The best entrepreneurial advice I was ever given came from Dr. Stephen Graves, executive coach and best-selling author, while sitting in his conference room in 2001. The advice:
“You are only as good as you invoice”
His words, while simple, hit me like a ton of outdated flip phones.
At the risk of sounding like Mr. Wonderful from Shark Tank, Dr. Graves’s advice convinced me our business model was in danger of becoming a very expensive hobby unless we mastered the art of invoicing.
Now, 15 years later, I’m the co-founder and CEO of a successful startup, Field Agent. I have the privilege to meet with budding entrepreneurs intent on becoming the next Instagram or Uber. They always, in every case, have good, creative ideas, and in most cases already have company logos and registered domain names.
Wow, in so many ways they remind me of when we were first starting out. Big on enthusiasm and creativity, but not sure how to monetize their idea.
As a practice, I ask three questions to gain an overview of the venture:
1. What problem are you solving?
The response most often centers on solving a very specific, “everyday” issue in their lives. They have spent years dealing with a problem when, following some feedback from family and friends, they finally decide to solve it. Everything in their mind and soul now tells them it's a big idea.
2. Who is your core customer?
When I ask this I normally receive an expression of utter disbelief that I would ask such a question. They quickly rattle off a statistic from Google that identifies a billion dollar market consisting of people just like them. And how they only need 1% of that market to become a Unicorn in 5 years.
3. What would a consumer be willing to pay for the product/service?
The answer is almost always “a lot” or “give it to them for free.” In fairness, this is the toughest question to answer but one they seldom have put any real thought into.
It’s this final question we all need to answer, or else our entire business model will fall apart. Entrepreneurs must “do the math,” and determine how much revenue is required to sustain their businesses. This, of course, will also determine how much the customer must pay.
So let’s look at the first response I normally receive: “People would be willing to pay a lot.”
My encouragement to them is to never use the term “a lot” again.
Saying “a lot” simply means you have not done your homework. At a minimum you should make an educated guess at a price so you can develop a pro forma P&L and calculate a breakeven point, topics for another blog post.
The second response I often hear: “Give it [the product] to them for free so I can build a huge following.”
Their hope is that when VCs see this “huge following,” their company will be valued at huge multiples and everyone will get rich, living happily ever after. (Note to self: The Social Network must be their favorite movie.)
While free is the new black, this road is long and risky…even with great funding. It is also the first sign they may not have a market!
So where does this leave us? The good news is that many of you have million dollar ideas you’re working on. Your product works great; your logo is awesome; and, you solve a real problem.
But don’t stop here.
Go out and talk to potential customers, and start with people not just like you. Don't be afraid to talk hard numbers and pricing. Once you do this, start selling. Don’t wait for product perfection or pricing clarity – just sell!
I can tell you from personal experience: There is nothing like someone listening to your idea, hearing your price and then saying, “How can I get one?” It is my hope and prayer you can experience this for yourself.
At this point—and only at this point—will you know you have a real business and not just an expensive hobby.
I want to leave you with this proverb as words of encouragement:
“Hard work (monetizing a great idea) always pays off; mere talk (about the next great idea) puts no bread on the table.”