This week, Fortune Magazine (as part of their Leadership Insider network series) asked me “What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?”  You can read the edited version here, but as it happens, I had a bit more to say on the subject than Fortune’s format would allow.  I’ve posted my full length response below:

The dream of starting your own business, of being your own boss and becoming financially independent is more within reach today than at any other time in history.  Today, many businesses can get started with little to no capital thanks to the Internet and thrive without outside investment.  Business are seeing  barriers to entry crumble—from product differentiation, distribution and access to analytics—as new low cost cloud-based services emerge.

Yet, even with risks lower than ever and rewards closer in sight, the idea of starting a business of your own is a daunting one.  There comes a dizziness of freedom with the very thought of striking out on your own: what to do first, what to do next and what if I fail?  That alone is enough to keep most people on the couch.

In my years working in big tech and consulting for businesses large and small, I’ve found that there are six basic principles that successful entrepreneurs know.  Of course, there is no ready-paved road to success, but anyone hoping to start their own venture will be off to a good start with these values in mind.

Know your customer.  To put it simply, there is nothing more important in business than to understand who your customer is and how you can serve them better than anyone else.  That seemingly simple insight is far more critical than the most eloquent business plan, the best location in town or an overabundance of startup funding.  It might be because it’s so obvious that is so often overlooked.  When I hear a business pitch that says “our target customer is every adult in America,” or the like, I know trouble is ahead.  Your customers will never be everyone and will likely not be most people.  Understanding exactly who wants, values, can pay for and will choose your service over another’s is hard work.  It will require understanding (or great intuition) of your customers psychology coupled with honest introspection on who you are as a provider of service.

Some entrepreneurs are seduced by the idea that knowing their competition is just as good, and far easier, than doing the work to truly know their customer.  This shortcut puts them in the role of perpetual follower and pins their success on how fast they can follow instead of how well they can serve.  In my experience it’s a highly unrewarding way to do business, at best, and an outright recipe for failure at worst.  The flip side is to go beyond just knowing your customer to loving your customer.  The ups and downs of running your own business is taxing.  Loving what you do—and who you do it for—can make all the difference in the world when it comes to getting through challenging times.

Know what planning makes a difference.  Everyone starting a business should have a business plan—that’s a given.  But knowing how much to plan and when to just dive in can be tough.  You will never have a 100 percent clear view of your market, total confidence in economic trends or certainty on your returns.  Don’t let that be an excuse for your failure to launch.  Know your customer, understand your costs, lay out reasonable financial projections and get moving.  It’s doubtful that there will ever be a vastly better time than now to make your dream happen.

Know when to be flexible and when to stand firm. This is after all your dream, not the bank or the venture fund’s dream.  It will be your hard work to make it a success and ultimately your responsibility if the venture fails.  If you’ve done your homework on who your customer is and how you can uniquely serve them, don’t give up on that idea quickly.  That said, if you’re hitting brick walls with every pitch you make, there’s a possibility that your idea may need major tuning.  While I wouldn’t recommend that you blindly follow every piece of advice you’re given, you should take in every input and consider it closely.  Being able to listen, be persuaded and adjust your plans accordingly is a good sign that you’re mature enough to lead your venture to success.

Know what to worry about. Naysayers, on the other hand, are in a category of their own. They aren’t giving advice, they are stealing hope.  The number of naysayers that you’ll come across when starting your business will be surprising and who they are will often be disheartening.  Your parents, siblings, close friends and trusted coworkers will all chime in on your plans.  If they’re only radiating fear or negativity, you have no option but to ignore them and move ahead.

I’m not suggesting that you won’t worry—you’ll worry a lot.  You might spend some nights crying yourself to sleep or not sleeping at all.  Your business will likely stress you out more than anything else in your life.  You can however, get aggressively clear on what you can control in your business and what you can’t.  If it’s out of your hands, toss it aside like the voice of naysayers and focus on what you can impact with your attention.  Make lists, ruthlessly prioritize and practice blocking out the noise.

Know where to get help. Just because you can start a business with no capital doesn’t mean you should start your business with no capital.  The power of the Internet to lower barriers to entry is incredible, but it also enables you to half-commit. Don’t mistake timidity for thrift. If your business plan calls for investment, do the work to find that investment. That exercise will also help you hone your strategy, test out your assumptions and it will give you a ton of confidence moving into the next stages of getting started.

