Starting a new business: From sticky mud to soaring kite

Starting a business is a fascinating, challenging and exciting process.   There are so many unknowns, so much at stake, and yet also so much potential.  Grand dreams and ideas on the one hand, comfort zone-breaking wobbles on the other: do we have what it takes to launch, market and deliver something tangible and valuable? 

blog post 36 images

Mud by Birdisart.com; Kite by Clappingsimon at en.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons

At times it feels like wading through gloopy, sticky mud (will we ever get this thing launched, and even then, will it succeed?) and other times exhilarating – like feeling a kite pull up and soar into the sky or a boat heel up to the wind, lift and rush forwards and onwards.

Nearly every weekday at the moment we chat with someone new who could help deliver the service or otherwise help us get off the ground.  The positive energy of these meetings is uplifting.  There is so much support and encouragement within the small business community for others making the leap.  Just as useful and important are the words of caution and realism, mainly resulting from our contacts’ own experiences.  And then there are the many ideas, suggested resources or pointers to similar services and business models of which we need to be aware if we are to position ourselves as best we can in our market.

It is difficult to balance staying focused on our core proposition with ensuring we keep our ears open to any serious alarm bells or game-changing perspectives that should change our approach.   It feels like we are constantly going back to our core ideas to double check we still believe they are the way we need to go.  That’s the bit that can feel like sticky, gloopy mud.

As a result of that process, the core proposition has flexed.  We’ve shifted our business model and brought forward services to test at launch rather than later.  What’s interesting, and hopeful, is that the fundamentals haven’t changed – who we are targeting, the need we fulfil, the way we want to grow.  That helps me feel confident we have something worth trying, however tough or crowded the market might be. 

Take our brand name.  I won’t reveal it now, as we aren’t at the right point to do that, but it’s been a bit Marmite with those we’ve tested it on – you either love it or hate it.  We wanted something that stands out, that reflects the brand identity we want to have and is relevant to the target market.  But getting mixed feedback forced us to decide if its ‘Marmite-ness’ was a risk we were willing to take.  We said it was. 

Then last week a wonderfully positive introductory meeting opened my eyes to another section of our target market to whom our name may not resonate at all. My heart sank – firstly had I lost all the credibility I’d built up through the conversation by demonstrating we hadn’t thought through this part of our market and brand, and secondly, did this mean we needed to start again?

Back to the core once more. Back to feeling relieved to have a fabulous business partner with whom to share the highs and lows – the difficult decisions, the workload, the potential and the fun of the process. 

As for our brand, we are sticking with it.  Most of our strategic conversations end in the same place: if we don’t try, we will never know.   It is our own, tiny-scale version of one of Richard Branson’s nuggets of wisdom in his book of advice for entrepreneurs, ‘Business Stripped Bare’:

“Failure is not giving things a go in the first place. People who fail are those who don’t have a go and don’t make an effort.”

I haven’t written this blog for quite some time, mostly because the effort of finishing our house extension has taken my time, and setting up the business my energy.  I lost the habit of writing, but not the desire.  Today is my first attempt to get back on the horse. Hopefully I’ll be on for a good long gallop through the rest of 2013.

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PS. For anyone else interested in learning from the secrets of Mr Branson’s success, here are some other nuggets he imparts in his book ‘Business Stripped Bare, illustrated through his stories from his own and Virgin Group’s journey.  It’s a good read, and inspiring stuff for any budding entrepreneur, even if Virgin’s story feels somewhat in another league! 

  • Always protect against the downside
  • [As a business], remember who you are and what you’re there for
  • Trust your instincts.  Have the courage of your convictions.  The world is full of people who want to put you right, who want to play the realist to your wide-eyed innocent.  Gather people you trust and get them to play devil’s advocate.
  • Protect your reputation but don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
  • Remember to communicate.
  • Attention to detail defines great business delivery.  Delivery is never rocket science.  However complex a business is, you should be able to boil it down to a proposition ordinary people can understand.
  • Brand is key. A brand always means something, and ultimately you can only control the meaning of your brand through what you deliver to the customer.  Whatever your brand stands for, you have to deliver on the promise. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver and deliver everything you promise. 
  • Keep a cool head. You’re in business to deliver change, and if you succeed, the chances that no one will get hurt are virtually zero.  Be sportsmanlike, play to win and stay friends wherever possible. Befriend your enemies.
  • Innovate your way out of trouble.  When your very existence is threatened, you have to change.  The best way out of a crisis in a changing market is through experiment and adaptation.
  • People who fail are those who don’t have a go and don’t make an effort.  If you’re hurt, lick your wounds and get back up.  If you’ve given it your absolute best, it’s time to move forward.
  • Innovation is what you get when you capitalise on luck, when you get up from behind your desk and go and see where ideas and people lead you.
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Is it the right time to jump into something new?

