Success Hacking 101: How to Turn an Idea Into A Business Without Money, an Audience, or Technical Skills

How can you turn an idea into a business:

  1. if you don’t have a “technical” skill (i.e. you’re not an engineer or programmer)?
  2. if you don’t have a lot of money (nor do you want to spend a lot of money to get the idea started)?
  3. if you want to get it up and running without going all in and putting your life (or credit) on the line for it?

That’s what Jon Nastor, ex-punk rocker turned entrepreneur and founder of, wanted to know.

And for the past 12 years, Jon has been actively answering this question.

Here’s a direct quote from Jon’s consulting page:

I have been an entrepreneur for 12 years and full-time online for 3. I have built, from the ground up, 6 different SaaS products — all with zero technical ability. I have built multiple businesses from zero to $45k/month+ recurring revenues, with no debt and no financing.

How is this possible, though?

Conventional wisdom tells us we need to master the skill or trade we want to make a profession out of, or that we need lots of money or financing to build something profitably.

But here’s Jon, a person who self admits to having “zero” technical ability, yet he’s started multiple businesses with no debt or financing.

What is Jon doing differently that allows him to succeed where so many others fail?

That’s the question I wanted to know, so I hopped on a call with him last week to interview him about his most recent business:

(note: this interview will be a bonus in my newest book: COMMAND. Sign up to be notified when we launch)


How to Start a Business – No Tech Skills Required

The story behind Jon Nastor’s most recent startup,, is eye-opening.

As I mentioned previously, Jon has no programming / engineering / technical skills to speak of, yet he bootstrapped a profitable tech company from scratch in less than two years (with close to 500 customers at the time of this writing).

Here’s the exact process he used:

Step 1: Identify a Need in the Marketplace

Jon started with his own problem: creating pages on Wordpess is a pain.

WordPress is a Content Management System (CMS) that millions of bloggers, writers, and companies use to publish their content online (I’m using it right now).

The problem with WordPress: it’s a difficult, time-consuming process to edit and publish pages because you have to do everything from the backend of WordPress.

But what if it didn’t have to be this way?

What if there were a simple “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) interface that allowed you to edit directly from the front end of a WordPress site?

So the idea for was born…


Step 2: Write Down Your “Back of Napkin” Business Plan

Really, Jon didn’t even bother with a business plan.

Instead, he opened up a notepad and wrote down 8 sentences about the product, how it would work, who needs it, and why it matters.

Just to reiterate, because this is important:

8 sentences.

That’s it.

Jon did NOT spend weeks or months researching whether this was technically possible, or what he should price the product at, or what he should call the business, or setting up legal entities, or trademarking whatever…

He simply wrote out the general idea on a piece of paper and that was enough to proceed.


Because according to Jon: “the best products die a slow death.”

In other words: the moment you have an idea for something that might work is the time to act on it. Now, not later.

Step 3: Assemble the Team

At this point, Jon had an idea, he knew where he would fit into the equation (sales and product development), but he was still missing an essential element of the business:

A developer to bring his idea to life.

There are a multitude of strategies out there for getting someone on board to build your idea, but I’ll highlight the best options for bootstrappers here:

1. Hire talent

The simplest solution: hire a programmer.

Jon was looking for a programmer, which means he would probably have to scour through or to find the right freelancer for the job.


  • lots of choices
  • you can generally find some decent programmers…if you’re willing to pay the right price


  • lots of choices
  • costs money…
  • good programmers cost even more money…

Jon didn’t want to spend a lot of time or money developing this idea before he could validate it, so this option was out.

2. Find a collaborative partner through friends, forums, meetups, or other groups

Because Jon didn’t possess the technical skills to build from scratch, nor did he want to pump a lot of money into the project to get it started, his best option was to find a collaborative partner.

One of the ways to find a collaborator is to go through networks that you’re already a part of to source someone with the abilities that you need and that compliment your skillset (and personality).


  • inexpensive solution to get something up and running (no investment needed if the partner agrees to equity or revenue share)
  • better results because of skin in the game (people always deliver better results when something on the line – in this case: return on investment for their time and energy)


  • can this person truly deliver, on time and on target?
  • this doesn’t validate the idea

Sadly, the people who are closest to us are rarely the best fit for an idea. Further, someone you are close to is more likely to be motivated by the idea because you’re motivated by it, which means there’s no real opportunity to indifferently judge the merits of the idea (which is a dangerous road to go down).

