This article is part of a multipart series. If you're just starting, the first post in the series defines the entrepreneur journey.
There are a lot of entrepreneurs with dreams out there. Folks dreaming about starting a bicycle rental business in Hawaii. A locally-designed textile company in Nigeria. A salon in Austin. A restaurant in Berlin. A theatre company in Omaha. A culinary career. A music career that weaves in conversations around taboo topics. A way to change neighborhoods.
Dreams propel us, and give us something to reach toward.
Maybe your dream is a new thing, or at least something that is new to you. Maybe you’re a couple of steps along in your journey, and you’re trying to figure out what help and tools and inspiration and ideas you need to grow to the next level.
This framework and guide can help.
Four stages of the Journey
To recap, we have identified four distinct stages of this entrepreneur journey that are similar worldwide, across industries, and bridging all types of ventures:
- Dream It.
- Create It.
- Grow It.
- Manage It.
The Dream It stage of the Journey
The “Dream It” phase of the Journey is filled with hope and potential and excitement. It’s also filled with uncertainty. When am I ready to make the jump? How long will this take? What’s all the stuff I need to know in order to do this?
The good thing is, you probably have some time to ponder these questions during the Dream It stage. This stage can be months or years in duration, and it progresses as you envision what future you want to create with your idea.
(Note: Sometimes circumstances do force your hand, and you need to take the plunge and go much faster than you expected, and maybe even before you think you’re ready. That’s what happened with the Furlough Sisters and their Furlough Cheesecake business, which went from zero to over 3,500 orders in a matter of weeks.)
What we are going to focus on here are the tools and techniques you can use to move your dream forward.
Moving through the Dream It stage
We're going to cover 33 key activities and insights that often take place within these distinct realms of the the Dream It stage of an entrepreneur's journey:
- Understand why.
- Envision the future.
- Understand the potential of an idea.
- Work with others to make it better.
- Get the ball rolling.
- Do some planning.
- Naming and planting your flag.
- Start testing the waters and getting momentum.
One other thing to note is the following: If you have a purely creative endeavor, be honest with yourself and ask, “is this a hobby or a venture?” Hobbies are great, too! But, for the sake of this conversation, we’ll focus on dreams that help you drive change, and that help you make the world you want.
One must apply a force to change an object’s direction. A big part of knowing yourself is knowing the driving force behind your dream. What’s your why?
Emily Barton found her "why" for Sweetz Brew coffee when her coffee-loving husband was diagnosed with severe acid reflux. She set out to make coffee that he could drink to stay alert without the acidic side effects — and her experiment turned into a new business.
Although there are some similarities between the types of motivation that various entrepreneurs might have, everyone’s reasons for starting the Journey are personal and individual. As it should be.
1. Bring a vision to reality
You can just see it. You know that something is possible, and that it just hasn’t been done yet. Perhaps you saw a trend that was emerging, or you saw how to seemingly unrelated things could be combined to create something completely new.
You have a vision of the possible, and your why is that you know that vision can be made into a reality.
2. Scratch your own itch
Do you have a problem that you’re trying to solve, for which it seems no one has come up with a good solution? Have you creatively cobbled together something that works for you that’s unlike anything you’ve seen elsewhere?
If so, scratching your own itch and solving your own problem might be the thing that gets you thinking about the path.
After you’ve solved a problem for yourself, it’s natural to think “hey, I bet there are other folks out there who could use this as well.”
3. Give back and help others
You want to improve your community, your neighborhood, the prospects of the planet or the prospects of the people, plants and creatures that live on it.
“It seemed as if no matter where I went, no matter what skills I added to my portfolio, no matter what type of position I acquired, I toiled with the inability to reach total fulfillment.” ~ Bennie Patterson Jr., founder of nonprofit Patterson Consulting
Through dreaming up new solutions for sticky problems, rallying others to a cause, creating solutions or creating art that helps others, your dream is driven by helping and working with others to make things better.
