If I knew what it took to build a million dollar online business when I first started, I probably would have done something easier. But not knowing how to do it was the best part about starting. It’s hard to find what it is you want to do, sell, or what you are really passionate about. When I was working as a teenager just outside of Portland, Oregon, as a tech support agent for ID card printers, I didn’t think my passion would be badge holders and accessories. That wasn’t the coolest idea that came to mind when I thought about what I would dedicate my life to.
But there is something amazing about being challenged every day – innovating, learning, and finding out how to add value to a competitive market. You need that youthful, naïve, fearless entrepreneur spirit, and listening to a seasoned veteran may just scare you away from starting. So don’t think about how to do it; think about why you want it and just start now.
Learning to Be the Best at What You Love to Do
These days, almost anyone can start a business, but how do you make one last? In Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, he gets into the science of transforming a company from a mediocre one into a business that “can be engineered into the DNA of an enterprise.” This means, as a business owner, you should strive to be the best in the world at what you’re doing. I know this is a bold claim. Being the best in the world? For me, that was my “aha” moment. Once you do find that “thing” that you either love to do, or know you can and will be the best at, you need to find a way to market it as a product or service. Chances are, you already have competition, so the key is to present it in a way that is unlike any of the others in your industry. When I developed the mindset that my business had to set itself apart from competitors and other industries, I took these three steps:
- Glamorize your product. When we first started Specialist ID, we were trying to compete for the biggest and most glamorous security products – big ticket items that required lots of capital, technical staff, and resources. We focused on badge accessories, the least attractive products in our industry, and made them appealing. Whether your product is sexy or not, you want it to pop off a computer screen and grab your customer’s attention.
- Take tips from businesses that work. Even if they’re not a competitor, take the time to look at what other businesses are or aren’t doing, and do it. For example, Zappos does an amazing job describing their products with great photos and video. So our team set out to be the “Zappos of badge holders.”
- Cross-Pollinate. Harvard Business Professor, Lee Fleming, states in his article, “Perfecting Cross-Pollination,” that breakthroughs that arise from multidisciplinary work “are frequently of unusually high value—superior to the best innovations achieved by conventional approaches.” Cross-pollinating is worth the effort because the results that are achieved — as sparse as they might be — usually contribute a significant amount of profit for your company.
Overcoming the Obstacles
Starting a new business will have its challenges. The two major obstacles you’ll likely run into will involve money and advertising expenses. But even for startup businesses on a limited budget, there are ways to work around this.
- Find ways to boost your cash flow. Most traditional businesses need cash for inventory. Eventually, we got smart and leveraged distributors that stocked lots of inventory who were in close proximity. We were able to put their inventory online, sell it, then make a run every day to pick up the product we had sold the day before, and still ship all orders within 24 hours. This let us get paid up front, and carry almost no inventory while we built up positive cash flow and our own stock.
- Don’t spend too much on advertising. Back when it was the number one e-commerce store, we used eBay and pushed customers in the direction of our website whenever possible. In the beginning, building great content and dominating a small niche was worth more to us than pay-per-click sales, and we could afford to invest the time because we didn’t have any money. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received in response to big businesses taking over the top pages of search results was to “become the brand.” Big businesses know about branding and the value of it. Make this a bigger focus in your vision now, not later.
Building a million dollar online business from square one takes hard work and long hours of dedication, so be sure you like what you’re doing, whether it’s the industry you’re in or just the challenge of building a business. Once you’ve found that business niche, think about ways to make it stand out from the competition. Don’t be afraid to try different conventions; don’t let a lack of money stop you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most importantly, don’t give up.
BusinessCollective, launched in partnership with Citi, is a virtual mentorship program powered by North America’s most ambitious young thought leaders, entrepreneurs, executives and small business owners.