You don't have to go to business school to launch a business. But if you want to be an entrepreneur, it may help to check a few of the right boxes when building an enterprise, like identifying a need in the marketplace, creating a business plan, finding financing and more. I talked to two entrepreneurs who each managed to turn a good idea into a business. Here's some of the advice they shared in going from concept to creation.
1. After identifying a need, be measured in your risk taking.
Michael Pan was visiting family in Malaysia in 2008 when he tried a dish he felt certain was made of pork. It turned out, it was mushroom jerky and his family had been making it for years. Back in the United States, he'd noticed that jerky and natural foods were growing more popular, and he came up with a business idea for Pan's Mushroom Jerky. He launched a business that same year called Panco Foods to sell the jerky, which he initially imported from Malaysia. In the early days, he continued working full time, first at his job as an engineer and later at a sports startup he co-founded, keeping the mushroom jerky as a side gig sold in into a couple of dozen stores. In 2016, the startup sold and he decided to focus solely on Panco Foods, which, today, is based in Portland, Oregon. By then, he'd learned a lot about the industry and felt confident enough in his product to take the risk.
2. Figure out financing.
Will you get a loan? Find investors? Rely on your credit card? Pan has bootstrapped his business, which is now in more than 600 stores. He says he's had interest from investors, and is open to the idea, but first wants to make sure the business is where he wants to be. “We want to make sure we're ready to really pour gas in the fire when the time is right."
3. Be flexible in your business plan.
Odds are, your business plan is going to morph and change over time as you learn and grow. “You likely won't be right the first time," says Pan. “One thing I learned along the way is that the business plan is a living document that you're continually evaluating and updating." He suggests that entrepreneurs test their expectations and assumptions on how their business will run early on, for as cheaply as they can. That way, they'll learn what works and what doesn't, and can make adjustments before they're too heavily invested.
4. Market your business early and often.
Pan was able to find a public relations firm willing to work with him on a start-up budget. “They believed in our product and team early on and wanted to grow with us," he says. In addition, he attends a number of different trade shows and consumer events to get the word out about his company. “People need to try your product and hear your story. Tell your story as much as possible, sample your product, and create ambassadors that help spread the word," he says. His efforts have paid off. Pan's Mushroom Jerky has been featured in many publications and news programs.
5. Create a prototype.
In 2009, Maura Horton set out to solve a problem. Her husband, Don, was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease at age 48 and he was struggling to button his shirt because of tremors in his hands. She looked online for “adaptive clothing" that might be easier for him, but found the quality and the fashion were lacking, to put it kindly. Don was accustomed to wearing luxury clothing, and Maura wanted to do anything she could to help him retain his dignity, despite the disease. “Their lives are already altered. Why do we have to make them feel like that within the first 10 minutes of when they get dressed?" she says. So she decided to take the challenge on, herself. Her mind went to tablet covers she'd seen, which had magnetic closures. “Why can't we do that?" she thought, envisioning a shirt that used magnets instead of buttons to close. She ordered a bunch of magnets and retrofitted a shirt, and it worked. These would later become the prototypes when she launched her company, MagnaReady, which is based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
6. Identify your market.
Initially, Horton intended to make the clothing just for Don. “It wasn't going to be a company at all, I was just doing this for him," she says. But her research led her to believe that there were a number of segments of people that could benefit from easy closures on fashionable clothing: aging adults, people with arthritis, wounded soldiers and many others with physical challenges. “I saw arthritis patients making comments like, 'I'm not able to do that,' or the elderly population saying, 'My fingers are just don't work like they used to and button holes are so small,'" she says. She filed for four patents and, in 2012, launched MagnaReady, which marketed one shirt in two colors, and they sold out in a matter of months.
7. Work with others in order to grow.
After designing the initial shirts, Horton knew she would need help manufacturing the products. She asked around her hometown of Raleigh, and learned about a company that makes private-label clothing for name brands around the world. She licensed her designs to that business, and, thanks to their connections, was able to get into a number of major retailers and grow rapidly. Today, MagnaReady has full lines of men's and women's adaptive clothing, as well as options for kids. “We basically have almost doubled every year we've been in business," she says. For small businesses, Horton says, collaboration is key. She works with freelancers and outsources tasks such as distribution so that she can focus on the areas of the business that she enjoys.
One thing I learned along the way is that the business plan is a living document that you're continually evaluating and updating.
—Michael Pan, founder, Panco Foods
Turning a good idea into a business takes time, passion and financial resources. But in the end, as you put your entrepreneurship idea in action, you'll be your own boss and you can determine the direction of your enterprise. That, in and of itself, can be its own reward.
Photo: Getty Images