4. Change your circumstances
You feel that there might be more than just doing what’s “expected” of you. You feel it’s time to try something new.
Maybe you need more flexibility in your life, or maybe your circumstances have changed and you have new opportunities available to you. All of these are things that can be catalysts to working on your dream instead of staying with the status quo.
Related: Is it time for a fresh start?
5. Be moved by a need
All of the above “whys” are fairly rational in nature. Sometimes you’re just moved by a need. Maybe you can’t explain it.
You know what? That’s OK! You know you need to do it, and that’s enough.
It’s likely you’ll visit (and re-visit) your motivations and your understanding of why you’re on the Journey multiple times during your time as an entrepreneur.
Envision the future
Over my career, a number of the moments I’ve felt the most energy are those times when I could envision just a hint of what was possible, and then find a way to capture the essence of the idea and start to see it take shape.
For me, this fell into two parts: envisioning the concept, and then envisioning the opportunity and its potential impact.
There’s a fun side effect of these activities: things that you do for yourself to get more clarity on the future are also often useful artifacts that can be used to communicate your dream to others. What’s more, they act as tools that will help others begin to see your vision.
6. Sketch out prototypes
You do not need to be an artist. You do not need to be a designer. Stick figures, pencil sketches, scribblings on a whiteboard or a notepad that you take a picture of with your phone? These are all tools you can use to capture the essence of the dream you’re striving for, and are tools that you can use to communicate it to others.
A fun side effect is that, if you sketch out the vision for multiple people over multiple weeks or months and capture those sketches either in hardcopy form or digitally, you’ll also have a great record of the timeline of the evolution of the concept.
I’ve personally found resources like Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin book extremely useful at this stage of the Journey. It takes a layperson’s approach to visual communication, and is completely accessible to anyone, regardless of one’s perception of one’s own “artistic” talent.
7. Create a “Cover Story”
Designers and authors Sunni Brown, Dave Gray and James Macanufo documented a great business game called “Cover Story” in their book Gamestorming. It’s an invaluable tool in the Dream It stage.
Cover Story works like this. It’s a year from now. What magazine (or media website) should feature your dream on its cover? If you’re a technologist, it might be something like Wired. If you’re a doing more general business, it might be something like Inc. or Entrepreneur. If you are an interior designer, it might be Architectural Digest. If your dream involves food, it might be Saveur. You get the idea.
Once you’ve decided on which magazine you’re going to be on the cover of in a year, sketch out that cover. What’s the photo they’d use? What is the pull-quote? What are the three bullet points they’d highlight?
Envision what success and promotion of the dream looks like, capture it in your mind’s eye, and sketch what the cover would look like.
Understand the potential of the idea
You have a dream that you're pursuing, and by pursuing it, you're making the world more in line with what you think it can be. While dreams are unlimited, it is important to understand the reasonable size of the impact that is likely possible, as well as who else will be on the Journey with you.
8. Do basic research on market sizing
How big is the potential market, or potential impact?
While it's tempting and seductive to say, “this is something that everyone needs,” that may or may not be true. Clean water? Yes, everyone needs that. Left-handed harmonicas tuned in the key of Dminor? You may love them, but you'll want to do some sizing research to understand how big the market really is.
Analyst reports, news searches, survey data, government agency data, and many other research tools can give you some insights into the current size, trajectory and potential of your dream.
9. Define your customer or audience
Even (and especially!) when the potential of your dream is global in nature, it's important to understand the different subgroups in your potential audience.
Taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach leads to a generic or commodity outcome.
- Where does your ideal customer hang out online and offline?
- Are they local to a geography?
- What things do they watch or do?
- What are their motivations?
- Where do they get their information?
- What do they aspire to do?
- What makes a difference for them?
- And how big is each subgroup?
Of all the items on this list, this one is one of the more important aspects.
Truly understanding and empathizing with your audience and customers is critical to connecting them with the dream you're creating and communicating.
