I thought I had a business. Then I changed my mind.
Changing your mind about your business idea is something of a taboo topic in entrepreneurship circles. People love talking about the successful businesses they’ve built. The false starts and stalled launches it took to get them there? Not so much.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Zero to Launch student Neil Welshknows that firsthand. He’d been working on his business idea (helping parents of fussy eaters) for a year and a half when he did something that will strike fear into the heart of many early-stage entrepreneurs.
He changed his mind.
Yes, you read right: after 18 long months of doing research, talking to customers, pitching guest posts, Neil decided that, actually, he wanted to build something else.
Neil was kind enough to walk us through what happened when he decided to press the reset button on his business idea: how he knew it wasn’t working, how he decided what to do next, and what it actually feels like to rewind the clock and start from zero. Again.
Well, actually, that’s the thing: you’re not actually starting from zero. You’ll never be starting from zero again.
You can’t force something your customers don’t want
When Neil first started working on the picky eater business, signs were strong. “I had conversations with parents who were literally saying the words, ‘I’m tearing my hair out every night, I can’t go on.’”
An intense emotional response is one of the strongest validation signs you can ask for. And it doesn’t get much stronger than “I’m tearing my hair out.” https://www.youtube.com/embed/E4uy6111PzA
GrowthLab founder Ramit Sethi on validating your business idea.
But a burning pain isn’t enough to sustain a business. Alongside that frustration or anxiety or confusion, there has to be a willingness to pay to make those feelings go away.
There’s validating that people like your idea — and then there’s validating that they like it enough to pay for it. Those are two different things. Both are important — but be sure not to get them confused.
When Neil started to explore the “like it enough to pay for it” part of the equation, he started to run into some problems.
“When it came to asking ‘What solutions have you invested in to solve this problem?’ — very few people had actually hired a coach or done courses,” he said. “There was this expectation that kids will just grow out of it.”
As crazy as you, the person who knows there’s a better way, might think it is to hear parents say, “Actually, I think I’ll just suffer for the next five years until my kid grows out of this,” if that’s where they are, it’s where they are. You can lead a customer to a solution, but you can’t make them pay. And if you wait around for customers to magically change their minds, there’s a good chance that you’ll be the one tearing your hair out.
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A better idea could be staring you right in the face
At the same time that Neil was starting to have questions about his audience, he started to notice something else in his validation research.
“I was hearing more and more from parents who, even if their kids weren’t fussy, were concerned about the nutrition of their kids, and also their own nutrition. They spend so much time in the kitchen, directing their own food around what their kids wanted to eat, it was really impacting them — and they were concerned that their kids weren’t eating properly.”
This idea — of helping parents instill healthy food habits in their children regardlessof whether those children were actually “picky eaters” or not, and helping parents look after their own health as well — it appealed to Neil. What’s more: it appealed to parents. And this time, they were ready to pay.
Changing directions with your business isn’t always a matter of going all the way back to square one. Sometimes, the idea for your actual business is sitting there, next to your original idea, waiting for you to notice it.
Neil did three things that ensured that, when a new business pathway opened up, he was ready to take it:
- He listened to what his target customers were saying.
- He paid attention when they started talking about something other than what he had originally been focused on.
- He followed where his customers led — instead of trying to get his customers to follow him.
Ask yourself: “Who would I rather work with?”
What was it that broke the tie? Outside perspective in the form of a surprisingly simple question from Zero to Launch coach, Marc Aarons.
“He asked me, ‘Who would you rather work with?’” Neil remembers. “Would you rather work with parents who are tearing their hair out and dealing with kids who are fussy eaters, or would you rather work with people who want to improve the health and fitness of their families, maybe lose some weight, and also help develop positive food relationships for their kids on an ongoing basis?”
Your own personal preference and interest can (and should) play a part in your business. Think about it: you’re building this business as a pathway to the life you want to live — shouldn’t it be the business you want to build, with the customers you want to build it for?
For Neil, that dose of outside perspective was exactly what he needed. “Weighing the two options up, and thinking about what I wanted to do, that helped swing me toward the nutrition side of things.”
It’s not failure. It’s practice.
There’s making the decision to change direction with your business — and then there’s actually doing it. And make no mistake, that moment when you flip the table over and all your carefully laid puzzle pieces go flying across the room — it’s a hard one.
“It puts you in a vulnerable spot. And to then have to turn around and say to people, ‘Well, actually, after a year or so of building this business and telling everyone that this is what I’m going to do, I’ve changed my mind.’ It’s hard.”
Even more, “You think, ‘Well, it took me 18 months to get to where I was, so it’ll take another 18 months to get back to where I want to be.’”
Here’s the thing, and pay attention, because this is huge: that’s not actually true.
“I’m more or less at the same point that I was after 3 months that I was after 18 months before,” says Neil.
This is a crucial mindset shift that you have to make when you make the decision to start over with a different idea: resetting your own mental clock, so that instead of counting from when you decided to start a business, you’re counting from the moment you decided to start this business.
Don’t think of your past attempt as a dead end. Think of it as a measuring stick.
“A lot of people would look at it as a failure, but it’s not. It’s a learning experience. And it’s been a really useful one,” says Neil. “I’ve done it so much quicker, just because of experience, and knowing the processes. Things that took me weeks to figure out the first time around, like setting up a website or knowing how to pitch a guest post and what to write — I was able to get there much more quickly.”
Just as important as knowing what to do: knowing what not to do. “There’s all the stuff that you spend time on the first time around — even stuff you know you’re not supposed to, like building social media and linking it all together. I wasted a lot more time on that than I should have done.”
That’s another mindset shift that can help defuse the failure bomb in your head. Instead of thinking of a stalled business idea as a big “L” on your personal scoreboard, think of it as a scrimmage — a chance to hone your technique, work out the kinks, so that when you step out on the field “for real,” the game goes off without a hitch.
Take the long view
You’re not going to be in trouble for changing your mind. Nobody is going to come and take your license to entrepreneur away.
And when you look back ten years from now from the vantage of the successful, self-sufficient business you’ve built, which do you think you’d more likely to regret: the year and a half you spent on a false start? Or the decade you could have spent building the wrong business?
For his part, Neil knows which he’d prefer.
“I’d much rather be where I am now than where I was six months ago.”