From Idea to Capitalization

I’ve been working on an idea over the last few weeks to develop a new product along with several other people. As the instigator of this project, I have been learning a lot about how an idea moves from concept to production, from burning money to profitability, from unheard of to world famous.

I have also been reading several questions on a variety of sites posed by people in a similar situation to myself – they have an idea, but no money to bring it to fruition in the real world. The questions tend to focus on team building and raising capital. The questions also indicate a lack of information on the process by which many start-ups have become successful. I am fortunate to be working with a colleague who has past experience in this field, and has been guiding me as I develop my own idea into a profitable business.

In light of the information I now have, I thought I would put up a basic checklist of steps to go through when developing a new product or service:

  1. You think of a new idea for a product or service, so you write it down. Talk it over with someone else (be careful about confidentiality, and have that person sign an NDA if you think it is warranted) to make sure that you get an objective opinion about your idea.
  2. Write down a short description of your idea. Explain what it is, who wants it, and who will pay for it. Do some basic market research to figure out what alternatives are currently available, and how much they are charging. What are people saying about your [potential] competitors? Briefly describe the business model for your new business (how will your business generate revenue). The entire description as outlined here can be short, perhaps a mere page or two.
  3. Figure out what it will take to build your product or develop your service. Determine what the bare minimum is that you will need. Remember that if you believe in your idea, you should be prepared to take a risk, in that you will not be getting paid until your idea earns money. You don’t need a fancy office, or top-of-the-line equipment from day 1. This can be ramped up later. Work from your home on the old Pentium 2 that you never bothered throwing out. Buy equipment used when you need to.
    You need to remember that anyone investing in your idea will expect you to be responsible with the money, to save it when you can, and shop around for the best prices. You need to keep accurate records of your expenses and revenues. If you need some expertise that you personally don’t have (i.e. to hire someone) see if you can trade them equity to help you with the work, or accept a deferred payment.
  4. Start building the product. Start writing a business plan (this can take over 100 hours to complete, and you will need it if you look to borrow money from the bank, or talk to an angel investor).
  5. When you reach the point at which you need outside funds (for example, you have a legal bill for $5000 to incorporate your business and to handle your copyrights and patents, plus a $25,000 bill for equipment that is absolutely required, plus a $15,000 bill for marketing about to be incurred), figure out how much money you absolutely need, and add 20% as a contingency. Then use the following guideline to figure out who to talk to:
    • $0 – $50K: Talk to your bank, family, friends. Can you get a loan, or a line of credit? This will likely be the easiest and most cost-effective way to raise these funds. Beware of mixing family and business when borrowing from friends and family, though. You will be really unpopular if you borrow money from a friend and then your business collapses.
    • $50K – $500K: Look for an angel investor. You will have to give up equity in your business for this, and be prepared to have someone looking over your shoulder constantly to see how you’re spending the money. Also remember that this is the first round of investing. If you give up too high a stake in your company at this stage, you may face difficulties later on when trying to raise more money.
    • $500K+: You have entered the world of venture capital, and will need to read more detailed information on how to work with a VC. There are many excellent resources available online for the uninitiated.
  6. Now that you have the money you need, finish the development, launch your product or service, and market it. Initially, take the revenues earned (all of them) and use them to develop your idea further, to improve your product, to increase your visibility in the market. Once you have a steady revenue stream, you can then think about hiring yourself to do more work on the idea, paying out a divided (which implies profitability) or upgrading your public appearance with fancy offices. However, before you do that, if you owe money for a loan or line of credit, make sure you pay that back first.

By no means are these steps to be taken as a bible. However, you may find this useful if you are thinking about starting your own business, or have an idea that you think might be viable as a means of earning money.

Business and Social Media – Part 4

This is the final installment of the social media series, which started with the post on August 7. There was to have been a post last Friday, but life sometimes gets in the way. I’m curious to know what you thought of the series – how might it have been improved, what additional topics should I have discussed, did I make some errors. Please comment and let me know.

I apologize in advance for what is about to happen. I’m going to be separated from the internet for about 10 days. So if you post a comment, it may take until I get back for me to respond. However, I will respond when I get back.

Recap

When I left off the series, our model business owner, Jane, had started a blog which she uses to hold directed conversations with her readers. She has also started a Twitter account which she uses to post news and links to her articles, and uses the account to see what topics are of interest to people, and then writing about those topics.

Facebook

The largest problem with blogging and Twitter is that conversations are generally one-sided. Jane acan pick a topic to discuss, and interact with her audience regarding those topics. Using Twitter, she can respond to short questions. What she cannot do (yet) is allow her audience to pose its own questions, to hold undirected conversations.

