Here’s how to start a business when you have nothing and know nothing; We built our startup from zero to multi-million dollar revenue through vision, persistence, flexibility, and a genuine concern for customers
To quickly introduce myself, my name is Jon Tse, and I am one of the co-founders at Zookal, an education platform that was started a few years ago by myself and some of my university friends. Our mission was fairly simple: to make education more affordable and accessible for students across the world.
When we started Zookal, none of the founders had much experience (being current students or recent graduates). However through perseverance and ambition we have been fortunate to build a business that generated over 150,000 paying customers last year and generate tens of millions in revenue. I wanted to write this article to show that you don’t always need money, skills and experience to start and grow a successful business.
What are you really daydreaming about?
My first foray into the world of entrepreneurship actually started a year or so after I had joined a graduate banking program in Sydney, Australia. I had studied combined accounting and law degrees at university prior to this, and had always planned on entering the corporate world, wearing a suit everyday and carrying a leather briefcase to and from work.
Nothing against banking or finance, but during my commute to work and back each day I did not exactly obsess over banking. In fact, I had actually started to daydream about building my own company, hiring people and growing a product to impact millions of people across the world.
This was probably my first inkling of interest at entrepreneurship. This was back in 2012, when in Australia, ‘start ups’ were not as cool as they are now, by the way. The point of this is for people that might be working full-time jobs, or studying — what are you really daydreaming about?
How do I get a stranger’s money into my pocket?
Armed with my double degree and a tiny bit of work experience, I started to voraciously read self-development books and business books to try and ascertain how someone like me could start a business – surely not, right?
Soon enough, one particular chord struck me. I was reading a book that said that all successful businesses “solve a problem.” This line of thinking got me thinking as to what problems I could solve for someone right then and there.
Another line from the book was something along the lines of, “How can you get a stranger to put money in your pocket?”
I started to write down different ideas of what problems I could solve then and there. Naturally, I started to think about some of my strengths displayed during my university days. I was involved in a lot of student societies and organisations. I had some work experience in a variety of different fields. I had obtained internships and job offers from some big firms. Maybe I could leverage this somehow? But how to turn it into a business.
Start where you are, use what you can
It started as basic as it could get. I decided I would try to help people improve their résumés. After all, my résumé had gotten me through to interviews of top firms, perhaps I could pass on this knowledge and charge a service fee of some sort for it?
Not the most scalable of businesses, but I wanted to start where I was and use what I had. I started to post in student Facebook groups and even drove to a few campuses and put up some signs around the library and billboards. Not rocket science, right?
The customers started dribbling in, and I started to make a tiny amount of pocket money to help people improve their resumes. Soon enough, I started to teach groups of people and before I knew it I started to teach classrooms full of budding young professionals eager to pick the brain of someone who had been there and done that in terms of getting job interviews and eventually great jobs straight out of university.
The increase in customers allowed me to further understand their problems and and therefore further business opportunities there might be to further cross-sell additional services once I had their trust and demonstrated my value.
Don’t be afraid to get started, see my horrific flyer and logo used below.
The product you start with often isn’t the product you end up with
But you won’t get to the end-product without going through the motions of starting with a product and having it evolve through iterations and customer feedback. So don’t stifle yourself with the fear of being great, when right now you can only be good.
There is a popular saying at Facebook: “Move fast and break things.” This can apply to you, right now. Don’t be paralysed by procrastination and fear of not being able to create something perfect from the start.
Perhaps, strive for progress instead of perfection, and iterate as you go. What I would recommend is thinking about scale from the start though. What would your business look like with 10 customers? What about 100? What about 100,000?
There’s even a term these days for screwing up – it is called pivoting. Before trying to solve every single problem faced by every single student, I started simple. I solved one small problem and worked my way up.
Remember how Twitter started? It was a pivot from a podcasting startup. Pinterest as well started as a mobile shopping app. These hungry founders focused on the solution they were creating, not the product itself, so be flexible and evolve the product.
Listen to your users/customers (and not the naysayers)
During my time working in corporate, I remember emailing some of the ‘smartest people’ in my graduate group and other people in my circles there. I remember feeling very deflated after a week of these catch ups, all I heard was “no this” and “no that”.
My dreams were crushed.
And then that night I decided to try it anyway, and made US$2,000 that night. That’s why I always will tell myself not to let naysayers get to me, a lot of times they have your interest at heart. But remember, 99 per cent of people don’t do startups and are more risk adverse when it comes to “doing your own thing.”
So if you want to listen to someone, you ought to listen to your customers or users. People I will always listen to include people that have walked down the path I am trying to walk down, or are further along down the path I am on and not necessarily “smart people”.
To sum up, if you are interested in perhaps building your own business, you might want to consider:
- What are you really daydreaming about?
- Solve a problem.
- Start where you are, use what you have.
- The product you start with; is often not the product you end up with.
- Persevere and listen to your users/customers, not naysayers.
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