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  • Writer's pictureStephen Bohnet

6 Startup Lessons From My Daughter's Micro-Business

When we started F'inn, we wanted to help not just the big companies who spend more, but also startups, nonprofits, local businesses and our communities. My latest effort to help a startup was with my smallest client yet; RRRafts, which was started by my 11 year-old daughter, Rowan.

We live in Truckee, which is a tourist destination in Northern California, near Lake Tahoe. Each summer, hundreds of people buy a new raft or tube and take to the light whitewater of the upper Truckee River. Unfortunately, many leave behind popped rafts and inner tubes along the shores.

Nobody likes to see litter along the river, and a popped raft is a big eye-soar along the shore. Rowan decided to start a (very) small business to help clean it up. Her project was simple: gather used tubes and rafts left along the river, patch them, sanitize them, and resell them. Buyers would get a good deal on a raft at less than half the price of a new one. The shoreline would get cleaned up, and there would be less waste to go in the junkyard. She called it RRRafts (Rowan’s Recycled Rafts).

She began with a handful of river tubes that she'd found and repaired, then went out to nearby Donner Lake to sell them. The first day was rough, and she sold none. On the second day, she went out and made her first sale for $10. Then, we posted a short blurb on Facebook reaching out the local community to let them know about RRRafts, and where to find her.

I was astounded by the outpouring of support. In our small town, within a few days she had over 650 likes and 44 shares from the single Facebook post. A few days later she'd surpassed her modest sales goal for the summer ($100, which was more money than she'd ever had in her life) and had numerous people reaching out to her to repair their rafts, and bringing her found garbage that she could turn into money. Not bad for a girl whose biggest prior business effort was a lemonade stand.

Here’s what happened, and what any small business can learn from Rowan's micro-business.

1. Address a need/problem.

A new product or service is more likely to succeed when it addresses a real need. Over the years of working with different companies, I've found that some companies start with the end-user and their needs in mind, and other start with a "thing" that they want to make, then try to find a use and user for it. Starting with a "thing" causes more problems down the road, when you have to eventually figure out why people might want to buy it. If you start with an offer that addresses a need or pain point, you can develop a solution to address that problem. In Rowan's case, she addressed two needs in one. People need rafts to run the rapids, and she offered them at a good price. She also helped clean-up litter, which was a bigger need for the local community and led to immense support once people found out about it.

2. Simplify your message.

Before people will buy something from you, they have to a) understand what you offer, and b) be persuaded to use it. From what I've noticed, there is a tendency to want to say a LOT about your offer. The logic seems to be that if you tell people everything you or your product can do, you're more likely to find someone who wants at least one of the things on your long list. The problem is that as you add more detail, it becomes too much detail. People tend to either check-out before reading the big list, or become confused trying to figure out what it is you're good at. While people may want the details at some point, it helps to come up with a simple initial explanation of your offer. There is a common messaging framework that helps: 1) define the need, 2) state your benefit that addresses that need, and 3) give people a reason to believe your promise. I gave Rowan a little boost on Facebook with the post below, without necessarily thinking of these three steps at the time. In retrospect, they all three were addressed, but I put the message together backwards (It still worked, so that was an interesting little experiment).

The need: you're in the market for a raft. The benefit: Rowan's Recycled Rafts are available for $5 to $15. The reason to believe: She finds them, patches them and cleans them. Note that without the reason to believe statement, people might wonder why her rafts are so cheap (do they still have holes, is she too young to really fix them?).

Here is the first post about RRRafts:

3. Timing helps.

In the book Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about how many of the businesses who experienced exceptional growth over a long period of time chalked up at least some of it to simple luck. At times, they launched the right thing at what just happened to be the right time, even if they didn't plan for it. While we can't exactly plan for luck in business, we can think about timing. If you're about to open a hotel in Lake Tahoe, you'd want to plan renovations so that you can open the doors just in time for the Christmas holiday or by summer vacation. If you're launching a new extra dark coffee brewer, you would want to time it for Mother's Day, Father's Day, or Christmas, when the category experiences high seasonality. The launch of RRRafts wasn't intentionally timed, but Rowan benefited from some luck. Right after Independence Day, with the influx of tourists, there was also an influx of garbage everywhere. News featured stories of the trash and cleanup efforts, and blogs were busy with comments about trash. When people found out that Rowan was doing something about it, they were excited and shared her story. She benefited with a nice helping of unplanned luck, by announcing her service at the right time.

4. Connect with your community

Everyone will tell you to use social media. I think what gets lost in translation with that advice is the reason why. That's why I'm instead saying you should connect with people. If you're a small business, find ways to connect in your local community. If you're a big business, find ways to connect with big groups of people. That initial post that I made for RRRafts was shared on a Facebook thread with an audience of 7,000 people who live in the Truckee/Tahoe area. If I had looked harder, I could have also found threads for every neighborhood in town. I could have gone to Nextdoor to make an announcement. When people like what you're doing, they tend to want to help, or share the news. Rowan's business was serving a good cause, but what can you do if your business isn't? Fifty Fifty, our local brewery, goes out of its way to support the community, without looking for a ROI each time they provide free beer or sponsor an event. They simply take pride in their town, and want to help. I know this sounds counter to the trend in corporate America of putting the shareholder first, but many businesses, both big and small, do care about doing good for people, regardless of the short term return. What if you're new and don't have a lot of cash to support good causes? We started F'inn a little over a year ago, and can't fork over cash for all the good causes we want to support. But time and expertise is valuable. We help MBA students at Stanford with their innovation projects, one of my partners (Lisa) is deeply involved in a prison project that helps prisoners get back on their feet, we're providing consulting for our local towns and organizations, at cost. These efforts provide you connections and advocates for your business.

5. Be willing to put yourself out there and meet people.

My daughter is pretty shy. She takes great pride in cleaning and patching her rafts, and will spend 12 hours a day working on them. Yet when it came to getting out of the car and setting up her store front near the lake, she was at first too embarrassed to move. It wasn't natural for her to put herself out there and show her work or ask people to buy. The first few days of sales further reinforced her apprehension. I don't think her experience is unique. Many of us don't feel like we're born with the gift of gab. We aren't natural sales people, and don't really like being sold to, either. I'll include myself in that camp. As a consultant, for many years calling clients to say "hi" or to drum up business was awkward.

My advice for those of us who are more introverted is two-fold: 1) care about what you do, believing it is important enough (or better than what others can offer), and 2) don't expect to make a sale. Expecting a sale sets us up for failures that reinforce our fears. We cannot control whether a customer buys from us. We can only control how we represent ourselves.

If you believe in what you do and want to share that story without shame, then conversations come naturally. You stop trying to persuade people, and pursue more natural interactions that shift toward trying to understand what people want and need. When you help them, you have fun. (Note: I look forward to hearing any comments from the seasoned sales pros who want to skewer my non-salesy advice, as I'm sure there are different schools of thought on this.)

6. Work hard.

I almost wrote "it isn't going to be easy", but I'm not so sure that's true. Sometimes hard work is the easiest thing in the world. When you know what you have to do, you can fill your hours and days getting it done. Time can fly by and night falls before you look up. You just have to be willing to engage to that level. Run with it and feed off the energy of trying to make something happen. Someone out there might send child protective services after me because I revealed that Rowan will work such long days. The point is, I didn't make her do it. She wants to make a buck. She's become an overnight master of raft repair and I find her in the garage at the most random hours. Getting something started takes good old-fashioned effort, and you can get lost in the excitement.

I'll wrap this up with a summary from Rowan herself.

"Starting the business was good, because now we clean up the river and none of the rafts go in the trash dump."


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