I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur. But to get there I would need to become a serious business person who carefully planned a business and then executed the plan to perfection. Or, so I thought. Since then, I've learned that's not the way it works. Maybe it's true for serious business people, but not for entrepreneurs. So, instead of a story about planning, this is the story of how I learned how to do what I already knew how to do; hustle.
In the Fall of 2004 I had been working as a mover at Gentle Giant in Boston for 3 years. I'd been working there to pay for my addiction to climbing big mountains, but I was ready for a change. When I informed the owner that I was going to quit I was countered with an offer to go to New York and start the first regional branch location for Gentle Giant. For some reason I accepted, probably because of my other addiction; entrepreneurism.
I spent the first 9 months in New York, New Jersey, and Long Island doing market research, looking for space to park our trucks, and putting together a business plan. I traveled back up to Boston on numerous occasions for meetings, where I would present my findings and outline our challenges. I felt good that I was now a serious business person.
My good friend from Boston agreed to temporarily move down to New York to help me bootstrap the business. I rented out an office space, signed the lease for the parking lot we would use as a base camp for our crews, and put an ad in the Yellow Pages.
The next day we went golfing to relax a bit and both of us commented that it was likely that we would have a lot of days off to go golfing that summer since it was unlikely that we would get much business our first year. Serious business people play a lot of golf anyway.
Then the chaos started.
Our first customer booked their move from a 6th floor apartment before we had hired any employees. We put an ad in the paper and held nearly 36 interviews in 3 days. We selected 3 top candidates and told them the final phase of the interview would be helping us move that first customer.
Our model was to price our services significantly higher than our competitors, even at this early stage. We wanted customers to be impressed as soon as our crews walked through the door, and given the quality of most moving crews in the New York City area, we thought that would give us a great advantage. And, not only would we charge more than most of our competition, but we would pay better, with full benefits too.
So, we drilled the importance of a good impression into the heads of our new crew and told them this is what our hiring decisions would be based on.
That first customer was thrilled. We hired 2 of the first 3 young men who tried out for the team on that first day. Within weeks we hired 2 more. Then, the next time the sales person from the Yellow Pages came around, I pulled our listing. Why? We were getting all our customers through word of mouth channels. Our product, a respectable moving crew that a customer could be comfortable with, turned out to be viral.
During my time there we moved board members of Goldman Sachs, the CEO of PBS, and chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX). We were hustling to stay ahead of demand. We never had a chance to go golfing since that day after we put up our first and only Yellow Page ad.
At some point the business plan got filed away somewhere and forgotten about. I don't even remember the last time I saw it. I realize now that my entrepreneurial drive had taken over. Our experience in the Big Apple taught me what I knew all along; the importance of listening to customers and hustling to stay ahead of the resulting growth. I didn't understand this until my livelihood was at stake and it was my responsibility to put it all together. It wasn't perfect, it wasn't easy, and we had to frequently change tactics, but we were building a growing business that we could be proud of.
I'm not advocating that planning can be replaced by hustling. What I am saying is that, from my experience, entrepreneurs need to form a mental model of how the business will create value, but the only way to prove that it will work is to get out there and hustle. We make mistakes, but we change course if needed and then hustle through it. Your detailed business plan will just end up filed away in a drawer never to be seen again. Planning doesn't prove that anything will work. You can make the numbers say anything. You'll only find out the truth when you get out there and hustle.
At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, you have to stop planning and start hustling. So get out there and build something you can be proud of.