In running your own business, you’ll wear many hats. On any given day you’ll act as CEO, CFO, CMO, CTO and more. In many cases, finding great technology partners will be even more valuable than finding seed money.  You’ll need a dynamic website and listings, professional email, connected scheduling and productivity tools, basic CRM and marketing tools, online advertising, deals, offerings and payments, bookkeeping and more.  Look for technology that is priced to grow with you as your needs grow.  If you look closely, you’ll find technology that can leverage predictive analytics to provide insights so you don’t need to be an expert in every role.  With cloud-based services, it’s now possible to offload much of your marketing, financial and technology work to brilliant algorithms.  With the right technology partners, managing your business, even if you’re doing it alone, won’t be as lonely as in the past.  It’s a smart move and one that you can get up and running for just a few dollars a month—which will be important in the early stages of your business while your books are all still in the red.

Know yourself.  Are you a self-motivated individual?  Are you resilient to long stretches of taxing and seemingly unrewarding work?  Are your buoyant against angst and despair?  Do you have the time to invest in yourself and your dream?  Can you afford to work for no pay for the foreseeable future? Do you know why you want to start a business and is it a noble reason?  These are just a few of the questions you need to ask yourself and honestly answer before you strike out on your own.

You don’t need to be superhuman to start your own business, but you do need to be super honest with yourself.  If you are looking for a fast way to get rich or a way to look impressive to your peers, it’s unlikely you’ll find success at the end of your journey.  The businesses I’ve seen succeed are ones fueled by creative ingenuity, passionate about their ideas and focused on delivering exceptional service in their community.

As our world becomes increasingly automated, I believe we’ll see a growing segment of our population start small, independent ventures that tap into their passions and creativity.  For anyone thinking of starting a business today, I hope these six principles get you thinking about—and moving toward—your goals.

Photo: WebBrush

15 thoughts on “Six Bits of Wisdom For the Aspiring Entrepreneur

  1. Hey,

    I bought my first GoDaddy service almost a decade ago (~9 years). What I really liked about GoDaddy is its customer service. I would always come back to GoDaddy only because of pricing and customer service.

    I was surprised to see your blog on GoDaddy site. So out of curiosity I came across this article! I currently work for a research institute in Singapore and was contemplating doing a startup with the technology I was building to eliminate referral spam or more accurately web traffic spam. I do have many worries about taking this new path of entrepreneurship but I’m kind of encouraged by your article.

    Anyway, thanks for the advice!

  2. These are my two favorite lines of the whole article:
    “The businesses I’ve seen succeed are ones fueled by creative ingenuity, passionate about their ideas and focused on delivering exceptional service in their community.”

    “As our world becomes increasingly automated, I believe we’ll see a growing segment of our population start small, independent ventures that tap into their passions and creativity.”

    So much of what you said is so difficult. The words look harmless, but in the midst of the situation the answers aren’t always clear or easy… knowing what to worry about, when to be flexible, when to plan and when to quit planning and plow forward.
    You hit the nail on the head and identified the key areas that make and break a business.
    Great article.
    Thank you!

    Chandler Crouch

    PS if it weren’t for godaddy customer service, I wouldn’t be where I am today. You have an incredible company

  3. I couldn’t agree more with this post, particularly the bit concerning knowing your customer.. “there is nothing more important in business than to understand who your customer is and how you can serve them better than anyone else”. I think that without this key element, there is little hope of being really successful. Getting everything else right, a business certainly can succeed, but if a business is to be really successful and expand, knowing their customers and offering the best service possible is the key.

  4. Blake,

    Great message that really underpinned my day today when I’ve been making lists, prioritizing and tuning out the naysayers/hope-stealers.

    Thanks. So glad I discovered your blog!


  5. This is a great commentary on starting your own business. I agree with the others here who pointed out the importance of the first section about knowing your customer and also many of the comments here about knowing yourself. This story is about the importance of making your business something unique and personal to you… making it your own… really owning it.

