Write that marketing plan! Move from fear to facts in your new venture
A great idea and a website are just the beginning of your journey
It’s a powerful motivator. But not the most productive one.
I am a proponent of the career diving board. Finding what you love to do and then turning on the hose to fill the pool as you jump off the diving board. I am on my fourth (fifth?) career transformation. So far I have not gone “splat”, but we all know that past performance, while an indicator, is no guarantee of future success.
This year has been a whirlwind. Oldest kid getting ready for college. Departing my dream job as founding executive director of a global non-profit that is changing the way we find things on the Internet. Starting my new dream venture as founding CEO of a virtual work consulting firm. Moving from metropolis to rural woodland.
I am finding solace and inspiration in morning walks with the dog and my regular mosquito fan-cloud. This week in particular has been rough. It has been a month since I launched my business. As a CEO I used to have an inbox zero policy, but now the emptiness is because nothing is coming in. I have a set amount of time and capital to get the company going and I am starting to fear the approaching waterline.
Building a learning network
Here I am in the middle of a gorgeous forest. Swans, eagles, herons, loons, cranes are regulars, along with a marginal cell tower, no fiber optic, and the closest Internet cafe is… COVID closed. What was I thinking? How the heck can I work here?
Having spent the last 8 years building a born-virtual organization, I am approaching this as a solvable challenge.
Step 1: Internet access. Funny/sad story. The local towns banded together, got a grant and matching state funds to build a cell tower to provide 5G wifi service. It’s now operational, and it turns out it is not tall enough to provide service through, um, the trees. Cutting down trees is not an option and the weather interrupts satellite signals, so my options are a slower-speed hotspot or investing in my own mini-tower.
Being cost-conservative, I chose the hotspot. It has up/down speeds 500x slower than metropolis-land. Interestingly, it mostly works. Nielsen Norman reports that despite faster network speeds and computer processors, website load speed has not markedly improved. In addition, Google has done a lot of design work to ensure their services work in slow-network areas — and in the process improved functionality for everyone.
For sure, life during COVID has blown open for all to see the massive Internet bandwidth service gaps between US cities and rural areas. Downloading large files, video calls, and working online after school/work lets out remain problematic. In general, about 1 in 4 adults living in rural towns say that access to the Internet is a major problem; this is even a larger issue on tribal lands. More thinking, community engagement, and creative public policy is needed to design bandwidth solutions that respect and support our wildernesses and rural and tribal communities.
With my 2-bar LTE, I moved on to Step 2: Build a community. However large your network is, it needs to be tuned up for each new venture. You need to transform existing connections and make new ones. You need to explore new perspectives and make sure you understand your users and customers.
As a person who would much rather read the latest Neil Stephenson or Octavia Butler than walk into a room of people I don’t know, my approach to networking is learning-based: I build new communities by volunteering. A firm believer in “think globally and act locally”, I’ve been contributing to lake survey work as well as the local SCORE chapter, meeting people and making friends, growing my roots and understanding of the community I live in. With SCORE, I am helping to build local small-business capacity, while gaining national exposure as a business mentor.
Outside of volunteering, I accepted an invitation to LunchClub, which has further connected my local and global communities. Transformed during COVID from an in-person to online networking service, LunchClub is a great opportunity to learn from VCs how they fund start-ups and hear live from entrepreneurs how they have failed, learned, adjusted, and motored on. How I Built This podcasts are similarly inspiring. LunchClub also does one-on-one pairings where you can meet with other entrepreneurs directly, and it hosts an online platform where you can comment on seminars and ask for guidance.
Creating a strategy and asking for help
US Bureau of Labor Statistics tracking of small businesses over the last 20 years shows a fairly constant 2-year failure rate of 20% for new firms. Those seem like pretty good odds until you are staring at an empty inbox for a month. One of the big challenges for any entrepreneur is designing measurement frameworks to assess how we are transforming the fire in our belly into a successful proposition. These metrics become touchpoints that help to identify failure and embrace it as a key learning opportunity.
When counseling new business startups, SCORE mentors guide entrepreneurs through a one-page business plan. We ask, “what does success look like for you?” Revenue is just one possible success metric. You are starting a business because you want to change something, whether that is better pants, food delivery services for homeless people, high-speed internet access in the countryside (hint hint), or [fill in the blank]. Once we have established the raison d’etre, we go on to figure out how to measure progress toward that goal. Without this foundation, business founders can… well, flounder.
A marketing plan is an exceptionally useful framework for developing your success metrics. Have you tested your concept? Can you describe it concisely? Who are your competitors? Who are your stakeholders? Target market? How are you engaging with them? Whether you are a marketing genius or are clueless about marketing, SCORE has a great marketing template, part of its start-up roadmap course, which I highly recommend. I also encourage you to read Lean Analytics to help define stage-appropriate metrics for your business.
What matters now
This is where I found myself last week. I’d done initial market testing, I was building communities, and yet my inbox was empty. Fear of failure was creeping in. I was getting testy with everyone around me, including the dog.
Deep breath. Failure is not bad. We learn from failure. I needed a marketing strategy, not just a website. I needed to identify and measure leading indicators of success, and not let lagging revenue metrics eclipse everything else. What is the one metric that matters now, as I am starting?
Invest the time to develop a marketing strategy. Take control of your local gravity, move from fear to facts. Everyone wins. Even the dog.