Opening your own business isn't about the economy.
Thing is, all that probably isn't too important to you. Opening your own business isn't about boosting the economy or revitalizing Main Street. It's about self-employment. It's about being your own boss, building something and (hopefully) finding a passion that drives you out of bed every morning and keeps you up late at night.
The tough thing is figuring out what, exactly, to do for that passion. Just like writing a novel or designing an invention, the first step to opening a new business is having the idea. What will your small business do? That might just be the hardest part of all.
While we can't tell you what your business should do, we can definitely help you answer that question for yourself. Here are some tips that will help while you become your own boss.
1. Find a Problem to Solve
The best businesses meet a customer's needs. They don't have to talk you into buying anything, you already want what they're selling. This is the approach that made Uber such a roaring success. All across the country people needed a better way to get around their cities. Uber didn't invent that problem, it came along with a solution.
So start there.
Think about what bugs you. What eats up your time during the day? What costs you money, or strikes you as something that just could be done better? Sometimes it's groundbreaking, like realizing that people need a reliable way to find things online. Other times it's as simple as realizing that your neighbors all have a long walk to the store.
Either way, the smart money says you're not the first person to have this problem.
2. Focus on Your Strengths
When starting your small business, think about what you know and what you love. Brainstorm your strengths. Where have you worked? What did you study? What are you skilled at? Consider your personality too. What's your hobby? Who do you hang out with?
Opening a small business takes more than an immense amount of work. You will need to succeed against overwhelming competition. You'll make life even harder for yourself if you do that while trying to learn the industry ropes at the same time.
This is why, and we say this with a heavy heart, your business probably shouldn't be a restaurant or a bar. Yes, everyone wants to throw a great party every night and count their money every morning. Unless you've actually worked in the service industry, though, it probably won't end well.
3. Don't Be Afraid to Iterate
When most people think about opening their own business they think invention, innovation and exploration. They want to create something down to the studs. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the only way.
Sometimes the market opening isn't about doing something new, it's about doing something better. This was a lesson perfected by the video game company Blizzard.
Blizzard owns brands like Diablo, Starcraft and World of Warcraft, a game which at one point had nearly 1% of the world's population subscribed. They didn't invent any of their game genres. Instead they've spent decades taking existing ideas and doing them better. Polishing role-playing games, multiplayer online games and strategy games to a shine few other companies can achieve.
Don't run from that kind of niche. If you see something that could be done better, even if it would serve a relatively small population, look closer. There might be an opening to iterate, not innovate.
4. Look for Staleness and Savings
A riff on iteration, sometimes the market hides its opportunities behind the wall of balance sheets. So when a field interests you, get in there and check out the nitty gritty. This is a lesson that has begun disrupting the eyeglass industry in recent years.
Relatively few people know that the eyeglass industry was, until recently, a near-total vertical monopoly controlled by a firm called Luxottica. This company owns almost every step in the supply chain from manufacturers and retailers to the doctors and insurance companies themselves. The price of eyeglasses has soared beyond cost because, well, that's what monopolies do.
This has created an opening for startups who, thanks to the internet, have begun to undercut Luxottica. They found an opening on price and have begun to seize it.
Look for those openings yourself. Find products that you could sell more cheaply, services you could provide at a lower cost. Look for companies that are still doing business the way they did 20 years ago. This is a chance for you to do something better, newer or cheaper and make some money.
5. Focus on Your Audience
Take a break from thinking about your product and start thinking about your customer. Who do you want to sell to?
Reframing your problem this way can let you look for opportunities in your chosen market. If you like doing business with lawyers, now you can start looking for things that the legal field needs. If you want to market to model plane hobbyists, figure out what makes that industry work or fail.
Knowing who will buy your product can help you think about the market through their eyes. Ask yourself a few key questions: Why do you want to sell to this audience? What problems do they have? What luxuries do they want? What would make their lives easier?
What kind of spending power does this audience have?
All of these questions will help to put your business into perspective.
6. Use Your Network
Don't be afraid to lean into your colleagues, friends and family. Talk to them about their interests and opinions. Talk to them about your interests, opinions and strengths.
Your network may very well see things in you that you've missed yourself. They might come up with ideas for something you never thought that you'd be good at. Colleagues in your field might have seen openings and opportunities that you've missed. Even just talking to them about their own frustrations at work might show you that problem you can solve.
You never know, you might even have some friends or coworkers with a terrific business idea that they don't mind sharing.
Don't be afraid of their honest criticism either. You may have fallen in love with your idea for a bespoke model train shoppette, but listen when your old college roommate asks how that will pay the rent.
7. Fail Faster
The last, best piece of advice we can give is this: Fail faster.
Coming up with an idea is hard, and too many people in too many fields let themselves get overwhelmed by that simple fact. They struggle with brainstorming, trying to come up with the perfect idea before taking another step.
The dirty little secret is that success is a numbers game. The best ideas, all of them, come from failure.
So brainstorm your ideas by writing all of them down, every single one, no matter how terrible.
Whenever an idea speaks to you, develop it. Write dozens of business plans, hundreds if you have to, just so you can jettison the bad ones.
For every idea that seems good, take it to your network. Talk to people and run the idea by them. Put up with the embarrassment of having your friends and family ask if you're really sure this is wise over and over again.
Invest the hours in failure, because all of that creative destruction will lead you to your truly great idea. And if you launch that business and it fails, well… That's when it's time to do it all over again.