5 things you don’t need when starting a lifestyle business (and 2 that you do)

If you’re currently agonising over the paper stock for your new business cards, we’ve got bad news for you…

A very short list

Seldom a day goes by when I don’t invoke the Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule: the observation that in most situations, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

(Apparently it’s not quite as often as I liken something to a venn diagram, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

When it comes to starting a new business, there’s an obvious benefit to focusing on the 20% that matters: you’re overwhelmed with things that need doing, but if you just do the crucial 20% you’ll get there a lot faster time you otherwise would. Which means potentially shaving months off the time it takes you to become profitable…or finding out your business idea won’t work with far less time sunk into it.

In established businesses, the part most people don’t crack is actually working out what the crucial 20% is. But for new businesses, there’s a whole array of unnecessary busy-work that founders get needlessly sucked into – and which can definitely be cut out.

So assuming you’re selling a service or a simple product rather than a huge ecommerce store or a complex web app, let’s start chipping away at that 80%…

Things you don’t need

The things in this list are often what entrepreneurs do to avoid getting to the difficult stuff: selling to customers, and possibly being rejected. It might feel like I’m taking away your comfort blanket…or it might take a weight off your shoulders as half of your to do list is eliminated.

Either way, here are five things you can forget about working on…

When we were in New York at the beginning of our Anywhereist journey, we kept going to events where people asked for our business card. Weirdly outdated, we thought – but eventually we caved, got some printed, and joined in the game of exchanging scraps of paper.

In six months, not one meaningful relationship started with the social ritual of giving or receiving of a business card. The relationships that actually went somewhere? They started with a great conversation, followed by someone actually tapping our number into their phone there and then.

In other words, not being armed with a small cardboard rectangle won’t prevent the right people from reaching you.

Often a business card is adorned with a logo, which is something else you don’t need: faffing around with fonts and clip art when you should be building your business is classic wantrepreneur behaviour.

A website that takes more than 30 minutes to set up

I’ve lost count of the people we meet who want to start a business but they “just need to get their website right” first. When you bump into them six months later they’re still trying to get their homepage looking just so or are trying to get to grips with WordPress – and they haven’t done anything with their actual business at all.

We made this mistake right back when we started. We wanted to move away from Elance and get clients directly, so we spent hours setting up a WordPress site with pages for rates, samples, a blog, and everything else you can think of. The only problem was that we had no idea how to get people to actually visit the site when it was done.

Later, when we refined our offer and started calling ourselves Mortified Cow, we learnt from our mistake: it had one page and we outsourced the whole thing, and it’s served us well to this day.

The majority of the time, the only things your website needs are:

  • A description of the problem you solve
  • A way to collect email addresses
  • A way for someone to get in touch with you

Often, WordPress is overkill for the job. There are a few routes you could go down instead:

The 30 minutes doesn’t include writing the actual description of what you do – we’ll come to that later.

Payment processing beyond PayPal

PayPal isn’t anyone’s best friend, but it works: many people find it convenient, and even people without an account can figure out how to use it to pay by credit card.

You can set up a PayPal “buy now” button (here’s a four-minute video showing how), or even just ask someone to email you to arrange payment. Sure, your conversion rate will be higher if it’s easier to pay, but this isn’t something to worry about when you’ve got minimal traffic anyway.

Possibly even easier is using Gumroad, which allows people to pay by credit or debit card. This also gives you a payment link which you can send people by email.

Incorporation / a business bank account

This isn’t something you want to drag your heels on when things get serious – keeping business and personal finances separate is important – but do you really want to be filling out heaps of forms and racking up accountancy fees before you know if your business will work?

A plan to handle a zillion customers

As Paul Graham advises the startups in his Y Combinator program, do things that don’t scale.

In other words, do things to attract and delight your first three customers that you could never do if you had 300 – and don’t waste time building complex systems to handle huge volumes before you need them.

When Airbnb started, the founders would personally go and take photos of people’s apartments. They could never do that now, but they don’t need to: they did what they had to do to get started, and worried about the rest later.

Things you do need

I tried very hard to make this list longer than two items, but I really don’t think there’s anything else: if you can nail both of these, everything else will naturally sort itself out in time.

A clear description of the problem you solve

I recently heard of someone who introduced himself at a networking event by saying “I help rich people to sleep at night”.

It turned out that he was a tax accountant for high net worth individuals, but he could just as easily have sold home security systems: the introduction worked because you’re curious, and if you’re in his target audience you want to know more.

That’s the kind of job the description of your service should be doing. You’ll obviously want to give away more information than the guy at the networking event, but his introduction functions like your headline – focusing purely on the pain you remove and for whom.

It’s a long way from the jargonistic guff you get on most sites – which are more likely to say that they “provide a range of bespoke financial solutions for individuals and corporations”. If you’re using jargon, it’s because you haven’t spent enough time really putting the value you provide into the simplest terms possible – and maybe you don’t even know what problem you solve, which is a huge red flag.

Your first three customers, by any means necessary

Without customers, you don’t have a business – and your first few will be tremendously valuable in helping you find out what you’re doing well, what needs work, and how you can better reach more people like them.

How do you get these customers? I can’t tell you – it comes down to doing everything you can think of and seeing what works. And now you’ve freed up plenty of time for doing it by cutting out all the unnecessary things that most new business owners waste all their time thinking about.

At this point, don’t fall back into the trap of the 80%. In other words, 80/20 applies to any given task: so for example, if you decide a podcast would be a great way to get customers, focus on the 20% of pushing out a quality show rather than the 80% of spending two days researching which equipment to buy.

Remember, you only need three customers – so you can find them through methods that either don’t scale or that wouldn’t fit in with your ideal lifestyle business model. These methods can include cold calling, hosting an in-person event or randomly pushing your product on people in the street if you need to. The emphasis is on getting those first three as quickly as possible, by any means necessary, then staying in contact with them as much as they’ll let you to learn about their world and get referrals from them.

Don’t be fooled

The two things that you do need are really bloody hard – and it’s possible that you won’t manage to do them. But even if you fail, you’ve still saved yourself a huge amount of time – because all the websites, logos and bank accounts in the world wouldn’t have salvaged your business.

If you do pull these off, then you can start working through the “don’t need” list – but only when it gets to the point that their absence is holding you back.

What do you think?

What did you spend time on when setting up your business which in retrospect was a waste?

Can you think of anything extra that new business owners should be thinking about?

Let me know in the comments!