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Start-up Advice

What PayPal’s Rocky Beginnings Can Teach You About Start-up Success

As CEO of a start-up in launch mode, you could build a product or service and sell to any customer. Make a list of all the possible market segments and specific measures used to evaluate these segments and you might run out of resources before you even get started.

Peter S. Cohan

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How should you narrow down the list of options to make the best choice?

The answer is: you can’t make the best choice. If you are trying to do something new, there is no evidence of historical success or failure that might provide you with sufficient guidance to make an informed decision.

Fortunately, you can make a series of guesses that may lead you to a good-enough answer.

Your start-up might evolve into something completely different

Consider how PayPal got started. Max Levchin, one of its co-founders explained to me that PayPal did not start off as the online auction currency for which it is rightly famous.

It was originally called Confinity and delivered security software for handheld devices such as PalmPilots.

Levchin did not achieve enormous success with that business model. He and his colleagues got to thinking about handheld devices, which led them to focus on wallets.

They got funding to develop an electronic wallet and when they delivered the product, they began to get emails from people who were using part of their service as an eBay auction currency.

Levchin thought this was a terrible idea because it was not the purpose for which they had designed the product.

However, they decided to scrap their original idea after six months to focus on serving the eBay community.

In 2002, PayPal, which formed two years earlier, went public, giving Levchin an easy way to turn his 2.3 per cent stake into cash.

3 Tips for start-up success

Levchin’s bumpy journey to PayPal success suggests three principles that you should follow to help you choose the right product and customer segment:

1. Work on a problem you are passionate about solving. Only start a company if you are willing to spend 80 to 100 hours a week working on it without getting paid. When you get started, you will probably need to do this and convince others to do it as well.

Without passion, you won’t last.

Levchin and his team loved working on operating systems, so when they started Confinity, they were doing what they loved. While this was a good way to start, it did not initially lead them to picking the right market.

2. Build a prototype. Think about your start-up’s product and then build a quick and inexpensive version of it. Building such a prototype will help you communicate what you are trying to accomplish with potential customers.

Finding that first customer – your foot in the door to targeting a market – depends on how people respond to your prototype.

In Levchin’s case, the prototype mostly revealed that he was targeting the wrong customers with his focus on a PalmPilot operating system. You may succeed at your first try, but usually start-ups have to use the prototype to help them adjust their product or the customers they should target.

3. Find customer pain. As much as you believe you will be the exception, most start-ups fail. That’s why start-ups must focus on targeting customers with significant pain that competitors are not addressing.

Then the start-up must create a low-risk way to encourage customers to try the product.

Levchin stumbled on the need for an eBay auction currency – a small part of Confinity’s service – but a large pain point for customers. With help from Xoom, PayPal created a solution that enabled customers to pay for online auctions and did it better than the competition.

Using these three principles, you should be able to find a product and market segment from which your start-up’s growth will spring.

Most importantly, the only way to get customers to give your venture a chance is to offer them a solution to a problem that they can’t get anywhere else.

Find many such customers and you have picked the right market.

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If you’re a parent the best business lessons might be right under your nose. Richard Branson explains here.

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Did your business idea start out as one thing and evolve into something completely different? Tell us in the comments section below…

Peter Cohan is president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates a management consulting and venture capital firm. He is the author of Hungry Start-up Strategy: Creating New Ventures with Limited Resources and Unlimited Vision (Berrett-Koehler, 2012).

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Start-up Advice

Establishing A Start-Up Business And The Challenges Of Internationalising

The business plan can then unfold to secure resources needed to meet international demand and, with enough foresight and planning, make the business a profitable entity in both local and international markets.

Martha Jameson

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To begin, a start-up is a business looking to establish a product or service for the first time. They’re perceived as young companies initiating a start within their local economies with the solid intent of providing something new for consumers. Once established in local markets, start-ups can then initialise global expansion creating a broader market for their product. The process of establishing a company does not come easily however; and to succeed an entrepreneur must be readily prepared for the challenges ahead.

The first and foremost part of establishing a company, is defining the company’s inner vision. The inner vision covers what the company desires to offer their consumers, the values they look to instill in their employees to provide the consumable or service, the objectives that necessitate the company’s promise, and directives or order necessary to progress the company path. The inner vision serves as the company’s foundation, a game plan or playbook used to project them into the world of entrepreneurship.

