When and Why to Withdraw Money From a Start-up

Working with entrepreneurs all day every day produces a certain fixation with what is most important to their survival. Unfourtunately, what is best for the business may not (in the short run) be what is best for its founders. Constantly, with existing operating businesses, there is the challenge of how much to compensate the owners and be fair about it. With start-ups, the goal is to get to the place that one can get paid at all. 

Recently, I ran across the story of Vinyl Me, Please. This new business is seeking to capitalize on the revived appreciation of vinyl records. While the number of records sold nationally has increased each of the past five years andby over 17% in 2012, the co-founders are trying to realize the benefit of the trend in their own business and wallets. They still are not earning a living from their efforts, though the prospects of doing so are better than at any prior point.

Vinyl recordsJeff Cornwall at Belmont University writes that, “The niche that Vinyl Me, Please fills is to bring new and interesting music to a new generation of vinyl record enthusiasts.  Each month the subscribers to Vinyl Me, Please are sent a brand new, hand-wrapped vinyl album from a relatively undiscovered artist. In addition to the monthly vinyl record, subscribers are assigned a personal music consultant who gets to know their musical tastes and preferences.  Every month the consultant creates a personalized playlist specific to each subscriber. Vinyl Me, Please brings together in one service what today’s young music enthusiasts want.  Their customers love the sound of vinyl, they like to interact on social media with friends about new music to try, and they like the surprise factor they get from services like Pandora.”

As a daily user of Pandora (and demographic that grew up with LPs), I can truly appreciate this business concept. Interesting to every new venture is how to make the most of market trends to create customer experiences that are profitably delivered and fun to pursue. Cornwall observes of the Vinyl Me Please business model that, “although they have identified what their market wants, their model has proven to be a challenge to scale to a large enough size to pay the founders a consistent salary.  They need to grow to at least 700 subscribers to reach this important milestone.”

He goes on to provide an account of his interaction with one of the co-founders, Matt Fiedler, and what he feels needs to occur next in their business development:

“The biggest challenge we face is keeping the personal touch,” says Fiedler.  “We think this is what makes the experience unique to a lot of people and is something we’re going to have to fight through in order to achieve true scalability.  We need to find a way to maintain a personal touch but be able to bring a massive number of customers into the system without it straining the resources of the company.”

They have recognized that it will not be possible to continue to hand wrap the albums as the business grows.  They also are looking at ways to make the personal consulting more efficient.

“We have plans to set up an internal database that allows us to categorize and sort music to create a more efficient process around creating playlists,” explains Fiedler.  “We are also looking at rolling out a playlist-only offering that will help us capture more users and, at the same time, start paying our consultants without dipping into the revenue that comes in from standard, full-membership subscribers.”

This commentary demonstrates the need for business launches to be very iterative, flexible, and responsive. Finding some group who will purchase your product or services is not enough; sustainability comes with staying attuned to original and ensuing target market needs.


Don’t Business Plan Before Test Marketing


Take a look at the programs available to start-up businesses and you will certainly find that many offerings are based on a business plan. Governmental and educational agencies in particular are often enamored with curricula that present a template for plans that is easily administered and a breeze to teach. The emphasis is usually on the various business disciplines that can be found in a larger business, but applied to a small business. Instructors generally come from corporate or academic careers and are most comfortable with this approach. Yet, most entrepreneurs, when “equipped” with the suggested program, are unable to reach the five years in business anniversary–a full 50%+ fail according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Observe the chart below, used by EntreDot to illustrate how an idea should become a commercially viable business:


Business planning is an outgrowth of three prior steps: ideation, conceptualization, and creation. What occurs in each of those steps that better prepares the entrepreneur to actually write a business plan? “Ideation is the process for structuring an idea into a well explained business idea that has enough information for the entrepreneur to decide whether it has commercial potential and whether or not it should be pursued any further. Conceptualization is focused on developing an understanding of the market the entrepreneur intends to pursue, and gathering enough information about it to be able to decide if there is commercial value in the business idea. Creation provides the details of the products and services from the point of view of what capabilities the customer will have and how they will see quantifiable benefit. The focus is on what it provides the buyer and the description has to be from the customer’s point of view and what will be delivered to them.” (courtesy, EntreDot)

Every viable business needs to address the following five issues:

o What is the opportunity (premise)?
o What are you offering (solution)?
o Who will buy it (market)?
o Why will I win (Advantage)?
o How do I make money (Business)?

Ideation is the step in which the issues are raised–not Evaluation (Step 4, where business planning occurs). By wrestling with these questions early, the entrepreneur hones a business idea into an elevator pitch that can be “test marketed” to potential buyers. The key advantage to having a story to tell and people to whom it can be told is the opportunity to collect key data during Conceptualization. The feedback is incorporated into the Creation step. As a result of this improved process, entrepreneurs are able to refine the product offering and message to become a more powerful resonator with a specific target audience. 

