Most of my days are spent with clients who have been doing what they do in business for a while now. Clients with “newer” businesses have met their 5-year anniversaries, and my most experienced clients have 40-plus years running their business. As my team pilots a new program we are launching, we have accepted a number of new entrepreneurs into the beta. They are at an exciting point in their business evolution. Some have a year or two under their belts and are looking to grow, while a few are looking over the edge of the proverbial mountain that is launching a new business for the first time and asking, “Can I do this? Will I do this? Is it worth it?”
Asking questions is a great skill, and it’s necessary when undertaking something new. That said, the questions you ask really do matter. The questions above? They aren’t great. Why? They don’t lead anywhere except to more rumination, more worry and more what-ifs.
What would be better? Effective questions clarify what needs to happen and point you and your team to the things that are important and/or provide you with answers that create a platform for better decisions. When contemplating a new venture, product or direction, we have found the following questions useful:
1. What do we know? This is not what we think, but what we really know. For example, for someone considering getting into the cigarette industry, the data shows that this industry is dying and has been for 40 years. This space is not where most of us would decide to start a business today. Data about new businesses launches is rarely this compelling. It’s good to start with what you know.
2. What can we know? Let’s use my business in this example. When I considered starting my own firm, there was no guarantee that it would succeed. An 18-plus year track record of success in larger business was not guaranteed to translate to a small startup. In addition, I had an entirely new industry to learn. Once I was clear that owner/founder peer groups were what I desired as the first offering for my business, I asked the following:
• What percentage of new leaders launched?
• Of the group leaders who formed a group, what percentage was still leading groups 12 months later?
• How long did it take the average new group to start?
What were the traits of the leaders who did launch? Those who did not?
• To successful leaders: Would you go into this work today knowing what you now know? What do you wish you knew when you first launched?
These questions gave me a sense of what others doing the exact same thing had experienced and a chance to objectively assess how well my traits and behaviors lined up against those who had been successful before. It also gave me a sense of how likely it was that this would launch.
And for the last and maybe most important question:
3. What would you have to believe to do this? For some new entrepreneurs, you may recognize yourself here. You might have to believe that you will always regret it if you don’t try to build your own thing. In this case, it becomes “What will I start?” not “Will I start?” Some might have to believe that if this new business, product or acquisition is not a wild success (yes, success does need to be defined), they can make a different decision at 6 or 12 months. Identifying this type of assumption might lead you to start your business as a side gig to give it some time to see how the market responds and even how you like running your own thing.
Lastly, assess who you are. Twenty different business owners and consultants kindly spent 20-45 minutes with me chatting in the six months before I committed to a new entrepreneurial path. This may seem like overkill, and for some, it would be. But I believe in getting 60-70% of the data that can be known about anything before moving forward. Wait until you have 90% of the info, and you have waited too long. Get only 20%, and it’s likely you have missed some items that may make this easier or faster. Know yourself: Is 20% enough? 50%? Or does it need to be more? Figure out what you need, ask your questions and get going.
Originally published on Forbes.com April 17, 2018