As millions of people are in limbo with their jobs during COVID-19, many high-achieving employees have thought about going off on their own and starting a business. In the past, maybe their dreams never worked out for one reason or another. And if that’s you, you’re in the same boat as one-third of all Americans who looked to commit to an entrepreneurial pursuit but had it fall through. And it makes sense, honestly.
Even before the pandemic, when you see the numbers and consider that around 50% of small businesses fail within their first five years of operation, quitting your cushy corporate job doesn’t sound particularly promising.
I was in that position just four years ago. While I was working as an engineer at Chevron, I started JavaPresse, an e-commerce company that sells coffee grinders and other coffee subscriptions, because I needed to make more money to pay off my student loans and send money to my parents back at home. I also didn’t like the ethos of corporate life, where hard work didn’t seem to translate to rising the ranks.
In the first eight months of business, we went from earning $0 a month in revenue to $260,000 — and I was still working full time at Chevron. I’m living proof that you can start a business, even if you have no network, no venture funding, no office, and no employees. What you will need, though, is an action plan.
To get the ball rolling during quarantine, I would recommend applying these four principles to your business idea. They worked for me and, if applied correctly, will work for you, especially during these unusual times.
1. Get feedback from those very first customers (even if they aren’t paying yet)
If you were recently let go from your company or are considering quitting your job to pursue your own venture, you’re likely wondering what it takes to build something users love so much that they’ll pay you enough for it. And the best way to get that validation is by interacting with real customers.
They don’t even need to be paying customers yet — you could set up a focus group of friends and family who have some free time, thanks to the stay-at-home orders, and offer your product or service for free just to get some feedback to iterate on.
That’s what we did in the early days of JavaPresse — we asked important questions. We didn’t have a lot of customers when we just got started, but we did make sure to ask each customer four things in an automated email upon their purchase:
- Do you have any ideas for how we could improve?
- What features would you want in our future products?
- What do you already like about our products?
- What don’t you like about our products?
I recorded all the responses in a spreadsheet, looked for patterns, and doubled down on feature requests and ideas for improvement that customers commonly wrote to us about. Then, I made sure to email every customer back personally to let them know that we appreciate their feedback and have added their suggestions to a spreadsheet we use to determine what to do next.
This feedback-oriented way of building out JavaPresse took the guesswork out of giving our customers exactly what they wanted. Not to mention, it practically gave us the messaging and marketing copy we needed to reach our customers most effectively.
If you’re trying to start an online business, the process is largely no different during COVID-19. You could even argue getting feedback and acquiring customers for online businesses are easier during the pandemic because everyone is spending so much time (and money) on the internet.
2. Meticulously plan out your time outside of work
Now that many of us are homebound due to COVID-19, we’re actually saving quite a bit of time without the need to commute or pack up at work. And that time, utilized properly, can be a huge asset. But as work from home becomes the new normal, it also means planning is the only real thing that stands between working and wasting time at home; being intentional in blocking out time slots can make all the difference.
When I first started JavaPresse, I had no expertise outside of what I had learned in school and the small amount of engineering experience I gained at Chevron. So for me to be able to launch a successful eCommerce shop, I would need to learn how to set up a store, figure out what distinguishes good web copy from bad, as well as experiment with email marketing and building lists.
So I blocked out 4.5 hours a day to work on JavaPresse: two hours before work and 2.5 hours after. This is what my typical day looked like:
6:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m.: Wake up and do a mix of copywriting practice (which helped me get better at writing marketing and product copy for our Amazon store) and learn from courses I’d buy on email marketing, online sales, or some other skill8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.: Work at Chevron5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.: Take an hour break at home to wind down6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.: Pick up work for JavaPresse by doing a mix of wrapping up unfinished work from the previous day, learning from a course I had purchased, and executing on adding new features or products per customer feedback8:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.: Meticulously plan out the next day’s work to make sure there was no ambiguity in terms of what action items I needed to check out the next day
Those last 30 minutes were probably the most important part of my day. Having this process in place held me accountable and gave me constant clarity as to what needed to be done.
3. Build friendships, not “networks”
Starting a company is largely a relationships game; and personally, my best relationships have come from meeting other people in the space we operate in — even if we’re all not physically together. The key, in my opinion, is approaching “networking” with the intention to make friends, not colleagues. If you think too much about how you’ll receive value from other people, chances are you’ll never get it.
If you pay it forward from the beginning, it’ll all come back. And especially during COVID-19, when most people are struggling, bringing value to other people will be something people remember forever. For instance, I met someone who would later become a great friend at an industry conference. He was a branding expert and there were really no obvious ways we could help one another. But still, we hung out, went for drinks, and didn’t talk about business at all throughout the many hours we spoke.
The next day, I was speaking with someone else I thought could help JavaPresse secure a relationship with a coffee roaster — which would be a huge deal for a company as early as we were. This friend happened to overhear my conversation and said he had a friend who might be open to the white label relationship we were looking for with a coffee roaster. He ended up making an introduction for me. This introduction became one of JavaPresse’s first major relationships and helped us accelerate our business in a big way.
The point is, friends will help you when you really need them to. And while we can’t attend large conferences or other in-person events during the pandemic, that doesn’t mean you can’t build long-lasting relationships online. Given these circumstances, I would recommend that you purchase an online course in a topic you’re interested in; they typically include access to a private Facebook group with other students taking the course and it’s a phenomenal way to meet ambitious, like-minded people.
From there, I recommend meeting new people through warm introductions from your classmates. Taking those introductions and moving those conversations to Zoom or Facebook are awesome ways to build relationships from scratch.
4. Think about optimizing revenue first
During our earliest days, we launched a variety of products and started to see some revenue coming in for almost all of our product offerings. So when we first thought about how to keep growing revenue, the easiest solution seemed to be to increase our product offerings.
What we found from doing this was that some products didn’t sell nearly as well as others, yet we still had to spend the same amount of time planning to get these products to work at the price point we needed to sell them at and put advertising dollars behind them. Though this may seem a bit daunting, mostly because of the extraordinary circumstances we’re living in, it’s still doable.
At the time, our first coffee grinder was a winning product, but our French Press was not doing so well. We made an ambitious decision to drop the French Press, which was still bringing in revenue and took the resources we invested in it and put them towards our coffee grinder. By doing so, we saw a huge growth not only in the sales of our coffee grinder, but also in the amount of time I had not having to focus on marketing, sales, and building relationships for a product that wasn’t working as well.
Focusing on revenue will allow you to think more critically about what’s working and what’s not because you don’t have investor dollars to fall back on. In my mind, it has always been key to getting your side hustle to seven figures in revenue. And especially as we’ve seen through this pandemic, companies with strong fundamentals have been able to weather the storm, while companies that didn’t prioritize revenue before are struggling to make ends meet or are even going bankrupt.
Raj Jana is the founder of JavaPresse Coffee Company, an e-commerce coffee company and subscription service.