Those of us who live in northern climes, eagerly look for signs of spring about the month of March or April. Having grown up in western and northern Canada, it became a ritual to identify positive signs that winter was waning. I now live in the northwest USA, and recently I saw some of those signs in early March; the signs of beavers at work bringing down trees and saplings in the wetlands near my house; the pairing up of mallards for the mating season; the arrival of robins from their southern winter; and human kind emerging from their dwellings and sailing again on the lake.
It got me thinking about the signs of progress for a business startup. What does it look like when the hard work and time commitment is starting to pay off? Admittedly there is still not a P&L that may impress investors, but maybe you are getting there. What are some signs of business spring? These things at an early stage indicate to you and to others that your business is real.
1. You have a Documented Business Model
Entrepreneurs do not write a huge business plan; theirs is a problem-solving action plan, a series of small experiments which allow testing, feedback and a reworking. If you don’t start with a lean canvas model, it is harder to get to a legitimate business plan later. We have heard of people who have written up a basic model on a napkin in a restaurant when processing ideas with others. What are they writing? Jeff Bezos wrote his model in the car while traveling across the country with his wife. They were relocating from New York to Seattle.
Multi- millionaire Derek Sivers, who pioneered the online music sales industry, tells how he started with a simple model: determine the costs, factor in a profit, set the selling price! “a business model should never take more than a few hours of work. Hopefully no more than a few minutes. The best plans start simple. A quick glance and common sense should tell you if the numbers work. The rest are details.”1
2. A Working Prototype exists
The earlier you can test something–anything–in the market, the better. Define the absolute minimum features you need to satisfy a customer’s problem (called Minimum Viable Product) and sell it. It may be the wrong product, but you will learn something with each iteration.
An agricultural project in the Balkans used a massive tomato project as their MVP and tried to sell the product. It failed but they learned a lot, but realized they needed to pivot so the next iteration required the purchase of 20 acres of good raspberry land. They were off and running.
3. Early or Potential Customers have emerged
Everything you do is for your customer, or in the words of Steve Blank, “No plan survives first contact with customers.” The customer is the one who pays for the value delivered and he/she expects to know how your product or service will benefit them (called a value proposition).
A contractor started his business in a former Soviet dominated country and set about re-modeling apartment buildings. He wondered if his modern product was what the community wanted. He produced excellent quality work, plus timely service, and soon there was six employees and a steady revenue. He could see he was making progress.
4. You are Learning from your Mistakes
Failures are the best way to learn, and they are rarely fatal. If you can look back and see that you have picked yourself up and learned from mistakes – spring may be around the corner.
A business in Azerbaijan lost all financial assets when a colleague stole it all, and it became impossible to recover any of it. Not long later, I talked to him on the phone and he had started over again and had rented a new facility down the street. “Failure is not the opposite of success. It is a stepping stone to success. Nobody has succeeded who never failed along the way”. A. Huffington
5. A Well-rounded Team is evident
A great business often starts with one person, but you need to assemble team members who have real experience and aptitude in practical areas such as finances, marketing, management, production, HR etc. All well-known companies today which started as a small entrepreneurial outfit will tell you that it took a team.
IBEC started in 2006 with four people: a strategic planner, a marketing expert, a financial guru, and a manager. This balance proved to get us off to the start we needed. As time when on, needs changed and the team expanded of course.
6. A Qualified Advisory Board exists
It is important to invite a few industry experts and experienced leaders to join your advisory board, as this gives you some much needed coaching and you’ll get serious traction with investors. Linked to this is the idea of connecting with a professional network. This gives you contacts and helps keep you on the cutting edge with your product or service.
An IBEC-coached rock-climbing company in North Africa, selected an advisory board with an accountant, a rock climbing professional, a management expert and a missiologist.
7. There is Community Visibility
Visible recognition of prowess in your industry–in the press, on social networks, among industry organizations–often impresses investors and wins customers. How to raise your profile? Write a blog, speak at local groups, and issue press releases on the market rather than on the product you are producing.
A BAM business owner in Asia, made a point to join the Chamber of Commerce. The fact that he was an American and the only white face, showing an interest in fellow chamber members, impressed them and raised the profile of his business in the community.
8. You eagerly seek coaching help
Bill Gates has stated that “everyone needs a coach” and wise business startup owners seek consultants, coaches, or experts to help. In the March 7, 2019 blog on the Business As Mission site, Jo Plummer states the ten pressing issues in BAM today after her research with BAM professionals. One of the ten issues is “More Mentors”, and she states that “…Increasing the rigor of BAM companies through effective mentoring and coaching was mentioned multiple times in our survey. Support, care, accountability, and mentorship were seen as crucial elements for the longevity and success of BAM practitioners.”
An IBEC client in India stated “…they have helped us to understand what it takes to have happy and satisfied customers; our mentors in IBEC helped us understand the importance of financial statements, and how to develop them.”
9. You have measurements in place
Try to quantify your measurements of progress as much as possible. By clearly setting milestones, one can see if progress is being made; if spring is around the corner. We often speak of the quadruple bottom line:
Profitability: be sure to have a robust set of financials that you understand and monitor.
Job creation: As more employees are hired, you can claim progress in addressing poverty in those families and raising their dignity.
Disciples: Followers of Jesus sometimes are “following afar off”, but you can measure inquirers, Bible study attendees, and conversations.
Stewardship: Wise use of resources and reduction of commercial waste can be measured, evaluated and cared for.
Patrick Lai in “Business for Transformation speaks of Four Steps to any BAM or B4T business which must be done sequentially and by observing each, one can be encouraged with early progress. They are 1) learning the language and culture; 2) business startup factors; 3) integration of faith with the business; 4) observable fruit.2
1. Sivers, Derek. Anything You Want, 2011, page 9.
2. Lai, Patrick. Business for Transformation, 2015, chapter 15.
Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures