This is a guest post by Zeus.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough hot air.

I’m ready to breathe deep that cool, invigorating air of reality, and shovel the “snow” off my business. Yes, the pun is intentional (and seasonal!).

Anyone who tells you that you just need a good idea, a ten-hour work week, and the right internet formula to be earning 100,000 dollars is snowing you. Luckily, I haven’t spent too much money (though probably more time than I wanted) in learning that marketing hype cannot substitute for business.

In most cases, this hype has actually distracted me from doing the core things to build out my business foundation. This post will be about what I’ve learned from the cold but welcome wind of reality, what implications these lessons have for the direction of my (and your) business, and how this new information alters initial goals in The Zeus Experiment.

What have I learned?

  • Websites are not magic dust. They extend and deepen a solid business foundation that addresses real public needs and desires, that offers actual skills, products, and results.
  • Building an even marginally profitable business is likely to take years, not months, especially if you are starting from scratch.
  • After you have a basic website up, it’s “business first and website second.” What you do on the website, and where you allot your time, should support a business plan and help people become connected with your unique perspective and service.
  • Actual people must make actual money meeting actual needs in their own businesses in order for particular marketing approaches to be deemed successful. Otherwise, don’t buy it. (“Meeting actual client need” excludes being a mid-level operative of a marketing pyramid scheme, even if it makes money.)
  • It’s better to spend time in batting practice—cultivating clients, developing and expanding skills, creating useful products, and building a respected professional network of people with similar convictions— than trying to hit a marketing home run with a lucky swing of the bat.
  • A business takes serious long-term work. I’ll have to disagree with Johnny B. Truant here. This is neither easy nor simple. There are a lot of moving parts even in the supposedly simplest of tasks. Yes, they get accomplished with discipline and a steady heart but in more steps and more time than initially estimated.
  • Income and recognition start low and slow. If you are original and persistent, develop a sound reputation, and are good at what you do, these should increase over time. If you reach a tipping point, and you become an acknowledged go-to person in your area, significant advances in income and recognition can follow.

Do I really have something worthwhile to offer?

These lessons all have implications. Chief among them involves the question: “Do I really have something worthwhile to offer?”— something that I do well, that I enjoy, that pushes me to grow, and that meets a real need or desire in people? How do I know?

For me the answer is, “yes.” I’m lucky and skilled enough to provide customized, needed “transformative learning” services to individuals, and increasingly organizations, that significantly improve their performance on learning tasks and that get me excited. I have clients’ successful results, testimonials (which I have to get on my website), and word-of-mouth referrals to give me confirmation I am on the right track.

See Tim Gary’s Mindcue testimonial page to see what this looks like.

Your answer may be, “no.” A great personal idea, hobby, or interest may best be something to share, rather than offer for money. (In fact, most are.) If your lifestyle desires to meet your wants (money, leisure, spending more time with family, and travel opportunities) are stronger than your spirit of mission, service, and conviction to meet client need, you are probably on the wrong track in pursuing a business.

How long is it going to take, and how much money should I invest in my online business?

It takes the average successful businesses 3 – 5 years to break even, and then you start making a profit. With the low overhead, but steep learning curve for online businesses, you might be able to move that timeline back to two years.

I’ve done the research, and I don’t see much evidence of anything quicker.

In general you will initially be working more and earning less as you learn from your mistakes and invest in a sound business.

In the beginning we are all newbies, latching on to what seems like the best marketing wisdom only to find out most of it is spin. (Exhibit One: Dean Soto, the proprietor of the aforementioned links, entitled his website “you can work less,” even as he was working more.)

One way to accelerate profitability is to buy only those things that are essential and that you will use immediately.

I trusted affiliate-driven advice that I needed a Premise landing page. I didn’t and I don’t, and I probably never will. My AWeber service provides perfectly acceptable landing pages. I don’t really need “Pop-Up Domination” either. There are free alternatives that will suit my purpose just fine at this time.

I’ve rarely heard people express regret for not buying that information product, but quite a bit of “I really didn’t need that.” Stay lean. Invest in things like website development tech help that save you time and money now.

What’s the best approach?

In retrospect, two words: Side. Business.

Seriously, try out the online portion of your business as a producer of side income. Experiment, learn, pace your business, and then warm it up.

In my experience, an online consulting business takes a lot of time investment and does not produce income immediately. Keep your day job, learn the ropes, do the research, engage in the conversations. If you have a spouse with “real job” income supporting you so you can eventually support back, let him or her know frequently how grateful you are (even during those times you are struggling and want to give it up).

Develop your products and evolve your business plan along with a clear and simple website. Construct a concept map for how they fit together. Pay for things as you need them, when you are ready to use them.

