"Blank Page" Entrepreneurs: The Skills That Transform A Blank Page Into A Successful Business
What part of a car makes it go? There's not really one single answer. The engine, brakes and tires must be in good working order, but even a fully functional car is useless without a driver — a person with the necessary skills and experience to operate it. The car is a resource, but resources are useless until they’re employed in the right way by people that know how to use them. Your business is a lot like that car: it’s an assembly of resources with the potential to go many places. But it’s you — the entrepreneur — that takes those resources and drives them to a destination. Without your skills, all the resources in the world are useless.
Skills are not step-by-step instructions. How-to lists can be useful for simple tasks, but entrepreneurs need to know how to react in a wide range of situations over the life of a business. It takes knowledge and practice to become a successful business owner, and mistakes are part of the price we all pay for that education. But if you get enough experience, building a business and developing a strong brand will become almost second nature, just like driving.
As an entrepreneur you will learn to see things in a new way. You'll begin looking at your customers and your employees and your vendors — at everyone that interacts with your business — as someone who has desires and needs that you may be able to meet. You'll learn to focus on what you have to offer and learn how to adapt that offering to meet the needs of an individual, a specific audience and our shared community.
So what are the most critical skills for "blank page" entrepreneurs?
- Empathy: learning to see the world and your business through the eyes of your customers and finding the best ways to give them what they want and need.
- Tenacity: taking responsibility for the bad things that happen and finding ways to benefit from them.
- Prediction: looking with clear eyes at your place in the market and deciding how to meet and master the challenges that lie ahead.
- Honesty: finding the point of intersection between what you want to offer and what your customers want to receive.
- Execution: deciding what to do and then doing it — no hesitation, no excuses.
- Courage: planning for the pitfalls, feeling the fear and taking the leap into the unknown.
See Through Other Eyes: “Blank Page” Entrepreneur Skill #1 — Empathy
We’ll define the skill of “empathy” as the ability to see through someone else’s eyes and recognize how she is feeling. This doesn’t include having emotions about the person; it’s being able to recognize and understand the feelings that they must be having. When you use the skill of empathy to look through a customer’s eyes, you can see what they see and recognize how they feel. (The word “sympathy” is more closely associated with being concerned for another person, and is more aligned with the feeling of compassion.)
Those companies that have made the greatest impact on the world have used the skill of empathy to define themselves. They’ve looked carefully at what customers want and found ways to meet those needs. Sometimes, entrepreneurs take what they know how to do, hang a shingle, and wait for the customers to arrive. But those companies that carefully examine customers’ emotions and translate those needs into clearly defined offerings have a much easier time attracting and retaining a solid customer base.
Take hair styling, for example. Most people need to get a haircut on a regular basis, but there are many different emotional needs that are addressed within that one service. Some people consider it a chore and just want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Some people use a haircut as an opportunity to pamper themselves. Some people want the stylist to tell them what looks best, others have very clear ideas about how they want to look. Some people want a football team logo cut into buzzed hair or purple streaks in a modern, asymmetrical cut — these customers see a haircut as an opportunity for self-expression. A single suite of services is used to meet all of these psychological needs. The stylist that most clearly identifies these needs and defines his brand accordingly will be the one most likely to attract and retain that subset of customers.
Those companies that define and satisfy specific psychological needs also have an easier time establishing and clearly defining a brand in the minds of potential customers. An entrepreneurial barista probably understands that customers aren’t spending hours in a café just to drink coffee — they also want a cool place to hang out. Beer manufacturers that understand the connoisseur mindset may choose to provide a specialized “craft” product that appeals to an epicurean personality. A shoe store owner that recognizes a self-indulgent mindset in her customers can provide cold champagne as a way of making the trip to her store a luxury in itself. In almost every industry, from retail clothing to auto repair to child care, entrepreneurs have found ways to appeal to a set of emotional needs and craft offerings to meet those needs.
Arlene opened a small antique shop, and business was pretty good. But she kept noticing that her customers fell into two different psychological types: those who were on a mission to buy low and sell high, either in online marketplaces or auctions, and those who bought antiques for a love of history. The customers who were in the resell mindset were not particularly good customers, always haggling to the point of exhaustion. They tested Arlene’s patience and lowered her profit margins, and she wasn’t particularly interested in doing anything to encourage them. But those customers with a love of history could make her day. They returned regularly, made purchases without complaining about price, and loved engaging in conversation, which was a fun way for Arlene to engage with her customers.
