You Don’t Need Permission
There is a misconception that you need permission to start a business. The received wisdom suggests that your path should be Undergraduate Degree > Work Experience > Masters in Business Administration > Business Internship > Work Experience > And at this point you begin to feel you might have permission from society to create a business.
The thing about innovation is that it can’t be taught. Not by schools and not by work experience. In fact, schools and work experience guide you towards well trodden paths, leading you away from innovation.
Creating a business entity is easy. You could decide on a brand name, register a domain name, incorporate a company, file your trademark with the USPTO, create all the brand assets you need, and your website, and then build the thing you’re going to be selling.
Or you could start by building the thing you’re going to be selling first and get it in front of customers to get early feedback, find out if it resonates and begin to iterate. My very earliest attempts started with the first approach of doing the ‘businessy’ stuff, which felt good, but became a tremendous distraction. Later I just started building things until I found something that stuck, and I built the corporate structure around that.
Creating corporate structure, logo, business cards and so on is just putting off tackling the core of building a business – which is the act of creating a product and finding a fit with a market. Doing the businessy stuff feels like progress, but it isn’t. Building something customers want and finding out if they want it and are willing to pay for it is real progress.
Once you’ve found what looks like a product/market fit and a path to growth, the rest is details. Incorporate yourself so that you have some kind of legal protection and structure. Don’t wait too long to file a trademark so that you start the clock on the 5 year ‘incontestability’ mark – and do file a trademark, believe me, I’ve been sued over this and it cost me.
Some experienced folks will suggest that you’re doing it wrong, or that you’re not ready. Entrepreneurship is learned by doing and so the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get your ass kicked by the business world and the sooner you’ll begin to learn from your mistakes.
I once had the CTO of an extremely well funded business with a large team ask me who is going to be my CEO. I told him I’d be CEO. He immediately said I wouldn’t have time. That may be true if you raise a ton of money and insta-hire a team of 100 or if you’re a later stage business, but if you’re taking the guerilla approach and building it yourself from the ground up you won’t have to worry about that until much later. I’ve transitioned from a full-time dev/ops guy into being a full-time CEO and it’s not as hard as you think. In fact it’s fun.
Business is simply the act of a customer exchanging money for something that is worth more to them than the money they paid. It’s quite basic. So the question you are trying to answer is this: What do my customers need that is worth more to them than the money they’ll pay for it?
If you’re creating a “really cool free service” and assuming that you can bolt an ad model on top, beware. I was doing over 1 billion impressions with Feedjit.com, a real-time website analytics widget that was extremely popular, and I was making almost no money after experimenting with a bunch of ad models including running my own ad network.
Ad supported models can work, but your audience needs to be targeted and valuable to a group of advertisers and you need to be able to transact with those advertisers. Make sure you think this through and validate the business model before your operations get too expensive.
Pure growth without an endgame is an illusion that is not worth celebrating. Growth that produces cash is incredibly exciting and you will join a very small elite group of self-funding businesses. Actually seeing something you built start to pay you and provide VC level funding for even more growth is one hell of a rush.
Just start. You don’t need permission. And once you’ve navigated the realities of setting up a business and beginning to build something in the hope of finding a market fit, you’ll quickly find yourself with more practical and applicable knowledge than most people giving advice.