In either case, if it’s not a good fit, this can delay the launch of the product or kill it slowly over months.

Jon couldn’t afford either situation, so he chose the only option that was left:

3. Find the best in the world – join forces

Instead of putting time or money into the idea, Jon cut straight to the point.

He was already familiar with the WordPress platform and in particular the brains behind it. So Jon reached out to a lead developer of WordPress, Mark Jacquith, to pitch his idea.

The first email Jon sent received no response.

So Jon sent another email.

No response.

Jon reached out through Twitter to let Mark know he had emailed him an idea. Mark responded and said he’d take a look.

Jon didn’t expect a quick response – Mark is a busy guy.

To Jon’s surprise, Mark reached out to him to set up a call almost immediately.

The team was born.

Why Teaming Up With the Best in the World Works

There are a few reasons teaming up with the best in the world is a powerful (and oftentimes – best) business solution.

1. Teaming up with the best in the world leverages Pareto’s Principle

Pareto’s Principle – or the 80/20 rule – is a concept that says 80% of our results come from 20% of effort.

Now it’s not always a direct ratio; oftentimes it can be even more extreme 1% of the work could yield 90% of the results or more.

In the case of building a company from scratch, joining forces with the best in the world in any particular industry slingshots you ahead of the competition.

For example, because Mark is so well known in the WordPress community, when did their first launch, the promotion of which consisted of a single tweet from Mark to his Twitter followers, they sold almost 50 licenses immediately.

That’s several thousand $ from a single Tweet.

That’s the power of Pareto’s Principle and the power of teaming up with the best in the world

2. Teaming up with the best in the world is (initial) validation

No, just because someone successful or famous likes your idea doesn’t mean it will succeed.

But it’s a better indicator than your mom, stylist, or bartender, isn’t it?

And it’s an even better indicator when they say “yes, I’ll work on this with you for equity.”

Note: for Jon and Mark to officially validate, they had to build a working prototype and sell licenses (for money). This development process took 14 months from idea to launch – much longer than Jon would have liked, but this was a collaborative side-project for both of them (had this had been their primary focus, Jon says they could have had something ready in a few months).

As of the time of this writing, has close to 500 customers and they are actually looking to scale.

velocitypage pricing

(and if you do the math, that means in less than one year after launch, the team has sold anywhere from $50,000 – $120,000 in licenses, based on their current pricing)

3. Because you can’t go it alone

Not if you want to multiply your efforts and create a bigger impact.

As a solopreneur or solo-operator, you are the weakest link in your business. When you work solo, everything needs to go through you – you become the funnel for every decision, every action, and all progress made…

Or lost.

But let’s say you’re capable of creating initial success, of getting the prototype functioning and operational; let’s say you even get orders of your new software almost from the beginning…

How can you possibly expand and grow if you’re working alone? Handling the engineering, product development, and marketing and sales simultaneously?

It can work….

For a time.

But there will come a time when you burn out or hit a plateau you can’t scale out of (no matter what technology you have at your disposal).

Virtual assistants are great if you just want to maintain what you’re doing by optimizing and systematizing your processes, but they’re a terrible solution if you want real growth (i.e. new customers, new clients, new sales – and the ability to scale).

Teaming up with someone – even if he or she is not the best in the world in that particular area – is the ONLY way to build a business that can grow, scale, and ultimately: operate without you.

Note: it doesn’t have to start with an official partnership or by finding a co-founder…

What You Need to Do to Replicate These Results

Now to clarify a very important part of this post:

Jon wasn’t a programmer, he wasn’t a designer, and he had only been working online for a few years…

But what he lacked in technical skills (and financing and other resources), he made up for by adding incredible value in another way:

Jon took the lead on sales. He told Mark if they can build it, he can sell it.

While Jon had prior experience in sales, it’s important to realize that you don’t NEED experience in sales to start a venture if you’re willing to LEARN how to sell. And anyone in the world can learn to sell. If these two girls from Indonesia can’t prove that to you, nothing can.