Arlene realized that what these customers loved the most were her stories and bits of trivia. She began promoting specific evenings in the store where historians would be given a platform to describe a particular facet of history and present merchandise. An evening entitled “Going to the Bathroom Hasn’t Always Been Easy” featured a professor with a good sense of humor discussing chamber pots and antique plumbing fixtures. “Shoes: The Least Fashionable Accessory” gave attendees a glimpse into a time when the idea of having dozens of pairs was unthinkable for all but the very rich, and practical footwear was profoundly important. These informational evenings provided the stories that Arlene’s customers wanted and a chance for her to present newly available merchandise to a specific audience of potential buyers. By using the skill of empathy to examine customers’ emotional needs, she was able to engage the audience she most wanted to attract.
Turn Lemons Into Lemonade: “Blank Page” Entrepreneur Skill #2 — Tenacity
Think of a young, beautiful pop music star. How would your feelings for her change if she was arrested for drunk driving? The news would circulate around the world in a matter of minutes, and it would change her brand in the minds of everyone who saw it. From that point on, her brand would be associated with a whole new set of images — her mug shot, videos of her court appearances, photos of her walking into rehab, talk show confessions. But what if she began to speak out against underage drinking? What if she used her celebrity to raise money for a program that encourages kids to attend alcohol-free parties and events? It’s possible that, given enough remorse and time, she would eventually be seen as a champion of that cause — for some people, her brand would be redeemed.
Her team of publicists and agents already understand this dynamic, and they know that one negative event, even a serious one, does not have to cause irreparable harm. But they also know that no brand remains stable, and every brand must be constantly cultivated. Entrepreneurs must be tenacious: able to respond to and rebound from negative events, no matter where they come from. Entrepreneurs must constantly respond to both their own mistakes and unforeseen disasters that damage the business and the brand.
We may forgive our young pop star for her transgressions, but we will never forget them. When something negative happens to your brand, it can take years to repair the damage. In some cases, the brand may never be fully restored. If, during her drunk driving arrest, our young celebrity had gone on a tirade and made racist statements to the arresting officer, she might never be able to regain her original standing. As you build your brand, remember that everything you do will be remembered, and that enough negative impressions can kill your business.
As an entrepreneur, your brand is not something that you can construct and then ignore, because nothing stays the same forever. Like any part of your business infrastructure, it will need to be maintained and repaired. You may have to change your brand to respond to your competitors. You may have to reach out to new audiences as a result of changing economic conditions. If you make a mistake — and all of us do — each negative impression will need to be countered by several positive impressions. Every business owner must continually examine the marketplace and invest in her brand, rectifying blunders and countering external threats.
Larry’s Lakeside Cafe
Larry opened a beautiful restaurant with an enormous patio on the side of a pristine lake. Over several years, Larry developed a loyal following of customers who came out to take a break from the city and look at the spectacular scenery. But over the course of four years a significant drought decreased lake levels, leaving a bare, ugly shore and revealing a muddy, garbage-strewn lake bottom. Of course, Larry’s profits dried up at the same time.
Faced with a tough decision – whether to close the business permanently or find some other source of revenue – Larry chose to stick it out, believing that the rain would return eventually. In the meantime, Larry decided to take his great food directly to his customers.
- He began by offering a delivery service, using a database of customer emails he had collected as a starting point for the delivery promotion.
- He also purchased a small food truck. On the side, Larry posted a large sign that read “Larry brings the lake to you.” He parked the food truck in different locations around town, notifying customers via email and on social media where he would be each day.
- He purchased several inexpensive plastic swimming pools and filled them when he got to each location, allowing small kids and overheated pets to play in the water.
- Larry also began catering small business events during the evening. Once again, his database served as the initial marketing channel.
- He printed large, colorful banners with a photo of the lake as it had looked several years earlier, then set them around the food truck, along with bistro tables and chairs.
- A misting system cooled the air and lights hung from above, creating a fun, easy atmosphere, not unlike the patio at his original location.
What’s In The Cards? “Blank Page” Entrepreneur Skill #3 — Prediction
As the world around your business changes, so will your brand. Oil companies, banks, tobacco companies and airlines used to be perceived far differently than they are today. Kodak once owned the photography industry, but didn’t respond well to the change from film to digital, and this once powerhouse brand is now a case study in businesses that fail to respond to changes in the environment. As tastes change and new trends emerge, entrepreneurs must predict how their customers will change and find new ways to respond to those needs.
