Seven years ago, I decided I am going to have my own coaching and consulting company some day. I knew what interested me, and I knew that I was a natural ‘teacher’ (last three generations of teachers in my family was a reasonable hypothesis that I could do it!) and I will want to do it, but I was not sure of several things, most notably:
- What is my ‘market’?
- Do I know who are my ‘customers’?
- Do I understand the ‘problem’?
- Do I know the ‘solution’?
- Do I know what ‘customers’ want? and why?
- Do I have the credibility in my market?
- What is my unique value proposition?
- How do I validate if people will accept me?
- Do I have the passion, knowledge, skills and abilities to convert my interest into a viable and sustainable business?
- Will I enjoy doing it? Especially, doing it alone? For rest of my professional life?
- Last, and never the least, what is the revenue model?
During the next seven years, I embarked on a series of activities to basically examine, and hopefully validate these questions first-hand. I had a day job, first as running the country operations at NetScout, then heading the business operations at Yahoo! and finally being a global change leader at 7 Innovation Labs during those seven years. However, I invested my personal time, effort and money to expand my thinking, and did things that helped me find answers to those questions:
- I started blogging on my blog “ManageWell” at http://managewell.net and wrote over 150+ blog posts on various topics that were of interest to me. The idea was to test whether I have the flair to express my ideas and thoughts that resonate with people, and to discover what is my sustainable pace of writing.
- I signed up as a visiting faculty for an Exec MBA and taught topics such as Project Management and Business Ethics. In addition to delivering a very practitioner-led thinking, I also did a few unconventional things. I decided to put up my entire courseware in public domain on my slideshare account (http://slideshare.net/managewell). Surely, many people do it nowadays though it was kind of rare in 2008-09, but unfortunately, a large number of us still don’t do it even today.
- I got active in community of practitioners. After having delivered over 100+ talks, papers and workshops in various conferences and companies on a pro bono basis, I was discovering myself. I knew people wanted me to talk at their event, perhaps because of a few key reasons – I knew some stuff, I spoke reasonably well, I was ready to speak and I didn’t charge money. I didn’t worry about the last piece because I was already in a salaried job (and will always remain grateful to those three employers for all their support!). Speaking at so many places meant I delivered some ~30 talks every year for the last 3+ years (partial list available at http://managewell.net/?page_id=2). I never said no to anyone asking me to deliver a talk, how so much ‘unknown’ their event was, as long as I could spare time for it and there was something new I could talk on. And yes, sometimes I took PTO and even bought my own flight tickets to travel out of town just to deliver talks. Once I was in an event where we were seven speakers and just five attendees. We still went on with the ‘conference’. In short, I treated every opportunity and setback as a learning experience, and I am so glad I did that!
- Every talk I delivered, had to be on a ‘new’ topic. I took the opportunity to learn new things. My mantra was – if you know some ~30% about the topic, take that up and sign up for a talk on it. Then spend some 30, 40 or 50 hours learning about it and deliver the talk. I know some talks of mine were not so good, but by and large, the strategy worked for me. There is no way one can be 100% ready anyway!
- Last year, I signed up with a training company to deliver a training in Sri Lanka alongside a conference. They paid for the tickets and accommodation and I did the training free of cost. That experience allowed me to prepare the training material that I was able to later use at work for some 250+ trainings I did in my US and India offices. People talk about taking away training material from workplace, here I was building training material on my personal time and effort, delivering and testing them as a hobby and passion, and bringing it to the workplace! It reinforced my belief that knowledge must stay free (free as in zero-cost to the consumer and free as in freely available) while there should be value for the expertize, wisdom, facilitation, coaching and consulting. This realisation led to the next point.
- After every talk, I made sure the deck was promptly loaded on my slideshare account and enough viral loop was created on social channels, but not so much in the face that people threw me out of their networks :). Over time, my slideshare account became a lead generation engine. People started reaching out to me based on what they had seen on the deck, and wanted me to deliver a talk at their upcoming event. Last year, I got invited to speak at innovation conference organized by University of St Gellen, Switzerland based on my previous work that I had put up on slideshare.
By this time, I was very clear that I will start out by summer of 2015 because that timeframe was tied to an important personal milestone. However, in mid 2014, I started getting approached by ‘customers’ even though I was still not in business. I had to then decide if I should wait until my arbitrary timeline of 2015 or grab the opportunity now. I decided to explore the waters. I had validated most of the hypotheses around my business models except for the revenue part of equation Though it was a critical factor, and a true lean startup thinking might not be complete without actually charging for the services offered, I decided to make that as leap of faith hypothesis. There were several other professionals offering services in this space, and my rationale was if I could do it better, revenue hypothesis was not an unknown-unknown par se, but at best a known-unknown that I could figure out on the fly.
All this time, I was having regular dialogues with my wife who was not in favor of me starting out, given other family priorities and upcoming commitments. I was trying to woo her with all my data points, but I was still far away from convincing her. Finally sometime in Aug, I was able to convince her. I promptly put down my papers and started working on launching my startup.
I identified some 10 or 11 business models that I started exploring. Some of them were extremely promising, while some of them fizzled out in just a phone call. All that prep work helped me validate the key hypotheses around my upcoming startup. I realized that all the work I did in preceding seven years, I had actually paid a lot of dues already. Most people want to ‘withdraw’ first and then maybe make ‘deposits’ maybe as a guilty conscious. I had already been depositing for over seven years, and people knew me. More importantly, they were willing to work with me.
Finally earlier this week I officially went live with my brand new consulting startup “Thought Leadership” – with three great paying customers. I couldn’t have asked for a better dream launch, and I believe rest of the journey will be as interesting as last seven years working towards it have been. The MVP of my startup is alive and kicking, and in a lean startup fashion, ideas and hypotheses are being tried and tested as I go about bravely showcasing my offerings. All this in the first week while:
- I have no idea what the future has in store, but I am enjoying the present
- Learning the joys and challenges of working from the dining table!
- The domain name has been taken, though the web site is still not up
- The business cards have been printed though they are as rudimentary as they can be.
- New revenue streams are being evaluated while serving my early adopters
- I don’t know where and how I get my future business, but I spent most part of last week as a volunteer helping organize an outplacement event for 150+ ex-colleagues.
- Spent two days designing training program at a customer site, and freezing plans with other customers for next couple of weeks.
- and, of course, focusing back on some badly needed exercise
My biggest learning is that the best time to start your lean consulting startup was seven years ago, and the next best time is now…or never!