Have a Great Idea for a Business? Test the Waters Before Diving In
By Valerie Young
Now and then I meet someone (usually a young person) who tells me they really like helping with people, so they're thinking about going into Human Resources or HR as it's commonly referred to. They imagine themselves sitting in their large private office eagerly awaiting a long line of interesting employees with interesting problems in need of interesting solutions.
Ask most people who are already in HR though and they're likely to paint a very different picture. Instead of spending time helping people, most people in HR spend the better part of their jobs days dealing with the "administrivia" of the business
world – hiring, terminations, benefits, pensions, payroll, and all too often, petty grievances.
A lot of jobs seem different from the outside. Think about your current career or job. Now that you're there, is it what you thought it was going to be? Probably not.
Fantasy vs. Reality
Entrepreneurs are not immune to this "leap before you look" syndrome. Take the classic bed and breakfast fantasy. Clients often tell me they love the idea of selecting the colors and the furnishings, picking fresh flowers from the garden for the breakfast table, greeting the guests, and generally making everyone feel at home. Once the guests check out, they picture themselves settling into a big comfy chair with a good book or perhaps puttering in a Zen-like perennial garden. Utter bliss.
Once the real estate is purchased, most people don't have the capital to hire others to do the cooking, cleaning, and bookkeeping. As a consequence, once the decorating is done and the garden is planted, they realize they've become a combination short order cook/chamber maid/bookkeeper!
Every business has its more mundane parts – especially in the beginning when you're bootstrapping your business or are a "solo-preneur." But still, the goal is to love more of the work than not. So, before you leap, you need to check out just how wide the expanse is between fantasy and reality.
How do you test out a business idea? Well, if you truly do want to run a bed and breakfast (and for people who are natural hosts, there are lots of wonderful aspects of running a B & B) the best way to get your feet wet without taking a financial soaking is to become a B & B sitter. Just like it sounds, sitters take over the day-to-day operations of established inns so the owners can go on vacation or otherwise get away. Companies like Deserve a Break actually match B & B owners in Australia and New Zealand with experienced relief workers. Similarly, in the UK, farmers can turn to a decades old company called Loring, King and Loring for relief and contract milking and agricultural staff.
Another option is to go to "school." Sticking with our B & B example, you don't need to earn a four year degree in hotel and restaurant management to learn how to run an inn. Many B & B's offer weekend workshops for aspiring inn-keepers and some owners do individual consulting. If there are no classes in your area, contact a local B & B and ask if they'd let you intern with them in exchange for some free staffing time once you're trained.
Getting Prospective Customers to Put Their Money Where Their Intentions Are
Even large, well established companies look before they leap. Last summer hotel giant Hyatt ran an ad in the New York Times Magazine for its new Life Care community in Briarcliff Manor, New York. What caught my eye was not the fact that a hotel chain is branching out into senior housing, but rather the clever way Hyatt went about testing the waters before making a significant financial investment. Here is the fine print:
Through this marketing material, Classic Residence by Hyatt is exploring the market demand for a Life Care community in Briarcliff Manor. By joining the Priority Reservation Program, you are expressing your interest in future residency at Classic Residence by Hyatt at Briarcliff Manor. A Priority Reservation agreement is not a Continuing Care Residency Agreement. All deposits will be held in escrow at Bank of New York. You may obtain a full refund of the reservation system deposit, with interest earned at the prevailing rates at any time for any reason. If a refund is requested, however, you forfeit your priority number and benefits. Your status in the program is subject to the terms of the Priority Reservation Program, which are explained in the Priority Reservation Agreement. Classic Residence by Hyatt is currently under development, with a proposed opening date of 2009. Hyatt is a registered trademark of Hyatt Corporation.
How smart is that?
Think you'd like to borrow from the Hyatt model to explore market demand for your own high priced product or service? Before you start cashing any checks, keep in mind that the people sending you money are not investors. And as such you can't use prospective customer's money until you actually decide to move forward with your enterprise and your customers have signed a clearly spelled out agreement on the front end. This is definitely one place where you'll want to employ the services of an attorney. But still, if your business idea lends itself to a similar approach, it's a fascinating example of testing the waters by getting prospective customers to put their money where their intentions are.
There are lots of ways you can look before you leap into a new business. For example, you can:
•Talk to people who are doing the kind of work you think you'd enjoy. Find out what they love – and don't love – about their work, what a typical day is like, and what they would have done differently if they had to do it all over again.
• Read "how to" books. It may not give you the total picture, but at least you'll know more than you did.
•Search for "how to" web sites. As with reading books, it is not the same as test driving a business idea, more like sticking a toe into the information pool.
• Work for someone else in a similar business. Depending on the business, you may be asked to sign a non-compete clause. Then again if your goal is to start a specialized summer camp, the smartest way to see if you'd like running a camp is to first work at one.
• Take classes. Check with your local adult education program, do a search for schools specializing in your area of interest, or seek out online courses. You never know what's out there until you look. For example The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City offers courses in how to write a proposal for a cookbook, breaking into food writing, and how to be a food stylist/ photographer (ICECulinary.com).
• Join an industry association. In addition to getting their publications, most associations offer conferences, seminars, and other opportunities to learn from and connect with people in your prospective line of work.
• Hang out with people who are already doing what you think you'd like to do. If you've got an inventive mind but have never acted on it join a group like the Inventors Network in Minneapolis (InventorsNetwork.org), Washington, DC (DCInventors.org), or Springfield, MA (IRNetwork.org). You'll find a list of networks by state at InventNet.com.
•Find a mentor. Some people will mentor you for free. However, depending on how much time and training you need, you should expect to pay your mentor. If that person is successful in the business you're considering, it will be well worth the investment.
• Volunteer, intern or apprentice. I had the opportunity to chat with Steve Curwood, host of Living on Earth, an engaging environmental news and information program heard on over 300 National Public Radio stations. Naturally the first thing I did was pump him for information on how someone would go about getting their own program on public radio. Before trying to pitch an idea, Steve urged anyone interested in being on the air to first volunteer at their local station so they can learn first-hand how public radio works.
•Take on a few clients or assignments for free. In addition to gaining experience, building confidence, and developing a portfolio or track record it's a great way to see how you like the work before making a larger investment of time and money.
•Start small. Everyone wants to go from nothing to having their own full blown business in a day. Not only is it not possible but you'd miss invaluable lessons. But perhaps most importantly, starting small once again allows you an opportunity to dabble in a new enterprise before deciding if it's right for you. Small steps add up. Changing Course began when I sent away for a cassette tape on how to break into the newsletter business. That was 10 years ago. Today I have over 25,000 subscribers. The key is to just begin.
Do you have a great idea for a business? There are lots of ways to test the waters before you dive in head first. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Don't be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better."
Valerie Young may be contacted at http://www.ChangingCourse.com firstname.lastname@example.org
"Profiting From Your Passions" expert Valerie Young abandoned her corporate cubicle to become the Dreamer in Residence at http://ChangingCourse.com offering resources to help you discover your life mission and live it. Her career change tips have been cited in Kiplinger's, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today Weekend, Woman's Day, and elsewhere and on-line at MSN, CareerBuilder, and iVillage.com. An expert on the Impostor Syndrome, Valerie has spoken on the topic of How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are to such diverse organizations as Daimler Chrysler, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Harvard, and American Women in Radio and Television.