3 Alarm Bells: It’s Time To Make Your Hobby Your Business

How do you know when it’s time to stand out of your own way, dive in and become an entrepreneur to start your own business? Here are three surefire signs that your time is NOW:

1.You can’t stop obsessing about a better way

We often underestimate our own value as consumers. Many successful businesses, including Virgin (started by my former boss and mentor Richard Branson), get their start by one person being frustrated about the lack of quality options and doing something about it.

If you are constantly moaning that there has to be a better way, maybe it’s time to listen to yourself and do something about it. For example, I know a couple in Brooklyn, originally from Norway, who decided to raise their children here in the US. However, when they went to find quality alpaca and merino wool baby and children’s clothes (the kind they grew up with in Norway), they realized they couldn’t find any.

After some informal market research they realized there was indeed a market need, but no readily available supplier. So they contacted some manufacturers of these clothes back in Norway and struck some distribution deals. The result? Ellaswool.com recently opened online and is developing partnerships with stores up and down the east coast.

Do you find yourself spending more and more time trying to solve your “pet peeve”? Do your friends and family joke that it’s become a bit of an obsession? Maybe it’s time you took the leap (like my Norwegian friends) and followed through to see if your obsession has legs as a business idea.

2. Friends, family (even strangers) constantly encourage you to take the leap

Maybe you’ve already taken the first step to starting a new business, but have limited its scope to smaller, safer “friends and family” markets. Many times we are afraid to make the leap to becoming a broader scale entrepreneur because we are afraid there is not enough demand for our products and services – so we keep our passion as more of a hobby. And despite the overwhelmingly positive response to what we have to offer, we still find excuses not to go forward on a larger scale.

For example, my husband and his friend have been selling organic French crepes out of a makeshift stand at our local farmer’s market for over a year. Every Saturday they are the hit of the market, often they sell out of crepes before the official 1 pm closing time. And if I had a dollar for every time one of their customers asked whether they had a more permanent restaurant near by…  Well, I’d have a lot of cash.

Recently, they finally decided to take the leap and open Grenadine Creperie in our Westchester town. The response has been phenomenal. They are now asking themselves, “why did we wait so long?”.

Are you getting similar positive feedback and dismissing it as people “just being nice”? Maybe it’s time to start paying attention to that praise and looking at it more like market research.

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3.Your day job has become a drain on your reputation, energy and health

What’s the real cost of delaying your dream? Often it can be your reputation, energy … and sometimes even your health. Many entrepreneurs come out when the sun goes down. They work 9 to 5 at a job they are no longer passionate about, but really come alive at night or on the weekends when they can spend time tending to their hobby or their sideline “passion” business.

This is understandable. After all there are bills to pay, college tuitions to save for, the necessary health care benefits that many day jobs cover. But for many entrepreneurs the downside of clocking in every day (for a significant part of your day), working for someone else when you’d rather be starting your own company, can have some tangible, negative consequences.

No matter how good an actor or actress you think you are, chances are your boss notices this dip in enthusiasm, and may even be secretly recording the office time you are using to make phone calls or search the web as research for your passion project. Over time this lack of commitment can lead to a damaged reputation, career stalls or even dismissal… and chances are it won’t be on your own terms.

Also, we all know someone who finally made the move to pursue their passion after a life-changing event brought on by stress (like a heart attack or cancer or someone close to them dying). Do you really want to wait until that happens to you? Or do you want to start something on a positive foot, when you still have your health and energy?

Sound familiar?

Do these examples hit a nerve? Is this year finally going to be the year that you invest in yourself and your dreams? I know it’s a very personal decision. But having started my own business this past year, I can say that my philosophy is that life really is too short and there really is no downside to failure. It’s just a dress rehearsal for ultimate success.

What do you do first? 

So what if you have taken the important first step and acknowledged you are ready to turn your passion into a business… What do you do first? Well, that’s tricky. But what you do during the period to tee up your new business can make a huge difference between success and failure.

For example, spending some time upfront developing your bulls eye target and your core brand promise, can help you crystallize your idea and help all the decisions that entrepreneurs need to make, that much easier and focused. Also, creating an identity and a name for your business can help make it more tangible and help others (potential partners, investors, employees) get more excited and want to help out. Whatever the path you take: The time to act is now. You need to invest in yourself, your future and your happiness.

How do you do that on limited time and budgets? 

Brand School by BrandTwist is the premier program specifically designed for entrepreneurs and small businesses to help them build their brands. Brand School takes best practices of beloved brands such as Virgin, Apple, and Zappos and brings them to life in engaging videos, interactive homework exercises and access to a private community of other entrepreneurs. Learn more about the next semester of Brand School HERE.

