With the rapid change this place has gone through, I am hopeful some people will benefit from this list. While it may seem like mostly common sense, these ideas represent my hard-earned experiences as an entrepreneur since 2000.
My focus is on B2B services that can be delivered online, but this list will be relevant to just about anyone who is trying to do business online.
Enjoy, discuss. I'll be happy to answer questions or engage in conversation on any of these ideas.
1) Karma is real. Be the person you would like to work with. Your word is your most valuable asset. If you devalue it, nothing else you do will ultimately retain value. Always make commitments you know you can keep. It is good to extend yourself beyond your comfort zone, but if you do it in a way that may negatively impact others (investors, partners, clients, family, etc) you have to be honest and up front with them, or you will lose their trust and respect for future endeavors. When you do inconvenience someone else who has not agreed to share risk with you, the right thing to do is to go above and beyond expectations to make it up to them. When in doubt, always be human first. Be real, both as a person and as a business. You don't have to be perfect if you are relatable. When people feel like they know there is a person behind the curtain, they will be both more forgiving of your flaws and more willing to be your customer.
2) Go for the recurring income. If you are trying to decide on a business model, nothing is better than committing yourself to a service that provides recurring value in exchange for recurring revenue. It means you will be there month in and month out, serving your clients and overdelivering on their expectations. This is why it is important to love what you do. Make no mistake – sustainable business is every bit the commitment that marriage is. If you are just dipping your toes, do something that nobody will miss in case you flame out (the online equivalent of a hot dog stand). But if you are looking for long term success, find a need you can fill with a level of service that delights and impresses your clients. Succeed at that and they will happily stay with you, filling your bank account month after month.
3) Don't be afraid to mix up your media. Don't get stuck in Adwords. Or Facebook. Or solo mail. Try EDDM. Or targeted direct mail. Or pick up the phone and do some old-fashioned prospecting or followup. Go to industry conferences. If you have important clients, visit them with a nice gift. Buy an ad in an industry magazine. Try classifieds. Or hire people off craigslist to post flyers in your top markets. There are many ways to reach an audience, and IM alone is too limiting for many great business ideas. Think about how you can grow with a variety of methods, and test them all against each other. Analyze results by equalizing them (i.e. spending $1k to get 5 clients at a conference is like spending $200 to get one client on Adwords). You might be surprised where the better values are.
4) Continually invest in yourself. Always play to your strengths, but work on your weak areas through professional development. You grow by both strategies, but you will grow more by working on the things that scare the hell out of you. Scared of making sales calls? Make one. Then two. Then five at a time. Scared of how you write, or look? The possibility of failure? These are all things that are easy to hide behind, but they are insidious and toxic to your professional growth. If you are interested in IM because you don't want to face your issues, they'll find other ways to keep sabotaging you. None of us is perfect. The ones who succeed are the ones who don't hide from their shortcomings.
5) Surround yourself with like minded people. I don't mean other entrepreneurs, specifically, but people who are trying and accomplishing positive things in their lives. Drop the toxic people, the soul-sucking, jealous types who are afraid your success will make you better than them. It will, and they will try to block you from getting there. Find optimistic people to associate with. Network - get on LinkedIn and find local business events. Or meetups. Or wherever it is smart, upwardly mobile people hang out. Put on nice clothing, and go there. Then talk to people. You never know when you might meet your future mentor, partner or client. But you won't ever meet them hanging out in the basement, or wherever it is you spend most of your time.
6) One thing at a time. I currently own or am a partner in three businesses, with a fourth about to launch. But these businesses have been developed one at a time over the last seven years. My advice: Devote most of your energy to just one big thing, and the rest to maintaining everything else. Once that one big thing is running on its own, with support systems in place to guide its development, you can slowly let go and start to think about the next idea. Developing multiple ideas at once is a recipe for chaos and failure.
7) Don't sweat the small stuff. Keep your sense of humor and your sense of perspective. You'll need them both, especially when things are tough and money is tight. Let little frustrations and inconveniences go, and take every opportunity to lighten up and celebrate small victories.
8) Select your niche wisely. Let's face it. If you are starting out, you are not going to compete well with established competitors (particularly ones like Amazon or Walmart). You have to be smarter, stealthier, leaner, meaner, cleverer and more focused. That means really zooming in on an opportunity and owning it. Confession: I hate competition. In my most successful businesses, I have developed something new and quickly scaled up to the point where I effectively block out all competition. Business is more fun as a monopoly. And more profitable. You still have to be smart, and you have to be a bit of a hustler. But when you are the only credible game in town, it is a lot easier to be the authority and the winner. Always strive to be the winner.
