The $100 startup by Chris Guillebeau: the bottom line
Here’s the thing. Despite what everybody says, building a startup isn’t just about raising funds. Building a startup is about asking the right questions and getting stuff done. And The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau can help you do that.
The $100 Startup is an interesting and easy-to-read book for those interested in building a business with very little. What you read in there not only makes sense, it is inspiring, and it will give you food for thought on how you could build-up something differently. Want to find out more? Read my book review!
Book suggestion & review: The $100 Startup – Chris Guillebeau.
The $100 Startup – Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future is a must-read book for those interested in business creation. Guillebeau made a survey of a thousand small business creators who… never thought about becoming entrepreneurs. And the book explains the various conclusions he came too.
I bumped into The $100 Startup by pure luck. I was waiting for a friend who happened to be sitting right in front of me in a coffee shop. Except he was on the phone, trying to sort out some business problems of his.
Since I had time to kill, I asked for permission to borrow his Kindle reader and began skimming through his eBooks.
The $100 Startup came up very quickly, but apparently, he hadn’t read it yet.
Nevermind. I opened it and started reading. Twenty minutes later, my friend hanged up the phone and looked at me. My coffee was long cold but I hadn’t noticed. I was simply hooked!
The day after I went to a bookshop and searched for the book. I could have just bought it for my own reader without even moving from my couch, but the truth is, sometimes I spot a great book which doesn’t feel like reading on a screen. This one deserved paper, something sensual under my fingers. Luckily I found the book, amongst others, and took it home.
The book is good looking, the cover is great and makes you feel like you need to have it (hey, that’s not so common, right?) and the paperback format had a great touch. In short, the 300 pages didn’t last long.
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author's main topics explained in detail.
- The book's main themes, questions and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
Guillebeau’s $100 Startup: a brief book review (for starters).
Enough talking, let’s dig into the book review now.
The $100 Startup – Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future by Chris Guillebeau is a book written for those interested in entrepreneurship without fuss, and for those who consider creating (or already try to create) their own business, to gain in freedom and financial independence. Outside of the usual 9-5 model, that is.
Chris Guillebeau is a writer, traveler and businessman who makes a living out of writing books on … building businesses that allow you to live the life you want and travel the world. Clever! He is also the creator of The Art of Non-Conformity website, which he describes as “a home for unconventional people doing remarkable things”. His motto is simple: Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work, and Travel.
The unexpected entrepreneurs…
Guillebeau explains how thousands of what he calls “unexpected entrepreneurs” have successfully built viable businesses out of nothing. In short, his main idea is that anyone can set-up a cash-generating business with a minimal investment ($100 is just an example, but that’s the idea). Despite what many say, having recourse to external financing is not important and is not the basis of a successful business. There is one secret, however: you must create value for your future customer base, and you must be passionate about doing just that.
Overall, the style is very easy to get along with because Guillebeau tells stories throughout the book. This makes it extremely practical and gives the readers tens of examples to relate to, one way or another. In fact, chances are that when you read the book, the only thing on your mind will be “how can I do this too?”.
Now, I’m getting into the details with a much more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but to finish the brief overview here is what the book is about:
Guillebeau’s $100 Startup: the comprehensive book review!
Several big ideas are developed in the book. One theme is the emergence of the so-called “unexpected entrepreneurs” and discusses what it takes to start such a business adventure. Another theme focuses on how to transform an idea into a practical reality. The third theme logically deals with leverage, i.e. the art of moving forward when things work. Let’s look at those themes in turn.
The $100 Startup in bullet points
Guillebeau explores these major themes:
- Those “unexpected” small businesses which thrive
- Starting a business with very little
- Doing and planning
- Leveraging a business with skills
The book asks a variety of questions, including:
- Can anyone build a business?
- What do you need to start a business?
- Is venture capital necessary?
- What is freedom?
- How to create value?
- What is the role of passion?
- How to make the most of customer relationship?
- Is it difficult to get things done?
- How long should you plan a business?
- What is the innovation and development process like?
- How to make an offer people can’t refuse?
- What is the difference between value and perceived value?
- How to launch products successfully?
- Is the “build it, they will come” belief true?
- What is the goal of planning a launch?
- How to develop a successful business?
Now, let’s get into the themes, shall we?
The $100 Startup – theme #1: the Unexpected Entrepreneurs.
The first theme describes and analyses the “unexpected entrepreneurs” on whom Guillebeau has built his survey. In fact, the book starts with examples of people who started doing business for X or Y reasons and ended-up running “accidental” businesses after a professional “renaissance”.
Sometimes the adventure starts with an opportunity. For instance, how to move from being fired to selling a stock of mattresses overnight and progressively building a mattress empire. Most of the time, however, the $100 model is only built on passion. Not on skills. Not on capital. On passion.