Once a company understands their vision, they can then look to the markets to analyse the need or value of what they have to offer.

Related: Attention Black Entrepreneurs: Start-Up Funding From Government Grants & Funds

Market analysis is the second set to establishment. One must look to the market first to see what the demand is. Where there’s demand, there’s consumers. This step is often overlooked in the initialisation process, and tends to be where most companies falter. There’s more enthusiasm involved in just jumping into the market, than there is taking the necessary step back to view the market pragmatically.

“Thus, companies may fail to offer something new or better than what already exists in the economy. Market analysis grants a business the foresight necessary to gain a stable foothold, and permits an entrepreneur the chance to tailor the company vision and goals to consumer demand,” says Amanda Jicks, an entrepreneur from WriteMyX.

Once entrepreneur understands what’s available and necessary, the company can then project their personal goals on the market. What do they bring to the market, how does their provision differ from what competitor might have to offer. This analytical groundwork allows the a company to establish the foundations they’re going to lay and process further projections for future growth.

After the goals are set into the company’s plan, an entrepreneur must then culminate the resources that will  get the company off the ground. This, of course, is establishing the production necessary for consumables or company attendance necessary for services, obtaining the funds to create and employ, calculating and providing for the costs of advertising and branding to get the company’s name out into the market as a profitable entity.

Local Markets lay down the baseline and a company should secure their local market before seeking expansion into the global or international market. Security within the local market grants companies a better means to attain the provisions necessary for growth.

“To further the foothold analogy, picture the entrepreneur as a base jumper. An experienced base jumper isn’t going to approach the cliff underprepared. They would know the site lept from, the best place to sink their line into the cliff’s face, the “foothold” that secures the line for the jump,” says Nolan Harris, a business writer at 1Day2Write and OriginWritings.

Related: 21 Steps To Start-Up Success

When a company is secure in their local market, they can then consider expansion and better face the challenges that accompany expanding into the international market. These challenges range from product or service alterations that may be necessitated due to import/export technicalities. Language barriers that may arise when promoting or branding beyond the local market.

Language barriers that may occur when communicating with the company’s customers. There’s also the cost of provision when considering international expansion. International expansion can be perceived as a daunting risk if the company isn’t ready to provide and may, in fact, not be the correct direction for all start-ups. But, if internationalisation is a goal the entrepreneur should initiate the launch with the same analytical approach used for the local markets; as the need and demand may differ from local market projections. The business plan can then unfold to secure resources needed to meet international demand and, with enough foresight and planning, make the business a profitable entity in both local and international markets.

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Start-up Advice

7 Top Lessons You Can Learn From The US Cannabis Market

The benefit of not being the first country to start the process of legalising weed, is that we can learn from the mistakes and pitfalls US entrepreneurs made when cannabis became legal in their states.

Nicole Crampton

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US entrepreneurs have already launched and successfully grown their recreational cannabis businesses. It wasn’t a flawless transition in some states from illegal to legal, they made mistakes and focused on underperforming strategies or on not hiring the right experts.

The bright side is, you can learn from their pitfalls, ensure your business has a competitive advantage and that you are prepared for the major shifts the US cannabis market experienced.

Since the South African Cannabis Industry will undoubtably have 24 months to wait until any legalisation progress is made, you can start preparing your cannabis related business and strategising how to incorporate the following lessons:

Lesson 1: Don’t be the first

Under normal circumstances you would want to be the first to break grown on a new industry, because the early bird doesn’t have competition yet, develops a relationship with customers and is the only supplier until another business gets up and running.

So then why shouldn’t you be first? The answer is “There is a difference between pioneers and settlers. Pioneers got arrows and settlers got land,” says Christian Hageseth, founder and CEO of Denver’s Green Man Cannabis, a retail and grow operation well-known for its connoisseur grade craft cannabis, and for ONE Cannabis, a cannabis business franchise.

“I’m much more interested in being a settler in the cannabis industry. You don’t know how regulators or banks are going to react as legalisation changes, so it’s beneficial to not be the first to market.”

