10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Own Business

Table of Contents

Hey Blog Family! Pete here. This is a guest post from my good buddy, Jim Wang from Wallet Hacks. I hope you find it valuable!

When I started my first blog back in 2005, I didn’t think it would become a business… and that was a good thing.

I just started a journal. It gained traction, got a few readers, and it grew bigger than I could’ve ever imagined.

One of the advantages I didn’t know I had was my ignorance. I didn’t know what the heck I was doing and no one else did either. You didn’t have a million posts teaching you how to start a blog or how to dominate social media or how to earn money – blogs were journals and all you do with a journal is write in it.

Through the years, I’ve learned a lot of things about business that I don’t think are considered common knowledge – here they are:

1. Being “Smart” Doesn’t Matter

Have you ever heard of someone complain about the success of another person – wondering how that person succeeded even though they weren’t that smart? Or they weren’t that talented?

Being successful has very little to do with how smart and talented you are.

It’s more about how hardworking you are, how lucky you are, and how quickly you move. You want to do quality work but you need to put out a lot of volume. If you’re willing to outwork everyone else, you are guaranteed to succeed. You only fail if you stop (otherwise, just pivot!) and if success is about finding a needle in the haystack, you just have to look harder and longer than someone who is “smarter.”

Smart people also have a tendency to avoid failure. If you were always a high performer in school, never failed a test, you don’t know adversity. You’ve been playing that game on easy mode and failure teaches you how to overcome it. That’s why many successful people will tell you that they weren’t the smartest person in their class but they were hardworking – that’s the only thing you can control.

(also, failing often can be a good thing, it gets you one failure closer to success!)

In college, I remember reading a study in my psychology class that has stuck with me to this day. Two groups of people were given a keychain with fifty keys, one of which unlocked a door. One group was told that the keychain contained a key that unlocked the door. The other group was told that the keychain might contain a key that unlocks the door. Not unexpectedly, the percentage of people unlocking the door in the first group was higher and is directly attributed to them believing they had the key… it was just a matter of trying all the keys.

Try all the keys – it’s in there. You don’t have to be smart to find it, you just have to keep trying.

2. The Tools Don’t Matter

Spend enough time in Facebook groups about business and you’ll see a lot of questions about tools.

If I want to start a blog, what should I use? (WordPress)

What plugins do I install? (doesn’t matter)

What writing tools do I need? (doesn’t matter)

What matters is doing and figuring it out as you go. When you run into a problem, find the tool to solve it. Don’t try to “pre-solve” problems or you’ll never get started in the first place.

And if you pick the wrong tool, you can always change it later.

3. You Don’t Need More of That Kind of Knowledge

Stop watching videos, reading blog posts, and listening to business podcasts. You need to execute.

Derek Sivers has a great quote – “If [more] information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”

His point was there are a lot of reasons why we aren’t where we want to be but it’s rarely about information. You know enough to create a plan and start doing the work.

Once that plan gets punched in the face, that’s where the real knowledge starts. The knowledge no one talks about because it’s in the weeds and only someone doing the work would understand.

How do you price your product? How do you know what services to offer? The only way to know is to put that offer in front of a lot of people and see what they think.

Tim Ferriss shared a story about how he came up with the title for the Four Hour Workweek – he bought Google Adwords ads promoting the book using various titles and subtitles to see which got the most clicks. His intuition, and that of his publisher, didn’t match the market. He could’ve studied books on marketing or researched what titles resonate, blah blah, but the reality is you don’t need more information of that type. You need more action because that’s what gets you the information you really need.

You don’t need more information – you need more experience. Then you can take that information and apply it according to your experiences. You need to build the systems, break the systems, then rebuild them with improvements.

Stop consuming content and start creating content.

4. You Don’t Have to be Perfect

Every successful business owner has iterated to where they are today. The web is a fascinating place because you can see where people start and where they are today.

Gary Vaynerchuk is one of the most popular and well-known internet personalities out there. He has appeared in countless videos.

Here was his first:

The audio is OK. The video is OK. Even Gary’s personality is muted from what we see today (I don’t know him so this may be what he’s like in real life and what we see online is an amped-up “TV” version). The thing that isn’t just OK is the thing that shines through – his knowledge. That’s top-notch.

Now watch episode #1001:

This episode is much better on the production side but the format is roughly the same (it’s about the wine), and his knowledge is still great. He says “uhs,” a cork rolls off the table and he catches it, but no one cares about those.

Make sure your expertise is on point but otherwise just get started, iterate, and improve.

