We all know that setting up a new business is almost always an uncertain journey, one that can bring enormous swings, from exhilaration one day to doubt and fear the next. There are many reasons why we subject ourselves to this stress – creating a job for ourselves, escaping dull or unsuitable work, a bad boss, or just the simple desire for increased wealth. After all, who would not wish to achieve financial independence?
The entrepreneurial rollercoaster
The chance to create something from nothing, to see an idea in your head develop and work, either in the form of a new service or new product, is incredibly motivating and, when successful, enormously satisfying. “I did it my way” as the song goes. This is the entrepreneurial rollercoaster of business startups. Managing these emotions is important if we want to banish doubt and remain upbeat, confident and committed to our project.
Managing the bad days
While in the set-up stage of my first venture, a tourism business, a very well respected and established player in the market from Sligo declared that he would ‘eat his hat’ if my business worked in Co Laois! This was at my first trade fair in Germany and, for a 23 year old, this was massively undermining and stuck with me.
We need a coat of armor to protect us on bad days like this or to silence natural self-doubt and banish the demons. Luckily, this coat of armor can be built by using solid ‘good business practice’ at the earliest stage in the venture.
The well-known business writer, Joan Margeratta, ventured that you can distil any business down to two key foundational elements – value proposition and channel to market. This rings true in my experience. Yes, there are many other elements that we need and will need in time, but, to start with, these two elements are critical. Properly validated, they constitute solid business practice that will give you confidence and ensure you are more likely to succeed. It is also something that investors will demand if you are seeking finance pre- revenue.
Value proposition and channel to market
The best way for me to explain what I think is required in terms of validating a value proposition and a channel to market is through explaining the process I went through in developing and bringing to market a new domestic kitchen vacuum – Sweepovac.
By way of context, it took a subsequent four years of product development and market entry to get initial traction. That’s four years of uncertainty, challenges and obstacles. I definitely needed a thick coat of armor to get me through this, to give me the conviction to persevere!
This validation process was simple common sense really. First, we created the cheapest simplest prototype version possible of something that looked and acted like the finished product. We then tested it on end users – homeowners. We set up with this prototype for 3 days in 3 different retail settings – a hardware shop, a kitchen showroom and an electrical retailer spread across rural and urban centers. Over the three days we surveyed 100 people with a 15 question form using a Likert scale. This showed that 87% of people were positive and liked the product. A critical takeaway was, however, that within this group of 17% who absolutely ‘got it’ and were very enthusiastic, 13% had no interest.
Channel to market
Next, I needed to test the channel to market to see if we could deliver the product in the right retail environment, at the right price and at the right time.
I interviewed 20 kitchen retailers, some with retail chains, and the three largest distributors to these retailers. For each group, I had a different questionnaire that set out to establish their interest, their willingness to take on the proposed product and their views on pricing and margin structure.
The results showed that 70% would display, but with varying levels of enthusiasm and that the expected price should be between €90 and €220.
I drew two key conclusions. The first was that 17%, and possibly more, of kitchen buyers would potentially purchase the product if it was presented in the right retail environment, at the right price and at the right time. The second was that there was enough interest among retailers and distributors to ensure that we could present it in the right environment at the right time. I also had strong guidance that I needed to get the manufacturing price down based on the feedback on the retail prices.
Attempting to launch a new startup is usually, if not always, high risk with dramatic ups and downs. My key message is this: early and solid validation of your value proposition and your channel to market gives you a far greater chance of success and a coat of armour to help weather the process. It will allow you to focus on delivering, on problem solving and help stop you doubting the road you have chosen or second guessing yourself.
It takes bravery to launch a new start up or transform an existing business, it is usually if not always high risk with dramatic ups and downs. Mentoring has given me a wonderful opportunity to meet great people, to learn, to share and to to be part of their journey.
With regards to the gentleman from Sligo, I never had the opportunity to present him with his hat and some salt. The tourism business ran successfully for 13 years, was sold as a going concern in 2005 and still operates today.