This is where the networking sites such as Facebook and Linked In become important. Both these sites allow groups to be created. The creator of the group can act as an administrator of the group, and encourage conversation and participation among the group’s members. However, each member can start a new conversation, a new discussion, on a variety of topics. They can ask questions.

This will put Jane back to the first stages of becoming involved in social media, in which she interacts directly with her audience, as a member of the audience, but now Jane is in control of the environment. She can market the sites to people who come to her store. She can start getting feedback from her customers on topics she didn’t realize were issues.

Conclusion

Social media is about personal interactions used as a means of promotion. The fundamental component of social media is interactions. Social media is built on socializing. In order to run a successful campaign, you must interact with your audience – respond to their questions and comments, start conversations, ask questions of your own. Everything else is merely a tool to help you interact.

Why You Need a Lawyer

I was reading some material to prepare for a contract yesterday, and came across a set of statements which seemed to make sense the way they were written, but for some reason, didn’t add up. Most people can relate to such a scenario at some level, perhaps a friend telling you a story about their night on the town last week on a date with Sue, and something about the story just feels wrong, but you can’t place it. Then someone tells you that Sue had broken up with your friend last month, and suddenly the whole story is no longer true.

Reading contracts and agreements can be like that. There are lots of sections, paragraphs, and clauses outlining the details of the document. The agreement is intended to sound great for all parties involved. But your gut keeps asking to figure out what the catch is, but you don’t see it.

Enter the lawyer. He or she has read and written many contracts, and can turn the confusing legal language into plain English for you. Based on their experience, they can point out to you what it is about the arrangement that it problematic. They can also tell you what to expect from the agreement as a result of the content of the contract.

Legal bills are expensive, and therefore, many small business owners will try to avoid making use of one. However, while retaining a lawyer may be expensive, be sure you know the phone number of one you can call before you sign anything. It may cost you $500 to make that call and get their opinion, but the risk you face by not doing so is to enter into an agreement that will cost you far in excess of that $500 insurance policy.

If funds are truly an issue, at a minimum, find a lawyer fresh out of school who may be willing to consult for a lower fee. While you will be giving up the experience that a more seasoned lawyer would bring to the table, you would still be sure that you understood the general content of the agreement.

Business and Social Media – Part 3

This is the third article in a series of articles describing how social media can be used by businesses. The aim is to publish one article per week on this topic, the first being Friday, August 7. Each article will address a single topic, and build on material provided in the earlier articles. Through feedback provided on the articles, this may lead into another series after the conclusion of this series.

Note that any clients referred to in these articles are fictitious, unless I specifically indicate otherwise.

Applying the Concepts

The client described in the first post in this series can make good use of the previous article as she develops her strategy. Social Media is built around interactions, so Jane must decide what kind of interactions she would like to foster. She must also look at how each platform is constructed, so that she can play to its strengths.

The Blog

The first step for most businesses starting with social media is to write a blog. If the client is technically adept, they can follow the instructions here on how to set up a WordPress blog on their own site. If not, they can hire someone to set up the site for them. (If you are looking for someone to set up a blog for you, please contact me directly and I can refer you to a reputable company that does this for a minimal fee.)

Before going live with the blog, there are a few things Jane needs to do.

  1. Choose a topic for the blog. As the owner of a hardware store, she may feel comfortable writing articles about how to fix some common problems around the house on a tight budget. The title and sub-line for the blog should reflect the topic chosen.
  2. Set a schedule for posting. More important than posting frequently is to post on a regular schedule. It is tempting to post each article as soon as it is written, but that may end up causing the blog to die quickly, as the speed of your writing drops. My usual recommendation is to start with one article per week, posted in the afternoon of Tuesday or Thursday. As the number of viewers of the blog grows, the frequency of publishing can be increased to twice a week, then three times a week.
  3. Prepare some articles. While Jane has selected a topic that she feels confident she can write about, she does not know how much time she will have available for writing. She should prepare about 3 months of articles (if she’s publishing once per week, that works out to 12-15 articles) and upload them to the site in draft mode.

At this point, Jane can launch her blog. Some companies (including the one I recommend) can do some preliminary advertising for her to increase the number of viewers quickly. Other plugins for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can be installed so that new posts are automatically submitted to various search engines. Certain types of content will result in Google scanning the page earlier. A reputable company will help to explain and set up these components.

