Questions for Small Businesses: Ask the Right Ones

What’s limiting your company’s growth isn’t your marketing strategy. It’s your ugly baby.

Small business owners often come to us with tactical sales and marketing questions in their effort to attract more customers and improve their bottom line. These are important questions, but they often lead down the wrong path if they aren’t refining a more foundational set of answers – to more foundational questions. Ask the right questions and you’ll go further, faster. If you believe the data, it’s usually not the lack of an effective sales and marketing strategy that stalls most small businesses; it’s something much bigger than that.

Here’s the real number one reason a startup fails:

It has an ugly baby.Ugly Baby

Yes, there are lots of other excuses. Lack of money or an ineffective marketing strategy usually top the misguided list. But the data-based truth is simple: Don’t try to sell a product nobody wants.

That Darth Vader Chia Pet was a great idea at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday, and there’s never been an all-night pizza place that didn’t have promise at 4 a.m. that same Wednesday. But how many other Chia Pets are on Amazon (free one-day drone shipping!) and how many other pizza shops (that don’t have drones yet!) are on the block?

Or, if you’re a lawyer, there may be a desperate need for more customs and international trade attorneys to help navigate the increasing complexities of global commerce. But if you think you’ll find success just hanging a shingle as a general practitioner, with nothing distinguishing you but an office and your fancy letterhead – well, good luck.

Simply put, the more distance there is between the product or service that you’re selling, and the one your customer desires, the harder it is to sell. Establish an airtight product-market fit and your sales and marketing fall into place.

Also on Create a business plan in 15 minutes or less!

The following foundational questions will help you find that airtight product-market fit and refine the core of what you’re selling — as well as who you’re selling it to.

  1. Why do we exist?

Consider what inspired you to start your company – the “why behind the why.” Consider the passion that drives you to make the sacrifices you’re making, as well as those you have yet to make but know you will. What’s necessary for your business to succeed is allowing customers to feel your passion.

  1. Is your business a vitamin or an aspirin?

Consider the pain points you alleviate for your customer. Also consider the pleasure you provide. Humans are social animals. We have a basic need for community and to feel connected to others. This is the core value proposition of Facebook. Along our life’s path, though, we also experience pain: commuting, laundry … Facebook. The market for alleviating pain tends to be significantly larger than the market for providing pleasure. People are much quicker to buy aspirin than vitamins.


  1. Is your customer you?

Consider if people who are not you want what you want them to want. Please read that sentence again. It’s a lot to absorb. Got it? Good.

If the basis of your belief is that you think what you provide is cool, that’s not helpful. You’re chasing customers other than yourself or your too-polite family and friends. Again — and we hope this is sinking in — none of these people will tell you that your baby is ugly.

Forget searching Google for trends if that’s not relevant to the customer base you want. Instead, turn assumptions into hypotheses. Test those hypotheses. Collect data from potential and existing customers. Go beyond hope that you’re building something people want — know that people want it.

Merging the art of business with the science of business in a way that’s relevant and accessible to average “main street” entrepreneurs is my core passion and competency. Over the coming months, I’ll introduce you to concepts from The Lean Startup Revolution, and introduce you to tools like the Business Model Canvas, and how to use them. We’ll explore how to identify the riskiest assumptions in your business model, then create experiments to test those assumptions and establish a validated learning process so that you start operating your small business based on facts – not guesses. I’ll also introduce you to the Golden Formula, and some of the concepts from the Efficiency RoadmapTM process I use in my company, Agents of Efficiency.

There’s a lot more to come over the coming months, and my hope is to engage on a fun journey together – designed to help you start, grow, and optimize your small businesses with a level of precision and confidence you never imagined before. So, stay tuned…

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