To date, I’ve had about a handful of entrepreneurial activities. Looking back, I realized something: You can’t plan a business. I know that sounds pretty counter-intuitive, but I’ll be honest, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. At least for me.
Don’t believe me? Alright, well, let’s take a walk down memory lane and let’s survey the land to see what happened. NOTE: I’ve had way more ideas than this, but these are the ones that I put more than a few days or weeks into.
Idea #1 – Restaurant Paging/Seating Software
I wrote a fat business plan. I did market analysis. I had a team in place and a product being built. Then I had a personal incident happen that left a bad taste in my mouth on the idea. Regardless though, I spent a few years on the idea and nothing happened. I had a great plan, but never had a product, not even a beta product. I almost became the software arm of one of my would-be competitors, though that fell through at the last-minute because they didn’t understand software.
Takeaway: You can have a great product idea, business plan and market analysis yet still not go to market with a product. In which case, what was the point of all the planning?
Idea #2 – Conference Company
http://360conferences.com was hatched and given birth to with John Wilker. This idea was executed exactly the opposite of idea #1. We had no business plan, no market analysis and had a product launch 4 months after the idea hatched. The business is still around and growing. I sold out my half to John in May of last year. We didn’t know where we’d find our customers (attendees), partners (sponsors) or the team to actually run the show (us). In other words, we didn’t have a business, we had an idea. It wasn’t until after a few product iterations (i.e. a few 360|Flex conferences) that we had a plan of attack (vs a biz plan) and had figured out how to actually put on a profitable conference.
We showed up to do the business and the community (our customers) showed up to help us. One community member in particular was Ted Patrick. He singlehandedly was our marketing and PR firm for our product launch. Granted, he was an evangelist for the technology we were highlighting, so he had his own motives. Regardless though, without him, we might’ve had a party in which very few people showed up. Instead, thanks to his help, we sold out 400 seats.
Takeaway: An idea executed on delivers more than a whole lotta planning. Once the process of building something is in motion, it attracts like-minded people who will also try to help it succeed.
Idea #3: Gaming Company
http://area-161.com is my latest big idea. Though honestly, it’s probably my oldest idea. I’ve known that I would make this company since the 6th grade, i.e. 1986. Roughly, 3 years before I met the co-founder in 1989, our freshman year in high school. Now mind you, neither of us realized he was the cofounder until the spring of 2010. Life is funny that way.
I spent about 24 years planning for what would become Area-161. I learned programming. I learned art. I learned writing. I read tons of business books. I analyzed every business I ever worked with or for. I even ran another business though that was a fluke (see the Idea #2 above).
One reason I couldn’t start the business was because my wife didn’t like video games, so much so that they were banned for a good part of our marriage. It would be hard to start a company building a product that wouldn’t be allowed into your home. Finally, she came to her senses and that got the wheels rolling again.
It wasn’t until I “showed up” that things starting falling into place. Once I decided I wanted to make a game company, I found myself literally next to Smiley. I don’t mean I moved into a house next to him, I mean I was sleeping in a room next to his in his home! My family lived in Arizona, while Smiley lived in Washington, down the street from a contract gig I had landed. We got to talking while I was staying at his place and the company was formed.
Once we came up with an idea, “Darts”, other things fell into place. We realized we needed an art department. Luckily, my dad retired from being a graphic artist for most of his life. Whammo, we signed him up. My dad made it clear though, “I don’t want to do the animations.” Then his best friend got in contact with him by chance. Lo and behold, he tells my dad, “I’ve been thinking about getting back into animation.” Bam, we have an animator now. The art department is done!
Now we need the sound and music department. I don’t have any doubt, they’ll come out of the woodwork ONLY IF we “show up” though.
Takeaway: You can plan for 24 years and have nothing to show for it, except you and your plan for a great company. Or you can “just show up” and within 1 year, have a team and a playable beta product in the works.
Idea #4: software to help remote teams
http://remotejams.com is an idea I came up with about a month ago. It’s something we’re going to need eventually at Area 161. I thought, “Well, we need startup capital to build the company we really want, so let’s build this and use any profits to fund the business.” Again, I was falling back on what I had done for 24 years: planning.
Rather than “show up and build a product”, let me instead “plan and prepare to really start the business in the future while working on this other business idea right now.” I know, it sounds pretty stupid in hindsight. However, I really believed it and had others believing it with me.
I’m not going to give up on Remote Jams, but like Apple TV, it’s gonna be a hobby vs a focus. I had plans of making it an open source thing and getting all these people involved, but that would actually take time and effort that would be better focused on Area 161. Therefore, I’ll likely take a more private and slow development approach to this. As we get more programmers at Area 161 (after delivering products and generating profits), maybe I’ll be able to start the project up more formally.
Takeaway: If you’re planning to start a new company with a new product, so you can plan some more on an old company idea, it’s probably not a smart thing to do. If you’re delaying products on your old company, so you can launch a new company’s product to generate money so you can go back and finish creating that product you put on hold so you could do this other….yeah, you get the idea.
Do Now, Plan Later
I’m not saying you can’t put thought into your business, whether it be the products or the company DNA. I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is that you need to start building a product and acting like a company as soon as possible. If there’s a spark of an idea and it’s workable, then work with it. Don’t say, “I have this idea, but before I launch it, I need to spend x many months (or years) prepping to make sure I do it right.” If you do it wrong, you can recover and try again. If you never get started, then you really had nothing to begin with.