The time to act on your dreams is now.

“I received huge value from Brand School. You can’t put a price on that experience. I loved the integrated learning experience and  that we walked out of the series with a working brand strategy.” – Rachel W., Brand School Participant

5 Ways a Strong Brand Can Ignite your Small Business

Over the 5 years I worked for Virgin in the U.S. development office, I met some amazing entrepreneurs and small business owners.

These folks, I’m convinced, have a different genetic code than the average business person. They have an amazing ability not just to identify gaps in the marketplace, and new ideas…but to act on them.

Being a successful entrepreneur is not easy. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And most of all it takes a kind of blind faith, to believe in yourself and your product or service and to get up every morning and keep it moving forward despite (many) obstacles and better resourced market incumbents.

But here’s one thing that I think a lot of start up ventures are missing…a smarter approach to branding.

For many new companies, “brand development” consists of thinking up a name and a logo and focusing on getting a website up and running.

While these are important elements, they miss the more fundamental role and purpose  of branding: to help connect with your consumers on a deeper level, build preference and loyalty and set you apart from your competition. If done right, a well-developed brand should influence every single business decision you make.

If you are a small business owner or entrepreneur and are interested in learning more practical ways to build your brand, you should consider attending the annual NYXPO at the Jacob Javits in NYC. I have spoken there before, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to network and receive great insight.  Click here to Register

In the meantime, Here are 5 thoughts on how a strong Brand can ignite your business:.

A Strong Brand Idea can help you:

1. Attract the Right Kind of Investor

2. Make Sure You Have a Well Defined Target Audience

3. Develop Products and Services Faster and with More Discipline

4. Create Brand Expressions that Cut Through (with less spending)

5. Stay On Course as the Company Grows
 Keep reading »

1. A strong Brand can help you attract the right kind of partners and investors. “Dumb money” can be fairly easy to find. But “Smart Money” is harder. But it’s better. Because it means you’ve found  backers who are on the same page and share the same philosophy. They are more likely to give you on-going advice and be supportive of your need to build a strong business and brand.  A well thought out and presented Brand can help you attract the right people on the right terms. It can also help cut through the 1,000’s of pitches that VC’s and another investor see on a regular basis. It can make your venture more memorable and interesting.

2. Developing a strong Brand forces you to make some tough calls about your target audience and to really make sure there is a well-defined and substantial market for your venture.  Too often we fall so in love with our own ideas that we don’t stop to question if there are other people (besides our mom and college roommate) who would also be a receptive , paying audience for our product or service. Brands don’t exist if there is no one out there willing to buy them. If they are not answering an unmet need or addressing a current need in a better way. Brand Idevelopment makes you go through the process of identifying your target audience, understanding what motivates them, and making sure your idea answers their needs in a way that is relevant and different from current options. You’d be surprised at home many people short change this step…with pretty disastrous results. “If we build it, they will come” may work for Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, but it can be an arrogant and costly mistake for many entrepreneurs. 

3. A Strong Brand can help you develop your product and services faster and with more discipline.  One of the biggest challenges facing small businesses is to stay on track. It’s hard, to know which opportunities to pursue, and which ones to pass on. Particularly when you don’t have the structure and decision making processes of a large company. A well defined Brand should be used as a continual, actionable filter to review everything: products, partnerships, people for fit to your core values. If they don’t fit, even if they have merit, then pass.

4. Well defined Brand Ideas are the cornerstone of great brand expressions that cut through. So many entrepreneurs that I have met and/or worked with spend hours of wasted (precious) time going in circles about the name, logo and marketing materials of the company. But often the reason they can’t decide or seem to get what they are looking for isn’t that they are using the wrong creative resources. It’s that they haven’t defined the Idea behind the creative. They think they will know something good when they see it. But 10 years of running Naming and Consumer Branding at Interbrand has driven home how subjective the creative process can be. Having a strong Brand promise translates into tighter, better creative briefs which translates into better creative- with fewer (time, money and energy sapping) rounds of iteration and evaluation. And once you have this strong Brand expressions developed, chances are they will cut through in the marketplace and amplify the always too limited spending of entrepreneurial brands.