Companies that recognize social changes can take advantage of new trends and become market leaders. Apple was once a relatively small PC manufacturer, but when Apple prognosticators realized that portable technology would play an increasingly important role they developed music players and cell phones that transformed the marketplace. Amazon realized that as new people joined the World Wide Web they would soon become online consumers. Entrepreneurs that pay attention to changes in the environment can do a much better job of building a strong, long-lasting brand.
This dynamic holds true for businesses of every size. When gluten becomes a focus for a large number of people, a restaurant has to decide whether or not to offer gluten-free options. When a photo developer notices that customers are buying lots of digital cameras, she has to decide if she wants to sell ink, photo paper and desktop printers. Companies that want to succeed over the long term must recognize how their customers and their communities are changing and decide how to respond.
Tina worked as a travel agent for more than 15 years before people began booking vacations online. She slowly began to see her customer base eroding as websites began offering flights and hotels from large national providers. These sites worked well for many customers — those whose needs were simple enough to be met by a program. But she knew that customers would only be able to do so much for themselves; no website would ever provide the kind of customized service she could offer.
Tina began rebranding her company into a concierge travel service. She created relationships with a wide variety of experts in many fields — event planning, translation, fine cuisine, health and fitness — and was able to offer highly customized travel experiences. Her customers could travel anywhere in the world and do things that could never be found on the more common tourist agendas. She utilized her connections to hire personal tour guides and organize extreme adventures, access spots not open to the public and open doors to invitation-only events. By altering her offering — developing services that could not be duplicated by a computer — she was able to better serve a particular audience and keep ahead of changes to the marketplace.
Wisdom Is Found In Truth: “Blank Page” Entrepreneur Skill #4 — Honesty
It’s just as easy to build a business that you hate as it is to work in a job you despise. Why? What enables us to get into situations that frustrate and exhaust us? Sometimes it’s the product of unforeseen circumstances, but too often the culprit is a lack of understanding of our deepest natures and an unwillingness to approach our needs and wants with unflinching honesty.
Lots of entrepreneurs begin the journey with dollar signs in their eyes, and justifiably so. The richest people are not the highly celebrated actors, musicians and sports heroes we watch on TV. They tend to be people who have started and developed their own businesses.
But if you were told the highest return on investment would come from doing something that you hate doing, would you do it? Wealth does not create happiness, and value is not the same thing as money. If you create a job that you hate, what was the point of creating your own business in the first place? Small business owners need customers, but the pursuit of the wrong customers can lead entrepreneurs astray, derailing their original plans. They chase customers that they don’t like, discount their prices until their profit margins are either razor thin or vanish altogether, or offer to do things that they aren’t really comfortable doing. If you decrease the value of your offering or go after customers that don't help you reach your goals, you can do long-lasting damage to your brand and kill the business.
Entrepreneurs must also be honest with themselves about what they do well and what they can’t do. If you’re really good at bookkeeping, do it. But if you can’t manage your personal money, you need to address that honestly and hire someone to take care of your company’s finances. If you’re a great mechanic but you don’t interact with customers very well, you should acknowledge that aspect of your personality and hire someone to take care of customer service. These evaluations are difficult but also critical. If you can’t be honest with yourself, you may end up letting an unqualified employee — you — damage the business you’re trying to create.
Glenda loves cars. She loves racing, speed and the skill required to handle high-end engines. She knows everything there is to know about the engineering that creates performance, and she spends much of her free time learning about the newest technologies on the horizon. When Glenda decided to open her own shop, she advertised in the local community and quickly found customers.
But most of the people she worked for were only interested in keeping their cars operating and passing annual state inspections. They didn’t really care about performance, and there were precious few who owned the kinds of cars Glenda found exciting. Her customers' lackadaisical attitude irritated her, and she found herself in short, tense conversations explaining why oil should be changed more than once every two years, and why tire pressure is an important thing to keep track of. This wasn’t the kind of clientele that she envisioned when she opened her store, and it wasn’t making her daily experience of entrepreneurship a good one.
Rather than get rid of the existing customer base, Glenda decided to open a subsidiary to her own business. She began a marketing program to attract customers who purchase and maintain high-end sports cars, positioning herself as an expert by presenting at auto shows and advertising at races. She turned over the day-to-day operations for her base business to trusted employees, giving them the flexibility and the freedom to grow that part of the business. She focused her attention on creating a community around the new business, Glenda’s Gearheads. Her honest self-analysis enabled her to expand her business and create a more fulfilling entrepreneurial experience for herself.
