Recently I was a bit taken aback when I was asked the question “What is the best piece of advice you have for a young, aspiring entrepreneur?”
My initial though was well, I am a young, aspiring entrepreneur. I am the founder of LaQuist, an online business providing unique pieces of wearable art to customers across six continents in the form of custom hand-painted shoes. Although I’m proud of all I’ve achieved with my business so far as a 21-year-old college student, I felt I had a much longer way to go before I was qualified to start giving out advice. I am used to reading advice articles and columns from entrepreneurs with a lot more years and dollar signs under their belt. But then I thought, maybe that’s where my advice is unique. I have a few years and a few dollar signs, but more importantly I can relate to where you are right now.
So, from one young, aspiring entrepreneur to another, here is my best piece of advice: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” –Arthur Ashe
Okay, I know we’ve all heard a million quotes in our lifetime. They’re a bit overdone, cliché, I get it. But, if you’ll bear with me, I think the beauty of this quote is best seen when broken down. And the best way I can do that is from my own experience.
1. Start where you are.
I started as a ‘young, aspiring entrepreneur’ my freshman year of college, lacking several what some might consider important things. (1) Money. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the ‘ramen noodle every night’ budget. (2) A formal business education. As a freshman, I had yet to take a business class, and especially not on the specific sectors that go into making one work. (3) Time. Having just been thrown into the world of college I didn’t have a ton of extra time to devote to my entrepreneurial endeavors. (4) Finally, and this is the one that may come as a bit of a shock, I lacked a plan. I did have a basic business idea in mind, but I didn’t have a detailed plan of what that business was going to look like. Although it may sound crazy, the lack of a specific plan ended up being one of the biggest things working in my favor. Without one, I was able to let my business shape, change, and grow organically and figure out the specific who’s, what’s, where’s, when’s, why’s, and how’s along the way.
Now that I’ve told you what I didn’t have at my start, there are three important things I did have: (1) An aspiration to use my artistic ability in a meaningful way (2) A desire to give back (3) A wish to communicate and connect with others. Those three goals sparked the process that has led to what LaQuist is today, and those three goals have shaped every decision I’ve made along the way.
So, back to you. Think about where you are right now. What are you lacking? What do you have? Your answer to the first question might be quite a bit longer than your answer to the second, and that’s okay. You may find along that way that the things you initially lack actually push you further ahead in the future. You will always be able to justify a better time or place to start reaching for your entrepreneurial aspirations, but now is the time and place. Start where you are and the rest will follow. In the words of Nike, “Just do it.”
2. Use what you have.
Besides a list of goals, one tangible thing I had was access to social media and a network of friends and family that were willing to offer their support. After analyzing my starting position the first step I took was posting to Facebook, offering to paint a pair of custom shoes for free if someone was willing to provide the pair of shoes to be painted. Surprisingly, I had more than a few takers, enough to begin building a portfolio of work.
The next thing I had was access to and knowledge of the Internet, which, luckily for me, was the best way to reach the most number of customers. I created an online boutique using the marketplace Etsy and that is where LaQuist began to take shape. As I continued to build my portfolio of work I could gradually increase prices on my products. Then, by creating a LaQuist blog and Facebook page I was able to generate buzz around my business.
As you might have noticed, the things I had at my disposal didn’t require money. Which is good, because as mentioned earlier, I needed that for ramen. The only initial investment LaQuist actually required was about $100 for a stock of painting supplies. Beyond that, it did not require additional inventory. In fact, if you were to take a tour of LaQuist you would be rummaging through a 66-quart plastic bin and a laptop that together house everything LaQuist requires to operate.
For your own entrepreneurial endeavors, I encourage you to really think about all that you have at your disposal. And if you’re lacking something, think creatively about the ways you can work around it. For example, if you don’t have knowledge of web design or coding, there are plenty of template-based resources like WordPress and Wix. If you don’t have money to invest in advertising and marketing, take advantage of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. By focusing your attention on what you do have, rather than what you don’t, you may be surprised at what you can accomplish with limited resources.
3. Do what you can.
If there is one thing I can do, it is to try my darndest.
I contacted local media outlets, pitching the story of my unique business from my unique perspective and generated word in the community about my business. I reached out to independent boutiques about offering my shoes to their clientele and have since developed mutually beneficial retail relationships. I entered business plan and pitch competitions and earned funding that allowed me to take greater risks with my business decisions. I joined entrepreneurial clubs and organizations at my university, gaining insight and advice from other students with entrepreneurial aspirations. I sought out opportunities to network at business conferences, speeches, and startup weekends, building relationships that have been vital to my achievements.
While putting the pedal to the medal there are a few things I found that surprised me, and they might surprise you too. First, there are people out there that want to see you succeed. I received support at times and places that I never expected, which came when I demonstrated the passion behind my goals and my desire to achieve them. Second, your age is one of your biggest assets. You may think that because you are young certain doors will be closed off to you. Although that may be true at times, I can guarantee that for every door that closes, not one, but two doors will open. Finally, once you get the ball rolling it will keep on rolling. Even though the actions I listed above may seem like a lot to wrap one’s brain around (and trust me, that’s not even the half of them) I took them one step at a time and the rest naturally followed. It’s not enough to just keep your eyes open for opportunities—you actually have to seek opportunities out—but once you take the first step, the next one will be that much easier.
To wrap things up…
It’s been a little over a year since I started LaQuist, and so far I have achieved more than I ever expected to accomplish. I am now the owner of a global business, having shipped hundreds of custom shoes to customers across six continents, all while benefiting children in need. It turned out that the things I initially lacked didn’t hinder me from accomplishing the goals I set out toward from the beginning. I recognized and utilized the things I did have, and then gave it my best effort to get from point A to point B and beyond. All it took was a little creativity and a lot of hard work.
So again: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” That’s my best piece of advice to you.
And remember, you’ve got at least one person on your side already (that’s me!).