If you followed my advice about branding your new SL business, you’re already well ahead of most beginners. On the other hand, you still have some disadvantages. You don’t have an established customer base, you have no name recognition, and you probably don’t have the cash flow for advertising. But being small can also be an advantage.
The Advantages of a Small Business : The Personal Touch
When Airbnb was starting out, they had relatively few hosts. The hosts they did have were posting lousy camera phone photos to the site. In an effort to grow their business, the company sent out professional photographers to each and every host’s home. The photographers took glamour shots of the homes to put up on the site. They also would go door-to-door, recruiting new hosts. While the company could never afford to do this now that they have millions of hosts; at the time, it was an effective way to grow their business. Thus, the Airbnb founders were following Paul Graham’s advice: Do things that don’t scale.
One way I’ve tried to adopt this philosophy was when I was starting my 3D textures business. I would take time twice a week to go through my list of sales and thank every one of my customers individually. I would ask if they were happy about the purchase, and if they needed any help.
Most people just ignored my IM’s, a few people said they appreciated it, but every so often someone was confused and needed help. For whatever reason, a lot of people were too shy to ask, but once I contacted them they were more than willing to explain the problems they were having. It was almost always something we could figure out together, and the few times it wasn’t, I simply refunded their purchase.
This habit of thanking my customers helped me to avoid negative reviews on the marketplace, and when I helped a customer fix a problem, I had no compunction about asking them to take a minute to write a positive review. As the business grew, it became less practical to contact everyone individually, but at the time, it was a quick way to get good reviews and create a good customer service reputation.
This brings me to my next point of advice:
Get Customer Service Right
There will be wonderful, brilliant, and creative people who buy your products. You will never speak to them. You will often speak to the... less than brilliant. Welcome to customer service.
As your business grows more and more of your time will be spent helping people. Many of them will have reasonable, thoughtful questions that just aren’t addressed in the instructions you provide. Some of them will blame you for Second Life not running on their 1983 Apple IIe. Why is that your fault? Don’t over-think it.
In order to save yourself time and sanity, I can offer two tips:
Realize that a refund is sometimes cheaper than trying to help. Your time is valuable, so if someone just isn’t “getting it,” apologize for the confusion and offer a full refund. People get frustrated and say some mean things about the products you spent time and effort creating. Don’t get mad, just pay them and walk away. You’ll regret the bad reviews and the bad feelings if you loose your temper with someone.
Start a customer service document and keep track of what questions you get asked over and over. Use it to create a FAQ sheet to include with your products. No one will read it, but at least you can copy-paste into your customer service conversations to save time.
The Business Plan - a Goal By Any Other Name
A very simple business plan template
A business plan is really just a formal way of expressing your long term goals. Why are you starting a business? What do you hope to achieve? How are you planning to achieve it? You should, ideally, have started with this step, but few people do.
It sounds simple, but the business plan can be a powerful tool. First, it’s good to have a sense of scale. If your goal is to earn enough to afford land tier payments, your plan and level of dedication will be different then if your goal is to support your real life family.
Secondly, and more importantly, your business plan is something you’ll refer back to in order to set medium and short term goals. You can use it to make up for the fact that, when you’re working for yourself, you no longer have deadlines.
Most of us are very deadline motivated. Our best work is done the night before something is supposed to be finished. When you start a business, there isn’t anyone else setting the time table, and it’s easy to push your projects out a day or two to work on things that feel more pressing. The grass is too long and has to get mowed today. It’s not nearly as important as your business, but it has a deadline attached, so the new product you're working on gets neglected as you head out to the garage.
So write out your plan and refer back to it on a regular basis. My system is to refer back every Monday and give myself a series of big tasks that must be completed by Friday. These tasks have to be related to my business plan; like a series of stepping stones that get me closer to my long term goal. They have to be done by Friday because, if you don’t give your goals hard deadlines, life has a way sucking up your time. It’s easy to spend all of your effort on the mundane rather than the important tasks that would grow your business.
Go and Do Likewise - Start Today
Pictured: The author waves in front of his newest SL brand
The best way to start a business is to just start. Scratch out your plan on the back of an envelope, set up your marketplace the quick and easy way we discussed, and begin. Five minutes of doing is worth hours of planning, and the only sure way to fail is never try. If those platitudes aren’t doing it for you, come up with your own. And good luck!
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