10. Start following related boards on Pinterest
Inspiration and motivation are two of the cornerstones of the Dream It phase.
Having an expansive view of what's possible and what's in play today, and using that inspiration to take your idea as far as it can go, is one of the opportunities you have at this part of the process.
Pinterest is more than just pictures of cake wrecks.
(Although, truth be told, some of those are pretty funny.) Pretty much any topic you can think of has a board, or several boards, dedicated to it. Following along will help you to keep your flow of inspiration going as you dial in your idea and the plan on how you will turn it into reality.
Work with others to make it better
Some days, the entrepreneur path is a lonely one. On the difficult days, this is even more true.
As you are working on things, start to build your posse and your community of like-minded friends, colleagues, challengers and advisors to give you feedback.
These folks can also help to identify blind spots you might not see, share advice and experiences, provide a reality check when you need it and, most importantly, provide a group for you to connect with to celebrate the victories both large and small.
11. Test your idea out with other entrepreneurs
Some of the best sounding boards and empathetic voices can be found in the others who are also on the Journey. Even if the other entrepreneurs you connect with are in the same "industry" (say, for example, you're all web designers), there are very few situations where you'll be in true zero-sum for the same customers in the same market.
It's more likely that you're complementary to each other in many ways.
Your connections and interactions with these other folks can be in person, for example, at a local Meetup or get-together at a local co-working space. There are also a wealth of public and private groups, online forums, Twitter, and boards like /r/Startup_Ideas on Reddit where other like-minded individuals gather.
Try things out with these other folks. Throw that wild idea out there. Connect up. Get some feedback or encouragement from others who have been there, or who are also traveling the path.
12. Research which social networks are most relevant to promote and engage around your idea
The Dream It stage is the right time to start doing some initial thinking around where your audience and prospective customers connect digitally.
Different social networks and online communities have different vibes and different norms.
This month, TikTok is the hotness for users under 25 years old. Instagram is great for visual ideas. Linkedin is more buttoned-down (but trying not to be). Dribbble is for designers.
Now is the right time to start spending some time in these various networks listening and learning and doing a little bit of digital anthropology to understand the norms and culture and what authentic interaction looks like in these networks. They are some of the places where you'll likely be spending a portion of your time once you've passed through the Create It stage of the Journey are are starting to grow your venture.
13. Find relevant groups on Facebook or LinkedIn to do some early Q&A market testing
It’s important to get some feedback from others at large in the Dream It stage. Do some research to find groups on Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms where other entrepreneurs or potential customers frequent.
Asking questions in these groups around the potential interest in your type of product or service can give you valuable early feedback to help you determine if you are on the right track or not.
“With your own Facebook Group you get a place to be your authentic self, and attract your people to you.” ~ Ariana Sylvester of Family Entrepreneur Life
Sharing ideas around your concept, asking “what if” types of questions, and generally engaging with group members in an exploratory manner can generate valuable feedback as you focus in on what you’re creating.
14. Do some basic search trends research to see the volume of individuals who are searching online for the solutions or information you are thinking about offering
Google has a service called Google Trends that is invaluable in determining the relative volumes of searches that are happening each month around particular search terms on both Google and YouTube.
While you’re in the Dream It phase, take some time to do some trends research to understand if searches, and therefore interest, for terms around your concept are rising or falling over time.
Another useful feature of Google Trends is that it tracks search trend data for a number of years. This potentially can give you some insight into any seasonality or variations over time for searches related to your idea.
Although Google Trends doesn’t show absolute search volume information, instead showing relative search volume, it can be a very useful tool throughout your Journey to understand interest in the topics around your idea.
15. Send out a survey to get feedback
Surveys are a great way to get feedback on your idea during the Dream It stage.
You can post links to those surveys on your social media channels or send them to your email or newsletter list (if you have one) to get feedback.
If you don’t have a large audience today who can participate in your surveys, SurveyMonkey Audience and Google Surveys are two services that might be useful.
