We’ve probably all heard the phrase “never trust a skinny chef”. But what if we applied that same process to other professions? Never trust a sick doctor. Or how about, Never trust a mechanic in a broken car? Maybe this: Never trust a black belt with a black eye?
The other day I was reading an article on e-commerce from a person that had the wherewithal to stop and ask his well-intentioned advice givers whether they had ever made a million dollars.
And that got me thinking, I’d been skimming through some Reddit posts on r/shopify the other day, and noticed that most of the discussions were about some implicit magical formula where a few tweaks to this color or a couple edits to that copy would be the one thing that’s been keeping the digital dam from flooding you with conversions.
The idea of busy work focused on the superficial things being somehow ostensibly the answer to success online whirled around in my mind for most of the day. I kept thinking about the company that I’d helped cofound back in 2009.
When a relative of mine came to me with a new product invention for people with sleep apnea, we launched an e-commerce brand that has gone on to make over $20M since launch. But what we didn’t do was sweat over the little details, at least in the beginning, mainly because we had so many other things to worry about. In the beginning we spent most of our time on product-specific forums, answering questions, making friends, giving advice and generous discounts.
In fact, some of our highest revenues came through a site that looked pretty terrible by most standards. I was thinking about this and why it sometimes seems like the rearranging of the digital chairs might be that one thing, that key that you’ve been missing, the last piece in the puzzle.
I wonder if this is a misconception that is fueled by our data-driven, app culture. In many ways this very culture is the reason why small changes sometimes do reap massive rewards. Somehow, though, in the trickle down process, that idea has morphed into something that has got the regular everyday entrepreneur stuck in a kind of losers loop, something like chasing pyrite during the gold rush.
We all seem to know intuitively that there are some hidden secrets to be found, but the forest for the trees scenario that’s holding many back might be the fact that small tweaks are what established companies do to reap larger rewards. These are not the activities that usually bring the most ROI for a new entrepreneur.
So what’s the secret then? If ugly websites and mediocre products sometimes make lots of money, while polished, amazingly useful sites and products sometimes get lost and comet to a slow, painful, VC scattering end, then who can be successful?
I’m not an expert, or a an economist, but I have grown an e-commerce business from literally nothing to watching it make what looks like yearly salaries in a single day. How did that happen? I honestly think it’s like this: hard work + time + chance = success. You can rearrange those pieces however you’d like, but they all have to be there at some level.
Each of these pieces will look different sometimes. Maybe time is short, or it’s excruciatingly long, and maybe chance comes at the beginning, or it takes it’s time. And maybe work that feels hard for some isn’t so hard for others, but it still takes lots of output. The point is that for every success, there is usually some intangible element that comes into play as well.
The good news is that nowadays, in our data driven culture, it’s easier than ever to identify at least some of the intangible pieces, hopefully finding those trends before ever opening your doors. Spend a little time on Google Trends or trendhunter.com, but don’t forget the human element. Business is still based on human beings. And what do we want? We all basically want the same things. We want to be appreciated, loved, cared for, and we like finding new and exciting things that will make our lives easier.
Don’t expect to throw a bunch of drop-shipping junk out on the web and watch the millions blow up your account. You will still need to cultivate relationships and offer amazing support. Beside the fact that our product just happened to be in the right place at the right time, riding a growing trend toward more device comfort in our particular product space, we also got really excessive about our customer support. If anyone had any problems at all, we gave them a free replacement. We called people back on the weekends, sent products to a hotel room for a new customer on vacation, went to trade shows, took suppliers out to dinner and made them feel welcome.
All of that, plus some chance, or maybe some would say plus something “miraculous”, and we found ourselves setting our own schedule, living a life we couldn’t have imagined a few years previous. Even though none of us have yet become objectively wealthy, what this has afforded for us is the ability to have more time. And more time equals the ability to hopefully find another trend, either by chance or otherwise, and finding a little more of the miraculous either by some kind of spirituality or just plain being human, and that is, I think what this whole endeavor is about.
So, the next time someone starts giving you advice on how to run your new business, maybe pause and ask if they’ve ever made a million dollars? Or if they haven’t personally made a million dollars, maybe they’ve made it for someone else. The answer may surprise you, and if it does, that’s who you should listen to. Otherwise chalk it up to a rock climber with smooth hands.