We’ve all been at a business or entrepreneurship panel and heard advice that sounds nice: “Follow your dreams!” “Pursue your passion!” “Work hard and it will all pay off in the end!”
As lovely and inspiring as these words may sound, I’ve always found this type of generic advice troubling, particularly early in my career. If I knew “my passion,” wouldn’t I already be pursuing it? If my dreams were all crystal clear and I had unlimited resources, I’d follow them. Hard work wasn’t something I’d ever had trouble with — I already worked hard at jobs and side hustles I didn’t really like!
As I’ve progressed in my career and transitioned to full-time entrepreneurship (as cofounder & editor-in-chief of CRWN Magazine), this type of advice started to bother me for another reason: It simply doesn’t account for the reality of the marketplace. It’s irresponsible to paint such broad strokes about entrepreneurship. Every idea is not a business, and everyone is not necessarily equipped (financially, emotionally, or otherwise) to be a business owner. A brilliant idea without a business model is simply not a business. I learned this the hard way early in my career, and I’ve seen plenty of others do the same.
If you’re a young person with ideas and ambition, I encourage you to get real with yourself. Ask yourself the tough business questions up front and be honest about your intentions. I could never provide an exhaustive list of questions to consider, but if you’re wondering whether to turn that percolating idea into a full-fledged business, here are a few things I’d recommend that you consider first.
When we decided to create CRWN Magazine in late 2014, my business partner, Nkrumah, had been observing the “natural hair movement” in the digital space for months; and he noticed that things were reaching a fever pitch. On a personal level, I had experienced the lack of resources for my hair (and my mother’s, cousins’ and friends’ hair…) for decades. In our original brainstorming conversation about CRWN, it struck us both as pretty outlandish that, in 2014, we still didn’t have a modern magazine to flip through and get natural hair inspiration. Technically, a natural hair magazine wasn’t a new idea — but we believed that our perspectives, skills, and approach to the problem would make our product remarkable.
Step one was identifying what we believed was a void in the marketplace, but step two was confirming it with our customers in real time. This could have taken many forms, but we executed this through empathy mapping, interviews with women in our target market, and testing our MVP (“minimum viable product”) – a small, folded “Zero Issue.” We referred to it as our demo tape and distributed it via grassroots marketing at a Brooklyn music festival during the summer of 2015. By speaking to our customers directly, we were able to turn an assumed negative (brands loved to tell us that “print is dead”) into our unique value proposition: “the most honest and beautiful representation of Black women in the history of print.” Today, we’re taking meetings and closing deals with some of the biggest beauty and lifestyle brands in the world.
Instead of trying to compete in the overly-saturated digital space, Nkrumah and I did something that seemed a bit crazy to the naked eye: We created a print publication in the digital age. But, because we took time to understand our customer, her needs, her wants, and what she was willing to pay for; we insured our efforts and ensured that there was a market for our product before making a huge investment of time and resources. Ask yourself: Are you providing unique value or just shouting in a crowded room?
Before launching CRWN, Nkrumah and I were committed to using our time, talent and resources to serve our people. That passion has fueled us through many setbacks. Strategically speaking, though, we also knew how much money we, as Black women, spend on our hair — the Black haircare market represents billions of dollars by some estimations. We thought it wise to invest our efforts in an industry that had more than enough space for a new product offering (or several).
The evening of our initial brainstorm, we outlined fourteen different revenue streams — from ad sales and sponsorships, to coffee table books and other merchandise. On Day One, we mapped out our vision for the business itself (not just the content “idea” we were so excited about). Along the way, we’ve tweaked, redesigned, and completely scrapped some of those business models; but it was important to understand the scope of the opportunity at the outset.
In the blogging age, it is very tempting to build up a huge following, invest time in content, creative, and video — and then try to monetize through advertising or sponsorship. I challenge you to approach things in a different way. Make your first transaction with your first customer as soon as you possibly can. That’s when you truly become a business. If you’re going to fail, do so quickly and with as small an investment as possible.
With CRWN, knowing that we had a community of paying customers equipped us to withstand the many “No’s” we’ve received from brands along the way. No matter how great your product is, there will always be No’s. Which brings us to the next question ...
Rejection is real. As an entrepreneur, you have to be your product’s or service’s biggest salesperson — not just on Day 10, but on Day 1,010. It’s up to you to drive revenue each day. It’s up to you to attend events and make cold calls and speak on panels even when you’d rather “call in sick.” Hobbies can be a release — they may provide a source of inspiration, perhaps a community, or an outlet. On a good day, your business can be the source of some of these things; but it also comes with deadlines, customers, employees, interns, clients, and expectations (not to mention emails upon emails upon emails).
Will you want to do this work with these people in this environment in a year? In three years? In five years? It’s impossible to predict the future, but it is important to heed any red flags as early as possible. Experience has shown me that red flags never disappear — they only get brighter and more difficult to ignore! Entrepreneurship is tough. Don’t make it tougher.
One surefire way to know if something is a business or a hobby is to observe your emotional state when you talk about it. Not that emotions are a bad thing — it’s a great sign if you perk up and get excited as you talk about your project. However, if a trusted advisor is grilling you about your business model and you notice yourself getting defensive, or if you’re clinging to elements of your old site design out of nostalgia when the data shows it’s time for a refresh, it’s wise to explore where your reluctance is coming from.
Again, expressing yourself through art or a hobby that positively impacts others is a wonderful, worthwhile goal. There is no shame in pouring your attention into a side project that fulfills you on a personal level. Maintaining the status quo at the expense of your own livelihood, however, is self-sabotage. Know the difference.
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road. Business is cyclical. People will discourage you. Some people won’t understand your vision, and others may even be threatened by it. You’ll find that everyone has an opinion, whether they’ve started a business before, or not. If you find yourself talking to the “devil’s advocate” who doesn’t have a background in business, kindly step away. When your idea is fresh, it’s more crucial than ever to protect it.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t solicit honest feedback. Just make sure it comes from people who have the experience and context to offer constructive, balanced, fact-driven criticism. Partner only with people who complement your skills and add energy to the project — not people who kill the vibe. Identify your cheering squad, your support system. Often, this is not family or friends, but rather, other entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs who value your work and understand the sacrifices you’re making.
Remember: There’s no handbook for entrepreneurship. No one has it all figured out and no one will give you permission to start. So, follow your dreams, and follow your business plan. Pursue your passion, but also pursue the best solution for your customers. And definitely work hard. Work really, really hard.
Images courtesy of The Jopwell Collection