I’ve seen the dance you’re doing many times before. You were so over being a poor university student that you couldn’t wait to waltz into a desk job and bathe in the warm security of a steady pay cheque and prospects for promotion.
When some dude starts talking about his start-up idea, you can’t understand why he’d willingly risk so much and endure years of potentially fruitless struggle, when he could have won the jackpot like you with your completely respectable salary and the tantalising potential to move into an office with many leather bound books and a desk made of rich mahogany.
But something niggles at the back of your mind when he talks about autonomy and possibilities. It feels like a fault in your logic; a glitch in the matrix; an irritable ghost over your shoulder. You know it’s there, but you just can’t put your finger on it.
That’s your intuition speaking. Because deep down, you know that it’s not the money and self-importance that will make you happy, but you’re brain has been powerfully tuned by everyone around you to think that you’ve done the right thing and can now go on to create a family and do what society expects.
But wait a minute. What happened to that idealistic guy at university with all the big ideas?
“Yes, but you can’t live on ideas,” you say.
And it’s true. There are practicalities in life: paying off debts, eating, housing, transport and even holidays are all important activities that need to be funded and can make you happy.
So how do you balance your practical needs to have a career and make a living with your dreams to set up your own business?
There are a few lucky ones who come up with a killer idea at school and go on to make millions. The rest of us have to keep dancing to the right tune and persistently doing the things that take us where we want to go over several decades. Don’t stress too much about how long it takes. If you do it right then you should be enjoying the ride too and you might be setting up your own business much sooner than you thought.
While you’re keeping up the workday dance routine, I’d like to introduce you to the 3-step waltz. It’s a little extra footwork you can insert into your everyday boogie to set you up for more exciting things.
The three steps you can start working on now if you want to become an entrepreneur are: immersing yourself in problems, understanding how timing makes new businesses successful and finding mentors who help you set sail in the right direction. You can do all these things while you’re working, perhaps by moonlighting, taking a break or, if you’re lucky, learning on the job.
The first step is to focus on problems. It sounds simple, but people often get caught up in the product or technology, rather than the issue that actually creates demand for the item. If you understand the customer, their world and their needs, you have a better chance of providing something that will always be in demand.
If you’re in a front line customer-facing position, you’ve got a head start. This is the coal face where you get to sit in front of customers and see the problems they’re looking to solve. Good start-ups work on providing solutions to real problems and are far more obsessive about identifying and understanding the problem.
You’ll also get to see how a customer goes about trying to solve a problem and whether they seek help. This helps you identify other types of problems – the ones that customers don’t realise can be solved or the problems they don’t even realise they have.
Every time a customer identifies a problem, for example: “We don’t know how to do that,” or “We need something else”, that’s your cue to talk about their problem in more detail. Forget about how much you know or what you’ve got. Focus on them and care about their problem, because that’s what’s going to gain their trust and interest in you and your possible solution.
It doesn’t matter whether you are CEO of a hot start-up or stacking boxes for a supermarket. Everyone gets to see problems every day. Immerse yourself in these problems. Ask yourself and others: What bugs you? Why can’t you do stuff? How do you do it? Make this your hobby and your mind will soon be overflowing with great business ideas. Even fashion can solve problems such as how to attract attention or fit in.
For example, the issue I’m addressing by writing this article is based on the questions I get asked every day from young people looking for their path in life. It’s taken me a while to come to the conclusion that I should be writing it down, but that time has allowed me to learn from my mistakes and get a better idea of what my readers want.
The second step is understanding timing. Many start-ups have seen massive growth because they offered a solution to a timely problem, such as Uber and Airbnb. These organisations became hugely successful after the global financial crisis because they offered people the opportunity to generate an income in a flexible way.
You don’t necessarily need to wait decades for the exact right economic conditions for your business launch, but timing can transform a struggling concept into growth dynamite. Watch for the subtle changes around the office as companies try to keep pace with technology and changes in work habits.
For example, office environments are gradually improving through the inspiration of game-changing companies like Google and Apple, while employees are more aware of what a good office environment should offer. Building managers and office designers are also becoming much more aware of what they must do to create good working spaces. The opportunity here is not just providing creative work spaces, it’s also about a change in attitude for both employees and employers that leads to a multitude of possibilities.
The good thing is that you can make all these observations from the safety of your big, comfy office chair.
The third step that start-up science has embraced is mentoring. There is now a whole new industry geared towards improving the success rates of start-ups, complete with university research and development projects, usually funded by successful entrepreneurs. The whole idea is that start-ups learn how to validate their business models through experimentation and mentorship.
The content available online is huge, so start researching online and learn about how mentoring works. As you read more, you’ll develop some ideas about who can help you and how you can approach them. Keep an open mind and a notepad handy to write down your ideas.
A good mentor is someone with a bigger vision of you than you have of yourself. Hopefully, they will start pushing you out of your safety zone when they think you’re ready.
For now, enjoy the comforts of your job and start forming your vision of where you’d like to go, bearing in mind that good businesses start with a problem, take advantage of timing and are ruthless in seeking out free advice from mentors.
These ideas don’t just apply to start-ups – they’re important considerations for large organisations, your individual career and even your life outside your career. Keep working on problems, timing and mentoring because you never know when this 3-step waltz will put you in the spotlight.