“I am not sure I can do this anymore.”
This thought ran rampant in my mind as I lay on our living room couch for the second straight day. When I get to a breaking point, I just sleep. I want to escape “reality” and the emotional weight of what I deem as impending failure. So, I lay on the couch and sleep.
I landed here after failing to break through to customers and generate revenue with Carrot Saver. We had sold all our personal possessions, were running out of money, had a small team that depended on me, and I just heard my 200th “no” from a potential customer.
I wish I could triumphantly tell you that I am a total badass boss—that I never get scared. That instead of sleeping on the couch and ignoring my family, I do push-ups over a bed of nails while reaching flow state. Other business owners might say this but, for me, that is far from the truth.
In reality, when I meet situations like above, I have to dig incredibly deep and cling onto the reason I am here in the first place. The reason why I should get off the couch and forge forward. Which is why, before you bring a business idea to life, I believe each entrepreneur should place a tremendous amount of time seeking the answer to this one question: Why do I show up?
So, you have an idea…
An incredible idea. One you do not want to share with others, because this idea is SO good, it could __________________. (You fill in the blank.)
As time goes on, you look at life in its current state and are reminded of the negatives.
As you scroll through social media, the discontentment weighs heavier still. Damn, I really want a house like that, or the time to make myself look like a Greek god, or _____________. (Yup, you guessed it, fill in the blank.)
Like Zach Morris in “Saved by the Bell” circa 1992, you drift off, daydreaming of this better life. The one where that challenging boss works for you, your kids make all the other kids jealous with their latest gadgets, your friends come over and you modestly leave six garage doors open to show your fancy car collection. (Or, let’s be honest guys, a date with Miss Kapowski herself.)
Poof, reality again.
(Transparently, I am having a little fun with the satire above, as these are all thoughts I have had—admittedly a massive crush on Kelly Kapowski, too.)
Money, control and power, it seems, are the path to comfort and certainty. A way out of today’s reality. Can you really blame yourself? (yes) I mean, in 5 minutes on Shark Tank, you can watch an entrepreneur achieve their dreams in an instant. It was just an idea, right?
That doesn’t look so hard.
Now, dreams may be different for everyone and the above may not be your vibe. There may be some transcendent reason you want to execute on your idea. Cool. Perhaps you are an Enneagram Six (like me) and just want some financial security. The basic necessities. Or maybe some more time with your loved ones.
Having aspirations is vitally important. One could even argue the material ones, too. But, whatever the blanks above are for you, you must be able to cling onto that one thing when the shit does hit the fan. Because it will. Over and over, again.
For me, I did not arrive at the answer to the question, “Why do I show up?” for several months after beginning my journey to build 434 (and yes, the string of failures before 434).
So where did I find my answer?
After quitting my job, Groupon was in the news a lot. Their incredible growth had astounded and caught the attention of many business professionals—mine as well. I came across Conejo Deals (after nine years, this site still looks the same) in Business Week. The article described how they were generating seven figures a year by offering a localized Groupon model. What if we did this in Lynchburg?!
Quickly, I purchased a WordPress theme and had a designer whip up a logo for what we affectionately called… dum dum dum… Bargainburg.com (Megan, help!). The website was a simple landing page with a sign up form. My goal was to test the interest in a local deal site (thanks Eric Ries). After 400 sign ups in two weeks, it was time to level up by meeting with business owners and conducting research.
My research with 50 business owners, helped develop my answer.
Some core things about me:I am pessimistic and LOVE data. So, research meant collecting valuable data points to understand the problems my customers face and determine if the service would ultimately solve them. If the service didn’t solve the problem, maybe I would find another common issue and solve that one instead. I really was not married to a single idea.
With each interview, I started with the following two questions:
1) What keeps you up at night?
2) How do you market your business?
The answers to these questions were far more valuable than I could have ever imagined. No, they did not confirm a multi-million dollar concept (even though we did move forward with the app). More importantly, these research meetings ignited a passion in me that was totally unexpected and still exists today.
