How to start a business by offering value first

Updated: 22/10/2019
make an offer
just be careful when offering candy

While starting a business has never been easier, running a profitable one seems like it has never been harder.

If you are an entrepreneur of any kind, especially a successful one, you will either instinctively or consciously know that the purpose of your product or service is to provide value to the lives of your customers, or even people outside of that group. Or to put it in terms nobody relates to: if you are good at something - do it for free.

the joker - if you are good at something
don't tell him I said this

What is value?

Here's some Capitalism 101 - you, as the creator, provide a resource that makes the lives of your customers better, in any way, ranging from food on their table to social media management and marketing solutions and anything in between. While you are always in competition with other producers in your industry or niche, you are also cooperating with your customers - they can be more efficient in their own respective pursuit to provide value because of the value you've provided to them. Everybody wins, at least in theory.

The concept of value can be viewed subjectively, but there is one final criterion that determines whether the value you provide is exchangeable for other resources in this world or only in your head. That is profit. With all that value you generate, you are allowed and encouraged to capture a portion of it for yourself in the form of profit.

This model is actually really powerful. The implications of it are that you can make money out of nothing (roughly). You just need to find a way to be useful to people, and you will not starve.

This is all nice and good, but the majority of people still struggle to even make ends meet, yet alone build successful businesses. And the crazy thing is that most of them actually work hard. But the trends and times work against them, holding them back without them realizing what's going on. They operate from a paradigm of what can only be described as fear and uncertainty, wanting to secure the job/deal/transaction first, and then doing their part and providing the value they can offer. That is understandable, the world has worked that way for a long time and it does sound like a safe strategy. But that model has been rendered nearly obsolete, exactly by the people that operate following the opposite model.

This is the underlying principle that powers all of the titans in today's startup world. They start with the value they provide to their customers, and that is always kept as their top priority. They understand that as long as they operate under that premise, they are pretty much untouchable. When thinking in this way, not only is profit inevitable, but competition is easily blown away. It is so brutally efficient that usually there can only be one winner. The ultra-successful SAAS companies only pointed out and crystalized this global shift. But it is all just a consequence of progress and competition. If they don't do it, someone else will.

Offer value first. If your business has an online component of any kind, don't wait for someone to hire you to start producing, or buy from you to start delivering. That is slowly becoming the only way.

How to offer value?

People before me have said offer value first, and they mean well, but they are not getting to the meat of the problem, which is how. How to offer value? How to offer value in a way that scales and makes it also worth your while? That is the hard part.

Without getting too abstract, there are few ways that generally apply to every online entrepreneur fighting the good fight, and some of them apply to the offline ones as well.

Probably the simplest way to start is by offering your experience. The post you are reading right now is an example of that. The only thing you need for you to offer your experience is experience.

yeah i know
yes, I am fully aware of how that sounds

That is usually expensive and hard to obtain, but it doesn't have to be. You can become useful in almost any field on this planet within three months, and you can start experimenting from the start. That will give you an advantage that most people will lack. Usually everyone wants to learn, but is also prone to avoiding the mistakes and doesn't want to get too far away from the beaten path. We are not even talking about epic dangers lurking if you sway off the road, it's usually juts some embarrassment from looking silly for a few seconds. The vast majority of people are unwilling to go even through that and try to avoid it so hard that it may actually make you wander. Make your own mistakes, within reason of course but make them on your own. You will have something to offer, and most likely you will learn things that nobody else knows yet. In whatever format you choose to share your findings, whether it's a blog, video, social media updates or graffiti, you will be giving a unique or rare perspective, and whatever is rare by virtue has value. Your tips, tricks and advice articles and pieces will be based on reality, and will already jump out of the masses of refurbished half-spinned material out there. After a month of fearlessly making mistakes that cost you little or nothing you will have the same level of expertise as an intermediate apprentice in the field but a very different path to mastery and mindset. This doesn't mean just be plain stupid and ignore the already established facts in the field and skip on reading the books and the manuals and not learning from mentors, but simply being ready to question the status quo and challenge some authority goes a long way. I'm almost wanting to say follow your gut here, but I try to refrain from fluff as much as possible, though it summarizes the point well. Just make your own low-cost mistakes, and make them fast.

