The Contrarian’s Guide to Entrepreneurship

There’s no shortage of advice on how you “should” build your business. Common sense, “you should do this” advice can be useful in the beginning. At some point, however, things start to shift, and what worked on day one doesn’t work on day 1,000.

Remember that 1994 episode of Seinfeld, “The Opposite,” when George decides to do the exact opposite of what his instincts were telling him (and it worked)? Well, we’re going to embark on our own journey of opposites, exploring a few business development ideas that turn conventional wisdom on its head.

  1. Be vulnerable

Never let them see you sweat, right? Choosing vulnerability in business doesn’t mean baring our souls or opening ourselves up to attack. It does mean that we give ourselves space to be human. According to author and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, vulnerability is the heart of relationship and connection. She defines it as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Sounds a bit like entrepreneurship to me!

TIP: As you allow for vulnerability in a healthy way, you’ll form deeper connections with your clients. People do business with people, not perfection. A little sweat never killed anyone.

  1. Promote your competition

Unless your ideal customers are women named Iris who were born on December 5th in a leap year, chances are high that there are tens of thousands — if not millions — of people who would be a good match for your business. How can one person possibility serve them all? How can hundreds? Rather than see your similarly-niched peers as competition, see them as colleagues. Release any scarcity mentality and recognize that there’s enough for everyone.

TIP: Swap blog posts, podcast interviews and articles; share their posts and tweets; and trust that your voice is different enough that you’ll attract exactly the right people to you.

  1. Limit social media

Social media is both the best gift to business and the biggest time suck ever invented. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our online presence, sometimes to the detriment of our off-line relationship building.

TIP: Use social media strategically — as a catalyst for in-person connection — rather than see it as an end in itself. Resist the bright shiny social media objects that enter your orbit almost every day. Stick to the strategy and platforms that give you the most return. Don’t let the tail wag the dog.

  1. Don’t sell

If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re in sales. What the best sales people know is that the sales process isn’t about the financial transaction we often get stuck around (money issues, anyone?). It’s about listening, curiosity, and educating. After that, it’s about problem solving, influencing, and making another person’s life a little easier. Few people enjoy being sold to, but everyone appreciates and remembers the person who listened to them.

TIP: Let go of “making the sale” and exchange it with sincere curiosity. Invite others to learn about your solution. If it’s the right fit, the sale will happen without any hard sell at all.

  1. Make it easy for people to say “no”

Do you define your ideal client as “anyone with a pulse?” Are you worried that if you limit your market, you’ll leave out countless people that you could help? If so, you’re wasting precious time, energy and resources trying to be all things to all people (and thereby being little-to-nothing for anyone). Ideally, prospective customers will visit your website, scan your social media, or read your blog, and they’ll quickly feel a resonance or dissonance with you.

TIP: Give people clear information that makes it easy to self-select in or out. This way, you’ll spend most of your resources on your ideal prospects and convert more of them to customers.

  1. Don’t betray your excitement

One of my coaching colleagues has a memorable way of making this point: be the “hot girl” at the dance. The hot girl knows she’s hot  — she doesn’t follow people around hoping someone will throw her a bone. So play it cool when you receive an inquiry. It’s a fine line between professional enthusiasm and over-the-top flattery: one cultivates a peer-to-peer relationship, the other smacks of desperation.

TIP: Show genuine interest and gratitude, but refrain from gushing about how you’d be “thrilled,” “super excited,” or “absolutely love” to work with someone.

  1. Don’t reply too quickly

Do you check your email, voicemail, blog comments or social media every few minutes? And then, at the first sign of life, do you jump to respond? At 2 a.m.? On a Sunday night? Stop the madness! Responding immediately to communications, day and night, sends a message that you have nothing more productive to do than wait for the notification “ding” to ring.

TIP: Establish some healthy, professional boundaries around your time, and don’t train people to expect you to be responsive 24/7 (unless that’s your business model).

  1. Focus on one-to-one

When I’m coaching my introvert clients, we often talk about getting the most bang for our energetic buck when reaching out to people. We look for highly efficient, one-to-many communication strategies. And yet, while it’s much more labor intensive to meet with people one-to-one, it can actually yield higher return. Why? Because you’re being very specific with those conversations, focusing on mutual champions with whom you have a strong synergy. And champions don’t keep the good news to themselves. They tell two friends, then they tell two friends, and so on, and so on.

TIP: Identify five champions and commit to a conversation in the next month. Exchange information that makes it easy to spread the word about each other’s businesses.

  1. Release expectations of success

Setting specific goals is an integral part of any business strategy. However, we can become very attached to those goals, thinking that they are the true and only definition of success. Then every move we make becomes a win or loss, good or bad. We end up judging each experience (and ourselves), rather than learning from it.

TIP: Be open to a range of outcomes. Some will be better than you can imagine, most not nearly as terrible as you dread. Release attachment to exactly how you’ll get there or what it will look like. A magical thing happens when you release strict expectations: failure evaporates, and you’re left with valuable information.

  1. Have a beginner’s mind

As entrepreneurs, we’re expected to be experts in our chosen field. But many times, we might be only a few steps ahead of our clients. To keep that edge and confidence, we must keep learning. We must be willing to be the student, to have a beginner’s mind, even about things that we feel like we know inside and out. Otherwise, we become complacent and eventually irrelevant.

TIP: Take refresher courses, attend workshops and conferences, and read the latest books with the same curiosity you had when you were just starting out. Innovation happens when we set aside what we think we know and see things with fresh eyes.

  1. Give it away

We can gather a lot of information and build our lists by offering certain products or services for free for a limited time. You might be thinking, “But what about the revenue we’ll be missing? Don’t people value what they pay for?” It’s true: we’ll be sacrificing some revenue, and people won’t be as invested in our business. That said, when done intentionally, strategically and for a carefully selected period of time, giving it away expands our reach and allows for idea testing.

TIP: Make sure each give-away is appealing to potential buyers and ideal clients, not just people who love free stuff. Free should serve as an easy point-of-entry into doing business with you.

  1. Don’t give it away

Wait, didn’t you just say to give it away? Yes. But if we do it for too long, without a clear plan, we condition the market to expect it for free. We inevitably undermine the value of what we — and by extension, our peers — have to offer. We respect ourselves, our business, and our customers when we provide ample opportunities for a mutual exchange of value.

TIP: Believe, with no room for doubt, in the value of your offer. People will surprise you by stepping up and responding to your confidence with their commitment.

As entrepreneurs, we always have to question the status quo. As Christopher Reeve put it, “Never accept ultimatums, conventional wisdom, or absolutes.” Take advice and “common knowledge” with a grain of salt. Sit with it long enough to draw your own conclusion. Learn to listen to your intuition, especially if it’s counter to everyone else.

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