Here’s how I’m building a business from zero (it might not work)

Photo by Richard Dykes on Unsplash

At the end of 2019, I resigned from my job of seven years, not knowing that the pandemic was just around the corner. Three months later, just as my role was winding down, Covid-19 was ramping up.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. As people started losing their jobs in droves, I was voluntarily leaving a 100% remote, six-figure role that I enjoyed, in a business that was largely unaffected by the virus. (I ran operations and built online courses for a remarkable 7-figure entrepreneur.)

But I was ready for a new chapter. I just didn’t know exactly what that was.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been in that situation. I’d left good jobs in the past without having a clear “what’s next” and it had always worked out. Each time I could look back knowing that it had been the right decision.

This time I wasn’t so sure. (In truth, I’m still not 100% sure.)

Here’s what I’m doing to transition from full-time employment to building a profitable business of my own from scratch.

In my previous job, I developed a broad base of valuable skills. Marketing, product creation, blogging, team building, project management and more. I was good at jumping into the gaps and it felt great to be seen as a capable all-rounder.

Once I left, I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find consulting work with businesses who wanted to emulate some of that online success. And I did pick up a few clients, helping with a variety of problems. Essentially, I was jumping into the gaps again.

But I quickly learned that what counted as a strength inside an established business was actually a weakness outside of it. When people asked “what do you do?”, I began to realise that “lots of things— what do you need?” was not the best answer.

Instinctively I knew I needed to niche down, but I found it tough to pick a specialism. What if I chose the wrong one and struggled to land clients? What if I found clients but didn’t enjoy the work? I went round and round in my head. I was driving myself crazy.

In the end, a couple of lean months financially forced a decision and I doubled down on helping professionals create online courses. I’d gained a ton of experience building high-ticket courses in my previous role and since then I’d enjoyed helping a few clients untangle their knowledge and turn it into a course.

Honestly, I felt uncomfortable putting myself in a pigeonhole, but I knew I couldn’t stay general any longer.

Here’s the weird thing though. The moment I narrowed down, things opened up:

  • People seemed to grasp what I did more easily and even referred people in their network to me unprompted.
  • Content ideas came freely and I suddenly had multiple themes to explore on social media.
  • My underlying anxiety about leaving permanent employment all but evaporated (because I was finally on a path, rather than endlessly searching for the perfect path).

It seems counter-intuitive but I’ve seen this phenomenon numerous times in my career. Constraints that feel scary and limiting in theory force you to be more creative in practice, and often bring out your best work.

I’ve never been great at small talk or cold pitching, and sweaty-handed exchanges of business cards are not my idea of fun. Unsurprisingly then, I’ve never really embraced in-person networking.

But a few months after leaving the safe confines of a regular (albeit remote) job I accepted that I needed a reliable way to meet people who might at some point pay me to help them out.

So I joined a paid networking group that had just pivoted from in-person to virtual events. And I jumped in with both feet, grabbing almost any opportunity to connect with new people in the network.

Soon, I was talking to at least five new people each week and covering a wide variety of industries. I might chat with a hypnotherapist one morning and a self-storage franchisee that same afternoon.

And while most of these people weren’t likely to be future clients, what the conversations gave me were dozens of opportunities to articulate what I did. Often to people whose businesses were far removed from mine.

It was these conversations that triggered my epiphany around niching down.

At first, when I presented myself as an “online business expert”, most people nodded as if they understood, but I sensed it didn’t truly connect with them.

However, when I started presenting myself as the “online courses guy” the difference was marked. People seemed to understand what I did more easily and many were keen to learn more. The whole concept was more memorable too. As a result, when they came across people in their network who were interested in courses, my name naturally came to mind.

And this was my big insight…

It’s not enough to be able to explain what you do to people who need that kind of help. You also need to be able to explain it to people who don’t.

If you can do that, the impact of each conversation grows exponentially because your message takes on a life of its own.

Every week I spend 2–4 hours writing and publishing an original post on my blog about online courses or online business.

Even though I know almost nobody will read it.

Google is sending me no traffic (and probably won’t for a while). I don’t have a large social following to share my content with.

So why bother?

To some extent, it’s a leap of faith — I’m building a digital asset that I hope will grow in value over time. (Although the articles I’m writing will only get a handful of views right now, they could get many more in the future.)

But even during this early phase, my weekly blog post plays a useful role, regardless of any future value it might have. That’s because:

  • It forces me to explore and refine my ideas and opinions about my niche through the process of articulating them in my writing.
  • It provides valuable content I can send to the people who’ve signed up for my small (but growing!) email list.
  • It gives me something to talk about on social media (I’m not a natural social media butterfly).

Now blogging isn’t right for everyone. (And the format’s not the point — I could equally be podcasting or creating YouTube videos or Instagram stories.) But putting something of yourself out in the world on a regular basis is powerful. It keeps you visible. It keeps you thinking. And it makes other conversations possible.

If nothing else, it shows that you have something to say about your area of expertise. And that’s a powerful way to build your authority online.

Now that my content “machine” is in place, it stings that so few people are reading what I’m writing. Ideally, I’d have thousands of avid subscribers to email each week about my latest article. But I’m nowhere near.

The pain of being out in the digital wilderness got me thinking though. What would it take to get a sudden boost in blog subscribers?

I recalled that my old boss Jon Morrow launched his blog with 13,000 subscribers enrolled before he’d written a single post. He exploited his profile as editor of the popular marketing blog Copyblogger to turn his launch into a noteworthy event.

And while I don’t have a big platform like that to leverage, I do have an extended network of contacts (including a handful of more influential connections) who might help to spread the word — if I have something genuinely noteworthy to share with them.

So I’m creating a full-blown online course and giving it away.

I know if I created a similar course for my old employer it’d be sold for $500 or more, so I’m convinced it has real value for the right audience.

To make things more interesting I’ll be creating it in real-time, putting myself under the spotlight (and the cosh). Inevitably, not everything will go to plan and that’ll be interesting for others to watch.

Giving away a product I could have charged for might be a mistake, but here’s why my gut tells me it’s not:

  • The exercise serves as a forcing device to create a course I’ve been thinking about creating for nearly a year.
  • It gets people onto my email list (they’ll have to sign up to participate) who are interested in courses and might become future customers.
  • By the end of the process I’ll have a valuable digital asset I can sell to people instead of just trading my time for money. (Ultimately I want to build and scale a business, not remain a freelancer.)

As I write this, the course launch approaches and early signs are that the notability effect is working. People in my network have been signing up and sharing.

Better still, a consulting client just shared the details with his email list of 5,000 people, snagging me more than 100 new subscribers in two days. “Don’t thank me,” he said. “I’m sharing it because it makes me look good.”

Side note: His email got the highest open and click rates he’d seen in some time, which is a win for him too. The subject: “The guy I pay to help me wants to help you for free”.

Leaving a comfortable six-figure role to go it alone has led to some sleepless nights. (The timing of the global pandemic didn’t help.)

Despite the uncertainty though, it still feels like the right decision for me. Starting out with a plan would’ve been smarter, but it probably would have needed tearing up anyway.

It’s early days. I’ve been building my business for less than a year and the bulk of that time has been driven more by experimentation than strategy.

But I’m finally on a clear path, and that feels good. Will it be a success in the long run? Only time will tell. But I have a feeling that things will work out this time too.

By admin

Founder, The Internet Crime Fighters Org [ICFO], and Sponsor, ICFO's War On Crimes Against Our Children Author The Internet Users Handbook, 2009-2014

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