Entrepreneurship is not a journey for the faint-hearted. It requires an incredible amount of tenacity, patience, and a willingness to learn from mistakes and setbacks, both of which are inevitable. What makes Ali Kriegsman‘s first book, How to Build a Goddamn Empire, so appealing—I devoured it in days—is that she demystifies the process with an irresistible, down-to-earth blend of heart, humor, and most importantly, expertise.
In case you didn’t know, Kriegsman is the co-founder and COO of Bulletin, a B2B wholesale marketplace for some of today’s coolest retailers, many of which are women-founded. She knows a thing or two about turning an idea into a business, bootstrapping, navigating venture capital circles, pivoting, side-hustling; the list goes on.
In an exclusive excerpt from How to Build a Goddamn Empire, Kriegsman shares 10 tactical ways you can start investing in yourself today, whether your business is still an idea or you’re on the other side of a pandemic pivot.
FAKE IT ’TIL YOU MAKE IT
People will take your business only as seriously as you do. Here are ten ways to get serious and invest in your success.
- Put it on your LinkedIn (trust me). The first thing I tell every aspiring new business owner is to make it LinkedIn official. We already touched on being super vocal and forward about your business’s existence and stressed that the sooner you own your idea, the sooner it’ll find opportunity. Maybe you’re just getting started and feel like it’s too soon to broadcast your new biz to the world. You’re worried about not being ready or not having enough traction to justify the LinkedIn line item. Whatever it is, turn the volume way down on those negative outbursts. You need your network to know that this business or project or side hustle is real—it’s happening!—otherwise, they can’t help you. You may mention the company to someone IRL, and they might look you up, only to see your name and whatever your full-time job is. No side hustle or new project in sight. Make your company a LinkedIn page, and then put your company name, title, and launch date on your personal account. If your co-workers or bosses find out, remember that it isn’t illegal to have a side project (as long as it isn’t directly competitive with your full-time employer), and pacify them by stressing it’s something you do in your god-given free time. You are the founder of this thing. The owner of this thing. The creator of this thing! You are its mother. Make sure you use any and every opportunity to document that fact.
- Do a design upgrade, on the cheap. Whatever your current design stack looks like, ask yourself, Could this be better? The logo, fonts, packaging, site design, and copy you launch with may not line up with who your customer has turned out to be. After launching, you start to learn a lot more about who’s buying your product, using your service, and falling in love with your company. It’s always worth refining your visual identity now that that knowledge is readily available. It can be super easy and relatively affordable to do a quick design glow-up. Make a Pinterest board of brands, pictures, and colors you love that feel spot-on for the vibe and feeling you’re trying to evoke with your brand, packaging, website, etc. Then, prioritize what to re-design first. If you run an ecommerce brand, it might be your packaging. If you’ve started a small agency or consulting firm, maybe it’s your website. Set a minimum and maximum budget for your re-design, write instructions for what you’re looking to do and change, and then blast platforms like Toptal, Fiverr, Upwork, Dribbble, and 99designs to see if anyone’s up for the challenge. You can even create some quick, canned copy and do a series of targeted Instagram DMs to try to recruit freelance designers you love and follow. If you don’t have the funds to do the above, you can download helpful apps like Canva and Planoly (both founded by brilliant women who sought to democratize access to design templates and help entrepreneurs level up their branding). These platforms provide out-of-the-box, sharp templates and color combos for IG Stories, grid posts, presentations, and more. They quite literally put a digital designer at your fingertips.
- Always bring a business card. If you’re going to be courting investors, marketing a crowdfunding campaign, networking with industry peeps, or even interviewing interns, you want to give the most ironclad first impression. A business card does so many things: the fact that you have one shows you are serious about your role, the colors, font, and design offer a window into your company’s brand identity. Business cards don’t replace connecting on LinkedIn or swapping email information on your phone right then and there. Do that, too. But if you’d have a business card at a normal, corporate job, you should have one for your side hustle or your new venture. Lean into all the bells and whistles one usually associates with employment. If you do work for it, make a card for it.
- Leverage influencers’ influence. Social proof is a real thing. It’s this sick, twisted decision framework that secretly influences us to buy the things other people are buying or validating. It’s why Instagram influencer is a real career, why companies exist solely to produce fake Amazon reviews, and why weight-loss-program commercials use a montage of testimonials. You don’t have to go ham and hire expensive influencers or pay for fake reviews (we’re more honest than that!), but it might be worth thinking about how social proof plays a role in your particular business. A few easy, relevant glow-ups include: launching an Instagram story series of customer praise, starting a loyalty program, adding a reviews plug-in to your site, or filming a client testimonial or two. What you choose to do depends on your specific business but using social proof in your sales or marketing collateral is a universally useful tactic. In some cases, paying for some crazy-pricey influencer makes no sense. Sometimes, it’s just hard to anticipate (and then afterward, measure) how effective influencer campaigns really are. Other times, your most influential customers may not have social media influence at all. At Bulletin, I gave fifty local college students a $30 credit to promote our consumer site over a three-month period. Most had under one thousand Instagram followers. In that same time frame, a major singer with millions of followers organically posted our URL and our store address to her Instagram page. We generated way more in sales from the college student promo than the celebrity mention. Leveraging influence can be super small-scale and still extremely effective. It’s an easy glow-up that builds your brand a halo bedazzled with approval and validation. Figure out who your customer gets inspired by, what type of social proof really motivates them, and then test an affordable, easy way to marry the two.
- Try some PR microdosing. You’re not going to get written up in the New York Times, Refinery29, TechCrunch, or the Cut right away. Without a PR team or a serious, full-time commitment to getting national coverage with big name publications, you won’t have endless press falling into your lap. While press doesn’t always help with sales, growth, or building traction (we’ll touch on this later), it can be helpful in helping your brand seem more legit, more well-known, and more influential than it actually is because, often, the bigger-name press outlets want to see some sort of coverage or market validation before they put you in print. PR microdosing means going after smaller, local publications for coverage. It means reaching out to niche Instagram accounts with larger followings than you for a feature, partnership, or story. It isn’t running a full-blown press strategy or taking tons of time mass-DMing different accounts, but it is two to three hours a week of focused work. If you are starting up in Austin, target Austin-specific publications. If you’re launching an app or a tech platform, don’t email TechCrunch, but send an email to a list of local tech bloggers or publications. DM those bloggers and journalists on Instagram or Twitter if you don’t find their email info. If you’re starting a business that deals with food or music or fashion, find local media folks who play in those spaces. Don’t be super invasive or creepy, but tell them you’re a fan of their coverage, send a link to your site, give a one-sentence description for your business or project, and say you’d like to find a way to connect with their audience. If you’re starting your own agency or consulting firm, for example, find other small, noncompetitive agencies with more reach than you and ask if you can promote or spotlight each other. Someone starting their own paid marketing firm could highlight a branding agency, and vice versa. Get creative with your PR and promotion, but keep it local, manageable, and low stakes. Sometimes, you and your business need to become relevant to a smaller circle of people before your grand debut with the big bad world. And a final word: if journalists politely decline your request to connect or don’t reply after a second gentle nudge, then fuck off! And leave them alone.
- Meet fancy people, and then name-drop them. People are human. Sometimes, they want a whiff that you have some wider social and industry validation before they place a bet on you, help you, or give you the time of day. The world is a sick place! But here we are. With this in mind, don’t be shy aligning yourself with people or partners that have already given you the stamp of approval. If you’ve had cursory conversations with bigger names or corresponded with more seasoned brands or businesses, don’t keep those experiences to yourself. Mention them offhandedly in your other meetings, when you network with potential clients, or when you’re meeting other legit people—even people in other fields. Perception is reality, and if you got in the door with another, more mature business that offers validation, then yeah, talk about how you opened that door. Let them see that you opened that door. Only worked with other small, up-and-coming businesses? Don’t fret. That still counts! If you’ve done any sort of partnership, collaboration or have clients of any kind, talk about it! It means you’re taking yourself seriously and trying to find strategic partners. Oh, and that those strategic partners want you right back.
- Draft a first-pass business plan. If you’re launching an app, you may not know how you really plan to make money yet. If you’re starting a brand, you don’t know how much of your first collection you’ll sell, so it’s hard to tell the future. But put a business plan together, even a very rough one, so you have it on-hand in case anyone asks. For all you know, you could meet a potential co-founder at a party. Your friend who’s really good at numbers might offer to give it a pass. You may need it to get approved for a loan. Crack open Excel and start modeling out the bare minimum: how much money do you have to work on this, what are some up-front costs to consider, what are different ways to price your product. You can google around to find industry-specific business plans if you don’t know how to get started. Microsoft even offers basic Excel templates and industry specific frameworks in Word and PowerPoint if you want to skim some examples. Yes, I’m serious. Gathering this information will make you feel more legit, and it’ll help you feel more in control. Even if you have a nugget of an idea, put pen to paper around the concept, but try to roughly sketch out the financial piece, too. So, when someone asks for your business plan—and they will—you’re never starting from scratch or standing dumbfounded. You’ve already tossed around a few ideas and have some numbers to share immediately.
- Throw a deck together. While it totally depends on what you’re building and what your business does, having a deck is a major flex. Nothing too crazy—we aren’t talking a twenty-page manifesto—but something short and sweet that defines your company, states what you do, and who you are. If you’re a brand producing product, it might make sense to communicate your values or quality standards, what inspired the items or collection, and your background in fashion or design. If you render a service, like consulting, accounting, or copywriting, a brief deck with client testimonials, your background, and your full list of services could work. Decks serve as a nice follow-up after meeting someone at a networking event, or to share with potential partners or collaborators. Even if you hire an intern, giving them a deck like this makes you seem more important and, ergo, their work seems more important. If you’re not a designer and/or you’re bad at copywriting, you can hire for both of those weaknesses. If you think you can manage the deck copy, post to Fiverr or Toptal to hire a deck designer at a rate of your choosing. If you need help with copy, post to Upwork or Scripted and submit all the info you need to include and let them work their magic.
- LLC it. An LLC is a limited liability company, which means the business operates as an independent entity and its owners are not legally liable for the business’s debts. It is a popular way for small businesses to formalize their companies. When I managed Bulletin’s brand payouts, I always noticed a subtle difference in how I judged entrepreneurs who had incorporated their brands and others who hadn’t. While I was close to many entrepreneurs who sold at Bulletin and who I have known many for years, I wasn’t always privy to how many people were on their team or whether they ran their business part-time or full-time. That meant that in some cases, I was left to build an impression from afar. When I saw an LLC to pay I subconsciously thought: they have a team, an office, they’re an entity. If I saw an individual name to pay I’d think: this is a one-person thing, maybe they’re doing it on the side. These judgments were extremely subtle, and honestly, my first impressions were proven wildly off time and time again. But an LLC or corporation has a certain heft. It hints that you’re legally set up to grow, take risks, and protect yourself. Besides, coming up with an LLC name feels kind of epic and meaningful. While an LLC isn’t for everyone or every type of business, turning your business into a separate, protected entity is definitely something to consider as you grow and work with bigger, more established partners. You don’t need to form an LLC straight out the gate—you should ask around and do some research to see if incorporating ASAP is right for you. But if you sell a product, your customers might feel more secure and trusting if they spot an “LLC” somewhere on your site. If you’re a freelancer and you render a service, having an LLC might hint that you have a larger team at play. If you want the freedom and protection to bring on a business partner, take any sort of investment or hire an intern, an LLC glow-up is definitely in order.
- Own your customer experience. It can be scary to transition off platforms like Etsy or eBay or turn your Instagram community into an actual brand and website. But the closer you are to fully owning your customer, the better. If you have a platform-based business, like an Etsy shop or a Depop page, it might feel like there’s no point leaving the nest. You’ve grown on those platforms and because of those platforms, and they’ve provided a safe environment for you to experiment and evolve. That being said, if you want to expand your business, an ownedand-operated Shopify or Squarespace site might be part of your toolkit. Get your own domain. It doesn’t need to replace whatever platform-based account you’ve built, it can simply supplement. You don’t need to go all in and abandon the platforms that helped you launch and build a customer base. But take a crack at developing a site with your own look and feel. The site should feel like a cohesive brand identity is anchoring the whole thing, and it should highlight you as the business owner. The more you can control your brand identity, communications, and customer service, the more you can control how you’re perceived and how you scale.
EVERY GLOW-UP YOU INVEST IN SHOULD BE AN INVESTMENT IN GIVING YOUR COMPANY A REAL, UNDENIABLE CHANCE TO SUCCEED.
Purchase How to Build a Goddamn Empire here.
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