In "Field of Dreams", the 1989 Kevin Costner movie, the main character is haunted by ghostly voices instructing him to build a baseball pitch. The voices famous quote is "If you build it, they will come", basically claiming that if he risks everything he has to build the pitch people will come regardless and he'll be fine.
It never ceases to amaze me just how much I keep being confronted by the "if you build it they will come" strategy in this industry. Businesses of all sizes fall into this trap. They have an idea for a site, they just know it's going to be the next Facebook, all they have to do is build it. Once it's built fame and fortune will be waiting for them within a month. Ask them about their marketing budget and it's a case of, “oh no you don't understand, I'm going to virally market it! That costs nothing!”
Sure; sometimes a site gets built and it appears that it goes wildly viral within minutes of launch making it's owners the new internet sensation. However usually if you dig a bit into these overnight success stories, you find that their success is rarely earned overnight! Usually there are tails of self sacrifice, re-mortgaging of houses, living on the breadline for a while, and general suffering before the 'overnight success' thing happens.
You see, the big problem with the Internet is one of it's biggest strength. You can, with relative ease, set up a fully functional business online without the overheads of a more traditional business. In the old days, before the World Wide Web, if you had a business idea, you had to dish out a lot of cash to get your business up and running. You had to probably go through a complex product build process, you had to find a business premises, hire staff (sales, admin, finance and so on), etc.
But then the World Wide Web came tumbling into town. Suddenly the web gave us a virtual environment where a website could be your entire business. No premises, no staff required. The life long dream of never having to get out of your pyjamas every day and make millions from your bedroom was within the reach of everyone. The media buzzed with stories of young folks building website empires from the comfort of their bed.
This lead to what I like to call the Everyday Entrepreneur phenomenon. Basically if you had an idea that's all that was important. Get someone (or yourself if you have the skills) to build the website your idea needed. Put the site live on a server somewhere and you're in business. Once it's on the World Wide Web, the internet folk will come by their thousands and send you their credit card details, no questions asked. The “idea” is the difficult part. Once you've got that you're golden.
Of course this is nonsense, but it's amazing to think just how easy it is to fall into this trap. Yes the idea is of course important/critical. It's the start of the process. It's the initial spark without which nothing happens. But the spark won't become a raging fire without a great big heap of wood. Gathering the wood is generally boring, and takes time and effort to do. It's not exciting! It's not “sexy”! It's not what the Everyday Entrepreneur wants to think about, which is their biggest failing.
The Internet achieves SO much from a business perspective in a way that only a few years ago would have been the stuff of science fiction. It allows customers to have instant 24x7 access to businesses products and services. Your business is everywhere, from a PC in Sydney to the mobile phone in a guys pocket on a ski slope in Austria. Its always open always ready to do business. It's easy to start ignoring some of the age old business disciplines and that's exactly what's now happening. It used to be a case that being an entrepreneur meant something, and they were generally regarded as being highly focused, highly skilled people. But unfortunately the new Internet based Everyday Entrepreneur is good at doing just one thing, dreaming up ideas. After that, for most it's all downhill.
Now, I say all this out of experience also. I'm also a bit of an Everyday Entrepreneur alas, as are most of us I believe. Being a self confessed IT nerd I grew up with a PC. I just wanted to keep writing code and living in nerdy nirvana. I've lost count of the amount of pet projects I worked on in the past jumping straight into development as soon as a good idea hit my head. These pet projects may not have achieved much commercial success, but as a technologist they proved to be vitally important as they resulted me spending hours working in my craft, learning new things and applying them to my real world client work.
The all singing, all dancing Business Plan
The biggest lesson learnt over the years was to never underestimate just how important a bog standard business plan is. It doesn't matter if you're building a simple four page website or a vast complex web application, don't dream of getting your hands dirty until you've sat down and spent time completing a business plan.
Business plans aren't complicated documents. At least they shouldn't be. Many people get put off by the concept of a business plan. They find some word document templates online and just get confused. But really business plans ARE simple documents. They exist to force us think deeper about the “amazing” idea we have. They bring our idea into the real world. This is something that the Everyday Entrepreneur doesn't really like or understands. They just want to spend their time dreaming up new idea's which is fine, but if they don't have the drive to try and leave the virtual world of fabulous idea's and push just one idea into the real world in a controlled and sensible way, then they're really fundamentally just dreamers.
A business plan isn't just a document you write to secure funding, which again is a trap people fall into. They see this as just something they must write to attract an investor. A good business plan gets everyone involved on the same page and should become your companies core code of operation moving forward. the core goals of the plan need to be everyone's core goals everyday they come to work.
I think the first real victim of a failed or non existent business plan is the lack of any cohesive/ realistic marketing plan. Probably the single biggest reason, in my opinion, why internet projects fail is due to a poor marketing plan. The marketing plan is the biggest looser in the “if you build it they will come” strategy. By that I mean, there rarely IS a marketing plan in this strategy.
So instead of building a business plan consisting of a marketing strategy of “Do Viral marketing stuff”, and invariably failing you need to go back to basics and treat the website you're building as any other normal product. It needs a proper marketing strategy, both traditional marketing and online marketing and it will invariably require funding, lots of funding, lots and lots of funding.
So before you spend one cent on development, before you talk to the professionals, sit down in a quiet room and do out your business plan. A proper business plan. You'll know what your idea is, that's great. You can write about that forever. It's your current passion. But now do the hard parts of the plan.
- Who are you customers?
- Where are they?
- Why do you think they'll want your product?
- Who are your competitors?
- How will you get your product out to your customers?
- How much is it going to cost to build the product, run the company and fund the marketing plan?
- Where are you going to get the cash from?
- What's your exit strategy from the business? (Sell up after 5 years or run the business till you drop)
- What are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
Great! Got all that down? Super. Now throw it in front of some investors and see if you can muster the cash for the project.
Really, it's THAT simple, or depending on your frame of mind, THAT hard.
Business plans require lots of practical,real world thought and a good chunk of research. A properly written business plan is worth it's weight in gold. A few days spent doing this at the start could save you a fortune in the long run. I have been involved in projects that went way passed their sell by date, and it can be a very draining experience both financially and emotionally. If we'd spent the time up front writing a proper business plan and testing it, then a lot of effort could have been saved.
Don't get me wrong, a good business plan won't guarantee success. Nothing will do that. But it will minimise your risk and drastically reduce the projects chance of failure. At some point you do have to take a chance when embarking on a new business, but that's the fun part!
To sum up, whether you're considering adding some new functionality to your existing website, or if you're planning on taking the step to bring a new idea to the web, please remember, if you build it they won't necessarily and probably won't come UNLESS you make them! So take the time to build that business plan. If you are a die hard Everyday Entrepreneur, that's fine, but just branch out a bit, learn how to follow your idea's through to the completion of a business plan and you'll be on the road to becoming a REAL entrepreneur. It'll be worth it in the end.