    It seems today that much of the advice out there for managing your own business is the opposite. I constantly read columns and articles by renowned business people who say to be most successful, you have to detach yourself from your business and assess it from an objective point of view and make the hard decisions from that perspective. Personally, I think this invites way too much negativity and puts you in a position to lose your passion. I say, never do anything that risks that because losing the passion for your business is the worst thing that can happen and it’s really hard to find it again. It’s best to never go there in the first place!

    So, for those who get past the start up phase and have been in business for a while, the challenge becomes keeping that passion alive… don’t get caught up in things that mess with that because it’s the whole ball game! You and your business are nothing without it.

  6. Thank you for the great post. The section on ‘Know when to be flexible and when to stand firm’ really resonates with me and is often a hard thing to learn. Thanks again!

  7. Mr. Blake,

    Truly enjoyed reading your full story about starting a business. Very good inside information for those that has already started their business too. I enjoy working with people that are looking to start a business as well as started a program for “Youth Entrepreneurship” that assist youth to follow their dream and desire of turning what they love and enjoy doing into a business. It is my desire to share your article to with those that are in my group. Wow, and just maybe one day we could get you to come to our area to speak present to anyone that desire to fulfill their dream of owning a business. Thanks for you and your Blog…

  8. I certainly would not disagree with the information, I spent two years self employed, but working for a risk mamagement Company. It was long hours, hard work finding your own customers but two years on customers family and friends were calling me for an appointment becuase “word of mouth” is just the best “advertising” you can get. Your clients have recommended you to family and friends, not becuasse your the cheapest, best product etc but because they like YOU and feel confident to tell their friends knowing you will treat them professionaly and not embarrass them.

    So I would advise,1) Treat your customers as you would want to be treated youself with honesty and integrity. The best customer is the one you already have and if you want to be your own boss, no point doing what you do for someone else 9 -5 every day unless you love going to work. So choose a business you want to work at for the rest of your working life and will enjoy every day doing it.

  9. Thanks for this post! It really brings some valuable points to the table. Especially knowing what to worry about. Sometimes it’d difficult to be clear about what can be controlled and toss the rest. My business deserves my full attention.

    Claudia Hill

  10. Great article! I was in business for 6 yrs. some of the best personal growth I’ve had in my life. I love automotive everything. I have been working on cars as a mechanic and manager of businesses up until I started my own repair shop. I like what you said about knowing your customer and treating them as you want to be. That’s how I ran my place. I couldn’t afford advertising and word of mouth is the best! Feeling alone with your business is something I want everyone to watch out for. I think that may have been the demise of my shop. I started the biz when I was dating a girl. I opened things were good, we married and divorced. Biz closed 2 yrs later. I was only person doing everything for yrs. even when I had employees I was alone, then would come home and unload what I wanted to let out on wife. Usually just the bad, but not the bad that would worry her. Ya definitely gotta find someone or a way to get EVERYTHING out on the table before things get outta hand. Next thing ya know you are robbing Peter to pay Paul and you going home beat up for no money. Physically, I can’t do the mechanics, advertising, selling, and constant working that is involved with owning your own shop. I’m hoping that the web is my outlet to keep what I love and what makes me -me alive. I love everything about automotive and the people involved so it’s crazy to give up on that because I don’t/can’t physically and mentally do it all anymore. I have some great ideas to bring everything I LOVE together and like you said I won’t feel I’m working anymore. Life NEEDS to be decent. If you can make it great… DO IT! Thank you for this … I’m recharged at 3am! Typical deal!! No wonder!!!!’ Coop

  11. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a friend who had been conducting a little research on this. And he in fact ordered me dinner simply because I discovered it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending time to discuss this matter here on your blog.

  12. Thanks Blake for the wonderful post. If only I had seen this a couple years ago when I first started out my business. There’s are two points specifically which hit home; knowing when to ask for help and when to stand firm. I thought (naively) running my own business would’ve been alike working within a business. Oh, how wrong I was.

    Some of us learns these the hard way, and are shaped by them. I’d be interested to see the young ones – scared less than myself – take this advice and really flourish in today’s entrepreneur-ready environment.

  13. It is really nice to have hosted on Godaddy. The way your team help a budding entrepreneur to the fullest is just mind blowing. Thank you for such a great support 😀

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