What kind of business should I start?

Those just wanting to know how to get started are left with a lot of basic questions that aren't all that easy to answer.

For many of you, this post may seem basic to the point of being useless. Seasoned entrepreneurs and veterans of the startup game will likely find this post of little use to them. However, I was having a talk yesterday with a young entrepreneur just starting out on the long and winding odyssey of entrepreneurship, and I realized an oversight. In the wealth of advice pandering to the Silicon Valley "serial entrepreneur," the devotees of The Startup Owner's Manual and The Lean Startup, most advice seems to bypass those just starting out with very little business acumen. Those just wanting to know how to get started are left with a lot of basic questions that aren't all that easy to answer.

I remember really clearly from my own days starting my first business over ten years ago, how daunting and overwhelming it was. There were so many different legal and financial pitfalls before me which I had no way of seeing or understanding. These days, it's so much easier for a new entrepreneur than it was, say ten years ago, that I think some of us with more experience end up taking for granted the knowledge that the new breed might have, or need. Sometimes we forget that, although nearly, not everything can be found on google.

With all that being said, I realized that one of the most simple questions out there is one I am asked most often. "What kind of business should I start?" Initially, I was a bit annoyed, thinking there must be a wealth of information on that issue already. But my attitude softened when I googled it for myself and didn't find information I found to be sufficient.

So with that, I hastily threw together some of my tidbits of advice I offer to those I mentor surrounding this initial question.

What is the industry you know most about?

The first thing to do when deciding what kind of business you should start, is to ask yourself, "What is the industry I know the most about?" I was recently counseling a friend of mine that wanted to start his own business, who had asked me this very question. When I asked him what he knows the most about, he rattled off his long and impressive resume spanning different areas of logistics.

He had plenty of experience in the logistics industry, and on paper he would be a shoe-in for a logistics management job, but when I started to probe beyond how to work a job or run the day-to-day operations of a logistics company he was totally clueless. While he had plenty of experience working logistics for someone else, and looked great on paper, he knew little about the greater industry. He didn't know about the recent shakeups, controversial acquisitions, newest trends and technologies, and couldn't forecast where he thought it was headed.

He felt dejected. Already starting to doubt himself, and chiseling into his mind that he didn't have what it takes to start something of his own. Instead I took to his twitter. Once there, I saw he was super active, sharing advice and insight on everything football. I'm not talking about expressing his upset over the latest botched play or trade, I'm saying I noticed a trend that the longer you looked at his tweets, the more it seemed to read as a sort of running commentary about the business of football.

Now this was something that was interesting. Though he may have had years working in the logistics industry, he knew little of it. He had fallen into a job there and stayed because he had bills to pay. However, when it came to football he may not have had any experience in the sports world, but he had a wide and diverse knowledge and valuable insights about the industry as a whole driven by his passion for the subject. With that industry knowledge, and that passion to drive him, he had a much better starting point with a greater likelihood of success, than trying to be a challenger in an industry he knows less about and doesn't care about, but somehow managed to be stuck in.

This doesn't mean you don't need experience in an industry to be successful, but serves to illustrate that it's not the only, or even the most important, factor. The industry you know most about, and are passionate about, may very well lay outside of your work experience entirely.

What are the problems you see?

Once we had identified what industry he knew the most about, i had him sit down to identify the problems which he has seen to be endemic to the industry. We took a few days to think on it, poked around his favorite blogs, looked at what was happening in the news and then set pen to paper. He was able to come up with a list of four or five serious issues that he saw that he was passionate about fixing.

Now of course, there were plenty more than four or five issues, and just because there is a perceived problem doesn't mean it can or maybe that it should be fixed. The purpose of the exercise wasn't to decide once and for all the problem which he would be solving, but rather to narrow his focus, and motivate him in realizing he knows more than he thought. Once you narrow down the problem you want to solve, it is vitally important that you validate assumptions. Conduct interviews with different people in the industry, from key stake holders, to professionals, to employees in support roles, to customers. See what other people's views are and whether or not they are seeing the same problems that you are.

But for now, at this stage of the game, suffice it to know simply what are the problems that you are aware of, and are passionate about solving.

How would you solve these problems?

Next I had him write out his proposed solutions. He drew a long line down the length of the paper and for each one of the problems he identified, he wrote a corresponding solution, or set of solutions. Mostly he was excited that he had come up with so many ideas, and these ideas were now proposed solutions to a problem he was passionate about, in an industry he understood pretty thoroughly. That beats the hell out of starting an uninspired attempt in the industry you have always been in, or randomly thinking you have the next great app idea like "AirBnB for cats" or something like that. (No offense if someone is actually working on that, I'm sure it'll be great.)

Once we had our set of solutions, we scrutinized each one. We asked how feasible is the solution, is he the right person to execute that solution, and who are the people already working on solutions in that space. It always astounds me how long people will wait to check out what the competitive landscape is – I say get it out of the way early. As soon as you have a proposed solution, look around the industry to see if there are other people working on the same solution. Are there people working on a solution that could grow into what you want to do? If you are finding other people in that space, it's not an automatic idea killer, but it should give you pause. Take some time to stop and think and assess can you beat them, and how. It presents a much bigger challenge, so ask yourself if you are passionate enough about that particular solution to go toe-to-toe for it.

At the end of this part of the process, you should have it narrowed to a final solution or set of interdependent solutions, that form a cohesive strategy of attack against one or more of the problems you identified. You are now well on your way.

So what do I do next?

This is just the very beginning of the journey. Not even that really, this is just the packing of the bags, and it is important to remember that it's a marathon, not a sprint. (unless it actually is a sprint, but that is a different story altogether.)

The thing to remember is that it is important to have a focused strategy.

  1. Go with what you know.
  2. Identify the problems.
  3. Decide how you are going to solve them.

It will be these steps that ensure you don't paint yourself into a corner and will likely save you a lot of pivots down the road. Once you have a strong strategy of action, it's just a matter of figuring out the nuts and bolts, and keeping the fire burning.

But what about the nuts and bolts?

I'll be writing a post soon about the top five questions I get asked about the nuts and bolts of starting your first business, again, something very basic. but I figure if you have read this far and gotten anything out of it, you may get something out of that one too.

I hope this has been of some help to you, and don't hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions or input you would like to share. No matter what, don't take no for an answer, don't let others make you believe that you can't, and never quit. Keep chasing your dreams and I think the world is a better place for it.

Until next time, good luck.

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