Currently I am making my money on local and Skype learning consulting. I am making an income of maybe $500-1000/month, but none of it is as yet directly attributable to my website. It comes from local connections and friends, business contacts, and holdover referrals from my time in the San Francisco Bay Area. However, I am getting those people interested in my website and its ideas. I am creating a community of demand for my niche, my methods, and my perspective. That will pay off. I’ve gotten very positive feedback, and I am attracting a broader quality professional and general audience over time. This will serve as a platform for my products and consulting.

Fortunately, my main consulting business and my online business are connected. I blog to keep my ideas current and my voice forefront. I am developing e-books to consolidate and apply my methods, gain income, and gain media credibility and exposure. My online component is becoming the difference between being a private consultant and being a public figure.

How much income can I earn?

Short answer: Not that much.

Certainly, not much at first, and why should you? You need time and success to prove your value and build your business.

The online space has gotten really crowded. Anecdotally I’ve noticed that websites that used to get hundreds of comments are now getting tens. Tens are now getting ones.

Holiday craziness dents this even more. Even “successful” people are happy to be making around a thousand to two thousand dollars extra a month, after getting some momentum.

As Paul Wolfe from One Spoon At a Time, notes, blogging (and online presence) is no longer a business model; “it’s a business tool” that can extend the reach of your business. So I am resolving, in conversation with my developing website and online presence, to have my main consulting business and my “business tool” work together to inform new business goals based upon what I have learned.

What are my new realistic business goals?

  1. Initially I wanted to have a functioning website with the major elements completed by end of year 2012. I have basically accomplished that. I am writing a regular blog that reinforces my brand, Citizen Zeus, and I have a description of my work, myself, and my approaches. I still need a pay button and a PayPal business account, but I should have them by the end of the year.
  2. Initially I listed earning $100,000 by August 2013 as my salary goal. I am changing that to earning $24,000 ($2,000/month) by end of year 2013, with $5,000 of that directly attributable to my online presence. I hope to move that up to $50,000 by 2014, and $100,000 by 2015. If I cannot make this trajectory work, I will pursue a full time job in an area related to my talents and continue my online business on the side with an intention to create $2,000/month in additional income.
  3. Initially I listed getting 500 subscribers by the end of January, 2013. I am changing that to getting 200 subscribers by the end of January 2013. I now have 97 subscribers through AWeber, due almost wholly to a guest post I wrote on learning to transform economics. I have a related guest post due out soon (in conjunction with the release of my e-book, Transforming Economy). This sounds reasonable, given my schedule.
  4. Initially I was shooting for September 2012 to have my Transforming Economy book edited and published. I am closer to getting that done by the end of year 2012. I thought about trying to get out a PDF version for those core people interested to share with their friends before Christmas, but it may be wiser to simply wait until after the holiday hubbub and take some more time to ensure a quality product. So let’s say end of month, January 2013.
  5. Initially I wanted the rough draft of my e-book, Mindflexing (central to my learning consulting) to be finished by end of year 2012. I am now shooting for end of June 2013. Just getting an e-book completed and marketed takes a lot of steps and time, even with help.

There you have it. I’m bending but not broken, and I am learning a lot. I have a feeling I will only become more motivated as these goals get accomplished. ***

A Word from The Chef

When Zeus proposed this experiment nearly six months ago, he had a few stars in his eyes. So when I asked him to set goals for himself (as noted above), he set the bar pretty high.

What you don’t know is that the original height of that bar was even higher. His original goal of $100k/year was more like $200K. And the size of his email list was more like 5000 than 500.

I hate to tell people they can’t do something. In fact, I’m a big believer in the idea that “anything is possible” — as long as you’ve got the right mix of ingredients present.

So I asked him about his starting position, what his business looked like now, and how much time and energy he had available to go after those goals. After a short conversation, he dialed those goals back to a place that I felt was more realistic given his particular mix of resources (time, money, location, business plan, etc.).

I still think those goals are achievable. But life happens. And other projects creep in. There are vacations and family obligations and the need to sleep. There’s also a thing called “sales.” (Actually asking for the sale.)

Marketing alone — even the best marketing in the world — is not enough to make your business succeed. You still need to sell.

You’ve also got to do the hard work of reaching out to prospects on a regular and consistent basis  (I recommended that Zeus build a list of his Top 100) to nurture real possibilities — and then ask for the sale. It doesn’t matter if you sell products or services, the principle is the same: Ask for the sale.

And if you feel the need to write a book first, by all means write it. Just know that you’ll need to give something else up: either your revenue goals or your personal life. Folks who manage to build a business and hit a home run the first year, do so because they implemented like a mother-f*cker. They didn’t sleep. They didn’t go on vacations. They didn’t have a well-rounded life. They also had great business sense, decent technology skills, and something that made them stand out in a crowd.

So will I tell you it’s impossible to create that kind of “overnight” success? Never.

But I will ask you a few questions first and help you put the right ingredients together for you.

How about you? What’s your experience of starting a new business online? Do you have any questions about where you should go next? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

photo credits: kekko64 and jeremydeades via photopin cc