Using these services, you can create the surveys themselves, and also send the surveys a group of recipients who have opted-in to participating in research activities.
Make sure you get a large enough volume of responses to get a representative data set that can be used for thoughtful decision making.
16. Start or join a mastermind group to connect with others who can act as advisors and keep you accountable
Mastermind groups are peer-to-peer mentoring groups that agree to mutually support their members and also hold them accountable for their progress.
Mastermind groups are limited in size, and usually kept to a handful of members. They oftentimes rotate leadership among the members over time.
Actively participating in a mastermind group can aid in motivation and accountability.
Most groups meet for only an hour or two once every one to two weeks. This cadence and accompanying accountability can be extremely useful in helping you keep your momentum during the Dream It phase and beyond.
Get the ball rolling
While working on the idea, the Dream It phase is also where you will likely start to think about the “how” of turning that dream into a reality. Coming up with an initial approach on how to structure the venture and starting to test the waters are common activities while figuring out the big picture.
These decisions and initial approaches don’t need to be set in stone. They can, and likely will, evolve considerably over the course of the Journey.
At this stage, figuring out how to start getting some initial momentum is the important part.
17. Do it as a side-hustle
Depending on your idea, you might be able to start things as a side-hustle while you’re working on your existing commitments.
There’s no right or wrong way to get your idea in motion, and doing it as a side-hustle is a fine way to start.
It might be challenging at times to find the time to give your idea sustained focus all the time. It may dip into nights and weekends, or stolen moments after the kids are in bed. That’s OK. Don’t force it. You’ll know when things are ready to go.
In the meantime, integrate forward motion into your regular schedule. It will take some work and certainly some ruthless prioritization, and that’s expected.
Exploring your dream in side-hustle mode lets you try things out and test the waters in a way that gives more security that diving all-in right off the bat.
18. Decide if you need business partners
One of the most important things to think about during the Dream It stage is to understand what skills and resources you need to get the venture going, and if those skills and resources are part of the venture itself, or if they are partners with which the venture works.
Many tech industry and other ventures start with two or three founders on the core team.
In the best cases, having a small number of founders with complementary skills rounds out the capabilities of the organization. On the other hand, your dream might lend itself to you flying solo.
Outside the founding team (or individual), this is also the right time to start to think about what external business partners you might need — often in the form of legal, production, product distribution, or financial and accounting areas.
19. If you’re going solo, are doing it as a freelancer or using a traditional model?
If you are a solo operator, this is a good time to think about the rhythm and the ebb and flow of the venture.
Is what you’re envisioning something that is a service to others that takes place either in a fixed location, or during prescribed hours on a regular schedule? If so, you’ll need to plan for things like time off and coverage for the venture when you are not available.
Depending on the characteristics of the venture, a freelance-style model might be appropriate.
Freelance models drive a number of opportunities, like being able to engage in the venture on your terms and schedule.
Similarly, there are other constraints and considerations, such as working to manage a steady flow of revenue and finding ways to scale the venture that are not solely contingent on you putting more hours into it every week.
Some models, especially freelancing, might also enable you to engage in the venture without requiring a fixed location, and may enable you to succeed from anywhere in the world with an internet connection.
Do some planning
The Dream It stage is a delicate dance between ideation and pragmatism, an interaction between blue-sky ideas and sharp-penciled details. Part of the Journey is visualizing and planning the Journey itself.
20. How long will this take?
“How long will this take” is one of the most difficult and important considerations to weigh during the Dream It phase.
Depending on the scope of your vision, you might be able to get started immediately and be creating and growing your venture within the week, or it may take months or longer of planning and preparation just to get to the Create It stage.
Things might take longer than you anticipated, especially if external factors such as funding, permits, legal filings, municipal dependencies, construction, or third-party design or development come into play.
Make sure you factor in time for the unexpected.
