Starting a business with limited capital requires a shift in mindset. Traditionally we are conditioned to begin the process of looking for new business opportunities by asking: “Where is there a gap in the market and how can I fill that gap?” A gap could be an unfilled customer need or a new invention yet to be brought to market.
Next, we establish a goal to create a venture that will fill that gap. We consider the resources necessary to make our goal a reality and go out in search of those resources. We write a business plan and present it to potential financiers with the promise of a return on investment.
If the financiers like us and like our idea, they provide us with the capital to start the business. If not, we are stuck.
Most times, people find it difficult to raise the resources they require, causing the entire project to fall on its head. There is an alternative route to creating a new venture.
Instead of starting with the question, “Where is there a gap in the market and how can I fill it?” ask yourself, “What do I have and who do I know?”
Carefully examine the resources and relationships over which you have influence and consider how you can put these to work quickly and effectively to create an offering that the market needs or wants. You can experiment using different combinations of resources to test how the market responds to different offerings and over time create an offering that is really valuable to others.
With this approach, an entrepreneur’s goals emerge over time, taking resources, connections and contingencies into account.
They are not fixed at the start of a project as they are when the traditional approach is applied. A useful way to contrast the traditional and alternative modes of venture creation is to use the metaphor of the dinner party.
Assume you are hosting a few friends for a casual sit-down dinner on a Saturday evening. In preparing for this get-together, you might spend some time thinking about who is coming and what food they like. You might even call them up earlier in the week to find out if there is anything they don’t eat and if they have any preferences.
Having gathered this information you will decide on a menu, go to a recipe book to see what ingredients you need, construct a shopping list and buy the goods.
You will bring home the ingredients, prepare them according to the instructions and hopefully serve a delicious dinner.
The alternative option would be to wake up on Saturday morning, check what you have in the fridge and freezer, consider what sort of food your friends prefer and concoct something for them with the ingredients that you have on hand.
Developing the alternative entrepreneurial mindset
Here are some principles and guidelines that will provide you with a better chance of effectively launching a business with little or no capital.
1. Start with what you have
At the outset of looking to start a new business take stock of what you have at your disposal. Consider your:
- Skills – what can you do?
- Experience – what have you done in the past?
- Knowledge – what do you know?
- Tangible resources – what do you own and what do you have access to?
It is recommended that you think carefully about your responses to these questions. Go beyond what comes to mind immediately and think a little more deeply about what you have at your disposal. In this process, be sure to write down your responses to these questions.
Your written responses will create a collection of artefacts that can be combined to create something interesting, novel and valuable in establishing a new business.
2. Take into account who you know
What you have needs to be combined with who you know for it to have real power. Take stock of the relationships you have with others, map out your network of connections and consider how your connections could enable you to use what you have more effectively.
Sarasvathy points out that the alternative means of venture creation advocates “stitching together partnerships to create new markets.” Relationships, particularly equity partnerships, drive the shape and trajectory of the new venture.
3. Invest what you can afford to lose
There is a big difference in your mindset if you start with the perspective that “I am investing this amount and I expect a 30% return” versus “I can afford to lose this much, therefore I will put it into the business and see if I can make it work”.
If you have only put in what you can afford to lose, you maintain flexibility in the business and minimise stress in managing it. If you are only willing to invest when you expect that you can get a specific return, there is a strong chance that you may never take the leap and launch the business you always dreamed of owning.
An example of this is the entrepreneur who refuses to leave a well-paying job until he finds an opportunity that he predicts will pay more, versus one who decides to invest a small portion of her savings and two years of her life in a project that she believes is worth that amount of time and money – irrespective of whether it will pay more than what she currently earns.
She is living out the alternative entrepreneurial mindset.
4. Experiment and adapt
With this mindset, flexibility and adaptability are a competitive advantage. You succeed not by becoming too fixated on a single goal or outcome but by being responsive to changes in the environment.
Existing firms typically take longer to adapt than new firms because they have more incentive for things to remain the same and they have established routines and practices that reinforce the status quo.
New firms are not tied to the way things have always been done and thus entrepreneurs can benefit from shifts in consumer preferences or shifts in technology or changing legislation by realigning their businesses to take advantage of such developments.
As Sarasvathy puts it, in the traditional approach to business planning, “there is an explicit effort to avoid unpleasant surprises”.
The entrepreneur with the alternative mindset, “in contrast, has to stand ready to make do with what comes her way and learn to transform both positive and negative contingencies into useful components of new opportunities.”