So if there’s a major takeaway from this article, I hope its this:

You don’t need money, or technical skills, or connections to build a business from scratch. But you must be a “value-add.”

And if you’re not bringing money, connections or an audience to the table, you better bring hustle.

More Examples of Successful Collaboration

There are dozens of collaborative projects that start as basic ideas and grow into massively successful ventures.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Chris Guillebeau and his collaborative venture: The World Domination Summit
  • Corbett Barr and how he collaborated on and built – a leading business training membership site
  • Jason Spencer’s idea for The Flight Formula that turned into a $41,000 collaborative launch
  • AJ Leon and Misfit-Inc. (which now operates a half-dozen collaborative ventures, from charitable projects, to web design and creative projects, to publishing projects)

There are many more, but these are just a few of the people I’ve interviewed about their collaborative ventures in the past couple months.


Now it’s Your Turn

What are you working on solo that could be improved if you teamed up with the right person?

Or if you’re already working on a collaborative project, what have you learned from the experience?

Leave a comment below!

In The Trenches 027: How to Promote Yourself to the Top with Dan Schawbel

Leave a review for In The Trenches on iTunes and I’ll love you forever.

How to Promote Yourself to the Toppromote-yourself-cover

How would you feel if I asked  you to talk about how great you are?

My guess is, if you’re like the majority of people in the world, you wouldn’t feel very comfortable.

According to Dan Schawbel, author of Promote Yourself and Me 2.0, this attitude of feeling ashamed to talk about your success, or ashamed to show people the value you add, will not benefit you in the 21st century.

In fact – it’s ONLY those who are willing to tell or show people everything they’re capable of – who are willing to self-promote – that will succeed over time.


Because otherwise you’ll be ignored.

And if you’re being ignored, someone else will take your spot, your promotion, your pay raise, etc.

This is the reality of the modern world and it’s something we need to get used to.

That’s why I wanted to talk to Dan today, an authority on the subject of selling your personal value. Dan is the Managing Partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm. He is also the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author sof Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success and the #1 international bestselling book, Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future.

Dan’s had a lot of success in life, and as you listen to his story, you’ll realize 2 things:

One: he was given nothing – he had to work for everything he has.

Two: Dan’s not ashamed to talk about his value or what he’s capable of achieving – and that’s exactly why he’s gotten where he has in life.

So check out today’s interview and leave a comment below to let me know what you think!

What Dan Schawbel and I Talk About:

  • How to make yourself indispensable to your company
  • Dan’s personal story of having NO connections and no resources when he started out, and how he took life into his own hands and created the results he wanted
  • How to create a niche for yourself (and why you need to in the 21st century)
  • How to brand yourself (and why this is so important)
  • Why promotion SHOULD be shameless (this may be the most important less of the interview…just wait till you hear what Dan has to say about this)

Quotables from Dan Schawbel’s Interview:

“Luck is driven by work ethic and strategic position.”

Where You Can Find Dan Schawbel:

Promote Yourself

Me 2.0

If you enjoyed today’s podcast, please leave a review on iTunes here. Thanks so much in advance for your support.

The 3 Step Pivot Framework: How to Turn Failure into Success

Last month I got an email from a friend. After 6 months of hustle, she’s throwing in the towel. Why?

  • Not enough sales.
  • No traction.
  • No growth.

I felt bad. I hate seeing people fail. I hate it even more when a project fails that hasn’t  been properly tested in the marketplace. In my friends case, she had only tried one option. It didn’t work. Surely there’s a better way…

Only the Strong Agile Survive

Granted, not all projects are worthwhile. Some simply aren’t economically viable.

Others might be able to sustain themselves through whatever means (force, trust fund, etc.), but to what end (the excruciatingly slow death of the postal service comes to mind)?

But the reality is: you can’t know whether a project is worthwhile from the first failure (not if you want to eventually build something that lasts) So I told my friend that she shouldn’t shut down just yet. Instead, she should pivot.

The Lean Startup Pivot

What’s a pivot? Taken from Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup, a pivot is a:

structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.

