Rome wasn’t built in a day.
That’s just one of the many truisms concocted by the English playwright John Heywood. While it wasn’t his only one — you’re probably also familiar with his other work, such as “Out of sight out of mind” and “Better late than never” — it does have particular resonance with entrepreneurs.
Rome had an enormous influence on modern civilization, and ancient Romans are credited with developing everything from aqueducts to stadiums to roads. Though thousands of years have passed since the height of the Roman Empire, the mark it made on the world was indelible. Which is why it’s humbling to remember that even the Eternal City began with a single brick.
One brick on its own would not have mattered. As author James Clear writes, laying down one brick is not “a grand feat of strength or stamina or intelligence. Nobody is going to applaud you for it. But laying a brick every day, year after year? That’s how you build an empire.”
When starting a business — or anything new, for that matter — it’s easy to get wrapped up in the fantasy of what it might become. Unfortunately, the fantasy will remain just that until you lay down that first brick.
Get in the right mindset
The first step to doing something new will be imperceptible to anyone but you. Even so, it’s a big one: You have to change your mindset. If you’ve got an idea you think can make a viable business, don’t discard it as a crazy pipe dream that will never happen. Instead, reframe it as something that will happen, and be prepared to do what it takes to make it so. Believing that you can do it will make you less susceptible to the challenges and setbacks you’ll face along the way, which will make you far less likely to give up the second things get hard.
Write it down
Before you actually start a business, it’s important to get clear on what you want to accomplish. Writing down a business plan is a great way to do that.
Your plan doesn’t have to be overly elaborate, but it should answer the following questions:
- What am I building?
- Who will I serve?
- What am I promising, both to my clients and to myself?
- What are my goals, and what is my plan for achieving them?
Keep this document handy as you begin your journey. Though it’s normal for your processes to change as you move forward, having your “Why” written down will keep you on track through some of the messiness that comes with startup life.
Employ the two-minute rule
Starting a new habit should take less than two minutes.
That’s the basis of Clear’s two-minute rule, which holds that when developing a new habit, it should be as painless to start as possible.
Running a marathon, for instance, is very hard. Running a 5k is hard. But walking for 10 minutes? Easy. Putting on your running shoes is even easier. If your goal is to run a marathon, Clear maintains that your “gateway habit” is simply slipping on your shoes. Almost every habit has a two-minute version, whether it’s meditating, reading every night before bed or folding your laundry.
Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page or put one item of clothing away,” Clear writes. “The two-minute rule is effective because once you start doing the right thing, it becomes much easier to continue doing it.
Alfred Peet grew up working at his father’s coffee roastery in the Netherlands. When he moved to the U.S. as an adult, he was horrified by the “dishwater” Americans passed off as coffee. Hoping to remedy the situation, Peet opened a storefront in Berkeley, Calif. Though his name would eventually become one of the most recognizable in coffee, in the beginning, he sold only small-batch coffee beans. No lattes. No croissants. No coffee-to-go. Just beans.
Turns out, Americans were ready for a coffee upgrade, and Peet’s developed a dedicated following. In 2012, the company sold for nearly $1 billion.
It’s easy to dismiss having a narrow focus as not thinking ambitiously enough. In fact, the opposite is usually true. Start with a simple, core idea, and build as you go.
Spend time on side projects
Google. Twitter. Space X. Apple.
Before these were the tech titans they are today, each of these companies were side projects, toiled on and refined outside of their founders’ regular business hours.
I can personally attest to the value of side projects. I started building products for fun in college, and continued working on my side projects even after I’d taken a full-time job at a New York media company. A lot of them didn’t lead to anything special, but some sold well — well enough, even, to match my full-time salary. It was one of those side projects that eventually became my company, JotForm.
Part of the difficulty of getting started on something new is the crushing pressure that it be executed perfectly. (This isn’t true either, as I’ll talk about in a minute.) But unlike starting a business, side-projects are virtually pressure-free. You can tinker and experiment on evenings and weekends, building skills as you go. No one’s livelihood will depend on your product’s success, and if it fails, you’ve learned something in a mercifully low-stakes environment. It also happens that this mindset provides the most fertile ground for innovation and creativity to flourish. It’s a win-win.
It doesn’t have to be perfect
There’s a common misconception that in order to start something new, you’ve got to have every last detail ironed out. But the truth is, the most important thing to do is just start.
Say you want to start a business selling handmade candles. You figure that in order to launch, you’ve got to have a logo, website, a tagline — everything. In reality, the first thing you need to do is start making candles.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t test the waters to see whether there’s a demand for your product. But not everything has to be done at once. Think of Facebook, which has evolved and grown dramatically from its humble origins. Your business will always be a work in progress, and seeing it that way is vital to ensuring that it stays adaptable as people’s demands change.
No long-lasting business, no matter how it may look from TechCrunch, was built overnight. Once you take your first step, take another. Then another. Focus on laying down your bricks, one at a time. Don’t be discouraged when it doesn’t look like anything at first. Remember, even Rome would be nothing without the bricks.