The other process, the more prevalent one described in the first paragraph, is faulty by comparison–and not just because it is being carried out by people who have next to no small business experience (launching their own enterprises.) By beginning with a business planning process, the typical entrepreneur is making a series of assumptions. The vast number of assumptions that have to be made to construct a business model from which a plan can be developed is likely to be the proverbial “house of cards.” Assumptions built upon assumptions that lead to projections about assumptions is a presumptuous risk, the outcome of which is likely to be business failure in one out of every two businesses started by the five year mark.

It is way better to eliminate as much of the guesswork as possible so that, when we arrive at Evaluation (Step 4, including the business plan), the planning is focused. The discipline of determining buyer needs–rather than simply looking at internal capabilities and developing products in an isolated manner–yields a recipe for improved business success as risk is eliminated through data verification. 

Do your homework before business planning and your ideas will meet with greater implementation success!


Locating the Buyer Need

Is your organization in the habit of finding unresolved problems? If not, chances are high that you are currently–or will be soon–losing market share to more nimble competitors who are “tuned in” to buyer habits and frustrations. Many industries suffer from the slow and steady move to products and services that have largely become commoditized. Once your offering is viewed as a commodity, you are no longer competing on value; the playing field is reduced to price only (or at least as a primary decision criteria.)

One of the categories that suffered this fate about 15 to 20 years ago was televisions. Appliance stores (as opposed to the modern day consumer electronics big box specialty retailer or boutique provider) were where people shopped. When looking for a TV, most consumers would walk down the aisles of sets in their beautiful shades of grey or black. Sales staff may follow or approach and offer to explain or demonstrate features of a model you may have paused near. Most buyers, however, came in to the store armed with some knowledge about prices or consumer ratings and were planning to buy a certain model…until they came across a TV with a sticker that asked the simple question, “Ever lose your remote control?”

How did Magnavox determine that the Remote Locator function (in which pressing the power button causes the lost remote to beep several times) was a missing ingredient in the TV viewing experience of many viewers? Did they simply ask, “What problems do you have with your current TV?” No; instead, they asked penetrating questions about how the TV fit into the lives of consumers. They looked at family dynamics and how TV viewing paralleled relationships with other daily activities. What they discovered was that 80 percent of Americans admitted to losing the remote control; over half of the viewers lost their remote more than five times per week. Inanimate objects like sofas, pantries, and refrigerators swallowed up the devices when the owner wasn’t watching!

The typical consumer may never have offered up that losing the remote was a problem associated with TV viewing. The TV manufacturers were not responsible for the loss of the remote (though family members and friends were certainly thought to be culprits!) Yet, when asked if the loss of remote was a problem, most readily agreed that it was.

Note that the technology used in the Locator was not novel or cutting edge. But, Magnavox had created a temporary competitive advantage among buyers of TVs for whom keeping track of the remote control was now seen as a problem that technology could solve. While some may argue that the company was fortuitous in “stumbling upon” this idea, in fact, it was very deliberately planned.

Magnavox published survey data to validate the problem. Some of the key findings included:

  • 55 percent of respondents admitted losing the remote control 5+ times/week.
  • Of those who lost the remotes, 63% said that their average search to regain the device was about 5 minutes.
  • The remote was most likely to show up in/under a piece of furniture (38 percent), in the kitchen or bathroom (20 percent), or in the refrigerator (6%)

What was the process of discovery and meeting a previously unstated need?

  1. Magnavox tuned in to a problem that TV buyers really had.
  2. They created a product experience to solve it.
  3. They shared the powerful idea with the market. (Through survey results)
  4. They communicated to the market in ways the target audience wanted to hear.

Instead of taking a traditional, worn-out R&D approach, consider changing how your company develops and commercializes product ideas. Send team members out to collect data that can drive design, packaging, messaging and other aspects of product positioning. You will be better off for the new approach!

Don’t Mess With…the Customer Perspective

A deep understanding of your target audience is the only way to create ideas that resonate and break through the noise of modern life. Being able to connect authentically and directly to a buyer persona’s culture is an effort in alignment. Alignment is not just for vehicles–it is critical to business success! When people begin to see your product or service as a part of their identity, then you have built a connection with stickiness to it!

Keep America Beautiful launched a campaign years ago aimed at deterring littering. In it, an actor made to look like an Indian cries when he sees trash detracting from an otherwise majestic scene. While an emotional memory was built through the public service announcement, a cultural connection was not formed and very few behaviors were changed. Littering is still a problem today. (In fact, one of the things that irks many are cigarette butts all over the ground, thrown out car windows, and piled up at entrances to office buildings.) Why smokers can’t keep their butts to themselves is a mystery! 

A market research project in Texas sought to understand who litters. What they found in terms of demographics were that 70 percent of “litterbugs” were males, who also usually had the following characteristics:

  • they are young
  • they drive trucks
  • they drink beer
  • they have a “king of the world” attitude

The research project led to a marketing campaign recommendation to engage culturally with these young males. Ever heard the slogan, “Don’t Mess With Texas?”  In the mid 1980s, actors and athletes were recruited as spokespeople for a new breed of PSA in which the stars shouted out the now famous slogan. For instance, two burly defensive football players from the Dallas Cowboys team during that era are depicted roadside, picking up trash and vowing that they want to give litterers a personal message!

