea from the people that will ultimately use it is the ideal means by which to determine to what extent your idea needs to be adapted before it hits the bullseye.

Entrepreneurs are ultimately big dreamers and big dreamers are often very protective of their dreams. As such, I have found it difficult as a relative youngster in this game to take the first steps toward exposing my idea to the potential of Valid, Important criticism.

But that’s what this game is founded upon: having an idea, being wrong, and productively responding to that reality.

If all continues according to schedule, I should be able to report in the next week or two how being wrong feels.

Differentiation

It’s the three-inch titanium wall between you and the loot. It’s the ghost you feel on your ceiling in the middle of the night. It’s the $64,000 question challenging your otherwise-grand business idea: How is your thing different and better?

This question has been dancing through my head for weeks. It’s one thing to have an idea that could make people’s lives better. I have those every day, and you probably do too. In fact, talk of “how to do things better” has graced watercooler after watercooler since some business wunderkind had the idea that our lives would be improved if we didn’t drink from the tap. However, barfing out some idea of how things could hypothetically be better is not unique. If only the ideas heard by the watercooler were judged in a void where “degree of improvement” was the sole arbiter of success, then the world might properly appreciate the value of a good idea.

But they aren’t and it doesn’t. My idea kicks eBay where it counts, while providing a service that person after person has agreed they could utilize. But the $64,000 question remains, because the 800 lbs gorilla is often only of peripheral concern to the new business. Big businesses tend to lumber along with scattered focus, and as a result, are easy to be negatively contrasted with a nimble startup if one focuses on the idealistic: “Could I do a certain thing better?”

The crucial gauge of the great idea, then, is no more how it compares to the gorilla than how it compares to everything else. Once I find a site that seems to be trying to do something similar, I ask: How do I compare to what these people are doing? How will I compare to them once they see my idea and start trying to copy it? And of course, how well is this business doing? Quite frankly, this final question is an annoying one to ask, because if they are doing well it means more competition, and if they’re doing poorly it means the need we’re trying to meet might not be as great as anticipated.

From what I can gather, it would seem that there are a lot of “entrepreneurs” who don’t have the tenacity or wherewithal to ask this question, and their site ends up missing the key point of differentiation. For example, Powersellers Unite provides a list of the 20 most successful eBay copycats, er, Internet auction marketplaces. You visit these sites, and you see very little to distinguish them from eBay, save that they €™re willing to make less money with lower or no fees.

It takes tremendous courage, tenacity, and perseverence to honestly evaluate a competing idea and confront the question of why that idea won €™t work and yours will. But it alone is what charges a €œgreat idea € with the power to become €œa great, successful idea. € Over the course of refining my great idea, I’ve focused on learning to be honest about the similarities, and persevere through them with an even greater understanding of where are the cracks in the fortress of competition. There is no second option for businesses that want a realistic chance to succeed.

Inertia

I had an interesting talk with an intelligent young man this evening, and it got me to thinking about an entrepreneurial question that runs right past mere entrepreneurship, and straight into the human condition. That question is: “Why aren’t people more productive?” Or, as my brain construes it: “Why do so many people watch TV five nights a week?”

The cynics will tell you it’s because we’re lazy and brainwashed. The idealists will say it is to relax and to understand the world we live in. The intelligent young man (who also had a name, “Ben”) said it’s because people will take the path of least resistance to personal satisfaction. I say “dunno.” I think Ben might be thinking along the right track, because the act of turning on television/turning off brain is easy easy enough to initiate, and it’s interesting for the first few minutes. But after those five glorious minutes of watching the contestant pick random briefcases in search of $1,000,000, the question re-surfaces: “Why aren’t people more productive?”

My best guess is that the watcher has failed to discover what it is that they’re really interested in. Because once you know what you love doing, you have an option that both passes time and prevents brain decay.

It’s not hard to see how this relates back to entrepreneurship. I consider myself a ridiculously lucky human to have been given a consciousness that innately craves challenges and is action-oriented. I enjoy thinking up and organizing ideas the same way that others enjoy stamp collecting, gossiping, or theatre. But despite the feelings of well-being that I bask in every time I tackle a new entrepreneurial challenge, it still takes some time to climb up the stairs before I get to sled down that hill. TV is the other way around. When you first turn it on, there is ramp-up pleasure to be derived, but after the brief fun, your brain turns off and an hour later you suddenly wake up feeling dirty.

I know that entrepreneurs aren’t always so hot with math, so I’ll work this one out for you. One hour of spare time + TV = 5 minutes fun, 55 minutes flub. One hour of spare time + hobby = 5 minutes pain, 55 minutes passion. I will not work out how those numbers extrapolate to an entire evening, because if you’re the TV watcher it would probably hurt your feelings. Suffice to say,

Harding: 1. America’s Favorite Past Time: 0. Booyah.

Welcome to 800 Steps to Entrepreneurial Success

Business consultant Karrie Kohlhaas pointed out to me today that the really successful entrepreneurs understand that all that work done to build a business for success isn’t really building a business at all. It’s building you.

In that spirit, I now embark upon my entrepreneurial self/business building. My site proper details my steps to this point, but all I have left from the sum of those experiences is a bunch fragmented memories. With this blog, that changes. The idea here is to chronicle the process of how big stuff happens, bit by bit by itsy bitsy bit.

What I expect will result from this exploration is a series of observations on the challenges and thrills of hatching a plan. Ideally, these observations will form a pattern from which meta-patterns will eventually manifest themselves. Through the back and forth of coalescing and isolating the meaningful lessons I come across during this journey, I reckon I’ll end up with either 800 steps to entrepreneurial success, or freezer-burn.