From idea to reality: lessons learnt from #GEWConnect

Global Entrepreneurship Week – a fantastic chance to celebrate the amazing entrepreneurs following their dreams, helping boost the economy, and filling the world with fantastic businesses. We were invited along to the week's launch event, #GEWConnect.  It focused on how to successfully turn your idea into a business, from four entrepreneurs who are doing it right now. Here's their tips for making your business idea happen.

Find your reason for starting up in the first place

Keep bringing yourself back to the reason you became an entrepreneur. It’ll keep you focussed on your dream when things get tough, keep you motivated, and help clarify your goals. Sinead McManus of Fluency, a learning platform and marketplace which helps young people unlock their digital talent and land their dream jobs, told the audience “I realised early on that I make a bad employee – I like to be the boss!”

For Ben Atkinson-Willes of Active Minds, a company which provides games and projects for those with dementia, it was something he’d wanted to do his whole life. “My dad runs his own business, and I’ve wanted to for as long as I can remember,” he explains. “When this idea came to me right out of uni, I grabbed it with both hands.” And for Duncan O’Brien of Dalston Cola, who had a varied career before his venture – from working with pension funds to working all over the world as a chef – said these experiences were central to creating his entrepreneurial drive. “I learnt that nobody was going to give you your dream job; the best way to find the work you really, really want to do is to start your own business and just do it yourself.”

Do your market research

Market research is a vital part of starting your own business, and one of the first steps. Will Crosthwait of Auditionist - a platform that allows actors and entertainers to share their showreel directly with casting agents - shared that the key thing for him was doing 3-6 months of intensive research beforehand, seeing what competitors are doing. And learning how to beat them!

Don’t be put off necessarily if there are lots of competitors – as Duncan puts it, “If something is competitive it’s because there’s a big opportunity there.” But do think about what differentiates your product, and where it fills in the niches that your competitors miss. Ben tells us that actually seeing competitors doesn’t put him off - actually, it's the opposite. “Seeing that there’s a gap in the market that we can do better gets us fired up!” he shared.

What to do about funding?

Even if you’ve received a lot of investment, paying rent, buying food and all the other things you need to stay afloat take money – and if you don’t have a profitable company bringing in money, things are going to be a tough for a while. This is the part that can seem most daunting, but help is at hand. “My best advice is to keep working if you can,” advises Duncan. “Keep on with the day job or get a part-time one, learn how to live cheaply, and even if your business is small get into the habit of financial forecasting. Think about when you’re going to start making money – realistically.”

Sinead shares her experience. “I worked full time, then scaled down to part-time,” she says. “We received some investment, which we then lived off for a while, and when this ran out I returned to work. We’ve received more investment, which will keep us going for a while. There’s no easy answer – the main options are to keep working and do business on the side, or apply to an accelerator.”

And another option, as Will knows, is a Virgin StartUp Loan – they received £7,500 to help them get started.

Get advice

Getting advice from people your trust and those experience in your field is crucial. Sinead shared how many people told them at first that their business model should actually be TWO businesses. It wasn’t until several weeks later that they accepted that this made sense, and adjusted their business accordingly. However, Will warns against listening too much to the odd person who is negative. Every venture involves a degree of risk, and as long as you take their view on board and consider it, don’t let one negative attitude put you off your dream – just don’t completely ignore it, either. Mentoring is the perfect way to get advice. Ben says “As a lone founder, it can be difficult to get a sense of perspective; mentoring gave me that.”

Focus on creating an amazing product

When you’ve got a brilliant idea, it can be easy to get ahead of yourself – creating perfect business cards, splashing out on a logo, and doing other things which ignore the real work you should be concentrating on: creating an amazing product. “I believe in the ‘lean startup’ model, which is that a finished product is better than a perfect one,” says Duncan. “Create a product and get it out there, and keep improving it – get feedback, redevelop, and build great relationships with customers along the way.” This approach involves your target market more closely, and you don’t risk ploughing too much money into a product which could turn out to need refining.

Similarly, don’t get distracted with marketing. While undoubtedly important, Duncan revealed that investors can be reluctant to see their money used for marketing costs. Try a DIY approach at first, or teaming up with a startup agency – and don’t forget that social media is free! “PR is worth spending money on as it can really amplify your message, but see if you can find a new company willing to work with you for cheaper, or for a skill swap,” advises Duncan. “And doing your own stunts and publicity won’t cost you anything.”

Knowing when something isn’t working

As heartbreaking as it might be, sometimes you need to call it quits on an idea – even an entire business. Alternatively, you could shelve it until a later date. “I had an idea for a tech business a couple of years ago,” says Duncan. “But we realised we had no capital, experience, or knowledge to take it where it needed to go, so it’s on hold for a few years. You have to be realistic and look at what you can achieve.” Be honest with yourself, and if something isn’t working – change it.

Take some downtime

When you’re committed to turning a dream into reality, it can be hard to switch off. But all panellists extolled the virtue of downtime – meditation, running, whatever gets you switching off.  This will avoid burnout, and stop you feeling resentful or fatigued towards your amazing idea. Will adds, “I found it helpful to stop seeing what I do as a job, and see it instead as a lifestyle. You’re not bound by the 9-5 – all hours of the day can be productive, and you can work to a pattern that suits you.”