5 steps to freedom: How to turn your big idea into a sustainable business

In 2013, I was a Dallas-based corporate trainer with aspirations of becoming a fashion editor. So I started a blog called The Stylish Standout to serve as my side hustle and creative outlet. And that platform scratched the itch.

It helped me eventually land an editorial gig. Since then I've evolved a lot. Now I run a legit digital marketing studio that allows me to seamlessly combine my love of storytelling, business and consumer behavior. And sure, there have been some bumps along the ride—but there's nothing more fulfilling than helping individuals, teams and organizations get noticed and paid with their big ideas.

Raise your hand if you’re currently where I once was, investing your free time in a night-and-weekend passion project with hopes it eventually becomes your nine-to-five.

Before we go on, I’ve got a message: You can do it!

But I know you’ve probably got questions that are holding you back. And they deserve answers. So keep reading for a five-step blueprint to get you on the path to full-time entrepreneurship in three months (or sooner!).

Let’s make it happen, shall we?!

(1) Validate your idea

From the outside looking in, I can understand why entrepreneurship is attractive. There’s the idea of “being your own boss.” Not to mention the fulfillment of turning what was once just a dream into a living, breathing reality. Plus, you can inspire others to do the same in the process.

But too often, 9-to-5ers turn to entrepreneurship as quick fix to their workplace issues.

You may hate your boss’ micromanaging (rightfully so!). Or crave more work-life harmony (amen!). Or a higher salary (Sallie Mae ain’t gon’ pay herself!).

If this sounds like you, realize each of these roadblocks can be removed without committing to the hard-knock start-up life.

Entrepreneurship is for people who have a big idea that solves a problem, relieves a struggle or fulfills a desire. You don’t want to add more noise to the market.

That’s where validation comes in.

That’s a business term for test-driving your offer to see if there’s a demand for it.

I recommend validating your idea first so you know up front if it’s viable. There’s nothing more discouraging than finding out there’s no need once you’ve quit your job and poured thousands of dollars into your business.

If validation is at the beginning of your exit strategy, then you can fine-tune your idea with the cushion of your salary and benefits. And if your additional research and development doesn’t glean any worthwhile results, at least you’ll still have your day job while you plan your next move. Silver linings, my friend.

Below are three validation ideas that should work no matter your industry:

Post a poll or survey on social media. You can post polls on platforms like Twitter and Instagram for free. You don’t want to get too specific here. The goal is to simply find out if your audience has problem your concept solves or a desire for what it does.

You don’t have to publicly disclose to your followers or respondents that you’re looking to transition into entrepreneurship or leave your day job. This form of validation is simply a way to test the waters before you move on to the next step in the three-step blueprint.

Compare your idea to a well-known competitors. While you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel, the market is probably already oversaturated with businesses who are selling a similar product or service.

That’s why it’s important to see what void you can fill through differentiation. Again, your offer should present consumers with something new or better. Not more of the same.

And with some competitive research, you can add features to your product or service that other businesses in your segment don’t offer. Or anchor your prices at competitive or premium position depending on what’s missing in the market.

Don’t just look at data published from your competitors. Pore through user-generated content like Amazon or App Store reviews, forum posts, tweets (most brands “like” favorable posts so you can see first-hand what customers like about a specific product or service.

Take it a step further and analyze the customer service accounts of your competitors to see what customers are complaining about. If you can reverse-engineer your customer experience to soothe those pain points, then you’re well on your way to a profitable idea.

 Offer a complimentary sample or free trial.  There’s nothing like direct feedback from an actual prototype. So when possible, make sure to include this option in your validation process.

If you’re offering online workshops, you can give members of your target audience complimentary access to the first module before you create the entire course.

If you’re selling apparel, you can gift a friend a sample before produce that same style in different colors or silhouettes.

If you’re providing a service, you can try your process out on someone in your field to make sure all your bases are covered.

As a bonus, you can kill two bugs with one stone here: When you offer the sample or trial, ask if they’ll write a testimonial about their experience with your product. For service-based businesses, you can also request to write a case study to include in your portfolio once their free trial is completed.

(2) Determine how you'll make ends meet

Not only do businesses require a lot of time and money, but you also can’t press pause on your monthly bills while you’re turning your side-hustle into your full-time grind. (Can you imagine explaining to your landlord the reason your rent is late is because you quit your job to validate a business idea? Yikes!)

Business expenses are seemingly endless: There’s supplies and equipment, Internet, cell phone and utilities (or the drink-and-pastry costs from working out of a coffee shop), lawyers, accountants, web and graphic designers and employee salaries.

And that’s just scratching the surface.

These tips will set you up for success:

Have a solid life and business plan for the next six months to a year. Are there any other life changes your business will precipitate? Will you need to relocate? Order special equipment? Hire specialists?  Include those in your six-month financial plan.

What about personal expenses? Do you want to increase your debt payments to clear your balance before you’re officially a full-time entrepreneur? Or do you want to defer those payments until you’re raking in the big bucks from your game-changing product or service?

