I woke up in my dorm, a hulking white cement building, and glanced around the 12x12 room before noticing the clock. I was late. A half mile across campus sat my technical writing class, a group of mostly college freshman students, half awake, waiting to give their final presentations for the semester.
I started running, hoping to make it on time.
Presentation after presentation went by about an array of technically written projects. I couldn't pay attention, thinking about my own presentation. It was a full business plan. For me, it didn't fall in line with a generic, semester project that I just had to get through before dumping in the trash and heading to summer vacation. It was a real business that I was building.
The project contained a full business plan, mock ups, a sample application that I had developed, and strategy for garnishing local investor attention.
Unfortunately at this point in my life, it was about the 6th or 7th side business I tried to start. The bitterness set in deeper every day. I didn't even realize the progress that I was making because I was rushed to get to the finish line, or at least whatever I called the finish line. I'm not sure true finish lines even exist for most small businesses. They are just imaginary points floating in space that founders decide they need to get to, and when they don't, it makes them feel like shit.
So I tried to stop setting goals for myself around that time. As expected, the technical writing project was fine for the class, but stopped short of getting traction. I packed up my bags for summer, left my dorm, and also left the project behind. For the next 6 years of my life, I continued to start little side businesses.
But only 3 things mattered to me. Today, tomorrow, and 30 years from now.
That's how I decided to start thinking about my businesses. It's easy to plan and plan and plan. You can get a notebook, write down tasks, timelines, deadlines, schedules, and ideas down for years before getting anywhere. Especially when toughing it out by yourself. Planning stopped making sense for me because my day to day focus changed every other week. That's why only today and tomorrow mattered.
The only way to keep me grounded in today and tomorrow was to envision 30 years from now. The vision is the boundaries of the arena I operate in daily. As Gary Vaynerchuk says, "cloud and dirt".
This yin and yang approach also introduced me to patience. I got home from school, 21 years old now, and thought about what my life was going to look like in my 50s. I didn't give a shit (or at least tried not to) about being a "successful" 20-something. Approaching business with patience also led me to ignoring competition.
I was honing in more and more on focusing on myself and my small business. So I kicked off some new projects, and played around with ideas for a few years. Buying a house and other commitments at the time introduced a burden on my life so I kept a full time job to minimize risk.
A schedule revealed itself during that time in my life. There was no point in exhausting myself now, otherwise I wouldn't have the drive to get through the next 30 years. I could have gone back to attempting 10-16 hour days on little sleep, grinding towards a fake deadline.
Much of my college experience was stressful during those earlier projects. "Just a few more months before I get enough customers." "Just gotta get through these couple of features to really launch." "Just going to work a couple of all nighters this week before it calms down."
Now I could work a full time job that I still loved, and then only 5-10 hours a week on side projects, because I was in it for the long haul.
Slow growth here was the key. Growing my side business too fast would have immediately killed it. Thousands of customers registering at once, crashing the system, getting pissed off, requesting refunds, etc. would have been horrible. And setting up a truly scaleable system from the beginning is expensive, time consuming, and risky. I honestly don't believe "low risk, low reward" or "high risk, high reward" perfectly applies to starting businesses. I think it's more like "low risk, slow reward or no loss" and "high risk, fast reward or expensive loss".
My 5-10 hours a week led to a handful of paying customers through experimentation and analyzing results. It started with a few hundred bucks a month. Spending time with those early customers was crucial. Gathering feedback, implementing simple features, gathering more feedback, talking to potential customers, implementing more features, etc. starting to build customers up slowly.
I kept everything simple so I had to worry about as little as possible. The pricing was just a flat $55 a month per customer and the product had a free trial. That's it. Keeping expenses lower than revenue made the business almost immediately profitable. In my case, 50-100 customers would generate between $2,750 - $5500 a month, or $33k - $66k a year. That's a nice little side business for a small set of customers (comparatively.)
I would have been able to do it without focusing on what I care about. In my case it happened to be business software and small businesses, but everyone has their own thing of course. Chasing cash or the latest trend isn't impossible but it's also not the path of least resistance. Why not make things easier on yourself and raise your chances of success?
Entrepreneurship and building a side business isn't what I would consider easy, so don't make it harder than it already is. Best of luck getting started.
Holden, Founder of Buster Technologies
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