Megastars like Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Love Hewitt, George Foreman, Owen Wilson, Chamillionaire, and Chuck Norris all did cameo endorsements for the campaign. YouTube videos show that it went viral. When a leading research organization suggested that a 10% reduction in littering would be good and 15% stellar, its team had no idea what a campaign that truly connected could do. In the first five years after the slogan was launched, litter in Texas was reduced by 72%!!!

Something else that really connected was Cadillac’s launch of is Escalade SUV. Escalades became iconic in hip hop culture, appearing in music videos, lyrics, and becoming the ride of choice for many to demonstrate status. John Manoogian, who oversaw external design at Cadillac, was asked why it became the bestselling full sized SUV for a number of years.  Rather than attributing success to something like product placement, he admitted that Cadillac missed its target audience with the Escalade. It was intended for  older affluent males. When it didn’t sell as planned, he visited a dangerous neighborhood in Detroit to see who else might be in the market for the luxury SUV. While the “business” that the owners of Escalades appeared to be in was not what bigwigs at headquarters may have wanted, he realized they had a winner. From there, it was a matter of building a strong marketing approach to reach the target audience and tweak the product based on feedback–just like any other niche!

What can be learned from these two “case studies?” Simply that we must not try to educate people into taking another perspective that is conducive to our personal or corporate success. Instead, we should find out what is important to the target and meet them culturally with an offering that resonates with their environment, way of living, and motivations.


Shark Tips For Second Career Entrepreneurs

“The best advice I would give to somebody is, don’t ever start a business that you are not incredibly and deeply passionate about,” said Robert Herjavec, one of the “sharks” on ABC’s hit TV show, Shark Tank. “It is hell, and you will spend more hours with your business than you will with your family and friends. You will have horrible days that will make you want to quit and question everything you have ever learned. Along that journey, if you don’t absolutely love what you do there is no way you will survive.”

Many people who are looking at starting a business as a second career are intrigued that, if it works out, they can create a new source of income in addition to the retirement income sources they’ve worked on for years. True entrepreneurs, however, don’t start businesses to produce money. What?

“The biggest mistake I see people do is they start a business to make money,” said Herjavec. “The problem with that is on those cold days, money doesn’t keep you warm at night. For me, it is impossible to expend the effort required to start a great business because you want to make more money.”

Passion is what is critical to successful entrepreneurship. Some would even label it fanaticism. When one is in the midst of a dogged pursuit of what is primal, success looms in the not too distant future. It is as though a deep seated conviction drives one to pursue what is the convergence of talent, inspiration, and motivation. Not everyone, though, even considers that starting a business is a possibility. Some were just not raised to think entrepreneurially.

“When I was younger, I didn’t know that people could start a business, and I always say now that if I knew what I know now, I would have dreamed bigger,” said , CEO of Canadian-based information technology company The Herjavec Group. “I don’t have an MBA, or a business degree, and I wasn’t very good at accounting. I remember when I wanted to start a business; everybody said to me, ‘you can’t do it.’ Fundamentally, I owe my success in business to the fact that I really love what I do.”

“It was really interesting because, where I came from, we lived on a farm and my grandmother raised me and everybody lived like us,” said Herjavec. “Then, we came to North America and it was my first impression of not being well off. I realized that compared to everybody else, we were really poor.”

To make a living, Herjavec began working as a newspaper deliveryman and waiter in the early 1990s.  He was able to make ends meet and learn important business lessons at the same time.  The biggest, perhaps of all, was noticing what was on the mind of his customers.

“The most important relationship in business is the one between you and your customers. All my experience is customer-related. When I was delivering newspapers, you used to have to collect the money,” Herjavec said. “When I was a waiter, it was all about maximizing a tip and ensuring enough turnover. All these odd jobs always related in different ways to customers.” 

Knowing what customers want and creating a strategy to meet their needs is critical path stuff. What else is desirable in terms of an entrepreneur’s worldview? Flexibility and good analytical skills rate highly for Herjavec.

“People ask me if there is a quality or characteristic for entrepreneurs, are they born or made?” he says. “The one characteristic that I find in most people who start a business is, they are very comfortable and adaptable to change. I always say my greatest skill is if you throw me in the middle of the forest, I’ll figure out the game.”

Finally, it is crucial that a business founder have a distinct competitive advantage. Whether taking on the 100 ton gorilla (market leader) or a local competitor, it is key to know how you are differentiated from the others. One of the best ways to stake your claim is through unique knowledge or processes.

“The other thing I notice is that lots of other entrepreneurs make the mistake of changing fields all the time and start businesses where their knowledge level isn’t very high,” said Herjavec. “I always say to my kids, become an expert at something and become such an expert at it that you can walk into a room and people will pay you for your knowledge.”

In summary, here are lessons we can learn from Robert Herjavec, aka the Shark:

  • Be extaordinarily passionate
  • Start a business because you believe you were meant to, not for income only
  • Know what the customer wants and deliver
  • Be flexible 
  • Hone your analytical skills
  • Be a lifelong learner and master of a unique subject matter