Fitting the Pieces Together: “Blank Page” Entrepreneur Skill #5 — Execution
It’s the new year, and you’ve decided to — finally — get in shape. Maybe you should hire a personal trainer. But what do you expect from her? Do you want someone who stands next to you at the gym and tells you what to do, or do you need someone to teach you how to exercise on your own, enabling you to maintain good habits over the long term? Do you want someone to help you develop a long-range plan covering the next several years, or do you want someone to just get you to swimsuit season?
Instead of hiring a personal trainer you could decide to go it alone and buy some exercise equipment. There are thousands of products on the market, each one attesting to the ripped abs and sculpted physique that regular use will produce. Infomercials, print ads and online testimonials make all kinds of promises. You can buy magazines that provide advice on how to do the most effective bench press or the top ten exercises for biceps.
But whether you hire a trainer, get a gym membership or buy a roomful of equipment, your success will be determined by how well you execute. You must do two things: first, learn how to eat right and exercise effectively; second, motivate yourself to execute that plan. No one can do it for you. The personal trainers and authors of those magazine articles can’t make you work out or take the bag of chips out of your hand. You have to take the advice and the products and the training and integrate them into your daily routine.
The same thing happens as you enter the world of entrepreneurship. Consultants describe how to improve your search engine ranking. Trainers offer tips on e-commerce and social media. Magazines describe the best ways to scale your business and publish lists of the top business trends. Every accounting and CRM system touts its ability to change your business. And they can — but only if you know how to execute. You are the only one who can take these tools and integrate them into your daily routine.
The most fundamental skill of entrepreneurship is execution. You have to evaluate all of the available options dispassionately. You have to understand what will work for your business — your brand — and what won’t. Then you have to take that knowledge and develop a daily routine that keeps the customers coming in.
If you don't know how to build a brand and you're struggling to figure out what to do, a salesman’s pitch may seem like a quick fix — a solution that doesn’t require learning a new skill or developing processes and procedures. And this is why so many entrepreneurs spend a great deal of money without getting what they hoped for (and why so much money is wasted on unused exercise equipment).
An ad isn't a business. Products can't sell themselves. All of these components come together to create a brand — the overall mental image that someone has for your business — and it's the brand that creates sales. Until you understand the basics of how to build a brand, you can’t determine which options will work for your business.
There are dozens of different ways to reach an audience and an unlimited number of ways to position your business. Look for a trainer that can teach you the skills you need to build and maintain a brand over the long term. Advertising, marketing, branding, the Internet — everything has changed in just a few years, and it will continue to evolve. Understanding the newest social media platform or changes to the Google algorithm will not make you a successful entrepreneur. However, the skills required to build a great brand will always enable entrepreneurs to find and engage customers no matter how the marketing landscape shifts.
Facing the Fear: “Blank Page” Entrepreneur Skill #6 — Courage
What is courage? It’s not the absence of fear – if you’re not afraid you have no need of courage. Instead, courage is both the presence of fear and the willingness to face it. These two feelings coexist within the moment and, together, create one of the most valued of all human traits.
But courage doesn’t include behaving foolishly. If you jump out of a plane without a parachute, you’re not demonstrating courage — you’re either ignorant or masochistic. Courage requires understanding the consequences of your action, effort to avoid obvious consequences, and the faith that — if you prepare — things will turn out well.
This is why entrepreneurship is a courageous act. When you offer products and services to the public and hope that customers will be willing to trade their money for what you offer, you’re acting from a place of deep courage and faith. Entrepreneurship takes guts.
The first step in the journey to courage is self-examination. Have you fully examined your offering, evaluating it dispassionately, to see if your products and services are what the market wants? Have you searched for the obvious pitfalls, taking steps to avoid the dangers that you know you will face? And then, once your parachute has been inspected and your goggles are in place, can you step to the door of the plane, set your teeth and jump?
This is not a question that any “how-to” article or “10-best” tips can answer. This is something you must find out for yourself. When you begin to pursue something new — when you take the leap into entrepreneurship — you will have days of regret and fear and sadness. You will have customers that piss you off and employees that deeply disappoint. On those days it will be belief in a vision and the courage to work for that outcome that will sustain you. So when you sit down with your blank page and begin to dream about the business you will create, ask yourself, “Do I have the skill of courage?”