Online businesses, or businesses that can offer a free or a trial version of their product, should always do that. Building that software took time and effort aimed at solving a particular problem, and now that it's in a phase where it is at least remotely useful, offering a free sample of it is almost a no-brainer. Why? Because it costs nothing (almost nothing, a few fractions of a penny per user probably) and it puts you in front of a potential customer. This is especially true when following the lean product building methodologies. Some say charge even for the thin air you have before writing a single line of code, but that has never sounded like a good starting point of a business relationship. Start on the right foot by giving away the prototype. Other great variants of this are offering a limited version of your product for free, or offering a completely other tool or service related and useful to your customers. This is also largely what is happening with HustleCool right now. While there are subscription plans that are paid, it should be more than enough for the scrappy online entrepreneurs to give their social media a boost without spending a dime. At the same time, all efforts are being made for the cost to be the lost in the industry so that companies and agencies can get more value as well. Hey, the hard part was building this thing, and I’m basically the only guy behind it, no need for payrolls to be made, so why not just offer value to as many people as possible? Of course, I will capture profit with the paid plans, but as this post says, the place that I’m coming from is offering value first and only then worrying about getting me. This method has helped HustleCool get its first customers and grow steadily.

The community that you're trying to present yourself to often clusters in various corners of the Internet. They can be on forums, social media groups, or on platforms specifically designed to foster communities like reddit. Participating in these communities by sharing valuable content there pays dividends later, but there is one other way to contribute that is often overlooked, and that is volunteering to do some housekeeping. Usually there will be an existing body of admins, moderators or some other form of authority making sure things run smoothly and place doesn't turn into a dump for spam links and a cesspool.

unmoderated subreddit after 18 hours

Becoming part of that more exclusive group will often involve proving yourself first, much like a barbershop apprentice would just show up at the barbershop and offer free services for weeks before getting hired (at least that’s how I’ve always pictured it), or like the dude hanging out in front of the house where Fight Club was at for three days before being allowed to join. Keep in mind that the power you will get there shall be used for good only, if you have tyrannical tendencies the community will notice and probably strip you of your powers. Use the power responsibly, and value will spill over in whatever is you're trying to accomplish, usually people will visit your profile where you might have a link to your product, and that is all the self-promotion you should do. Of course, it pays off to be strategic here and evaluate which communities are worth being involved in, you are not obliged to clean the Internet, so pick a balance between offering and capturing value, but keep in mind that the value you get may be implicit and not be easily measurable but still present. That said, there are the communities where participating brings you no value at all, and I still recommend participating in a few of those simply because it gets you closer to your niche. Participate in any capacity you can.

Probably the hardest way of adding value to your community and the world is by doing the research. This requires patience and diligence that few people possess, and following the scientific method is often laborious with plenty opportunities for errors. Some might even say that you need years of education or training here, and while that might help, you can still learn this stuff on your own. Following it through is the hard part. Ideally everything you offer should be researched at least to the point where it is not just gibberish, but producing actual research that answers tough questions is a whole different animal. Personally, I've tried to do this on two occasions and have always ended up failing, following a methodology with rigour and patience wasn't something that I could achieve over a prolonged periods of time. You should try it though, the yields are extremely worth the effort, both to your mental and professional sharpness and your reputation as an expert in the field. Now I don't know anything about actually publishing and making it official and jumping through all the academia hoops, so I can't be of help there, but if the scientific method is followed the research will be valuable nonetheless, and will probably get linked to a lot. If you can muster the resilience and courage, do a thorough research on a topic and see the results for your business first hand.

