Making money starts with getting one dollar, then another, then another. So get started right now.
I started my first company in 2008, over 15 years ago. During that time, I've learned a lot of lessons about how to start and run a business. Some of those lessons took years for me to fully develop and understand, while others were extremely simple to grasp and became immediately apparent to me, but still are worth repeating.
There are a few very small, very simple concepts that have stuck with me over the years, and I often hear myself saying them out loud, like a mantra.
One of those is: "Get to that first dollar as fast as possible."
When I mentor brand-new freelancers or people creating startups, one of the most common mistakes I see them make is that they spend way too much time thinking and not enough time doing.
The best example of this is when I see someone who's taken the time to develop a complex business plan, a detailed marketing strategy, a SWOT analysis, and even demographic research and performed all other various and sundry odds and ends to build a hypothetical company that will hopefully make money someday.
I'll ask them, "Okay, that's all great... but how are you going to go out and get that very first dollar? Think into the future. Picture depositing that very first check or digital payment from your very first customer. How are you going to do that?"
It's funny, because a lot of times, people paint their business plans with a big, fat paintbrush where they're only seeing the big picture of a fully-formed business someday, but completely ignoring what it's going to take today to go out and start earning money right now.
So when I press them on this, most people get flummoxed and they don't even know where to start answering the question. They're so busy thinking ten steps ahead that they haven't planned out their first step.
Example time! Let's say Alexis is a graphic designer who just got laid off from her job at a giant corporation and she wants to branch out and start her own graphic design business.
She's excitedly showing me her new logo, some brochures she made, and a clean, fancy website filled with graphics of design work she did at her big corporate job.
Our conversation might go something like this:
- Alexis: What do you think? Do I have enough case studies? Do my business cards look professional enough? Does my portfolio showcase my skills well?
- Me: Uhh, yeah, sure. Your new brand is strong, and you have done some impressive work in the past that shows off your strengths as a graphic designer. The bigger question is: how are you going to make money?
- Alexis: You mean, what I'm going to charge people? I was thinking $____ per hour. Is that a good rate?
- Me: Maybe... That sounds like a good starting point but you'll have to see over time what the market is willing to bear. But even if that's what you will charge, how are you going to make money?
- Alexis: What do you mean? I'll charge people by the hour for my graphic design work.
- Me: Okay, great. But how are you going to make money? I mean, literally, how? What are you going to do right now, today, to make money? How can you get to that first dollar? Where is it coming from?
- Alexis: Ohh... hmm... I'm not sure yet. That's a good question.
I'm trying to get her to see that "making money" isn't just a minor detail in some nebulous dream about how her business will become profitable someday in the future. It's a simple question about what you're going to do right here, right now to go out and find that first customer and sign that first contract and get to that first dollar as fast as possible.
I like to take them down a list of very literal questions to determine what they should be doing TODAY to make money as soon as possible.
This process includes questions like:
- What is the name of the first company that's going to hand you that first check?
- Where are they located?
- What is your first customer's name? Is it a man, or a woman?
- Is it someone you already know? Can you call or email that person right now and pitch your services to them?
- If it's not someone you already know, how will you find them?
- What is the EXACT service you're going to be billing them for?
- What's a ballpark range of what your first invoice will be? $50? $100? $1,000?
The idea here is to get them out of their "I'm a business owner" dream phase. This is a dangerous phase that makes some people, frankly, act almost idiotic in how unserious they are. They spend so much time in their heads building the perfect business that they waste days, weeks, months, or longer, waiting for the right time to launch the perfect company with the perfect slogan, the perfect elevator pitch, and landing the perfect client... that they waste a lot of their savings (if they have any) or a lot of their severance pay (if they were laid off) thinking and not doing.
The "I'm my own boss" euphoria makes some people forget that in order to be your own boss, you have to boss yourself around and make yourself actually take action, and often, to do things that are hard. Like actually making money, which is hard to do.
So, again, it's imperative to ask yourself "How am I going to get to that first dollar?" This question is a good antidote for solopreneurs high on quitting their jobs, becoming their own bosses, and setting their own schedules.
As an example: I've been laid off multiple times in my life.
The first time I was laid off, I had seen it coming and had been quietly preparing for many months. So when I found myself unemployed, I knew I no longer had a steady paycheck and had to make money right now. I lost my job on a Thursday, and by Monday, I was talking to potential web design clients, and scheduling sales meetings where I could pitch them on redesigning their websites. The result? I had my first full-blown client in less than a week, with a down payment in hand. Bingo.
The second time I was laid off, it was a Wednesday afternoon. I was ready this time. I called up a former client and asked her about a project she'd told me about in the past that she wanted to do "someday." I asked her "Hi there, how about we make today 'someday?'" She agreed, and we got started right away. By the end of business that Friday, I had a check in my hand. Boom. Back in business in less than two days.
Get to that first dollar as fast as possible. Even if it's not doing a perfect job, with the perfect client, with a perfect set of tools.
I guess it's something I've gotten used to in my own life out of sheer necessity, but I'm telling you: it's crazy the number of times I talk to people who are starting a new business, or creating a new product, who haven't taken the first steps to get to that first dollar. They're already thinking about rounds of investment or their potential exit strategy, yet they haven't even sold a single item, signed a single client, or made a single dollar yet.
So, here's my challenge to you: get to that first dollar as fast as possible. Even if it's not doing a perfect job, with the perfect client, with a perfect set of tools.
Can you do something to get paid? Can you find a friend or family member who needs your skills and who's willing to pay you this week? Can you go to a networking meeting somewhere in your town tomorrow, pass out a bunch of business cards, and convince one person to hire you for at least one thing?
During a mentoring session a few months ago, I met with a woman who was selling a very specific type of nutritional coaching. She had a lot of questions about her business model, options for pricing and packaging the products she was selling along with coaching sessions, and things like that.
I pulled up her website on my laptop and said "So, I see this button here that says "book now," but it's not clickable. Why not?"
"Oh, I haven't connected it to the payment processor yet," she replied.
"So you're telling me that if I were your perfect, ideal customer, and I were looking at this website right now, and I wanted to hire you and pay you money today... I wouldn't be able to because you just haven't gotten around to clicking a few buttons?"
"I guess so," she sheepishly admitted.
"How long has it been like this?" I asked.
"Eight months," she answered.
"Eight months! What can I do to convince you to fix that this week?" I asked.
"Can you do it Today? This afternoon? As soon as you get home? Because none of what we're talking about here with your business plan matters if people can't even pay you."
She agreed that it made sense because even if we hadn't figured out the physical products that go along with coaching, she could at least sell coaching sessions. And that was half her business model. So why not just launch with half the business model and let people hire you for that and tell them the other parts are "coming soon?" People are used to that. That's not a problem.
So, again, I'll say it, loudly, obnoxiously, like a mantra because it's so important: "Get to that first dollar as fast as possible." The faster you do this, the faster you start making money, the faster you start gaining clients, the faster you can produce products or do creative work that you can bill for you, and it all just... builds from there.
But it will never grow bigger if you don't start. And it all starts with that first dollar. So go out and get it. Now.