Are you thinking of launching an online business? Hoping that this year will be the breakthrough year for your website?
If so, you may be a bit like Sarah, who emailed me last week, asking for my help and advice with her planned web business.
I get emails like that most days, so I usually can’t afford to give them too much thought. But this one was different.
I don’t know Sarah well, but it happens she did me a one-of-a-kind favor last year.
So I decided to write back. But not only to write back, but to really give Sarah my full attention and spend my time answering her questions, to the point where I’m willing to say exactly what’s on my mind – in a “there’s-spinach-stuck-in-your-teeth” kinda way.
As it turns out, the questions Sarah presented are some of the most frequently asked among budding entrepreneurs who contact me. And so I’m going to share my exchange with her here (with her name and business concept masked).
To all my fellow web-based entrepreneurs, I hope you find it illuminating:
I hope you are well!
I am working on a website with K, I think you know her. Anyway, long story short, I think our idea has great potential, but we are at the point we need a financial partner to help us make this into something big and hire someone like YOU. In a nutshell the site is [business concept].
Our goal is to offer monthly Webinars, Seminars and Teleconferences. Here we will be promoting the people in our Network, educating the audience on [business niche]. Basically we are a front end sales force for products & services.
[She explained the business concept to offer products and services in a particular niche to a Jewish target market]
Thus, I am writing to you to pick your brain to see if you are connected with any business people you think might be suitable for us to contact in regards to investing in our soon to be highly profitable website, BS”D.
Thank you for your time, I look forward to your feedback.
Sounds like you are on to something really interesting. I also think that there is tons of potential in this niche.
My advice to you is this:
Before you spend any major cash, or take on a partner (which is always opening a can of worms), find your audience and connect to them.
For the next 6-12 months, forget about your product and forget about making money.
Focus on growing your audience and establishing your name in your field.
Your goal: get 2,000 people on your mailing list. (Real people who actually chose to join. Not email addresses you bought or harvested.)
If you can do that, the cash will start flowing towards you – cash from [service providers] who want to do joint ventures with you, cash from your followers who want to buy anything you’re selling, and cash from investors – if you feel that you need them at that point.
If you can’t get 2,000 subscribers, it means one of two things:
1. The audience for this product does not, in fact, exist, or at least not in the numbers you expected. Won’t you be glad you didn’t waste time and money developing a product to sell to a weak market?
2. The audience is there but you haven’t yet found the right magic formula to connect with them. You must keep trying and exploring new avenues and techniques till you find what works. It will probably take more than you expect, but if you don’t give up, eventually you will succeed. Meanwhile, won’t you be glad you didn’t waste time money developing a product prematurely, before you had an audience who you know so well and can easily learn from them exactly what they want and deliver it?
The question you may ask is: how do you find your audience and turn them into 2,000 real email subscribers?
First, learn how.
Second, do it.
Third, invest in your biz to take it to the next level.
In my opinion, this is the way that any web-based business should be developed right now, unless you happen to have major cash to blow.
Wow! That was quite a shpiel! Normally I charge $160/hour from that kind of advice – so I hope you find it helpful!
I thought that covered my bases, but I wasn’t so sure when I got the following response from Sarah:
“Thank you so much for your guidance:)
I hope you thank H’shem every day for giving you such a brilliant mind! I hear your message and now have lots of homework to do!
The biggest problem is paying myself and my partner while we build this space ship, that is why I am looking for a mini financial backer or grant. I will keep my prayers going and look forward to being able to pay your fee when I need more direction!
Maybe you want to be in our network? [My marketing consulting business fits somewhat into their niche.] Everyone in our Network gets to run a Webinar. You’d be great; as a follow up you have to have three opportunities on how people can follow up with you, like: 1. Private consulting 2. How to – 3 part series on Making $ online 3. Writer’s workshop, how to make a profit.
Think about it… ;)”
Hmmm… I decided to go the honest and straight-forward route in my response:
I was going to say “thanks but no thanks.” Then I asked myself why I feel this is not a good investment of my time.
I figure it will help you more if you understand what goes through the mind of someone like me.
The reason is: you don’t have an audience.