5. Create Value, Then Collect Some

Business is not about convincing people what you made is good and that they should buy it, it’s about showing them that it’s valuable and they can’t live without it. What you sell won’t be for everyone, but the key is to find the people it is for and making sure they understand it’s for them.

AIDA is a common marketing acronym that stands for Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action. It’s the idea that to sell someone, you take them on this journey from awareness to action. You have to get your customers aware of your product or service. Then you generate interest in your product or service on the part of potential customers. Then you need to develop a desire for your specific product or service. This all culminates in an action – they buy it.

Reality is less clear. Most of the time you’re just trying to put your solution in front of someone with that problem. There’s a massive population out there where the awareness and interest and desire are all there, they just need to know about your solution.

The solution is where you create value in the world. And when you solve a problem for people, you can reap some of the rewards. If you create no value and only seek to extract value, you may win in the short term but you won’t win over the long term.

The most valuable post on my first blog was about 0% balance transfers. Today, every financial website has a list of 0% balance transfers. Back then, very few did because it was a relatively new phenomenon that most people didn’t know about. So there was value in curating a list of every offer so someone could see them in one place – you didn’t have to search every card issuer’s website.

Tim Chen at Nerdwallet, now practically a household name in finance, started by maintaining an excel spreadsheet of the best credit card offers. He would share this list with his friends and family because they valued his opinion and his analysis. This grew into the massively popular, and the incredibly profitable, website you know today as Nerdwallet.

While this isn’t to promote the idea that you should work for free, or for “exposure,” there are areas where doing so has merit… and it’s usually not when someone outright asks you to.

6. Don’t Talk About Your Business, Just Open It

There’s a tendency amongst people who aspire to run a business to tell everyone about their plans.

A lot of your friends will be polite and tell you that your idea is solid gold. They’ll give you encouragement because they’re your friend, not because they’re analyzing your business. They may visit on opening day but that’s because they are supporting you, not the business. If you live in that echo chamber, every idea of yours will be great and grand – it’s bad data.

In fact, research tells us that when we talk about our goals we actually get satisfaction just from talking about it. Our friends praise us for our big dreams and that tricks our brains into thinking we’ve actually accomplished something. Derek Sivers did a short Ted Talk about this exact phenomenon. You can check that out here.

Another sneaky aspect of talking… when you’re afraid of failure, it’s easy to talk about an idea and never start it. If you don’t start it, you can’t possibly fail – it’s just a fantastic idea that can live in your head forever.

If you do this, the best thing you can hope for is for someone to have the same idea and succeed. Then you can celebrate that you also had a great idea but someone beat you to it. You didn’t fail, you just didn’t succeed fast enough. Regret is far worse a feeling than failure.

7. A Business Will Force You To Grow

People love a sexy entrepreneurship story. If you’re working a 9-to-5 you dislike or find mildly tolerable, it’s fun to read stories about entrepreneurs. It’s like your own little Shawshank Redemption, except with careers. It’s all about the twists.

But like prison breaks, most businesses fail. And not only do they fail, they often fail slowly and painfully over a long period of time.

The irony of business is that the ones that succeed, they also succeed slowly and painfully over a long period of time.

Running a business will force you to grow as a person in ways a “regular” job won’t. You will be forced to learn new skills, often under pressure with limited resources, as the world changes around you and without a safety net. It’s both frightening and exhilarating.

But that’s what makes entrepreneurship so alluring. You get to grow in ways you didn’t expect and it’s an experience unlike many others.

And while starting a business is something we should celebrate but it isn’t something everyone should aspire to do. (or feel bad if they don’t have any interest in it)

The pedestals should be reserved for those providing for themselves and their family – doing whatever that looks like. If it’s clocking into a 9-to-5 job, celebrate it. If it’s opening a retail store, celebrate it. If it’s going to work for your parents, celebrate it. No one path is inherently better than another, it’s just different paths to the same destination.

8. You Don’t Have to be a Rockstar

I love behind the scenes videos and shows of anything. I like seeing how the sausage is made and what the salumists are thinking.

One of those shows is Last Chance U – it follows the coach and the players of a junior college football program as they go about their season. The players are all great athletes who find themselves on their last chance to make a Division I school. The show is tough to watch because these guys with gifted physical talents often find themselves unable to navigate the rest of their lives, including going to school, taking classes, and staying out of trouble.

How does this apply to business? For those athletes, it’s the NFL or bust. In business, there’s a tendency to think that you have to start something worth millions or billions to be worth it. You have to raise venture capital money and become a unicorn (company worth $1b). Many people think that because that’s what gets you on the cover of Time magazine. You have to be a rockstar.