Good, but a little technical. Here’s how Steve Blank describes it:

“Pivoting” is when you change a fundamental part of the business model. It can be as simple as recognizing that your product was priced incorrectly. It can be more complex if you find the your target customer or users need to change or the feature set is wrong or you need to “repackage” a monolithic product into a family of products or you chose the wrong sales channel or your customer acquisition programs were ineffective.

In simpler terms (hopefully without missing the point): A pivot is adjusting your current approach to a problem.

Download The Essential Pivot Checklist and Workbook when you’re ready to pivot your business

Sometimes it’s a complete overhaul, identifying a new “job to be done” (the pain point you’re solving for people), sometimes in an entirely new industry or via a different medium.

Other times, it’s not so dramatic – just a simple shift in execution. Every successful company in the world has pivoted at some point in their lifecycle. It’s inevitable.

Pivoting in business.

How do I Pivot?

After I told my friend she should pivot, she asked a reasonable question: How? My friend wanted me to tell her what to do in her particular situation.

Here’s the problem: By its nature, pivoting is a creator-led process. It requires the owner / operator to think, engage, challenge, test, break and build. Nobody can tell you how to pivot, nor can someone do it for you. So, instead of telling her what to do, I suggested some resources that could provide a framework for her to approach the problem.

At the same time, I realized that most people have no idea what a pivot is or how to go about pivoting in their business. While books like The Innovator’s Solution, Running Lean, 4 Steps to Epiphany and many others have covered pivoting in some way, these are very technical books and focus on the tech startup community primarily.

That sucks because everyone should know how to pivot (in business and life). So here’s my attempt at breaking down a pivot for the less tech savvy people of the world (me). This is the framework and the mindset I use to approach everything (from the books I publish to the products I launch).

I’m no expert, but I hope my thoughts on the subject can at least get you started on the right path.

* * *

NOTE: this blog post assumes you’ve already built something and that it’s not working. However, it’s equally valuable for those about to build something because it probably won’t work (I’m not a pessimist, I’m just experienced in failure).

So bookmark and take notes for later.

And if you like this blog post (and want more like it), shoot me a tweet to let me know!

[Click here to Tweet me to let me know you want more content like this!!]

* * *

Step 1: Lay the Foundation for Your Pivot (Figure Out What Worked and What Went Wrong)

In the Army, after every mission, training exercise, event (basically everything), they conduct what is known as an After Action Review (or AAR for short). An AAR is a chance for key players (anyone involved in an operation or exercise) to identify:

  1. What was supposed to happen?
  2. What DID happen?
  3. Sustains – what did we do right and what should we do the same next time or in a similar (3 is usually the minimum)
  4. Improves – what did we do wrong and what should we do different the next time (3 again)

If you’ve read any of the business books I’ve listed above, you should see a thread that runs through the lean startup methodology

  • What was supposed to happen = Hypothesis
  • What did happen = Testing the hypothesis
  • Sustains / Improves = Measuring based on metrics you’ve established earlier so you can iterate (try again)

I conduct an AAR with myself or my team after every major shipped project.

For your own AAR guide and pivot checklist and work, grab “The Essential Pivot Checklist and Workbook” Below:

Download The Essential Pivot Checklist and Workbook

AARs are valuable for things like:

  1. Writing. If I write for a major platform (like or then I want there to be some positive result (like X number of new email subscribers to my list, or Y number of comments, or…you get the idea). I need to sit down after something like this ships to see what the results actually were and if it’s worth doing again in the future (and how to improve the next time to get better results)
  2. Consulting. When I consult with someone, I want to make sure there’s a positive result for the person I’m helping. This is the only way to improve and continue getting clients.
  3. Projects. I launch a lot of projects. What were the results? What can we learn? How can we do better next time?

If you take away anything from this, know that pivoting begins with analyzing what was supposed to happen versus what did happen. Without this basic knowledge, you can’t pivot (you’d just be shooting in the dark…which might work…if you’re lucky).

Step 2: Determine the Shift that Needs to Take Place for Your Pivot

Cool, so you know your first plan didn’t work… Now what? The AAR should give you insight into what to do next.

  • If your “sustains” included something that sorta worked, can you double down?
  • If your “improves” included something that completely missed the mark, can you scrap it altogether try a different approach?