9) Learn diverse skills and recognize what you will never do. I will never be much of a programmer, but I love Photoshop. My desk is always a bit messy, but I am excellent at providing over-the-top customer service. I am a bit ADHD (ok, a lot ADHD), which means I thrive on the challenges of running multiple businesses at the same time. When my phone rings, it can be for any one of four very different businesses, and I always am ready to jump into the role that is needed. From taking/placing product orders, to providing tech support, to new sales inquiries, to discussing security audits, to speaking with my lawyer or CPA, to managing employees or offshore contractors, having meetings with partners or JVs, etc. It can be anything. The things I can't (or won’t) do like programming and bookkeeping are outsourced to good people. I love going into my office each day. It is my chaotic sanctuary (remember... ADHD).
10) One thing I won’t outsource? Closing the deal. It doesn’t work – it has to be me. As the face and soul of my businesses, nobody can sell these services the way I can. When I start getting so busy that I have to start letting go of some of the workload, sales is never on that list. And I wouldn’t want it to be. Only I am me, and only I know what I do so intimately that a sales conversation sounds genuine. People pick up on my passion and knowledge, and it helps them feel confident doing business with me. Especially with unique services, how could I possibly trust anyone else with this job? I let all of my marketing focus on generating leads, and everything is funneled to me (or my web sites) for the close.
11) Celebrate failure early and often. Failing is not bad. It is an important part of the process. Fail often, and fail spectacularly. I have had some doozies – the kind that left me amazed I still had a wife by my side and a roof over my head (if just barely). But I’ve learned important lessons from each one, and they have always helped me grow. It is the experience you get from failure that will make you wiser and more successful in your next attempt. On a related note, don't make excuses. Take responsibility for your own actions - all of them. When you screw something up, own it. A simple apology and a real commitment to learn and do better is usually all that is needed toward those affected. Nobody wants your life story or a rundown of all the crappy things that led you to make a bad choice... so don't offer it unless it is specifically asked for or required.
12) Do something real. The world doesn’t need another crappy Adsense site or generic blog. It needs real products and services that fill real needs in the real world. Remember, only real people spend real money. “Internet Marketing” is not a business. It is an adjective. Building a business using IM is one thing. Making your business IM is another thing altogether. If you are building all of your blocks on someone else’s playground (i.e. Google, Amazon, Ebay, Paypal, etc), at some point they are going to raise your rent, lower your visibility or kick you out altogether. Use a platform you own, or at least spread your risk around so if one of them slaps you, you’ll have other legs to support you.
8/15/2015 Edit: I have added a few more…
13) You gotta pay your dues. You wouldn’t climb a mountain without some training. You don’t get married without some courtship. And you don’t sit at the executive table as a rookie or intern. In business, as in much of life, there is a natural progression up a ladder. You move up one rung at a time, learning the lessons each rung has to offer before you get to move up again. You earn that upward mobility by learning the language, performing the mundane duties and struggling through the challenges that that rung had to offer. Skip rungs, and you will be out of place. People want to work with others that they can relate with. You don’t get to skip ahead to that position. You earn it.
14) Build a sales process before you try to sell anything. This one has come to me late in life. While I have always been my own primary salesman, it took me far too long to understand the importance of a sales process (i.e. funnel). I now grieve for all of the leads I have let slip through my fingers over the years because I followed up once and then kept moving forward. Since putting my first funnel in place just six months ago, I have become a believer in the power of sophisticated, automated followup. It nurtures my leads over time, doing all the work but giving me the reward. My process signs a lot more clients than I ever did alone. That speaks volumes.
15) Business is another word for solving problems. They call diplomacy the art of the possible. I would call that business. You don’t get to choose what you want to do with any expectation that you will be successful in business. You find an unmet need, and fill it with a quality product or service. If you are lucky, that intersects with an existing passion or interest of yours and you find a business you love to do that also pays you well. That is the Holy Grail. But Holy Grails, by their nature, are hard to come by. Your business is much more likely to be a job - a challenge that evolves as your market evolves. And accepting that challenge may mean losing preconceived notions about what you want to do, or what you should be doing. It means that when the market tells you that you are no longer satisfying its needs, you recognize that it is time to pivot. And you pivot, so that you continue to have the honor of being the one to solve your market’s problems.