One way to manage this planning is to break the overall timeline up into its constituent parts and create a draft of a project plan. Doing this will enable you to envision the dependencies that one stage might have on subsequent stages of the effort.
21. Plan when you’re ready to make the jump
“I feel like people have so many different ideas and passions, but that they’re just scared to take that leap,” says Lynisha Hyche, co-founder of SoulfulofNoise. “But you won’t ever know what’s going to happen if you don’t take the chance.”
In planning out your approach to how you’ll reach your goal, one of the most important issues to consider is the timing of when (or if) you need to make the transition from “side hustle” to going all-in.
Getting a venture built, running it, and growing it to self-sufficiency might take many months — and sometimes even longer.
Do the research and take the time to plan that trajectory. Set up identifiable milestones of progress to help you understand if you’re on the right track.
Model out your resources, savings, rate of financial spend, and rate of income (if any) to determine when, or if, it makes sense to cut-over to working on the venture full time.
22. What’s all the stuff I need to know in order to do this?
As you progress on the Journey, there will be many things you’ll need to figure out. Thankfully, you don’t need to figure them all out right now, and you certainly don’t need to have everything figured out before you start.
It’s OK to learn as you go.
Tap into online resources — communities, videos, blog posts, webinars, podcasts and more — when you are planning and when particular questions arise. There are many resources available on the types of opportunities and challenges that will present themselves as you progress through the Journey.
At this stage, key activities include learning and creating hypotheses on how your venture will benefit its users, learning about the basics of business planning, and learning about the market, competition, and how your venture will fit into that ecosystem.
23. Start sketching out the potential business model canvas that your venture will employ
A “business model canvas” is a concise representation of how the venture might work. It’s a visual representation the answers to a of a number of key questions about the fundamental components of the venture, and it fits on a single piece of paper.
The business model canvas gives you a structure in which to think about what customer/audience needs you’re addressing, how you will reach that audience and support them, a high-level point of view on revenue and expenses, as well as a peek into other key areas such as key partnerships and production.
24. Think about potential business structures, if your venture requires one
There are a number of different organizational structures that are available, from sole proprietorships to partnerships through an alphabet soup of other structures such as LLPs, LLCs, B-corps, C-corps, S-corps, etc.
While you don’t need to instantly decide on which structure to use, the Dream It stage is the right time to chat with an accountant, lawyer or other adviser on what the pros and cons of each structure might be for your particular situation.
25. Begin thinking about how your might fund your venture, if necessary
Depending on the scope and scale of your vision, you might need some external funding to start and/or grow your venture.
There are a dizzying number of options available — including grants, loans, self-funding the venture from savings or credit cards, as well as an expanding variety of crowdfunding options.
You also might be able to self-fund the venture with revenue from customers or supporters and use early profits to propel growth in the venture.
26. Research the competition and landscape
You have a dream and a vision that is unique to your experience. That dream may be a better way to solve a problem or to start a chain reaction of change.
In cases where you have a better solution to an existing problem, the Dream It stage is a good time to begin to understand what other solutions are out there that people are using today, so you can address their needs better than the competition.
Remember that even if your product, service or other creative output is completely novel, there is still “competition” in the form of other things that currently attract the time or attention of your audience.
For your venture to have an impact, it will likely need to displace something that is already a current behavior for your audience. This is a good time to figure out what those things are.
Naming and planting your flag
Time and time again, we’ve heard the moment someone names their venture is the moment the idea becomes real and begins to crystallize. Once the idea is named and that name is shared with others, the dream begins to make its way out into the world.
27. Name it
Of all the activities that can occur during the Dream It stage, putting a name on your dream is one of the most notable.
Naming something breathes life into it. Naming something makes it real.
Naming something gives it an identity, makes it tangible, and communicates a vision of what it is and what it will become.
28. Secure domain names and social media handles
A domain name is your address on the internet and one of the cornerstones of your brand.
As you identify the name for your dream venture, make sure you register the domain name and handles on the social media networks that are likely to be most relevant for your venture.