You don’t wanna leave any stone unturned.

Also get clear on the tax code. Know what you can write off. And set up a system to track your paper and digital receipts. It’ll all come in handy when you hire a bookkeeper.

Next, look for areas you can cut back in. I crashed in a friend’s living room for a few months to save money so I could reallocate any extra resources into my business. I shopped less, hardly brunched (an act of blasphemy in New York City), and nixed my daily Venti Passion Tea Lemonades in favor of homemade versions.

Lastly, don’t resent the struggle. You’ll experience FOMO along the way, but keep your eye on the light at the end of the tunnel. And remember you chose this. Trust it’ll all work out and have faith that you have everything you currently need to get to the next rest stop on the journey.

Barter your services. Birds of a feather usually flock together. So where you can, connect your with your side-hustler homies to see where you both can find common ground. Get creative! (And ask for what you want or need.) You never know where a negotiation will lead you to.

Sell stuff you don’t use anymore. From clothes and technology to books and artwork, you can always make some cash from stuff that’s still in good condition. Don’t let your emotions get in the way of your big goal here. You’re in the process of creating the life you dream about—plus, you can always buy more stuff.

And I’m not being flippant here. I’m someone who is wildly sentimental. But parents of newborns do whatever it takes to make sure their baby has what it needs to grow, even it means they have to go without. That’s kind of how it is at this stage for your business. Just without the dirty diapers and eardrum-bursting crying spells.

(3) Fill in the gaps

No matter how smart you know you are or where you went to school, there will be stuff you don’t know. After all, it’s your job to be the best at what you do. And it’s hard to do so when you’re splitting your time with a stressful day job.

So before you make a clean break, conduct an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Then find opportunities to fill the gaps.

I invested in personal and professional development to identify blind spots that were holding me back from my highest possibilities. I also hired a life and success coach to support me through my transition into entrepreneurship.

And I earned certifications to supplement my on-the-job experience and enhance my credibility with potential clients in my industry.

But thanks to the Internet, you don’t have to spend money to learn, Before bed each night, read or watch something on a topic in your industry. That way you’ll always go to sleep smarter than you woke up.

4) Polish your personal brand

Up to this point, everyone in your personal and professional networks know you by your current job title. But when you take your side hustle full time, you have to rebrand yourself as a businessperson and entrepreneur.

But it’s not as hard as you think. Below is how I used my personal brand to break into fashion media, an industry I had little professional experience in. But by the time, I’d left my post as an editor at Lucky magazine, I’d used my brand and influence to earn a weekly style column called “Ask Michael.”

Here’s how I did it:

Style: To evoke a sharp, pulled-together look, I streamlined my style and developed a uniform of ankle-skimming skinny pants, button-down shirts layered under crewneck knits and lace-up dress shoes. I then used colors, prints and textures to show off the creative/quirky side of my personality.

Expertise: I’ve always been passionate about personal style. My earliest memories are of my mom and I shopping on the weekends. We would go from department stores to thrift stores—and it’s from her that I learned how to effortlessly mix high and low. Fast forward a couple of decades later, my gift of communication and broad understanding of the fashion industry and shopping helped me stand out in a competitive industry. Expertise is where your passions, gifts, and authority collide.

Relationships: Once I relocated to New York, someone who wrote for the site posted a job opening in the fashion closet at Lucky, a magazine I dreamed of working at. Because of our existing relationship, I replied to the LinkedIn post and in eight minutes, I had an interview with the hiring manager. It was the beginning of an unforgettable career in fashion media. Each gig I received in fashion started with a referral. Say it with me: Branding is what people say or think of you when you’re not around.

Influence: This is another popular buzzword, but it’s a necessary component of personal brands. Standout brands are able to authentically provoke a change in thought or action. You don’t have to use gimmicks, bribery or threats in your work. Analyze where your decision-makers currently are, visualize where they want to ultimately be, then create a bridge to take them there. There are thousands of ways to do it. Use a combination of style, expertise, and relationships to connect with people.

I used this same process to rebrand myself when I transitioned into full-time entrepreneurship. And you can do the same too.

(5) Network your ass off

If you’ve made it to this point, congrats! But the work’s definitely not done yet. Now it’s time to let everyone know about the next chapter.

Because I’m not gonna lie: it’s overwhelming to get the word out about your new venture when you’re trying to do it solo.

And if you think people will think you’re bothersome, breathe easy. Your peeps want to help you, but they’re busy. So it’s up to you to make it easy for them to give them what you need.

Here’s what I recommend: Draft an email to your network (be sure to start with these five people). Let them know what you’re offering, why people should care and who you would like for them to share it with. It may also help to sweeten the deal with a freebie or discount.

People take care of those that take care of them. Plus, some people may not want to recommend a product or service without trying it themselves first.

I often include a script that recipients can copy and paste into an email to their network. The script includes my contact information (email and social media handles, at minimum) so if anyone has questions, they can reply directly to me. It’s an opportunity to build a one-on-one connection while removing your contact as a middle woman.

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