Lesson 2: Make a proper transition from the black-market to the legal market

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In the US Market those transitioning from black-market to the legal market found there were rules and regulations they weren’t even aware of, which made it difficult for them to stay compliant. If you’re undertaking the same transition, there are a few things you’ll need to keep top of mind:

  • There will be regulations and legislations that you aren’t aware of that you need to be compliant with.
  • You will now be operating in a tightly-regulated space with tax and banking restrictions, business owners can find themselves entirely unprepared for the pressures of keeping a legal operation in the red.
  • You’ll need to keep detailed financial and accounting records to ensure your business remains compliant and sustainable.

Related: 10 Cannabis Business Opportunities You Can Start From Home

Lesson 3: Hire the right experts

Navigating the still-forming cannabis industry can be challenging. In the US cannabis industry entrepreneurs thought they could navigate it themselves or were scammed by con artists pretending to be experts.

To ensure your business remains sustainable and compliant here is some advice on what to look for in your experts:

“It’s in your best interest to find an accountant who has been through an audit or two with a marijuana company. If you don’t file your taxes the right way from the start, your business can get very far behind,” says Hageseth.

“Your business will greatly depend on the legislation in your market, so work with a lawyer who is well versed in several cannabis markets and regulatory frameworks in order to best protect your business,” says Chloe Villano, founder of Denver-based Clover Leaf University.

Ensure you’re hiring a legitimate expert

A common misstep made by US entrepreneurs is hiring amateurs posing as experts. Scammers see the opportunity to benefit off your business by misrepresenting themselves as experts in the cannabis industry.

Keep on the lookout, they’ll tell you everything you want to hear, but don’t have anything to deliver or back it up. Do your due diligence to ensure your business is working with a competent advisor and isn’t being misled by a scam artist.

Lesson 4: You don’t need to grow or sell weed to make money

In the US, the price of marijuana skyrocketed just after it was legalised. According to Forbes the average wholesale cost of cannabis in Colorado dropped from $3 500 per 0.45kg’s at the start of legalisation in 2013, to roughly $1 012 per 0.45kg’s in 2018.

This is because sellers were adjusting their prices based on demand. As more competition enters the market, experts are predicting the price of cannabis to plummet. In Oregon, marijuana is already selling at $50 per 0.45kg’s, which is driving some cultivators out of business.

If you consider the above trend, growing and selling weed directly could be one of the least profitable approaches. In the US, there are very high barriers of entry to growing and selling cannabis that include applications, lawyers, security compliance, tax fees, audits, your inability to claim business expenses, and the constantly changing regulations.

For example: On 1 July 2018 in California, the packaging and testing standards for cannabis were changed. Every dispensary had to throw out all of their products that didn’t meet these new regulations. This cost entrepreneurs millions in inventory and a few weeks later the state changed the regulations back.

You can still make a profit from the marijuana industry, without actually selling or growing it yourself.

Related: The Ultimate 101 List Of Business Ideas To Start Your Own Business In South Africa

Lesson 5: What you need to know about pricing

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As mentioned above, with the rising demand for cannabis, in the US market, the price shot up. “The main thing we found wasn’t that you couldn’t get product, it’s that you couldn’t get product cheap,” said Dave Cuesta, now the chief compliance officer for Native Roots, the largest dispensary chain in Colorado.

In 2014, he was an investigator for the Marijuana Enforcement Division, he says: “You could walk into a store that sold both medical and recreational, and you were paying $30, $35 for an eighth on the medical side, and it was $60 or $70 on the recreational side. People were just adjusting their pricing to manage supply.”

Since this is likely to happen within the South African market as well, you can implement a strategy to have more supply than your future competitors. This will enable you to undercut the market when the demand for both medicinal and recreational marijuana increases.

Lesson 6: You’ll need to be adaptable

As mentioned previously, in the US regulations fluctuated until the government could determine the best way forward. Since this will also be a learning curve for parliament you’ll need to be able to pivot or agilely handle each change as it’s thrown at you.

Here are a few examples of changes the US entrepreneurs had to navigate:

For example: Content producers in California face fees and legal penalties if they mention any unlicensed cannabis brands.

Another example: Brands in Colorado, Washington and California that used the event High Times Cannabis Cups to move their product, suddenly lost a major source of income when vending was no longer allowed at the event.

