As a couple of my business projects have grown from concept to product to actually selling to customers, I have entered a new stage of the startup process. One that has new, wider sets of inputs that need to be taken into account and managed.
Listen, having customers is great, it’s the reason you went into business in the first place. The thing is though, once you start selling, you actually have to start providing your end of the bargin. This opens up a brand new set of demands that you did not have before. Your time is now split into two major buckets. You have to both produce your service or good for the customer (as well as interact with them) and also try and grow the business by finding new customers. Prior to having customers, it was only the latter of the two.
This concept seems obvious in retrospect, but in a small business, man hours are limited and it is very easy to under estimate how much time it takes to actually have customers. So how do you balance this new demand with the consistent need to sell more? You feel the pull in both directions, you have to keep getting new customers or the money stops coming in, but if you don’t satisfy your current customers than they will not refer you to others and you won’t really have a business anyway.
I can tell you now that the tendency is to lean towards the current customer. I think this happens for a couple reasons. One, you have always heard how important is to make the customer happy. It is also exciting just to have customers, so that draws you to them. And probably most of all, you finally have a task that you know for sure needs completing.
Let me elaborate on that last point for a moment because I think it is interesting. When I was at my regular job, there were specific assigned tasks to me that I knew needed to be done each day. And I knew that when I did them and did them well that I was doing my job and accomplishing something (a built in “that-a-boy”). When starting up a business, there is very little of that certainty. You do millions of different little things that you think are right, but you have no real idea if you should have done them in the first place. There is no one affirming or confirming with any immediacy that what you did was done well or that it should have even been done. On a day to day basis you just do not know if what you did was right.
When you have a customer, it is much more clear what needs to be done. They paid for something, so you need to produce it and deliver it. For the first time since leaving my job and starting a business, there is something that I am certain I need to get done.
I am smart enough to know that I cannot just produce for the current customer, so I have established a plan on how to deal with that pull. I have now designated times for my growth thinking and executing. In addition, I have also noticed that it works best to get to the customers first thing in the morning (following my list making). By doing this I start the day accomplishing something that feels good because I knew it needed to get done. Also, it removes the nag from my mind that there is something else I should be doing. Coming up with growth strategies is hard, so you need to remove the distractions.
For my allotted growth period, I try to give myself a short but unobstructed period of time each day. My goal. I need to either come up with a new idea that will help grow the business or I need to accomplish one of the old ideas. I can and will write a whole post on this, but growth ideas (by my definition) are not necessarily marketing or sales initiatives. It is anything that can help the process of getting a new customer. So for example, producing a demo video or FAQ page or creating an automated email that is triggered when customers interact are all forms of growth ideas.
Note: there is also a third bucket which I am choosing to ignore here – which is product improvements. This too is one that can eat up a lot of your time in many cases without making meaningful improvements. That is for a different discussion as well though.
Anyway, I am sure as I reach each new phase of the start-up business cycle, new unexpected challenges and time management issues will arise. It is exciting to be reaching the new levels though, so for now, that pure joy of accomplishment overrides any complaint I might have.