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This is not a test. This is a real problem.

I just finished answering one of the Ask the Expert questions I do for Here is the question:

“I have [details omitted] that cut consumer’s [omitted] bills by up to 25%. But trying to sell them one-on-one is slow going. Local ads have done nothing. Contacting media, local officials has little response. Limited funds prevents an ad blitz. Just starting up. What can I do?”

And here is my answer:

“You’re asking the right question but to the wrong people. Ask the buyers, or would-be buyers. Get on the phone, get into meetings, go door-to-door if you have to. Do you have something nobody wants, or not enough people want? That’s what the early indicators are saying.

“You can’t just guess, you need to find out, and there’s no easy way. It doesn’t take a degree or years of experience, it takes shoe leather, a phone, and looking the right people right in the eye and asking. Keep asking until you’re ready to bet your business on the answer. And with each person you ask who doesn’t know, ask them who they can think of who does know. “

The question here illustrates a very common  misunderstanding about business planning and business research. It’s particularly bad in the real world of entrepreneurship and small business, where people don’t have middle managers and research budgets to hide behind. People treat this problem as if it were a test, with the right answers stored in a teacher’s drawer somewhere. It isn’t. It’s about doing the work yourself. You have to find out. The answer isn’t in a database.

Sometimes I get people thinking that they aren’t suppose to do this themselves, like it’s too specialized, or maybe they don’t have the training. You don’t prescribe your own medicines and so, you don’t try to find out why people buy from you. In truth it’s just a matter of talking to people. Be polite, be honest, and be persistent.  I went through this same fear and doubt when I quit business journalism and went to business school and focused on business planning. A lot of what I did after the MBA was the same stuff I did before the MBA — asking questions and analyzing answers — just billed at a higher rate.

This particular case is more about market research and marketing planning than straight business planning, but it’s the same thing. The core and foundation of a business plan is the questions this person is asking. People think you can buy market research but that’s rarely a good match for a small business problem. Business planning is essentially something you do yourself.

In many ways a lot of what’s involved in business planning is like physical exercise. It’s really no good for you if you don’t do it yourself.

— Tim


  • Mark says:

    You're absolutely right! I worked for a startup in the mid-90s, whose founders were mainly engineering and finance folks. The VP of Sales and Marketing was a woman who grew up with parents who ran a successful small business. When our first full-page ad in a trade magazine didn't bring in a single inquiry (as she and I predicted it wouldn't), she got on the phone and started calling from a list she purchased. Within six months, the company was profitable and was selling all of its software products for enterprise database management via an outbound telemarketing team. It's all about rolling up your sleeves and asking prospects who they are and what they want.

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