A further example: In Washington DC, marijuana events that were legal last year are now being raided and people are being arrested.

If you don’t move with the industry you’re either going to be left behind or find yourself being fined or imprisoned for breaking the law.

Lesson 7: Raise more capital than you need when starting out

Considering how often regulations changed in the states in first few months, even the first few years, you’ll need to be able to afford to handle any changes that your business comes across.

 “Always raise more money than you think you need and don’t expect business to come easily. In fact, expect everything to go wrong, because the regulations will change often, and your plan will become obsolete,” explains Villano.

Changing regulations can cost you an entire crop or all of your painstakingly designed, unique and innovated, costly packaging. Ensure you remain agile and be flexible enough to handle any unexpected costs that come along.

By implementing these top lessons and seeking the expertise of financial and legal professionals, you can successfully navigate the cannabis industry. To run a sustainable business that will achieve long-term growth your venture will need to jump the cannabis industry’s unique hurdles, maintain compliance and avoid costly and often business-ending fines.

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Start-up Advice

Your Best Ideas Are The Ones No One Else Believes In

Airbnb, Rent the Runway and Foursquare all seemed odd – or even off-putting – at first glance.

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As you consider new ideas for your next project or business, give extra credence to the things you believe to be true that others doubt. The most exciting products are created by people with tons of conviction for something that strikes most others as odd. I’ve heard from Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, that when he and his co-founder Brian Chesky pitched the idea of having strangers sleeping in your home when you weren’t there, many investors shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

One investor shared that he had never had such a visceral negative reaction to a business idea, ever. Jenn Hyman and Jenny Fleiss, co-founders of Rent the Runway, told me they encountered similar doubts when they pitched the idea of renting dresses rather than owning them.

For both teams, first reactions from people were often strongly negative. I cringe to think what focus groups would have done with these ideas. But, Chesky and Gebbia, and Hyman and Fleiss, were undeterred. To these founders, their ideas were obvious and they set out to find investors and employees who got the vision when most everyone else did not.

While he is an outspoken and notoriously controversial contrarian, Peter Thiel has had undeniable success starting and investing in highly disruptive businesses that were, without a doubt, venture worthy. PayPal, Palantir and Facebook to name a few.

In order to gauge whether something he is persuing is venture-worthy, there is one question he asks everyone he interviews or invests in: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

Related: 5 Actionable Tips For Novice Entrepreneurs To Skyrocket Their Business

In his book Zero To One, Thiel goes on to explain why he asks the question and what he looks for: “This is a question that sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is, by definition, agreed upon.

And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.”

He goes on to share some examples: “Most commonly, I hear answers like the following: Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed; America is exceptional; there is no God. These are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: ‘Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.'”

Chesky and Gebbia believed that most people thought hotels were the only option for travelers, but the truth was that renting someone’s extra room was cheaper with an added dose of personalised hospitality – and likely a higher margin business as well. Hyman and Fleiss believed that most people thought they needed to buy the dress they wanted to wear, but the truth was that you didn’t need to own a dress that you only wear a few times. Both teams set out to challenge old customer preferences with modern technology and logic.

If you can discern a truth early on and start it before anyone else, then you can front-run the future.

As a manager, this may take the form of believing that people with less experience but lots of initiative tend to outperform experts. It may mean looking past the traditional resume. As an entrepreneur, this may be a conviction that some social stigma, like sleeping in someone else’s home (Airbnb), wearing someone else’s dress (Rent the Runway) or persistently sharing your location with all your friends (FourSquare), will lessen over time and eventually disappear.

Related: 4 Fundamentals To Successfully Jump-Start Your Start-up

Over the past five years, as I have chronicled the lessons learned by great founders and leaders traversing what I’ve come to call “the messy middle,” I have noticed a few recurring themes that I cover in my new book by the same name.

Chief among them is the need for us to learn to value conviction over consensus. While our natural human tendency is to seek validation from others and avoid disagreement when possible, the business of innovation is different.

You need to develop tactics to recognise and double down on the deep conviction you have in your gut that nobody else understands. Stop looking for consensus or opportunities that seem obvious and compelling at first glance. Great opportunities never have “great opportunity” in the subject line. Honing your gut instincts and acting upon conviction is a theme of every successful journey.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

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