Jane should also be sure to monitor the number of viewers to the site, and respond to comments on her posts. Writing the article is only the first step – interacting with her readers is more important. While it may take time to convert a reader to a client, if she does not interact at all with her readers, then her blog is merely another form of traditional media.

Jane must also remember to tell people about her blog, and ask for feedback. A sign in her store can drive her existing customers to the site, and they can tell her, in person, what they like and don’t like about the blog. She can ask them for ideas for articles and for suggestions on how to improve her existing articles. They may tell their family and friends about the site. If Jane can establish her credibility as an expert on the blog, then people will be more inclined to come to her store when they need something, or need advice on her area of expertise.

Tweets – Part 1

Now that Jane has her blog up and running, she may want to create her first Twitter account. With this account, she can post links to articles on her blog, talk about those articles, and create an additional community of people interested in those topics. Using various tools discussed in a future article, she can analyze what people are talking about, and write relevant articles on those topics. With this Twitter account, Jane is trying to attract more readers to her blog, to increase the amount of attention on her writing.

What’s Next

In the next article, I will be discussing other uses of Twitter beyond driving traffic to a blog, and the benefits to creating a page on a social media platform such as Facebook.

Business and Social Media – Part 2

This is the second article in a series of articles describing how social media can be used by businesses. The aim is to publish one article per week on this topic, the first being Friday, August 7. Each article will address a single topic, and build on material provided in the earlier articles. Through feedback provided on the articles, this may lead into another series after the conclusion of this series.

Note that any clients referred to in these articles are fictitious, unless I specifically indicate otherwise.

The Tools of Social Media

Social media requires, as a fundamental component, the ability for people to interact. Therefore, any tool claiming to be a part of the world of social media must include interactions between the provider and the audience. Each tool will therefore include one or more of the following components:

  1. Comments – the ability for the audience to publicly reply to some statement
  2. Forums – the ability for the audience to create a statement and then provide feedback
  3. Messaging – the ability for people to communicate in real time

Looking at some of the common tools of social media, it is easy to see how they are making use of at least one of these components.

Blogs

Blogs, such as this one, allow their audience to provide feedback on any given article. In this manner, the provider can post a message of arbitrary length, and the audience can then provide feedback.

The distribution of information is weighed strongly in favor of the provider, as they usually retain the ability to edit or select responses to be posted. (As an aside, I do not edit comments to this blog, and only refuse to post those comments which can clearly be seen to be spam.) The provider can control the topic of discussion to some extent, and can choose to incorporate the opinions of the audience in future posts.

Twitter

A form of micro-blogging in which each post is limited to 140 character, Twitter allows its users to post short messages. Conversations can be held by tagging posts, or marking a post as a reply to another user (via the # and @ tags).

Facebook (and other social networking sites)

A page can be created on a social networking site, providing an online location for people with a common interest to congregate. Interactions are usually via a message board, although private messaging is usually available as well. In the example of Facebook, targeted conversations can be created as well using forums.

What’s Next

In the next article, I will be providing an explanation of how the sample client, Jane, can make use of each of these tools to promote her business, and what some of the other tools she may want to make use of to facilitate her use of these forms of social media.

Business and Social Media – Part 1

This is the first article in a series of articles describing how social media can be used by businesses. The aim is to publish one article per week on this topic, the first being today, August 7. Each article will address a single topic, and build on material provided in the earlier articles. Through feedback provided on the articles, this may lead into another series after the conclusion of this series.

Note that any clients referred to in these articles are fictitious, unless I specifically indicate otherwise.

The Client

Harvey’s Hardware is a small store located on the corner of a busy intersection in a residential neighborhood. The original owner, Harvey, has retired, and the store has been sold to Jane. Jane has an MBA from a prestigious school, and is interested in running her own business after spending over 20 years working for a large multi-national corporation. She bought the hardware store using funds she has saved, and spent the first year after the sale becoming familiar with the store and its clients.

Jane is not technically illiterate, but her use of technology is limited to word processing and checking her e-mail. She is comfortable with her inventory management software.

Recently, a few of her customers asked if she had a website for her store, to which she had to answer no. However, she is interested in creating an online presence, and has heard about social media and would like to become involved.

The Problem:

The real problem, in this case, is that Jane does not understand what social media is, nor how it can be used to help her store grow its customer base. Her first step, therefore, is to learn about social media, and how it compares to the more traditional forms of media with which she is already familiar.

The Background:

Social media, as defined by Wikipedia, is “…online content created by people using highly accessible and scalable publishing technologies… transforming people from content consumers into content producers”. In other words, social media makes use of the internet as a dstribution medium and is based on interactions between people, rather than simply delivering information.