Pros are willing to invest the tremendous amount of time and effort it takes to run a webinar – because their partner in the venture has an audience that they want to tap into.
If you have no audience, it’s simply not worth my time.
And if they agree, it’s only because they’re newbies who understanding nothing about web business. Most likely they also have no audience. So it’s lose-lose for you both.
My advice has not changed.
Forget about selling anything (and doing joint ventures with other people who want to sell something).
Trying to sell something at this stage is a big error, in my humble opinion.
Here’s an example:
Say you are a Jerusalem tour guide interested in launching a web-based business. I would say first start your blog called: “Secret Jewels of Jerusalem.” Then work on building up your readership with terrific content. Do social media, guest blogging and email to the max.
In the meantime, you could have a button that says “Hire Me to Guide You Round Jerusalem,” but nothing more advanced than that.
When you see that your following is really starting to take off, that’s the time to start working on your product: be it a directory of Jerusalem tour guides or a self-service guiding app for Jerusalem tourists or whatever else.
Of course, you can make use of your loyal audience and ask for their help to make this product exactly what they are looking for.
I still think it’s important to know how you plan to make money before you even begin (if you don’t do this you might be very sorry later). In your case, Sarah, you are planning to enter a super-lucrative vertical, so that’s not an issue.
But beyond planning and researching, it’s unwise to implement your monetization plan too soon.
Rule #1 for shoestring web business still stands:
First, capture your audience.
PS. If you run it this way, your initial investment of time and money will be much smaller and you will be able to run it on a shoestring. Maybe with just a bit of capital from FFF . I’m not saying it’s easy to run a biz that way, so that’s why you need passion to carry you through. Put the passion first, and the money second.”
This was Sarah’s response:
“I knew you were not going to jump on board that easy, but at the end of the day you are interested just not until we have a presence & audience.
So what you’re saying is in order to get a great network together, we need to get a GREAT (big) audience. I hear that, but I also think our [service providers] are a crucial part of who we want to be, so I would tell our [service providers] that we are just getting off the ground so instead of paying us $360 to be in our network you only have to invest $36 now and the rest when our mailing list gets to 2,000 people. Each [service provider] can decide when they would like to run their webinar (depending on traffic) in the meanwhile they can submit articles for the site.
I also agree that we need to just get started on the shoe string, and collect people by offering great content with out having to sell anything… Thank you.
I wasn’t letting her off the hook that easily. I wrote back:
“Woohoo – you’re getting there.
Though I’m not sure why I’d pay you $36 and give you my content for free – when you have no audience.
Why not keep my 36 bucks and publish my content on my own site?
What’s the advantage of putting it on your site (with zero traffic and reputation), when I could put in on my site (with zero traffic and reputation)?
I’m speaking this as if I was a budding [service provider] – one with some marketing sense (which most of them do not have – but trust me, the clueless ones are not the ones who can build the success of your idea.)
PS. it’s so fun to speak honestly about these things.”
Sarah wrote back:
“So great to have a reality check!”
“This has been a really interesting exchange for me.
I’d like to turn it into a blog post. I’ll delete all your identifying details and focus on what my advice is.
By the way, someone contacted me last week about her idea that reminds me of yours (nothing to do with [name of niche], but also a kind of Jewish online community based around a niche). I was very encouraging to her as I know first-hand that her audience is already very strong and mega-enthusiastic about what she’s doing.
She is a woman here in Jerusalem with no money and no marketing experience. Her niche is not as lucrative as yours but there is still good potential.
It can be done!”
Sarah’s last response ended our exchange:
G-d Bless U – go for it lady!
Upon reviewing this conversation, there is one line that I think it the most important thing I said, not just for Sarah but for all my blog readers.
In my opinion, this is the way that any web-based business should be developed in 2014, unless you happen to have major cash to blow.
And there is one thing I didn’t tell her, which I will now admit.
Every thing I have to say is learned from personal experience. I’ve taken some hard knocks in my own entrepreneurial journey.
So if you are in the early stages of developing an online business, or just thinking of starting one – I strongly encourage you to think how my advice to Sarah may apply to you.