If none of these are your cup of tea, you can always offer your work for free. That doesn't mean just randomly washing dishes and fixing cars to make people like you. If you are a developer, contribute to projects on Github, or even start your own open source project. If you are a writer or a blogger, you probably already know this, but a good amount of your work should be posted or cross-posted on Medium and LinkedIn and as guest posts. In the immortal words of Katy Perry, come and show the world your worth. If you love your work and it is even kind of your hobby, that is basically free exposure for you and your brand. I'm a developer primarily, and in the past when I was actively applying for freelancing gigs, about 50% of the best job offers wanted to see my Github or StackOverflow profile. These things matter, being able to demonstrate that you can provide value is a huge plus in the eyes of the world.

"Mooooom... this sounds like so hard, do I reaaally have to?...."

While today's fierce competition is making the life of the end user more comfortable and affordable, the low hanging fruit is being picked fast. It is harder to build an Amazon now than it was 20 years ago, and it's harder to build an Uber than it was 10 years ago, because they are already offering crazy value to their users, and the gigantic infrastructure needed for that to happen is already in place. Given that people are inert and not prone to change, building your own Amazon would mean having to offer a better service at least in a few orders of magnitude than the existing solutions. That is hard. Like really hard. Not saying impossible, but I think it's fair to say that it is becoming harder by the minute, by every new datapoint that giant corporations accrue and feed it to their machine learning algos, thus getting more in tune with the needs of their customers.

There is another rising factor that is drastically affecting the entire landscape. Technically creating an Amazon or an Uber are not the lowest of hanging fruits, but they illustrate the point well. Up to now throughout history, productivity has breadth more productivity, jobs were created faster than they were destroyed. But one thing is fundamentally changing this dynamic, or rather breaking it, and that is automation. The goal of automation is simply replacing human labour with machine labour to maximize profit. By its very definition it is impossible for automation to create more jobs than it destroys. For you and me, the online entrepreneurs trying to find their place under the sun, that means not only offering real value is getting harder, we gotta do it faster too, even though we might be among the last ones to be replaced.

they will replace us eventually
but let's not go there now

And of course, the tendency for success to centralize is just adding more layers to the trouble cake. Ten years ago, success was building a profitable business. Now, success is selling a half-proven business to one of the giants. Again, not saying that it's impossible to disrupt and destroy a titan company, but realistically it should be way harder than ever before. Probably nobody ever believed that IBM would lose its prime, or at least not more so than you would believe the same could happen now to Google. The difference is that Google has so much data that it probably doesn't know what to do with it, and at the same time they are diversifying and buying companies in pretty much all the industries. Most of the titan companies are similar. I don't want to paint a picture that these companies are evil and need to be destroyed, they do mostly provide good service to their users, but monopolies are a good thing for nobody except the monopoly owners. So unless you have a monocle and an old man's moustache, monopolies are bad.

While these ginormous corporations are improving and learning how to perform a service better than any human could while reducing the need for humans working inside them to keep them operating and devouring emerging challengers like a dragon swallowing a sheep, it is ridiculous to believe that you can still get away with selling and pushing for long. Begin marketing instead. Offer the value first, it is the only remaining and efficient way forward.


The funny thing about this approach is that if you're not a natural born marketer, you will have easier time making a profit, you won't struggle with the feelings of pushing something down people's throats and manipulating, instead getting your share will just feel easy and natural. By all means, practice the art of closing, master it in fact because it is also crucial, but save it for the times where you've charmed your clients with the value you've offered previously.

Now this will take time. It can't be done at the rate at which the modern human expects satisfaction to be delivered in their home. We're talking months here. But you were probably watching Game of Thrones anyway. Slightly shifting your focus from consuming to producing at least an extra hour a day will go a long way.

I practice what I preach. Currently HustleCool provides a way for 70% of solopreneurs and small teams to completely fulfill their social media needs absolutely for free! Give this baby a spin, you will never look back.