The reality is far starker. Not only is it unlikely you’ll create a startup unicorn, it extremely unlikely. You will not create a massive company but you will suffer for a few years just to fail. It’s just how that world works.

It also misses a big segment of business where you can live a very comfortable life doing relatively mundane jobs. Take a landscaping company – it’s a competitive business but you can make a great living doing it. You know how you can tell it’s lucrative? So many of those companies exist and operate in a small area. In our neighborhood of about 30 homes, I’ve seen three different companies doing landscaping.

If you skip the VC route and chasing unicorns, you can build a business that accidentally becomes one. Take 1-800-GOT-JUNK – what started as a one-man and one-truck operation has become a massive hauling empire worth billions.

Don’t miss the quarters on the ground when you’re searching for hundred dollar bills. It’s still money and that’s the point of business.

9. Find a Business Friend

A lot of experts will talk about finding a mentor and learning from a mentor – that’s great advice.

But more importantly, find a business “friend” or peer that you can just talk things through with. Throughout my years of blogging and building internet businesses, I’ve had several people who I’ve considered my friends. We talk about various things that go on in the business and sometimes there are concrete bits of advice and action that result.

A lot of the times it’s just sharing funny stories, complaining about competitors and partners, or just talking through whatever is on our minds. It’s like therapy but with someone who understands what you’re doing. It’s not a mentor-mentee relationship, though on some level every conversation has a bit of that dynamic, it’s more like therapy. This can help during stressful times too.

10. Don’t Ask for “Advice”

And to round this all out – this last one is one of my personal pet peeves.

Don’t ask someone to grab a coffee to pick their brain. Don’t ask for “advice.”

If you have a specific question, ask it. If you don’t, it’s fine to wait. Don’t just ask for generic “what would you do in my shoes?” because it’s terrible and it’s lazy. The person you’re asking won’t know your situation, your experiences, what you’ve tried, what you haven’t, etc. So you will get a terrible answer that probably won’t help.

What is difficult for you in your business? What is the next problem you need to solve?

Ask that question and ask it in a way so that the person knows what you’ve done already.

For example, let’s say you’re a personal finance blogger and you’re having trouble getting traffic to your site. A question you might ask me would go something like this:

“Hey Jim, I really love what you’ve done with Wallet Hacks, I’m a big fan. I’m a personal finance blogger that’s been blogging for about six months and I’m having trouble getting traffic. I’ve tried social media like Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook – but that doesn’t seem to do much. I’ve also tried getting links from other blogs by emailing them but no one responds. What are some things I can do to grow my traffic?”

That’s a question I would actually answer – and my answer would look something like this:

  1. Join the FinCon Community Facebook group and interact with the people in the group, answer questions, demonstrate your expertise, and make friends
  2. Try to find ways you can help the Admins
  3. Volunteer to be a contributor of some kind, perhaps managing the share thread, or coordinating other activities
  4. Sign up for HARO, answer everything relevant no matter how big or small, share HARO questions with specific people within the FinCon group where you think it makes sense
  5. Comment on other FinCon blogger’s posts, engage with them on social media
  6. When you see someone else launch something, try to help them promote it with retweets and sharing, even words of encouragement are good too

Those are specific steps but the basic gist is to become a valuable member of the community you want to be in – that facilitates everything else. From there, you can try to start projects with other bloggers that now know you’re a real human being and not a spam bot. You can start a joint podcast or even just a content series.

As you answer more HARO requests, you can build up your As Seen In page with more credibility signals.

As you start to get more traffic, you build a lead magnet and get people on your email newsletter – that way you can push out content to them rather than wait for people to show up. But like everything else in life, it all starts with creating value in the community you want to be in and leveraging the good things that will happen.

That’s a good actionable answer! But a question like “How do I grow my blog?” would not get such an answer. It’s a vague question so it would get a vague response – if it got any response at all.

Summary

The most important part of starting a business is to just start. You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to know everything before you begin. Heck, you really only need to know the next step. You’ll figure it out as you go and you will succeed as long as you don’t stop.

COMMENTS

2 Responses

  1. Thanks Jim! It’s easy to drift away from the core of a new business idea, and get wrapped up in how everyone else is succeeding. So thanks for these reminders to keep things simple, stay persistent, and that failure is ok (and necessary!)

    Cheers,
    Joel

    1. Yes! Especially if it looks “easy” (everything looks easier on the outside than from the inside!) – remaining focused is really hard but I think it’s been one of the keys to my (and many others’) success. Thanks Joel!

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