Got an idea for a business, but don’t know where to start? Stylist sat down with Apprentice star and businesswoman Bianca Miller-Cole to get her expert advice on everything from putting together your business plan to making your brand visible on social media.
No matter what stage of your career you’re at, chances are you’ve dreamed about working for yourself and starting your own business. Whether you’ve got an idea for a problem-solving product, feel inspired to build a new social enterprise or simply want more flexibility when it comes to your work, starting your own business could be the perfect next step in your career. But where should you start?
For those of us without any relevant business experience, the idea of starting a business – with all the legal and financial responsibilities that come with it – can be pretty intimidating. There’s a reason why “how do you start a business with no money?” is one of the top Google search results when it comes to business. Knowing how to get started and make your dream a reality can be a confusing and overwhelming prospect at the best of times.
However, finding the confidence to take that plunge is incredibly important. Only one in three entrepreneurs in the UK is female, a gender gap which is equivalent to 1.1 million businesses, according to The Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship. But the problem isn’t one exclusively defined by gender – indeed, as entrepreneur, mentoring expert and best-selling author Bianca Miller-Cole explains, Black female entrepreneurs typically struggle more than their white counterparts when it comes to building a brand.
“There is a proportion of society, who tend to be Black entrepreneurs, Black female entrepreneurs, that struggle,” she tells Stylist. “They struggle to get the visibility, struggle to get credibility to build their personal brand or to get any press or media opportunities, and struggle to create sustainable businesses and so on.”
After spotting this problem through her own business mentoring service, Miller-Cole set up a scholarship fund for Black business owners to ensure they have access to mentoring as they scale their businesses. The GoFundMe campaign has currently raised £6,439 of its £10,000 target.
“While some black entrepreneurs are happy to pay for our mentoring and can afford it, there are a number of people who can’t,” Miller-Cole says. “And so we started this initiative essentially to create a sustainable fund – a scholarship fund for those who cannot afford to engage our mentoring services but need that support.”
Miller-Cole continues: “What will happen is, after the first six to 12 months, once they’re financially stable and they’re making money and they’re successful, we would ask them to pay that scholarship amount back into the fund to allow someone else to go through the programme. So it’s very much a pay it forward initiative, which makes it sustainable in itself, and hopefully we’ll see lots of success stories coming out of this as a result.”
Of course, as with everything in life, one of the hardest parts of any business is getting started. So whether you’ve got an idea, or just want to learn more about what goes in to starting a business, we asked Bianca Miller-Cole to share her top tips for starting a sustainable, successful business – no matter what level of experience you have.
1. Focus on finding a solution to an existing problem
“Often in entrepreneurship, people start by finding daily problems that they consider to be a problem for themselves,” Miller-Cole says. “It might be whilst they’re brushing their hair they think ‘Gosh, this hairbrush doesn’t quite work with my hair texture, what can I do?’ or maybe they’re in the gym, and they think ‘I could really do with a certain type of cycling short or water bottle that would help with my gym workout’. Whatever it is, find an existing problem and then focus on creating a solution.
“But sense check that solution, because sometimes people create a solution to a problem that only exists for them, and there isn’t a market for it. So it’s really important to check that there really is a problem out there that other people are willing to part with their money for. So get feedback from a focus group to check viability.
“But in addition to that, be willing to adapt – keep a finger on the pulse and be willing to adapt so that you can really get a solution that works for the target demographic that you’re going after.”
2. Be realistic about finance
“It’s really important if you’re going to start a business that you acknowledge there will be costs to starting that business,” Miller-Cole points out. “So it’s really important to do a personal survival budget which is essentially you mapping out every necessary expense you have. Maybe it’s your rent, your mortgage, your bills, the things that you need to survive such as food. Not including the luxuries of new shoes and whatever – just at the smallest level, look at what you need to survive and just map that out, and that will give you an idea of how much money you need to start.
“That will inform you on whether you can afford to leave your job and go full thrust into a business, or whether you need to have your job or a part time job until you reach a certain level of income. And then you can fly the nest to focus on the business.”
3. Have a general business plan
“I’m not a massive advocate of having extremely lengthy business plans,” Miller-Cole says. “But I think it is important to use a business plan or business canvas model to map out what the business is. So what is that product or service? Who is it for? Where would they find you? What is the price point? Who does that price point give you access to? So really just mapping out what that business is.
“But the most important part of that business plan for me is the marketing and sales plan, so you can focus on how you are going to make people aware of this new product or service, especially if it’s something that requires people to be re-educated. So if it’s something really innovative, you’re going to have to spend a lot of money re-educating people. If it’s something that’s been done before, then it’s a little bit easier, because you’re just creating a new version of something – maybe it’s a more innovative or better version. So you can kind of understand the marketing that needs to be done there.”
4. Focus on your personal brand
“It’s really important that you focus on building your brand and your brand story, because people buy from people,” Miller-Cole explains. “People want to know what makes you different. So give people the background – what it is that made you start this? What’s the problem you found? How does it reflect other people? Why are you passionate about it? Because people want to hear that story, they don’t just want another brand. They want a brand with a person in front of it.
“Use your personal brand to build your network, too. Think about your ‘stakeholder matrix’. Who do you need to know? Who can help you get to where you need to go? It’s really important to focus on that.
“I also think it helps to get a mentor at that stage because it helps you to carve out the business and it prevents you from making expensive mistakes. And when I say expensive mistakes, I mean in terms of money and time. Having a mentor on board who can help you understand the steps to take and where to go and who to ask, can really help you to get that business off the ground a lot faster.”
5. Protect your brand
“There are a number of ways to protect your brand,” Miller-Cole says. “One way is legal protection like a trademark. You’ll want to protect your brand name and check that it is available so you don’t fall into any trademark problems. You might also want to secure a website domain, email address and your socials, because what you don’t want to do is put all the energy into creating this fantastic brand, and then realise that the website has already been taken or someone else is selling something similar to you. You want to make sure you secure that so you can carve a space for yourself.”
6. Get social
“You want to make sure you’re promoting your products and service to your customers. So you need to get out there and that might be via social media or that might be in person – it’s just about making sure you’re getting out there and telling the world what it is you have to sell.
“And what you really want to do is create not just customers but raving fans. You want to encourage your customers to promote your product or service, so when they receive it they’re excited and they want to share it on their socials. That in turn will attract more customers. If you can get customer feedback via video or images then it shows there are real people buying your product or service and it encourages other people to get on board.”
7. Just start
“Some people spend really long doing a business plan and choosing a name and they don’t get started, and then they get upset if someone else comes along and does it. Just start. There are things that you can perfect later. All you need to do is think about is your sale structure, and how you’re going to take payments and all the basics that come with that.
“Otherwise, just focus on what you want to achieve, and be really clear about what steps you need to take to get there. Don’t be afraid to fail, because there will be obstacles. There will be things that happen that you can’t plan for. But you want to make sure that you are able to achieve that goal of starting a business.”
To donate to Bianca Miller-Cole’s new initiative for Black businesses, check out the GoFundMe page. And for more information on starting your own business, Self Made: The Definitive Guide To Startup Success by Bianca Miller-Cole and Byron Cole is available now.
Images: Getty/Bianca Miller-Cole/Unsplash