Traditional media including newspapers, radio, and television, are based on information delivery. Information is collected and converted into a message, which is then broadcast to the audience. The audience may be able to provide responses to that information, but those responses are delayed, such as the letters section of a newspaper. Additionally, distributors of traditional media are faced with large expenses in creating and delivering the content.

Social media, on the other hand, relies on the audience itself to both create and distribute information. This has the benefit of incorporating feedback from the audience in the message itself, and in reducing the cost of distribution to a negligible amount.

The downside, however, is directly tied into the benefits. Traditional media, such as newspapers, go to great expense to distinguish fact from opinion, and to verify any facts to the best of their ability. This results in a quality of information that is difficult to find in social media. Since the control over information in social media is distributed among the audience, it is nearly impossible to ensure that all the facts will be accurate.

Another key difference between social media and traditional media is as follows. In traditional media, the creation and delivery of content is where the majority of the effort is. Social media, however, requires more work in following up on content than in the creation or delivery. This form of media bases its distribution on interactions – the more interactions there are, the more successful the distribution will be.

What’s Next:

In the next article, to be published on August 14, I will be giving an overview of some of the tools of social media, and how to use them successfully.

Venture into Social Media

I am currently working on a new service for my business, and I’m looking for some feedback on ways to improve or modify the service. To get you started, I’ve outlined the general steps that this service takes.

  1. Initial consult with a business: I meet with a business and determine what their target market is, and what kind of effort they are willing to put in to capture that market.
  2. Goal setting: We determine what the objectives of the venture into social media is – sales from the website, drive traffic into the store, provide more information, etc. We also determine how to measure the success of the venture using specific metrics.
  3. Background research: I investigate what similar businesses, both locally and around the world, are doing in terms of social media – which aspects of social media are being used, and what are they being used for.
  4. Brainstorming: I come up with ideas of how social media could be used to bring the business to the attention of their target market.
  5. Strategy Planning: I develop a plan to make use of the ideas generated in the brainstorming stage, and how each idea will work with the others, and the existing business model, to increase the visibility of the business in the target market.
  6. Implementation: We take the plan created in the previous step, and implement it, while measuring the changes according to the terms defined in the second stage.

The hardest part, I have found, is coming up with new ways to make use of social media. Everyone wants to be on the cutting edge, and doing something different. What is key here is to see the ways innovation is changing the digital world, and how that can be harnessed for a particular business.

Slow Economy and Developing a New Business

I have been asked this question several times recently, and held discussions with various people about the relationship between the state of the economy and a good environment for starting a business. The question tends to be phrased as a version of

“Is a recession, or slow economy, a good time to start a new business, and why?”

Before you attempt to beat the odds, be sure you could survive the odds beating you.

The first point to consider is illustrated in the image to the right. Starting a business is a risk, and you must first evaluate whether or not it is a risk worth taking.

Take, for example, an employee for a company who has fairly good job stability, a small reserve of funds in case he is laid off, and some money put aside for retirement savings in an RRSP. He is presented with an idea for which he has the necessary skills to turn into a successful business. However, in order for him to work on the project, he must quit his job so that he can devote all of his energy to developing the idea.

I will not attempt to answer the question as to whether or not he should quit his job. However, there are a few questions that the candidate should consider. Can he afford to quit his job? How hard will it be, should this idea be a flop, for him to find another job? Can his life tolerate the additional risk of working for himself.

Once he knows the answers to these questions, in addition to those questions which reflect his interest in the idea, he can make an educated decision as to whether or not he should take the risk. It should be noted, however, that in a slow economy, the likelihood of being able to find another job, should this business flop, is drastically lower than in a fast economy.

From a business point of view, someone who is starting his own business (that is to say, he has answered the previous question such that he decides to quit his job) will find that a slow economy makes for easy growth. Costs are reduced in such an economy, and being able to find cost-efficient ways of growing a business will be significantly easier. Operating costs will therefore be lower, and while larger companies use a slow economy to consolidate their operations, smaller companies can take the opportunity to absorb the cuts from their larger competitors.

The economy, in moving out of a recession, will benefit the bold. Those who used the time to perfect their product, to gain a foothold in the market, or to streamline their operations, will be far ahead of those who merely tried to cut costs and survive until the end. Such companies will find themselves struggling to catch up to those who innovated over the past year(s).

If you want to be on the leading edge of innovation, there is no easier time to get there than when the competition for the edge is relaxed.