It’s possible to check to see if the domain and social media handles that match your name are available.
Try to get the domain name and social media handles that exactly match your venture name, if possible.
If they are not all available, try to find a closely-related domain and set of handles that are available across your preferred platforms and reserve them. Even if it will be a while before you are ready to launch your venture, having the names locked will keep others from grabbing them.
Related: What is a domain name
29. Set up a one-page website with a “Coming Soon” page
It’s not too soon to set up a “Coming Soon” page, which gives you a place to direct people who are asking about your venture as it is in development.
The “Coming Soon” page doesn’t need to be fancy, but should contain your contact information, in case visiting parties are interested in reaching out to you.
A related opportunity is to set up a basic email signup form on the site. Doing so enables you to build a list of interested parties, and can become the basis for an email newsletter when the time is right.
Editor’s note: Check out GoDaddy’s easy DIY Website Builder to get your starter site up and running fast. Bonus: You can start for free.
Start testing the waters and getting momentum
Mulling over an idea and thinking about your dream often starts as a solitary activity. However, you’ll need to begin pushing it out in the world to forge it into something solid and resilient.
30. Experiment with the basics of social media marketing
Depending on the traits of your venture, it might make sense to try out some aspects of social media engagement while you are still in the Dream It phase.
If your venture lends itself to visuals and photographic imagery, sharing regularly on Instagram can begin to draw in an audience.
Similarly, engaging on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn might be a good way to start to build awareness for what you are working on.
As the world turns more to video, and especially smartphone-based video, beginning to build an audience on YouTube might also be a worthwhile investment of time.
In the Dream It phase, it’s extremely important to engage and learn from (and with!) your audience on these platforms.
If someone asks a question, answer it and be sure to keep the dialog moving forward. These opportunities are also great for asking questions of your audience and prospective customers to get their feedback.
31. Start a basic blog to share your brainstorms and get feedback
As your experience evolves and your venture progresses, sharing your thoughts on a regular basis with friends, fans and supporters can bring momentum to your venture well before you “officially” launch it.
Using blogging tools like a website builder or WordPress is a manageable way to share your journey and can help you build and grow interest in your venture. It also provides a great record to look back on in later years, and remind yourself how far you’ve come.
Blogging is a viable way to regularly add content and information to your online presence.
It’s also a great way to interact and get feedback from your friends, supporters, prospective customers and other interested parties.
32. Start building your email list
If you have set up your basic website during the Dream It phase, starting to build your email list is one of the most important things you can do to be self-sufficient in your venture.
While social media platforms are most definitely important, they all still have one key challenge — anything you do on them is subject to the rules of that network, and the rules can change at any time. Most notably, if a social network is the intermediary between you and your customers and community, you have no say in the relationship.
Contrast this to building your own email list. With your own email list, you have the direct relationship with the customer or community member, and you are not subject to the whims of a third party.
33. Start building momentum and a movement
The Dream It stage is where you take the first steps of connecting with others and connecting them with your vision as you begin to envision it.
While it’s necessary to come up with the idea to bring it to reality, it’s important to move through the Dream It stage and into the Create It phase if you intend to see the results of your idea impact the world. As you do so, you start to build your team and the people who believe in your idea as strongly as you do.
The Dream It stage is where you start to find your tribe, and connecting with them begins your process of changing the world.
Your dream is the spark and inspiration and fuel for you to start (and continue!) on the Journey. It is the thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night to feverishly scribble 10 more ideas in the notebook on your nightstand before they get away from you. It’s the thing that helps you set your course and helps you identify the peak you want to climb, and the possible routes you can use to scale it.
As your dream becomes clearer, you need to start making it happen.
That means creating a solid foundation for your brand, your product or service, and the points of presence where your customers, colleagues and fans will interact with you. We’ll talk about all of those in the next installment in this series, where I’ll discuss the Create It phase of the Journey.