The pandemic has been tremendously challenging for business owners. Without customers, some have been forced to fold. Others have managed to pivot in order to meet new and evolving demands.
A whiskey distillery started making hand sanitizer. A man from the UK invented a hands-free door handle. Big tech companies have collaborated to develop Covid-19 contact tracing technology.
While some of these innovative solutions succeed in meeting our most immediate needs, the pandemic has highlighted the necessity for forward-looking thinking and continued creation. As serial entrepreneur Marc Andreessen recently argued: it’s time to start building.
“Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination,” Andreessen writes. “But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.”
Say what you will about Andreessen’s arguments, but I think we can all agree: there are still countless issues that desperately need solutions.
Have you been kicking around a new business idea?
“There’s never been a better time to launch a digital product.” — Naval Ravikant, Angellist
Now might be the best time to finally launch.
Growth Supply’s founder Ali Mese explains that this isn’t just because there are more tools than ever to facilitate creation, but also because of a dramatic societal shift triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The digital transformation it would previously have taken millions of people years to adopt happened overnight. And those millions come with brand-new problems digital products can solve.”
At the same time, unemployment is rippling across the globe. A new report from the International Labour Organization estimates that global working hours in the second quarter of 2020 will be 10.5 percent lower than the last quarter of 2019 — equivalent to the loss of 305 million full-time jobs.
Perhaps these devastating losses, combined with the opportunities created by the digital transformation, have created the perfect storm for a new generation of founders.
Andreessen writes that the desire to build is missing. I’d argue that the desire is there. In fact, so many people are actively seeking ways to reinvent their careers and roll out a business, but a clear path to launch, without gambling everything, is trickier.
With an eye toward offering prospective entrepreneurs an alternative route, here are some strategies for launching your business while minimizing the risk.
Tips for launching and lowering the risk
1. Start with a side hustle
“Quitting your job before you’ve clearly solved a problem will only add pressure to your 80-hour work weeks as you watch your cash go down the drain, shortly followed by your sanity.” — Ali Mese
You know the old adage: the greater the risk, the greater the reward.
The most mythologized startup stories tend to track this line of thinking. They begin with a founder taking a huge leap of faith — dropping out of school or quitting their day job to chase a passion. Glory rests in part on their willingness to risk it all. But I’d argue there’s a better, safer way: beginning as a side hustle.
Before launching Jotform, I worked for a New York media company. The hours could be long but I didn’t let it stop me from pursuing my side projects. Sure, I had to sacrifice early mornings and late nights, but ultimately, working for another organization was an invaluable learning experience. I cut my teeth in management, communication and sales — all without giving up a steady paycheck. Once I was ready to dedicate myself to Jotform, I built up enough savings and business acumen to proceed with more confidence.
As of the writing of this post, over 12,000 “indie hackers” started a profitable side project in 2020. By beginning your business as a side hustle you can generate a second income stream and test your product or service and business model, without going all-in. It can give you the financial and emotional stability to bring your next big idea to life.
2. Solve one of your own problems
Venture capitalist and former president of the startup accelerator Y Combinator Paul Graham knows a thing or two about launching a business.
Graham, who was an early investor in Dropbox, Stripe, Reddit, Twitch, and numerous other companies, says that the best startup ideas have three things in common:
- they’re something the founders themselves want; and
- that they themselves can build; and
- that few others realize are worth doing
You might be wondering: why focus on something I want?
Simply put: because that means that the problem actually exists. Oftentimes, people come up with grand business schemes that sound pretty flashy, but if no one really needs it — if there’s no real pain point — then who cares?
To cite a now-infamous example, search no further than Google. The tech company’s Google Glass failed quite epically back in 2015. One of the main reasons: no one needed glasses that could capture images and instantly generate web information. In fact, their intended use never really became clear.
A counterexample is Knock Knock City. Tired of lugging their baggage around, its founders decided to build a business for the sole purpose of conveniently storing bags in the time window between flights and check-ins/outs.
Today, Knock Knock City gives travelers in dozens of cities across the U.S. a solution for that same problem: convenient and secure luggage storage.
Find the answer to something you’ve been missing and others will find it useful, too.
3. Don’t get caught up in bells & whistles
One lesson I learned while founding Jotform: the early stages present endless possibilities for distraction, like fancy website designs or bespoke designer logos. Perfecting those “fun” elements can even give you a false sense of accomplishment — as if having a sleek image will get you one step closer to startup success.
But if you haven’t already obsessed about finding a solution to a real-life problem, then none of those bells and whistles will save your company. An optimized button is useless if no one’s visiting your website.
It’s okay to focus on these things further down the line. But in the meantime, don’t waste your most precious resource, time, until you’re confident in your product’s validation. There are a plethora of free tools that can handle items like website design and logos for you.
Take our latest Jotform product, credit card forms. It is aimed at alleviating a common hurdle for fledgling companies: collecting online payments. Instead of getting in the weeds with developing a complicated payment system, our credit card forms offer a user-friendly solution — to free you up from distraction so you can focus on building your product or service.
Don’t get caught up in bells & whistles. Obsess about solving a problem instead.
4. Narrow your focus
When Airbnb’s founders first began, their idea was to enable hosts to rent out space on their floors during conventions. It was a narrow idea but also a smart idea, and it led to a concept that revolutionized the travel industry.
There are at least a couple of reasons why it’s a good idea to narrow your focus when you first launch a business. For starters, if it’s a widespread problem experienced by a large swath of people, chances are someone’s already come up with a solution. And secondly, if you’re able to identify a problem faced by a small but specific population, you can better analyze and understand the most important factor in the startup equation — the customer — and how to best meet their needs.
Later, your idea might expand, as in the case of Airbnb. It’s near impossible to predict whether this will happen. But for the purposes of launching, it’s crucial to solve one discrete problem.
“Building isn’t easy, or we’d already be doing all this,” Andreessen writes.
Fourteen years after commencing my own startup journey, I learn new things every day about running my own business. It’s a challenging and ongoing journey. But it’s worth the reward of being able to continue to build something new.
There’s never been a better time to build.