A few weeks ago, I was talking (well, whining, might be more accurate) to a friend about how I’d love to start my own business someday but always came up short on ideas. He suggested I volunteer somewhere where I’d get to interact with small business owners and entrepreneurs.
It was the best advice I’d received in a long time. After contacting a couple of places — really, there’s no shortage here in the Bay Area — I actually ended up volunteering at a local non-profit incubator. Last week, I sat in for about 3 hours one evening on some of their one-on-one counseling sessions with students who were taking a business planning course. I found my mindset changing dramatically in so many ways:
- I really benefitted from interacting with people who are taking concrete steps toward starting their own business because I don’t really know anyone like that among my friends and family.
- I got to see what small business owners face, like the process of asking and resolving real small business needs. For example: product design (should I use a pattern or a simple black fabric?), how to test market a product with very little budget (how about giving your book club a few samples and have them test it out for a month and give you feedback?), how to name a product (ask everyone for their opinion, offer a small prize), how to price a product, how to lower costs on a product, how to develop a story about who your target market is, etc.
- I realized that many people who were trying to start their own business there were doing so out of necessity. They weren’t doing it to make big bucks.
- Being there reminded me that there’s no mystery to starting a business, no magic bullet or rare skill. More than anything else, it takes a lot of doing: the no-frills, put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of doing, and lots of it, plus the kind of commitment and focus that goes along with it.
My volunteer experience so far has also made me realize that I tend to get stuck thinking like an MBA and overcomplicate things in my head. (E.g. “It has to be successful, it has to make $X a year, it has to be impressive somehow, it has to [insert next ambitious requirement here].”)
Unlike big businesses, the majority of entrepreneurs out there don’t start with complex, high-tech, IP-heavy products but simpler things like apparel designs. Similarly, pricing doesn’t involve statistical regression, and market research doesn’t involve professional focus groups or paying IDC for their intelligence.
I’d put off volunteering at small business non-profits for a long time because I could never figure out why an entrepreneur would want advice from someone with an MBA or who had plenty of corporate experience but none starting her own company. It turns out that most small businesses really do need help with simple things that I can offer, such as developing and working with basic financial statements and creating a business or marketing plan, all pretty standard bschool stuff.
So, if you’re like me and feel stuck in a corporate rut, have some time to spare and want to help out others, consider volunteering at a Small Business Administration (SBA) office, or call up SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives, a volunteer consulting branch of the SBA) to see if you’d qualify to volunteer for them, even if you’re not a “retired executive.” There are also tons of microcredit/microfinance organizations, women’s business centers, and a slew of other small-business non-profits if you search online.
I guess my advice this week is to encourage you to find a way to spend some time in a place where you’re interacting with people who are actually doing what you’ve always dreamed about, no matter what that is. You’d be amazed how much it helps!