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The One Essential for Starting Your Small Business

by Louis J. Wasser

If you’ve been thinking of setting up your own small business, I’d like to share a story with you. Take a few minutes to read this account of what happened to one business owner – it might save you some heartache.

Years ago in Washington, DC before businesses went online, I sold loose leaf reference services to lobbyists and consultants. One of the things I’d discovered about this particular clientele – at least in Washington — is that many of them think they’re pretty important. A second thing I discovered is that their bravado is usually a cover for their abject fear of being mistaken for a minor player or – worse – for an impostor.

Anyway, I had received a phone call from a very snooty executive assistant (a.k.a. secretary), who requested that I meet Mr. Royal Highness at 2 PM the next day to discuss information services his spanking new consulting firm would need to manage its office and to keep in touch with what was happening in Washington. The executive assistant ushered me into a palatial conference room where I was introduced to Mr. Royal Highness himself. (I know I’m coming off ungrateful – but bear with me. You’ll catch my drift in a minute)

Mr. Royal Highness offered me a seat; and before I got a chance to say anything, he told me he wanted to buy every product my company offered – that him and his partners’ consulting firm would soon be considered the firm to be reckoned with in the field of “international risk analysis.” (That’s a fancy three-word description for paid advice to companies not to set up shop in certain emerging economies).

When I finally managed to slip in a word, I suggested to Mr. Royal Highness (and, after our meeting, a.k.a. Mr. Spendthrift) that he didn’t need to buy every information service at once. Perhaps it would be better for him to proceed in stages. But he wouldn’t hear of it. I walked out with a nice-sized order – one that yielded me a commission worth a week’s pay.

Does it come as any surprise that Mr. Royal Highness was riding for a fall, and two months later he and his partners were out of business? The snooty executive assistant hit the streets for a new position, the fancy furniture was sold off, the office space was taken over by another firm – and, yes, my commission on the sale was charged back to my account. Because it was a business-to-business firm, my employer offered billing terms to its customers – it didn’t require that they write a check on the spot for what they purchased. Needless to say, Mr. Royal Highness and Company never got around to paying our bill.

The lesson for you in all this, Mr. and Ms. Prospective Business Owner, is one of sheer vanity and overreach. You don’t need expensive office space to start your business. You don’t need fancy furniture. You don’t need a snooty, or a congenial, secretary. You don’t even need stationery or business cards. (Major marketing hit: people who attend business shows toss the business cards they collected as soon as they get home.)

It may seem counterintuitive, but the only thing you need to get started in business is one client or customer. Whether you’re selling doughnuts or international risk analysis, you’re not in business till you’ve sold your first doughnut or written a contract for your first consulting client. Anything else is an exercise in pretense and self-deception. The people I was dealing with in Washington, DC were ex-CIA people who sat with their arms folded, and waited for big-name clients to beat a path to their door. The big payday never happened for them.

As a new entrepreneur, your mission is to land that first customer. From this point you build. While you do everything you can to satisfy your first client, you take what you learned from the initial transaction and use the insight to land yourself a second client, then a third … and so on. Ramping up a new business has everything to do with learning from mistakes, and very little to do with creating a pompous image.

If you truly have a worthwhile product or service to offer and you have your prospects’ best interest at heart, they will eventually become your clients. If you’re looking only to impress, all the fancy trappings in the world will never help you make that very first sale. Consider yourself as being officially in business when you land your first customer – but not before.

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