My #1 biggest mistake as a new business owner (& how you can avoid it!)

The first 2 years of owning a business were rough for me.

I opened the doors of my business expecting that people would magically show up, but that just didn’t happen. I was so passionate about what I was offering & I expected that this passion would be contagious and lead to explosive growth, but I kept hearing over and over again from potential clients: “Oh what a cool idea!” But that “cool idea” was rarely enough to lead to actual sales.

But looking back on it, I think that I could have avoided so much of that pain if I had just done one thing: asked my clients and potential clients what they wanted.

Seems kind of obvious, right?

Like so many small business owners, I created something that I thought people needed, and then I looked for people who wanted it. And in the meantime I spent thousands of dollars on print & Facebook ads that led to exactly zero new clients.

If I had sought out who I wanted to work with FIRST, asked them what they wanted, and crafted a way to serve them, those first few years of business would be drastically different.

When it came time to pivot my business & to re-brand & re-launch into what it is today, I was determined to learn from my mistakes.

When it came time to pivot & relaunch my business, I gave myself 30 days to do it.

This might sound like an insane deadline, especially for an entirely arbitrary one, but to put this in perspective (& this is pretty embarrassing): I recently came across a journal entry from 2015 where I wrote down my goals for the next 5 years. My primary goal for 2020 was to compete in the Summer Olympics.

And I wasn’t even competing in a sport.

I fully expected that 5 years was plenty of time pick up a sport, master it, and then be one of the best in the world at it. My ability to envision what I can accomplish in a given time frame can be entirely delusional.

But in this particular instance of launching a business in 30 days: I actually did it. Which took me by surprise since I’m used to having an… Icarus-like trajectory when it comes to pursuing goals.

I set this deadline in part because it seemed like a reasonable timeline at the time, but mostly because I knew that I wanted to help emerging entrepreneurs to launch their businesses, and I wanted to test out my theories about how to launch with a minimum viable product.

What are the bare minimum essentials that need to be in place before you launch a service-based business? I created a hypothesis, I tested it, and now I’m here to share the results.

I did this experiment in four steps, focusing on one step each week:

  • Week 1: Market research

  • Week 2: Developing a working ideal customer avatar

  • Week 3: Create a bare minimum online presence & email list

  • Week 4: Design a service package & determine pricing

I’m going to focus in this article on what I did that first week of the launch: market research.

What I did this first week was exactly what I didn’t do when I launched my first business, and I can now see that it definitely robbed me of a strong and stable foundation for growth.

Maybe you’re in the process of launching a new business or product line, or maybe you’ve been in business for years. Regardless of where you are, it’s never too late to do this exercise. I promise you, it’s the single most important step you can and should take to launching a sustainable, profitable business.

Going back in time a bit, when I first announced to my family that I was going to open my own gym, my grandfather asked me: “Have you done market research to make sure this is a viable business idea?”

I remember just looking at him like a deer in the headlights wondering: “How much money does he think I have? I don’t have millions of dollars to hire a firm to do massive surveys in my home town.” I don’t remember my actual reply, but it probably was pretty arrogant and dismissive.

Eventually that moment came back to haunt me. At the time I had 3 fundamental assumptions about market research:

  1. As I mentioned before, I thought it cost millions of dollars and you had to hire a huge firm to do it.

  2. I also thought of the Henry Ford quote where he stated: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” I knew that I wanted to do something innovative, so I thought it would be pointless to ask people what they wanted since what I was creating didn’t fully exist in the marketplace.

  3. I didn’t want to admit this to myself at the time, but the real reason why I didn’t want to do market research was that I was afraid that it would tell me something I didn’t want to know.

These were my 3 most costly misconceptions to date. Because of them, I spent years creating products and services that I thought sounded great, but that not enough people wanted to buy.

Failing to do market research cost me many thousands of dollars in overhead costs & buying totally pointless Facebook & print ads & I want to make sure that it doesn’t cost you as well.

So here’s what I know now:

  1. Market research for a small business can and should cost nothing. All it involves is some variation of calling up 10 people and asking them 10 questions. That’s it!

  2. There’s a good chance that when you have these conversations the person you’re talking to might not know what they need, or they might think that what they need is something entirely different than the solution you’re offering. If that’s the case, that data is still worth its weight in gold! And I’ll explain why in a minute.