More likely than not, some part of your original iteration worked. If that’s the case, it may be useful to consider how you can maintain your original idea (mostly) while tweaking what worked to make it more effective (or reducing what didn’t work so it is less disruptive to your business model). Conversely, if NOTHING hit the mark, it’s much more effective to change things dramatically. Here’s Ash Maurya’s (author of Running Lean) take on it:

If the goal is to maximize learning, you have to pick bold outcomes versus chase incremental improvements. So rather than changing the color of your call to action button, change the unique value proposition. Rather than experimenting with different prices, experiment with different pricing models.

In other words: to know where to go, you need to know where you’re at. That means determining if you’re FINDING the fit, or OPTIMIZING the fit.

Pivoting Before and After You Find Product / Market Fit

When I launched The Creative Entrepreneur (now Bootstrapped), I was shooting in the dark a bit.

Iteration 1: finding product market fit…

I knew I wanted to create some sort of annual publication with reoccurring revenue and I knew I wanted to focus on business. The first thing I did was pitch the idea to potential contributors (the people who would produce the content for the publication. This is how I received my first form of validation (I’ve written more about that here).

In a nutshell: I figured if people would write for the publication, then people would pay for the publication. This is an assumption, of course, and needed its own round of testing (preorder sales). I don’t want to go in depth here about validating an idea as that’s a topic that deserves its own analysis (read this article for more information on validation), but the point is: I was trying to find product/market fit. With the preorders I received, I found it (at least in a small way).

Iteration 2: optimizing product market fit…better, no?

The next step for issue 2 was optimizing the product/market fit. This required pivoting again by asking questions like:

  • How can I scale this?
  • How can I grow this?
  • How do we get more users, subscribers, etc.?

For us, that meant branding redesign, re-evaluating the content strategy, adding new sales channels, etc. Have we optimized product/market fit? We can’t be sure just yet. Yes we’re getting subscribers and yes the reaction is overwhelmingly positive, but some of these tests take weeks or more to confirm for sure (especially big changes like a rebranding).

What’s the “Right” Pivot?

To be entirely honest, the answers to these questions are elusive at best. Just like if you’re trying to pivot a new business (or an old one), you won’t know what the right answers are for sure.

The point isn’t to know the answers at the outset. The point is to have an idea and be willing and able to test until you find something that works.* **just to emphasize again: what “works” for optimizing product/market fit is different than what works for finding product/market fit**

Step 3: Test and Measure Your Pivot

Testing and measuring your pivot is the simplest step. Step 3 is all about taking meaningful action. What did you decide to pivot?

  • Did you decide to change the pricing model?
  • Did you decide to add or remove features?
  • Did you decide to change mediums?

Whatever the choice, make sure you can measure it. For example:

  • Changing a pricing model is easy: did you get more or less sales?  How does that affect revenue and profit overall? What’s the reception from your target market.
  • Adding or removing features? Again, how many more people opted in? Did you get more paid subscribers, more signups, more…?

You get the idea. A pivot is only as useful as what you’re able to measure.

The Hardest Part of Pivoting

Testing and measuring your pivot is also the hardest part. Not because it’s technical – it usually isn’t – but because it’s hard to pick ourselves up and test something that didn’t work out the first time. It hurts to get rejected. It hurts when we miss the mark again – sometimes more than the first time.

Here’s the deal: There’s nothing to be ashamed of by retesting an idea in a new way. If someone said no to your idea, it’s not grovelling to go back with a new pitch and ask again.

In fact, the person you approach again should be happy that you adjusted course. After all, if this person is in your target market, they want what you’re trying to create.

So don’t worry about the rejection or failure (it’s all part of the process).

Instead, perceive and approach your pivot as an experiment and a game. This works because…well, it is So don’t stress – just test.

A Free Guide to Help You Pivot

Okay, so this blog post taught you a little about pivoting , but what’s next?

I always find it helpful to have some sort of guide or worksheet to help me follow through on material, so I took it upon myself to create a sweet downloadable (and FREE!) product for those of you looking to pivot in your business. In the workbook you’ll get:

  1. A 2 page After Action Review workbook (including a breakdown of what an AAR is and how to use it)
  2. The 3 Step Pivot Evaluation Method (this will help you focus on what to target and whether you should focus on finding product/market fit or optimizing product/market fit)
  3. 10 “Target-Pivots” that Eric Ries of The Lean Startup uses when pivoting a business (this stuff is gold)
  4. The 5 Step Pivot Execution Framework (to help you put it all together!)