As I sat with each business owner, I could see the grit and determination of someone who took an entrepreneurial leap, looking to fill in their blank (see above), and had been weathered by vast ups and downs in a business owners battle. Some of the folks I met with would cry when answering their questions, others were anxious, some were stoic, and only a few were upbeat and positive.
When you ask a business owner, what keeps them up at night, you are really asking something deeper. As a young, upbeat whippersnapper, the horror stories and challenges came out like a waterfall. The fact that so many folks were barely getting by, but still hanging on with all they had, blew me away.
In my naivety, the stories did not really scare me. ather, an immense passion to serve the business owner was born. I wanted to solve all of their problems for them. I wanted to build a solution for them. I wanted to win for them.
Villain, enter stage left.
When I asked, “How do you market your business?” well over half of the business owners said, “I don’t.”
Perplexed, I asked why.
- “Well, I purchased a $6,000 ad in this magazine and, well, my mom was the only one who mentioned it.”
- “I tried Groupon, and did you know that on top of giving 50% up, I also had to give 50% of the revenue, which means I am funding losses?”
- “I hired someone to do SEO, and my site got banned by Google.”
- “I was told I needed a new website, paid $18,500 for it, and I am not getting more leads than before.”
- “I’ve done coupons with X company in the past, but it only brings out deal hunters.”
- “I needed a new website for my restaurant, and paid $5,500 for it. I have asked for a few changes, but the developer says these changes can’t be made. Come to find out, I was actually sold a $35 Forest Theme template, from someone who was not a developer and will not refund my money.”
- “I spent my personal take home to run an advertisement. It’s my last chance for this business to work… I hope it does.”
This blew my mind and, frankly, made me mad.
Here you have these folks putting it all on the line, but being taken advantage of to such a degree that they were unwilling to try anything new to grow their business. “Word of mouth is how we have grown, and will continue to grow.” There had to be a way to bridge the gap—and I wanted to figure that out, for them.
[Side Bar] – Ok, “villain” is harsh. After years of being in the marketing industry, what was really happening was two fold: 1) A business owner was entrusting a service provider to do X in hopes of achieving Y. 2) The service provider did not ask what the definition of Y (success) was. With hopes and prayer, both moved forward naively—unless the service professional really knew the truth, then they were a villain. [Rant Over.]
Why I Show Up
In 2011, the conversations above changed my life. I saw what it took to be a small business owner. This was not the glitter and osteer of what you see on TV, or the stories so often shared by “get rich quick” schemers. For someone looking to build a business from the ground up, it looked like a long, emotional, battle.
If you ask me why I show up I will tell you it’s to serve others by helping to solve their problems with excellence. I cannot tell you the joy I experience when one of my clients wins. When I can see the look on their face of: “It’s going to be OK,” I know I did not take the risk to start my business for nothing. And this is what I had to remind myself of while laying on the couch.
Why do you show up?
Oftentimes, people ask me to meet and discuss their big idea.For anyone who is looking to get started, here is what I recommend:
1) Ask yourself why many, many times, then write it down.
Why do you want to do this? Be honest and dig deep. No matter the answer, write it down. Then, ask yourself if this is something you can cling to in the worst moments. Remember, money solves problems, but the path to making it must be fueled by something far greater.
2) Meet with existing business owners who have rarely shared their story.
There is something to be said for experience, especially from someone who has run a business for several years. Reach out, and ask for some of their time. In Lynchburg, I have been blown away by the openness of local business leaders. Make sure they understand you are not trying to sell a service to them, and that you are doing some research before starting your own business.
3) Ignore triumphant business owners who claim they made every decision right. hey didn’t, their ego is in the way.
Unfortunately, these folks exist. They believe they are the reason for their success and are ashamed of being vulnerable. Their shiny exterior is just a wall— don’t waste your time.
4) Don’t be a villain. Know what you are selling, why it is valuable, and make sure it really helps others. If not, your “why” sucks.
Lastly, as you are thinking through your product/service, don’t sell snake oil. Be honest, work hard, admit your errors, and steward your client’s money as if it was your own.
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