  3. I also learned over the course of doing business is that very few decisions when it comes to how you’re positioning your business are actually set in stone. You can and should evolve as you gain new information. New and valuable intel is an asset not a threat to your business.

So going back to the first month of my latest launch, I started out with a very vague idea of who I wanted to help and how. I knew that I wanted to help female small business owners, and I thought I wanted to use my skills in writing and design, but that was about it.

So I made a list of 10 female small business owners that I knew and liked and I asked them if we could meet for coffee. I promised that it would only take 30 minutes at most and that drinks were on me.

I ended up spending an overly caffeinated week in wall-to-wall market research meetings.

These are meetings that can be done over the phone, but I do suggest meeting face-to-face, even if it’s digitally. What someone doesn’t say and the facial expressions that they make when you ask a question can be just as important as what they do say.

I asked those 10 women the same 10 questions, and at the end of the week I sat down with all of my notes and highlighted patterns. What words or phrases came up over and over again? What questions led to long pauses and a struggle for answers?

There were so many commonalities, but there were 2 that stood out in particular:

  1. The first question I asked was “Describe your business in just a few sentences.” Turns out that very few of the women could do that. I heard phrases like “Oh gosh. You would think I should be able to do that, right?” Or “This is embarrassing. Why did you have to lead with that one?” If I had just asked that one question, it would have been a worthwhile project. I knew that for most of the women I worked with, regardless of how many years they were in business, that’s where we needed to start. In fact, I’ll talk about this in more detail in a later episode, I put together a free worksheet where I walk you through the process of writing a one-liner that says what you do in one concise sentence. You can find that at

  2. The second observation I made was that every single one of these women described themselves as an “idea person.” Coming up with creative solutions to problems came easily to them, which is why they were attracted to entrepreneurship in the first place. What they struggled with most was choosing which of their hundreds of ideas to implement & following through.

I also asked the ladies what they thought the solution was to the sticking points in their business. Some of the ladies said that they needed to hire a coach or a strategist, but a lot of them said that they just needed to work harder or that they wanted to invest in solutions that I knew from experience probably weren’t going to work.

You may find in these meetings that there are a few people who could be your ideal client right away, but there are plenty of others that fall into the “not yet” category.

Both types should factor into your decision making when it comes to crafting your messaging.

As I was doing these meetings I started mentally compiling a profile of my ideal client, but I also started to mentally put the people I talked to into 3 different buckets. They all were or could be an ideal client, but they were at 1 of 3 distinct stages in their journey:

  1. They were the perfect candidate for my most premium service, understood its value, and were ready to buy.

  2. They were the perfect candidate for my most premium service, but they didn’t fully understand its value yet.

  3. They could be the perfect candidate for my most premium service, but they were convinced that the solution to their problems was something different from what I was offering.

Quick sidebar here: At this point I actually didn’t know what kind of services I was going to offer. I had a vague idea, but not a firm one. So as I was determining who might be a “premium client,” I was also determining what that actually meant.

So once I conducted these market research meetings, I used that to create a profile of my ideal client, a one-liner that said what I did in one concise statement, created what’s called a “lead magnet” to attract my ideal customer avatar, and I determined my initial service packages and pricing.

Because I started with the people I wanted to serve BEFORE I created a method to serve them, the next month when it came time to officially open for business, I exceeded my revenue goal for the month in my first 2 weeks. I NEVER did this in all the years I was in business up until this point, and I I know it’s because I started with asking my ideal client how to serve her.

At the time of this article's release, I’m walking my students through how to conduct their own market research meetings in my group coaching program: The Secret Sauce Society.

If you’re in the early stages of growing a business & you’re overwhelmed by all the things you feel like you have to do to get a business off the ground & design your online presence, I’d love to help you cut through the noise and focus on the next best step.

But these market research meetings are something that you can do on your own. Make a list of 7-10 people who at least roughly fit your profile of an ideal client to work with, and call them up. You’ll be amazed how many people are eager to help and are more than willing to give you 30 minutes of their time… especially when you bribe them with a $3 latte.

Keep an eye out for next week's article to hear how to use the data you get from these meetings to clarify your focus, define your ideal customer avatar, & build the foundation of a compelling marketing message.

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