[Get your free copy here]

do it

* * *

I hope this blog and the accompanying checklist and workbook help you on your way to product/market fit and a successful business. If you enjoyed this blog post, let me know.

Click to tweet me and let me know!

Started in Napa, California (just before meeting up with The Resistance, San Rafael Branch). Finished and Shipped in San Fransico, California.

Writing time: 9:14 (ouch…true story)

The 2 Most Important Business Lessons I Learned from Andrew Warner of Mixergy

Of all the cruel punishments the Greek gods bestowed on humans (and one another), the punishment of Sisyphus is one of the cruelest.

Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra and the son of Aelius (ruler of the winds and son of Poseidon…the guy has some serious lineage behind him).

He was also a prideful, deceitful, murderous ruler; not only was he a chronic liar (deceiving both gods and humans), but he killed travelers and visitors for fun in his own kingdom.

Basically, Sisyphus was a real prick.

Apparently, after one too many deceitful and murderous acts, Zeus decided enough was enough and condemned Sisyphus to an eternal punishment. Except this wasn’t any old punishment. Zeus crafted something uniquely horrible for Sisyphus.

Zeus condemned Sisyphus to push a large bolder up a steep hill.

Difficult for sure, but not the worst thing in the world (or underworld), right?…

Except, like all good Greek myths, there was a catch.

Zeus enchanted the bolder.

Anytime Sisyphus came close to the top of the hill with the bolder, it would slip through his hands, rolling all the way back down to the bottom.

No matter how Sisyphus approached the challenge, his effort was futile.

An eternity of useless, infuriating effort with no payoff.

Sisyphus and Entrepreneurship

In a lot of ways, entrepreneurship, art, and writing feel the same way.

We spend hours, weeks, months (years in some cases) working on a project, only to launch it and…people don’t like it, people hate it, or, worst of all: people ignore it.

Oftentimes, success feels like the bolder of Sisyphus, slipping through our hands every time right before we reach the top.

And if you’re committed to your work / art / writing, the work we do can sometimes feel infuriating futile.

But there’s an important difference between the struggle of the entrepreneur and the struggle of Sisyphus:

Our work isn’t futile by nature.

Every climb to the top of the mountain results in experience, lessons learned, and most of all growth.

The climb to the top isn’t futile, IF we learn the right lessons and apply them in future endeavors (and we’re not simply repeating the same motions as before).

Which is where Andrew Warner comes in…

The 2 Most Important Business Lessons I Learned from Andrew Warner

Andrew Warner of Mixergy.comA few weeks back, I had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew Warner to interview him for the next issue of Bootstrapped Magazine (the next issue comes out in two weeks, and the new website is under-construction, so stay tuned).

Andrew is the founder of, one of the premier business training websites in the world.

Andrew has interviewed over 1,000 entrepreneurs, business owners and CEOs, from the founder of to Groupon to LinkedIn to Wikipedia (and everything in between).

The point is: he’s spoken to a lot of high-performers – men and women who have started and operated successful companies, many from scratch.

With so many interviews under his belt, Andrew probably knows a thing or two about what works…and what doesn’t.

Which is why I wanted to ask him that exact question.

The following is a small excerpt from the interview I did with Andrew Warner that will be featured in the next issue of Bootstrapped Magazine. Andrew dishes a lot more gold than this in a lot more detail, so if you enjoy this, you can preorder your copy today.


TOM: What is the most common problem entrepreneurs’ deal with when they are just starting out?  From the interviews you’ve conducted, what have you found to be the biggest mistake most entrepreneurs make right at the beginning?

ANDREW WARNER:    I’ll tell you it happens so much that people must be tired of hearing me saying it, it’s the same mistake I made.  I thought I knew what an invitation site was like because I organize events: “In a few hours I’m going to have some people come to the office for a little event here; on Sunday I’m going to have people come over for brunch in my house,” etc. I organize events all the time.  I use invitations all the time.  I thought I knew everything.  I didn’t realize that we all have our own unique experiences and if we just try to deal with our own pain and our own needs we are not going to necessarily address what other people need.