5. A Strong Brand will help you navigate the growing pains as your entrepreneurial venture expands from a two to twenty to two hundred employees.  Having a tacit understanding of what the Brand stands for and where it should and shouldn’t go is often ok when you can fit all of your brand stakeholders around your kitchen table. But what happens as you grow? How do you efficiently and effectively on-board more people quickly and make sure that they have the same understanding as the original 5 members? How do you make sure you expanding workforce of brand ambassadors is putting out a consistent message to the marketplace? We encountered this same issue at Virgin as the brand began to grow particularly in the United States. We finally decided it was time to take some of the “gut” knowledge and put it down in writing. With an articulated Brand Idea,  Brand Pillars and some training tools such as identity, tone of voice and launch documents. This didn’t mean we were turning “corporate”. It just meant we were getting smarter about sharing our Brand knowledge and DNA with new members of the family.

Fundamental Brand building, particularly paying attention to defining your target audience and your Brand Idea (not just what products you offer, but the emotional benefit of engaging with your brand) can be a powerful tool for any small business. And the difference between a Google, Starbucks, Virgin and all those other failed ventures that never quite made it.

That’s my point of view. What’s your twist?

How do you see branding as a challenge or advantage for small businesses?

Our Brand School program will give you actionable steps and strategies that you can use to grow a strong brand.  Receive more information about the next semester and receive free brand-building tools and tips when you join our mailing list.

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“Through Julie’s feedback I learned critical information about my demographic audience, what I was trying to say with my story, and what I stood for.” – Lynn Stull, Owner Arts2Thrive

 

Fear of the Idea

Does this ever happen to you?

You (or someone in your organization) comes up with a new idea, and after an initial stage of euphoria and excitement, you are left with a sinking feeling of “Oh, sh*t”.

Your enthusiasm dwindles as you are filled with anxiety about what to do next. How do I turn this idea into action? How do I get it out of our heads and into the marketplace?

Perhaps these are some of the thoughts running through your mind:

  • Getting ideas approved through our organization is an Olympic sport
  • By the time everyone is on board, our competition will probably beat us to it
  • It seems like an interesting idea, but maybe we need more data to know for sure.
  • If it’s such a good idea, why hasn’t someone tried it before? What’s the catch?
  • Seems risky, I’m not sure we can afford to fail. Do I really want to stick my neck out?

Well if you recognize yourself in some or all of the above statements, you are not alone.

I have worked with many entrepreneurs and all of them have faced moments of fear and self-doubt. Many of them have described the idea like a big elephant in the room. You can’t ignore it but you don’t quite know what to do with it.

These feelings are natural. It’s the way our mind’s are wired to process something new. But just because you have these feelings, it doesn’t mean you have to give into them.

The secret to successful entrepreneurs is that they channel this anxiety back into something positive. They acknowledge the fear, embrace it, and use it as the adrenaline they need to take action.

Here are a three tips that I learned from successful entrepreneurs during a  recent BRITE conference I participated in:

  1. Go with your gut: If the idea is appealing to you, if it solves a problem that you find personally relevant, then it will most likely appeal to others. Limit the market research

Going Beyond Ideas to Action

book

Lots of people talk about writing books…but few of us ever do the hard work of putting pen to paper.

Well, my brother Greg Curhan did. He had an idea swirling around in his head about a thriller set in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots. And instead if musing about it. He wrote it down, and then instead of waiting for someone to want to publish it, he published it himself with the help of Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is an interesting concept where friends, family, even complete strangers can help fund independent creative projects.

The book is called Indomitable Spirit, it’s available on Amazon.com and it’s a damned good read. You might think as his sister I’m a bit biased, but I’m actually a pretty discerning reader and it really is very good.

My brother’s actions got me thinking again about what separates the dreamers from the doers.

Student Entrepreneurs Rock!

Great day yesterday at Columbia Business School talking innovation with the students in Professor Toubia’s marketing class.

Some interesting student generated ideas about new places the Virgin brand could go. Everywhere from condoms to senior living facilities for today’s hip, active Boomers. Definitely a lot to think about.

Pleased to see so many students taking control of their own futures and planning to start businesses of their own. The upside of this terrible economy..more entrepreneurs. My preview yesterday of the passion and intelligence of this group makes me confident they will succeed.

Lots of questions during and after the lectures on how to create a brand that’s as strong as your business idea. Exactly the content we will be covering in our  Brand in a Box: Branding for Entrepreneurs class on July 15th in NYC.

As promised, here’s the updated link to the event. http://brandingforentrepreneurs-eorg.eventbrite.com/

We’ve been able to reduce the price to $250 thanks to a corporate sponsor.

We’d love to have students join (men and women welcome) and have decided to give a special offer of two tickets for the price of one for students only. If you are a student, choose 2 tickets and enter the discount code student to access this offer.

That’s my POV what’s your twist?

Are you a student (or young) entrepreneur? What are the biggest challenges you are facing? We’d love to hear from you.