“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” – Amelia Earhart
Almost 3 years ago, my business partner Foram Sheth and I were leading a retreat in Otavalo, Ecuador. My company, Ama La Vida, was just becoming formalized, and we were piloting coaching retreats as a service line. We visited the home of two artists, a married couple, for lunch and a lesson on local art. I saw a wooden mask for sale that I fell immediately in love with.
The middle of it looked like a regular, face-shaped mask. But the top of its head broke into different shapes stacked on top of one another with various carvings on them. It was called “Pensamientos.” “Thoughts” in Spanish.
I asked Juan, its creator, what the meaning behind it was. He said that entire civilizations can be built on nothing more than a thought. Damn. There I was, about to embark on the journey of a lifetime to build a company which at that moment was very little more than a thought. I was inspired. And with no convincing or haggling, I was the proud new owner of a piece of Ecuadorian art.
Juan was absolutely right. Ama La Vida is still in its infancy, and we still have a ways to go to achieve even a fraction of our long-term vision. And yet I still have moments where I think, “Wow. Three years ago this didn’t exist. Because of something I built, people’s lives are changing. People are forming bonds and friendships. People are making an income. What not too long ago was just a thought is now something real.” I’m so incredibly humbled by that.
There is an important distinction to make here, however. Civilizations and businesses can be built from nothing more than a thought. But thoughts don’t just become businesses. Thoughts have to become actions, and actions have to lead to more actions, bigger actions, bolder actions, and then they become businesses.
People ask me all of the time how you get from an idea to starting a business. When I respond with, “You just start doing stuff,” they are incredibly disappointed… as you can imagine. So that’s a ridiculous over-simplification of how I would actually guide someone through the steps of starting a business, but the point of the conversation isn’t about getting the details right. It’s about helping people to understand that to turn an idea into reality, you have to take action.
I think what people are hoping I will say is, “Go to Amazon. Type in ‘Magic Business Starting Kit,’ and order the first item that shows up. In two business days, you’ll be on your way to having the company of your dreams!” They are hoping I will tell them about some trick. A hack they haven’t heard about yet. Something entrepreneurs know that they don’t, and once they are in the know, they will be in the club.
We all talk about taking risks and welcoming failure. We pin quotes telling us to just go for it. But I don’t think we fully comprehend how scary that feeling is when the time actually comes. No quote can prepare you for the moment when you have to sit down with your boss and tell them you are quitting to start this crazy business venture they never knew you were working on. It can’t prepare you for the conversation with your conservative parents telling them you are leaving a salary for the unknown. Or the months that follow when you watch your savings dwindle down as you chase your dreams. Or the months that follow that, when you question yourself at every turn wondering if your idea really is good or if you have been nuts all along.
So it’s safer to just sit there and think. Safer when it’s just you and your pensamientos. Keeping your business idea tightly locked away in your mind to save for another day. The day when your magic kit arrives and makes the whole thing a lot less scary.
So now that I’ve sufficiently terrified you (yes, starting a business truly is scary) and told you that there is no magic kit on Amazon (unless there’s something incredible I am unaware of), it’s probably time that I give you some guidance on what you can do to move forward. The secret to starting a business isn’t magic – it’s momentum.
It’s less about getting the first step exactly right and more about getting the wheels in motion. If starting a business feels overwhelming, then just do one small thing each day. A little market research. Buy a domain. Create a social media account. Start a one-page business plan. You won’t get it all exactly right, and you may have to go back and revisit some things later, but you will get yourself to a place where you feel like you’re starting to make something real. My co-founder Katie advises that no matter what steps you take, make sure you get specific with what you plan to do. “The more vague your plan is, the less likely it is that things will get done.”
Katie adds, “You’re going to have A LOT of ideas and a LOT to do. Write them all down, but don’t do them all. Think about your number one objective for that month or quarter, and then go through your long list and circle the ones that actually propel you forward and help you achieve it. The rest can wait.” Even a few years into business we continue to have to remind ourselves of this. It is easy to get distracted by new and exciting ideas, but you need to constantly edit your to-do list to focus only on the things that have to be done now to achieve your next milestone.
It can be lonely starting a business, and if this is your first one, you will have a lot of questions. Find a community that you enjoy where you can go for emotional and tactical support. Being a part of 1871’s WiSTEM accelerator has been invaluable. One of our fellow cohort members, Courtney Shuster, founder of IRL Trivia says, “When I was getting started, I connected over coffee with as many people as I could in the startup space. Each coffee chat led to an insight, learning, or new connection that helped me grow and gave me courage to take the next step forward.”
A community is great, but it is also nice to have someone there in the trenches with you. Select a partner who complements your weaknesses. ALV Co-founder Foram says, ”Work with people who have skills and knowledge you don’t. You’re not going to be an expert at finance, marketing, technology, strategy, operations, etc. Figure out the core things that you need to operate your business, and plug in the gaps where you don’t have expertise.” Your partner(s) won’t just bring a wealth of knowledge, but they will pick you up when you’re having one of those inevitable “am I nuts” days. But don’t take selecting a partner lightly. Katie says, “Take the process of finding and fostering that relationship as serious as you would your marriage. Because that’s what it is.”
Want to run a marathon? Sign yourself up for a 5k (preferably an expensive one). Want to learn to play piano? Register for a lesson. Or better yet, commit to a performance. Want to start a business? Announce it on social media. I use these tactics for all sorts of goals in my life, and they work like a charm. When you’re having a burst of inspiration take a bold step forward that you will have to stay accountable to later.
As early as you can, start to figure out the metrics which measure success for you. This might be viewers, new users, sales, etc. You’re going to feel busy all the time, but which activities are paying off? “Follow your left brain. Track and quantify as much as you can so you can see what works and doesn’t. Don’t rely on what feels good,” cautions Foram. Even now, no matter how much we may love a product or an idea, if the numbers don’t align, we move on.
I’ve relied on friends who are lawyers. Who are PR experts. Who are data wizards. Who understand insurance a hell of a lot more than I do. You have more power than you realize in your network. It may not be the people who are going to get you a million dollar deal, but maybe they can save you a few bucks and maybe that’s just the kind of motivation you’ll need.
When you’re getting started, every day you will face a new challenge that you’ve never encountered before, and it will be tempting to retreat. You will think to yourself, “I don’t have the money for this. I have no clue how to do this. I’ll never figure this out.” Challenge your own thinking. Is there a cheaper way? Is there a free version? Can you enlist the help of a friend? Is there a less ideal option that will work well enough for now? I can’t tell you how many things I thought I’d never know that Google has taught me. I can’t tell you how often people are shocked at how affordably we’ve built our platform. I can’t tell you how often I’m about to buy a $60 feature and Foram finds an alternative for $20. It can be done, and with a little creativity and scrappiness, you’ll find a way.
What’s one thing you’ve accomplished in your life that you’re pretty darn proud of? How did it come to be? I’ll bet there isn’t one defining moment that made it possible, but a culmination of people and actions that formed together to bring it to life. Your business will be the same way.
So forget the hack. Stop waiting. Start building. Your civilization is begging to become real. And I can promise you that each step along the way – laying out the blueprints, giving it a name, getting your first citizen – will fuel you to keep going. Will propel you to think even bigger. Until before you know it, it’s hard to believe that what you’ve built was once nothing more than a thought.