First off, I can completely understand the appeal of having your own business, I myself have even tried to do it a bunch of times (don’t worry I failed each time). But how could you not get lost in the romance of it all? You, the boss, the director of your own life, the one who people listen to, point something and it changes, you are master of your fate and of the fate of others because, after all, you are the one which decides how, where and when something gets done.
Then there’s the bragging, oh the sweet sweet bragging. These days having the words entrepreneur, tech, startup, blockchain, Ai or disruptor attached to your CV, LinkedIn, or Instagram is about as good as being a semi-naked supermodel in the beach.
But which business should you start? of course, given the need to be in tech, the easiest business to start these days is an online one. But before that let’s go back to basics for a moment, how do you make a business happen?
The old school way
If you go back to high school, you probably remember that before starting a business you need to do some research. What sort of business do you want to run? How big is the market? How many people want to buy what you’re selling? How will you deliver your product? How are you different from the competition?
If that goes well and you decided the risk is worth taking, you’d then go through the other nitty-gritty details like creating a business plan, working out how much inventory you expect to move, how long do you expect to run at a loss before breaking even, essentially you quantify the risk. You're working out all the details so that you can convince someone else to take this leap with you, that person is called: Mr Bank Manager.
Scenario one: Mr Bank Manager agrees, you commit, you quit your day job, start your business, things go great and a little while later your able to take your entire family to Disneyland.
Scenario two: things go poorly, you lose all of your money, everybody hates you, and you end up back in the prison cell your old job.
These days, this old school approach is rare. Rare to hear about at least… the newer version of this story sounds a little more like one of these.
You start promoting yourself online, become an influencer to your ‘followers’ (who needs friends when you have a flock of followers right), then you commit to and foster your fans (which are now called a ‘community’). You tune in to what these people need and want and armed with this knowledge you take on sponsorship and promote something to your foll…community. If it doesn’t work the first time, just iterate till people are paying you money just for being, you. Congratulations you have a successful lifestyle business as an “influencer”.
You play games like Fortnight, League of Legends or StarCraft and stream yourself on Twitch where, if you’re really good, and you commit the time, people will pay you to play video games.
You make content, this can be funny, informative, random, whatever. Just get yourself some attention – that’ll take a lot of time - but eventually, you can sell branded merchandise, plus, take a cut of the ad revenue.
You create content, build an email list of people who consume your content, then sell to it, or sell the list.
What’s that, you’re already a celebrity? Cool, slap your name on a product you ‘believe in’ and market the shit out of it. Mr Clooney did it with Casamigos Tequila, Mr Reynolds did it with Aviation Gin, and Kris Jenner did it with the Kylie Jenner.
I think this one is the peoples favourite or at least my favourite, it’s the classic ‘back of the napkin’ story. You’re in the pub or at home, kicking back with your mates, spitballing and talking about random nothings when all of a sudden the magical mixer of alcohol, laughter, thinking outside the norm, some motivational words, and a quick check of Google - make you and your mates turn to each other and say … that’s actually a good idea. We should do that. I can see why this one is so appealing because it sounds so easy, you find a product, source the manufacturer in China, set up your Amazon/eBay/Gumtree/Catchoftheday store, manage the marketing of the product and in a few short steps you have an online business bringing you in passive income for minimal effort.
So, are all these new ways really that new? Are we that much more advanced? Or is this just a rebranding of concepts we already knew about? What about existing businesses? Do all of those need to be online too? Which parts matter most?
Each story seems to follow a similar pattern: you start by putting a product for sale (not a new concept) using your digital shop front (that’s a newish idea), promote it (not a new idea), keep track of data and trends (sure there’s more data now but keeping track of trend isn’t new), commit to fighting through the iterations (iterations is a newish word I suppose), find ways to automate (we had a whole industrial revolution around this one), scale (who doesn’t want to get bigger?), and generally be your own boss (still the case). These days you do, however, need to have a brand… but come to think of it, that isn’t a new idea either.
As you can see, things are more advanced but not necessarily new. I find it helpful to think of all this ‘newness’ as more of an evolution of tactics rather than a revolution in business. Sure, there are clearly a lot of new ways to sell something but bring it back to a supply chain perspective… it really hasn’t. You still need to know how to operate a supply chain’s moving pieces, just because some orders need to go out faster doesn’t mean you ditch the fundamentals entirely, just progress them so that they work faster.
For an established business this isn’t easy when you have invested millions into producing a certain product it’s very hard to change everything based on a high-speed whim you’ve identified online. You can’t invest in an Apple orchard and pivot when things go sour, neither can that be done when you’re making cars, planes, apartment buildings, or expensive watches. Don’t think of online as the only way forward, online is a new means to sell and a new shopfront to distribute through. Yes, building a brand is valuable and important, but there’s a big difference between building a company’s brand and completely re-configuring how the company operates (a subject for later discussion).
Combining everything we’ve covered, the appeal, the old way, the new ways, the contrast. It’s pretty clear that regardless of your age, commitment is as important as it ever was. Sure, speed is going to change things, technology enables speed like never before. But sticking it out, in the long run, is just as valuable today as it was yesterday. A note to you as well as … to myself.