starbucksLast week I was asked to put together a presentation for a group of entrepreneurs. They asked me to talk about some of the most common mistakes entrepreneurs make. I shared with them 10 very important entrepreneurship lessons that I learned the hard way.
Because this one ended up being a very long blog post, I decide to break it down into 5 parts and I’ll post one part every day of this week (from Monday to Friday).
Work in the Industry You Want to Take Over
My friend Matt told me this true story.
Acton has one of the best entrepreneurship graduate programs in the US. A few years ago, Acton had this extremely bright student. He was the best of his class and his teachers knew that he was going to make it big.
A year after his graduation from Acton’s program, a couple of his old teachers went to Starbucks to have a cup of coffee and saw this student working as a cashier. The teachers talked to each other about this and realized that if the best student they’ve ever had was working at a Starbucks after graduating, Acton must have been doing something very wrong.
They called the kid and invited him to meet with them and the director of Acton’s entrepreneurship program. They told him that they were very concerned that their best student was working at a Starbucks and asked him what they could do better in the future to avoid this from happening again.
The kid laughed and then answered, “I’m about to open a huge coffee store chain in Mexico. I’m working at Starbucks because I want to learn the business. I’ve worked two weeks in each area of the company for the last six months. I’ve done everything from serving coffee to planning marketing strategies. I feel I’m much more prepared now to run my new business.”
This guy is a true genius. If you want to start a business in an industry you don’t know, either work in it for a few months or partner with someone who understands the business very well.
Learn From Your Competitors
There seems to be a huge stigma around copying your competitors. I think there’s nothing wrong with it and that you should do it as much as you can.
Visit your top 10 competitors and learn from them. Learn from what they do right and what they do wrong. Survey their customers. Find out what are the top three complaints they have and build a business around that value proposition. For example, let’s say that you want to open a bakery. You then go to the top bakeries in your town and after talking to their customers you realize that they all complain about the bread never being “fresh from the oven”. There you have your tag line, “Fresh-from-the-Oven Bread 24/7”.
That’s what will make you unique and you shouldn’t copy someone else’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP). But you can copy everything else. Some examples:

  • If 9 out of 10 of your competitors offer newspapers to their customers, it must work. You should do the same.
  • If your competitors have a display right next to the checkout line, it must work. You should do the same.

Your competitors have been in the market for a long time. They’ve tested pretty much everything. Piggyback from their experience as much as you can. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel with everything you do. But remember: you should have your own USP.
Look out for Part 2 of this post tomorrow.