When I was commuting and working, work was pretty much life.  Plus as much family stuff as possible and the bare minimum to get by for everything else.  I yearned for more sleep, more exercise, more time with friends, less careering from one must do to the next, and more time to do something with all the ideas and interests that reared back up in my consciousness during holidays or the occasional ‘getting away from it’ weekend.

Last year I stepped off the corporate wheel.  Not for the reasons above, but to make sure one of us at least was able to be present in our children’s daily lives, and to keep our family (or me) from going over the edge.

But one year on, I can’t help noticing how life fills the space you give it quite stupendously well.  I find myself wondering where I will find the time to do all the things I’ve taken on – a triathlon, parent governorship, writing picture book stories, potential business opportunities, let alone the current building work at home.

And all that is to be done in the still small pockets of time when I don’t have the children – if my commitments impose on time with the kids, then what was the point of stopping working?

I’ve talked before on this blog about knowing I would return to work – stopping was for 1 – 2 years until Littlest H started big school. But I wanted, and still want, to find a way of working that fits with family life better than commuting up to London, but also doesn’t require me to do something I don’t really want to do or don’t find fulfilling.  But the reality is that working around family feels even harder than working a regular job.  

I’m looking at a new business venture.  It is a risk – we need to test it for a few months before knowing if it could go somewhere.  It will require a modest financial investment to test it, but modest matters right now.  It will also require a huge time commitment.  And I’m wondering how on earth I can manage that without giving up everything else I’m enjoying finally having some time for.

The thing is, I know I need to work – both financially and for myself. I know I have always wanted to do something more interesting than a straight corporate job.  And I know setting up anything takes risk, money and time, at the very least.  But I don’t want to end up in the same position I was when in the corporate world.  Ambition is all very well, but blind ambition obliterates all else.

What to do.  As usual, I want it all ways.

The fact is, one can’t have everything.  And anything worth doing takes effort. (Answers on a postcard: any other pithy sayings I could add?).  As always in life, it’s about priorities, positive realism and will (one of my own).

I’m sure my doubts are de rigueur for budding business-owners.  It’s a massive move to make.  But if I believe the business is viable and could be a route to fulfilling work that fits with family life and pays what I need to earn, I know I have to take the jump and suck up the whirlwind ride.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” says Neale Donald Walsch.  So is it time to live?  Hell, yeah (real answer: umm, I think so, but I’m not quite sure).  I just need to decide which comfort zones I’m going to stay in so I don’t do my usual trick of leaving too many of them all at the same time.  Or indeed missing some third way that magically keeps all the balls up in the air.  Oh, oh wait. I know, that’s called winning the lottery.  Damn.

Ambition: does being a parent help or hinder?

If ambition is striving to better one’s situation (or self), and happiness is satisfaction with where your life is now, where does parenting sit on the spectrum?  A blog post about the trade-off between ambition and happiness got me thinking about this question.

Quite frankly, parenting often feels like it ticks neither box – as a friend put it, it’s more a case of survival.  And never more than after a full-on week of half-term, even if the kids were mostly lovely.  But if I had to choose, I’d say it makes me happy more than it fulfils my ambition.

For me, ambition has always been about whether I am reaching my full potential (a bit of a stretch goal, let’s be honest).  Being a ‘good’ parent, although incredibly important to me, doesn’t feel like it sits in the same box.  I think that’s because striving for good parenting is a given, not a choice – the choice was made when we leapt into parenthood in the first place.

More often being a parent has felt like a brake on ambition.  I know few mothers who haven’t had to readjust their ambitions as they realise parenting is too important to squeeze too hard, and squeezing everything else can be almost as tough. I’m sure many fathers feel the same way, but, for whatever reasons, it seems more often the women who choose to / have to take the career hit.  I certainly felt that way before I stepped off the hamster wheel to find a better way.

And that goal, to find a better way, is where ambition and parenting get interesting.  The handcuff of something you simply cannot ‘not do’ forces an increasing number of women to get creative, look at different avenues, really think about what they could and want to do.  It becomes a driver of ambition, not a brake – almost liberating if it wasn’t so bloomin’ stressful.

How many women do you know who have agonised over how they can continue their career after kids, only to explore completely different and ultimately fulfilling directions to find that elusive fit of fulfilling work and family life?  I know quite a few.  And I find their journeys really uplifting.

Yes, nearly all of those I know have been through a tough transition period, many returning to their pre-children career through one or two kids, others SAHM, but all ultimately coming up with an idea they believe in. They cope with the huge stress and knocks that come with taking a risk and trying something new.  But their successes give me hope.

When I read that blog post, I felt a penny dropped.  All my life I’ve been trying to balance striving to reach my potential and satisfaction with the here and now.  I don’t have the answer, but I know I have it in me to do something different.   Parenting was a brake, but now it is a driver of my ambition – to find a fulfilling job that fits as well as possible with family and (the biggest challenge) pays what we need it to pay.

I am inspired by the amazing women I am watching take risks and push themselves to do brilliant things.  My fave five are linked below.  Help me and my other readers feel inspired: tell me, who are your fave five?