Some years ago, as I was involved in getting the business off the ground, a Flemish friend took an active interest in my pursuits. We were sipping a coffee one day in Antwerp, and he unexpectedly he sprung the question: “Hey Sean, what’s the difference between you and others?”.
Somewhat perplexed by the nature of this enquiry, and suspecting he may have been observing my movements a little too closely for comfort, I spurted back “What do you mean the difference?”
But he insisted with his question, and repeated: “what is it makes you different to others?”
Knowing that I was a mere mortal soul no different to any other, I hazarded a thoughtless guess, in an attempt to extricate myself from this increasingly awkward moment. “Maybe I’m a bit foolish?” I suggested. This of course was in reference to my reckless leap into the unknown associated with trying to start a business from scratch – at the best of times a rather scary experience, well known to any enterprising spirit having decided to squander their savings while out of gainful employment.
“No, no, that’s not what I meant”. And leaping to the rescue, he exclaimed “You’re different because you’re actually doing it!”
In fact, what I think he was referring to was the fact that I was trying to start a business, rather than just talk about it, or fantasise about some new world in the making. Ie. whereas others would love to do what I was doing, they just wouldn’t, for fear of failure, or getting it wrong, or losing money, or taking too much risk, etc.
So, from one simple man to another simple man, his statement made me realise that I had already taken a major step into the unknown, perhaps without realising the madness of it, to kick start this business venture. And this impulse was a differentiator in itself.
Another important moment, also in the early days, was a meeting with a qualified business coach. One of his peculiar techniques was asking the “so what?” question to would-be entrepreneurs, to “stress test” the solidity of their projects.
I was no exception. After hacking my way through an explanation of the business plan, and trying to articulate the central proposition to him, I got the “so what?” treatment.
Not matter how compelling I thought my propositions were, for instance “we’ll revolutionise the telecom industry by eradicating fraud” or “we’ll enrich end-user’s lives by providing them a totally secure mobile experience” or even “we’ll make money grow from trees!”, I was taking a bullet at every turn.
A short succession of so what’s later, and much perspiring, I started running out of intelligible things to say. It became embarrassing, and I would have preferred had the earth swallowed me up rather than endure this gruelling session. But my coach knew this only too well, and I could see he was rather enjoying the moment, until he finally relented.
This experience, however uncomfortable and distressing, genuinely helped me focus my mind on what was important about this business plan. It helped me clarify and make sense of what I was trying to achieve, and gave shape to this project from its very outset.
As any aspiring entrepreneur will know, building a business is infinitely more complex than just sniffing a potential opportunity in a marketplace. So, may I suggest that before you consider emptying your savings account on an earth-shattering idea, apply the “so what?” technique to your business plan to test how well you’re doing.