At this point in the business startup (or reinvention) process, you should be clear about your life's mission. Your next step is to determine what goods and/or services your business should offer that will best contribute to that mission. Never forget that your business must exist to serve your needs, never the other way around. Far too many entrepreneurs trade the "oppression" of the 9-5 workday for the "freedom" of the 6-midnight at a job they can't simply walk away from. You don't want to be in that position.
Resist the temptation to offer too broad a spectrum, especially in the early stages. Focus on doing one thing extremely well instead of many mediocre things. I'm not saying you must only offer one product or service. You should, however, make sure that everything you offer falls into the same narrow range that will greatly simplify your marketing and management. Keep in mind that the actual things your business offers are almost afterthoughts compared to the many things that must occur for the business to remain open. For example, if you are opening a bakery, then the actual baking will be a very small part of keeping your doors open every day. Every variable you add to your offering mix ha s an exponential impact on management.
So you've determined that your business is the right one for you to be in and have settled on a suitably focused range of offerings. Now it's time to look at the other businesses in your area that offer similar things to determine how your business will stand out from the competition. This process involves the following three steps:
First, get out a blank sheet of paper and a pen (I strongly recommend doing this by hand instead of on a word processor). On this sheet, list every conceivable benefit to customers of doing business with you. Don't confuse benefits with features. What's the difference? A feature is a "what" (a bell or whistle). A benefit is a "so what", (what customers get from doing business with you). Be brazen! Hey, if you're not your business's loudest advocate, who will be?
Second, examine the competition. If you're opening a traditional "brick and mortar" business (storefront or office), then take a good look at your local area. If you're opening a virtual (online) business, then your search must be much wider (nationwide or even worldwide). Each of these businesses offers benefits, many of which duplicate yours. Find and eliminate these duplicates from your list, which will soon bear an almost painful number of scribbles and deletions. Fear not, because this is a good thing. In fact, it's a very good thing.
Third, look at the remains of your once-proud list. If you did your job correctly, then most of your work will be obliterated. How can this be a good thing? Take a closer look and you'll see a few things that you haven't deleted. This is what sets your business apart. This is where you are going to hang your management, marketing, and planning hats. This is the foundation upon which your business will be built or rebuilt.
What about you? Now that you have the raw blueprint for your business in hand, you need to start thinking about your ideal life (the life you'd live if freed from all constraints) and life's mission and start figuring out what your role in this business is going to be. How will you balance the three competing forces of forward-looking visionary and dreamer, present-day technician who actually does the work, and backward-looking manager who constantly tries to apply some logic and order to the whole endeavor? Chances are very strong that you are a technician, a very grounded live-for-the-moment person who loves doing whatever your business does (such as baking). I've lost count of the number of people who tell me "I'm a _______, not a businessperson!" The time to start defining your role in this business is right now. If you are in business or are thinking of starting a business and you have not read Michael Gerber's The Emyth Revisited, then I urge you to run, not walk, to your nearest bookseller.
By now, we're fairly far along in the process of defining your business and how it fits into and serves your needs. Notice that I haven't talked about a business plan yet. Starting with a business plan makes the whole effort revolve around the business when it should revolve around you, then around your customers. Next week, we'll start talking about how to make sure your business revolves around its customers. Stay tuned!