That’s the problem that I see over and over.

Just the other day I was talking to the founder of Magoosh.  Magoosh is a test prep site that is doing millions in sales.  It didn’t exist four or five years ago and the founder said, “We’re in the business of getting people into business school.  People who we want to cater to are going to take tests.  We’ll get them into business schools.  We know what it takes to do this. What we’re going to create is a user-generated test prep site, where instead of an expert teaching, it will be people who know the task.  We’ll ask questions of people who are trying to learn it, they’ll ask questions of each other, they’ll learn together… Boom.”

One of the investors invested a lot, like $10,000— which is a lot for a student, and it failed.  But they thought they knew the problem; they thought they understood it.  So I said to them, “What are you guys going to do?” And the founder said, “You know, what we decided to do at that point was go and talk to other students and see what they didn’t like about this, and do what THEY wanted.”

It turns out people who are looking to study for big tests do not trust the community.  They want someone that they can put their faith in, who is the expert, who has been doing this for years, who can guide them flawlessly or as close to it as humanly possible.

They discovered, the whole idea of community-generated questions was just never going to work, and so they scrapped it and went in a different direction.

They actually started building a small site using nothing but Balsamiq mockup software and PowerPoint…Then that started to work because they took it out to people and said, “Would this make sense for you?”  And they took the feedback and adjusted until they had something that worked…This is a common story that you hear over and over and over again and we still all make that mistake.

TOM: So what are the most common traits of successful entrepreneurs?

ANDREW WARNER: You know Mark Suster, the venture capitalist, told me that he likes to invest in entrepreneurs who have a chip on their shoulder.  I’ve never heard anyone say that they want to work with entrepreneurs who have a chip on their shoulder.  So I’ve been giving that some thought as I’ve been doing my interviews and what I realized is that there are entrepreneurs who take these setbacks that we all have — the criticism that we all get from the world — and they use it to their advantage.

One entrepreneur told me that every time a venture capitalist turned him down, he added that guy’s name to a list so that when he succeeded he could look back at all the people who missed out.

Now, you take a look at that and that issue could, for many people, cause such inner doubt that they become obsessed with it and become debilitated by it. The doubt of, “Well if this venture capitalist who knows what he’s talking about just turned me down, maybe I have nothing here and shouldn’t continue.”

He took that and made it into an asset. When he thought about one of these guys who turned him down; instead of saying, “Aw, why do I want to do this if Steve doesn’t want to invest in me?” He said, “Steve didn’t want to invest in me, I’m going to show him.”

Your Turn up the Mountain

Two powerful and important lessons:

  • #1: you don’t know the problem or solution – your customer does, so don’t assume anything (ask, learn, and test).
  • #2: you’re going to fail but successful entrepreneurs turn failure into fuel for their fire, setbacks into assets, and anger into positive change.

This is the type of advice that can be hard to hear.

The honest kind always is…

And it’s especially uncomfortable if you’ve continued to try to solve your own problem (without figuring out what people want) or if you base your ideas on the opinions of others (instead of turning that into motivation to prove them wrong).

I’ve definitely been there myself before, trust me (and still make similar mistakes today)…

But that’s the beauty of these lessons:

While your own situation might seem insurmountable – a giant bolder that needs to be pushed to the top of a mountain – it isn’t.

Everything that stands in front of us in this life is conquerable, from writing, to art, to entrepreneurship.

The question is: are you willing to learn, grow, and adapt from your failures; to approach the obstacle that defeated you last time in a new way, with new techniques and strategies; to pivot, even if you’re not sure how, to make something happen (no matter how much it pains you to abandon your first idea)?

No, it’s not easy.

But nothing worthwhile ever is.

Good luck, and keep creating.

Started, finished, and shipped in Banos, Ecuador (under mild Malaria-like symptoms)

Total writing time: 4:45

I’m writing a book on entrepreneurship, collaborative project development, and how to lead a team to ship a product to market. I explain in-depth how to apply the lessons covered in this blog post (and more) to help you successfully turn your idea into a profitable product or service.

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