In 2009 I started TeamBravo!, an event planning company in Toronto. It started off as a bunch of geeky friends who wanted to serve the fan community located West of the city. Since then, we’ve run one of the most successful young, fannish conventions in North America, attracting geeks from near and far. In three years we’ve gone from a mere few hundred attendees to thousands, and there are no signs of slowing down. We’ve had to invest in new equipment and move to new location; but our biggest change has been learning how to think and act like a business. It hasn’t been easy, and here’s why:
1. You’re essentially breaking the first law of business: never make your hobby into your profession. Why? Because you’ll often care too much about the fine details of your company, rather than the fundamental principles of minding the store. Things like accounting can become secondary to keeping up with the hottest comic series’ twists and turns, and oversights like that can really cost you.
2. You’re likely breaking the second law of business: going into business with friends. We’re geeks and we like to be friendly with like-minded people. But geekdom isn’t really set up to interpret the business relationship. The manners and bureaucracy can be real stumbling blocks for us, and it’s almost impossible to fire a friend without seriously damaging your relationship with them, even if they’re ruining your business.
3. You’re probably very partial to certain brands. Business owners can’t afford that partiality, they have to stay as objective as possible. Brand loyalty should be based on how effectively a product or service works with your business, not on what you personally “like”.
4. You’re very likely to lack perspective and not know it. As geeks, we come from an information-hungry culture. It leaves us feeling like our opinions are informed and therefore valid. But most of our learning isn’t tested by practical circumstances. Lacking that experience but feeling validated in opinion is disastrous for many. It’s better to clear your head and learn anew, so you don’t suddenly find yourself outgunned by a person with half your knowledge but twice your experience. Perspective matters.
5. You’re probably not great at communicating vocally. Who needs to talk in person or on the phone when we have email and text messaging you say? Everyone who matters. Sending an email to a supplier who’s late just isn’t going to replace a stern phone call. Want results? Stop relying on text to do your talking.
6. You’re probably unaware of an existing business model for your idea. Most businesses already exist and that’s actually a really good thing. It means you can do some research and have a model to work from with your business. Make improvements, but make sure you think about the ramifications of mucking with the model too early.
7. You’re probably not that good with money. As a starving artist and ramen-fed geek, I know how it feels. Your wallet is always too empty for your dreams. The first thing you should learn is how to manage expenses. Stop buying model kits and start crafting a budget for yourself; one that prioritizes your needs accurately. Coffee? Printer? Breakfast? Needs. Model kits and manga? Wants which you can defer. You need to learn how to be ruthless with your own poor spending habits.
8. You’re probably not good at taking criticism. Many people say they can take “constructive” criticism, but how do you handle an angry customer? Consider all criticism relevant and learn from it. Being thin-skinned and defensive won’t help you in business. Being thoughtful and responsive to critique most certainly well. Remember: you need to have a vision, but you also need to serve your customers well.
9. You want to succeed. Success comes out of a hunger to learn, not a hunger to be successful. Very few people who talk big can walk big, because they’re invested in the goal, but not the process of getting there. Stop making success your first priority and instead place an emphasis on learning. Learn from others, from existing models, and most of all, from your own mistakes.
10. You’re not ready to make mistakes. Some say that making a mistake is okay, as long as you learn from it. But in business you have to go one step further: You need to have a plan to recoup the losses incurred by your mistake. So you mess up. What now? What’s the backup plan? Always have contingencies in mind. Don’t overdo it — being panicked and worried all the time is unhealthy and unproductive — but don’t ignore the “what if’s”. They’re important.
This is by no means an exhaustive list; there’s a lot you’re going to encounter that isn’t listed here. But it’s a start, and I hope it helps others identify any holes in their plan. Everything in this list is something I’ve dealt with as a personal or professional weakness in myself.
A major step to get yourself started on solving most of the above: Do a SWOT analysis of your team. Look at you and your project’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Identify what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, what initiatives you can take, and what dangers or problems are lurking beneath it all. Most of all: think about your bottom line and what building a financially sustainable project or company means. It’s big and scary, but it can, and does work.
Mark P. Tjan is a graphic designer and event planner working out of Toronto, ON, Canada. He enjoys giant robots and Gangnam Style, and sleep. Precious sleep. You can find out more about his work as a geek at http://teambravo.ca