A couple of years ago, I left a good job at a successful company to start my own business. It was quite the learning experience.
I even wrote a series of articles describing the startup journey. First, I wrote about choosing a name Then I shared the struggle of building a brand, which was far more difficult than I thought. I wrote about building a team and the difference between our mission and vision. And the final article in the series focused on building and selling products online.
Church Fuel is a little more than a year old.
Through creating helpful content, we built a mailing list of about 18,000 senior pastors who like hearing from us. We send a weekly newsletter that’s really well received.
We did about $200,000 in revenue with a couple of products and three online courses.
But 2015 was really about laying the foundation. We built slowly, on purpose, and with an eye towards the future. In January, we’re launching the product that will be the core of the company. It’s been in development all this time and I’m more excited about it than anything we’ve done.
But before we dive into what’s new, here’s a reflection on the business lessons I learned in 2015. Here are five things I learned about business and about the kind of business I truly want to lead.
#1 – Good business starts with the customer not with products or ideas.
Too many times, I’ve gotten a great idea – or what I thought was a great idea – and rushed head first into product development. I’ve created a lot of amazing products that nobody wanted.
That’s why taking time to get clarity about our target customer has been so important. When we launched Church Fuel, we thought we would provide practical resources to church leaders. But six months in, we made a subtle but important shift.
Church Fuel resources are aimed at senior pastors. Not worship leaders or youth pastors. But senior pastors of churches who want to grow. That might not seem like much to you, but it was an important pivot for us.
We’ve also spent the last six months really getting to know our target customer. Even though I was a church planter and pastor, I don’t want to lose touch. It’s one of the reasons I will always individually consult with pastors. But it’s also why we spent so much time and money surveying, talking, and listening to pastors.
I see too many businesses that are experts in the content but forget about the customer. And I don’t want our business to be that way.
Whatever business you’re starting or running, it’s always worth it to get to know your customer. Create a persona. Have conversations. Don’t stop with demographics – really get inside their head and talk about hopes, dreams and fears.
Great companies don’t start with great products…they start by understanding the needs of their customers.
#2 – People care about themselves more than our product.
I think about my business all the time.
But our customers only think about Church Fuel whenever it can help them.
They are thinking about themselves, their families, their churches, and their lives. I don’t blame them because I do the same thing.
The only reason I love certain software tools is because of what they do for me.
I don’t really care about Ford so much as I care about my F150.
And as much as I love Pixar, the only time they cross paths with my real life is when I take my kids to the movies.
Me, me, me.
I’m not interested in reading a year in review article about your business any more than you’re interested in seeing my family vacation pictures.
That’s just the way it is.
So if I want to run a successful business, I need to learn how to help people and talk about our products in a way that matters.
People don’t need to know about our products; they need to know what our products can do for them. They don’t need to know what they get; they need to know what outcome they can expect.
When you describe your product or service, you’ve got to move away from describing features (it’s got a 5.5” screen) to focusing on benefits (you can take super-clear pictures of your kids.)
Jason Fried says it like this:
Here’s what our product can do” and “Here’s what you can do with our product” sound similar, but they are completely different approaches.
Features are about you. Benefits are about the other person.
Unless you’re Apple, people don’t care about your product. They care about themselves.
So when we released the Breaking 200 course, I had to move away from describing what you get (21 videos, 30 documents) and focus more on outcomes (you’ll have more leaders in place so you don’t have to do all the work alone).
Whatever you’re selling, remember people don’t care.
#3 – We’ve got to keep getting better.
The Systems Course was one of our most popular resources last year.
Nothing was wrong with this course. Though we offer a money back guarantee, nobody asked for their money back.
But I know we can make it better.
So we’re pulling it from the shelves and re-doing it. We’re adding content based on user feedback and professionally producing the videos.
Halfway through the year, we took another course (Breaking 200) and re-launched it, moving it to a semester-based, limited release. Instead of being always available in the store, we created a very real deadline and took people through the material on a set schedule.
Creating a culture of continual improvement is one of our core values. We want to keep getting better. That means spending money on product development and refreshing content, not just selling the same thing over and over again until everyone is sick of it.
I’ll be honest, a lot of our learning and investment didn’t work. We likely improved some things in reverse!
I’m not entirely sure where I picked this up, but when we spend a lot of money on something that doesn’t totally pan out, we’ve stopped calling it failure and started calling it tuition. Most people don’t get mad about paying tuition because they are learning something that will pay off later. So that marketing campaign that didn’t work…it was tuition.
Those were three lessons I learned as a small business owner in 2015. And I’m looking forward to great things next year. Thanks for following along.