There is usually no business plan, no investment, no investor either, and sometimes there is not even a particular idea to start a business. It just happens. In every single case, however, the business starts from a doer, from someone who decides to do something.
What matters to Guillebeau is the convergence of three factors: (i) what you enjoy doing will turn into success (ii) if it is useful to someone (iii) who is decided to pay you to solve a problem he faces. Or, in Guillebeau’s words: “you just need a product or service, a group of people willing to pay for it, and a way to get paid”, the rest, however, is “completely optional”.
But Guillebeau’s focus on passion does not mean that he is an idealist. Far from it, actually.
Instead, he warns that any passion won’t get you rich. The reason for this is very simple! People do not pay for you to have fun. They pay for the insights and solutions that you can provide asa passionate who knows his stuff. Quite a difference!
The big point here is, you must start from the idea that your value depends on your ability to give your (future) clients something they do not want to do themselves. Or something they cannot do themselves. The client’s frustration is something to build on, but so could be a technological development capable of improving his life…
The error, to say things differently, is to miss an opportunity to create value for the client. So? It is important to start your journey with a reality-check, if only to make sure that there is indeed an opportunity to build a product or service that others will want to buy from you.
Guillebeau also elaborates on the dream part of the “unexpected” model.
As Ferriss, he talks about those nomads capable of living the life they want because their business does not depend on their location. Again, he gives plenty of examples. A music teacher who created a platform to help other music teachers with paperwork, an author who wrote a six-figure bestseller book to solve a single problem faced by thousands, a “spreadsheet king” who charges client for managing databases for them… from a beach!
There is a clear explanation for this, though. Simply put? Well, clients and customers have changed. The target is not a white woman aged 28 to 36 with kids anymore.
The demographics have changed and the target for many new business owners has become a group. A group that shares a belief, a philosophy, a passion for something, whatever their age and gender.
For instance? Lifestyle, reading, bicycles, knitting, you name it. Hence, the group is everywhere and shares your passion, which means that you can work from anywhere! So, be passionate and focus on that specific community of people who can use whatever you can offer. Simple.
Guillebeau really explores the issue and touches upon many topics that can’t really be considered here in more depth here. He elaborates on questions such as… how to deal with unwanted advice from friends, how to make decisions, how to make the most of the customer relationship (i.e. feedback) without getting stuck by those who see things differently, etc.
This part of The $100 Startup book is totally worth a read. If you happen to get the book, spend some time on it, it will be well spent.
The $100 Startup – theme #2: turning ideas into reality.
There, Guillebeau explains how most of his survey participants never built a business plan – in the traditional and long-term sense. Instead, most have rather focused on what had to be done now and tomorrow in order to make things happen fast. In short, getting started quickly is the only solution.
By “doing” instead of waiting and planning, the main cost is not capital equity but “sweat equity”.
The point is important because when “doing” the entrepreneur reduces the cost of failure, which is financially significant when the business plan requires important investment in time and money. Hence, the main challenge for most participants to Guillebeau’s survey was never to raise money, it was to fight inertia and make the very first sale.
Then comes the importance of working on marketing before the product is even available (as they do it in the movies industries for instance), as well as the idea of adapting to feedback. This, indeed, helps make the product or service more relevant to the client and therefore also has a positive impact on reducing risk.
Doing things differently implies “doing”.
In contrast, a traditional business plan focused on planning does not allow this trial and adaptation phase and thus makes the risk of not doing even more significant. This, as a matter of fact, is also what Guy Kawasaki calls the “churn baby, churn” method in his book on innovation Rules for Revolutionaries.
For Guillebeau, a business plan should therefore be written in one page and should be summarized in the equivalent of a tweet – 140 characters. The idea here is to determine the product or service, the target, and to draft a mission statement that describes the benefits to the user. Again, the focus remains on value, on finding out how your product or service can help.
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Offers people can’t refuse…
In line with the salmon risotto argument evoked earlier, Guillebeau also writes about making offers people just can’t refuse and gives very insightful ideas on how to make the “right product” for the “right audience” and at the “right time”. The key here? Making sure that people have no reason not to want what you have to offer, of course…
Guillebeau complements this idea with a few interesting pages on the importance of creating a sense of urgency when selling the product or services, which overall contributes to increasing the “perceived value” to the buyer. Limited access and rarity mean value… All in all, planning business is therefore about starting with “doing” while continuously working on showing that the benefits exceed the cost. The point is only mentioned briefly here, but it is very important in the book. Focusing on the perceived value allows building the product and the ways to introduce and present the product!
For instance, why would you provide a client with a mere list of features (say, the equipment is blue and small) when you could rather insist on the benefits enjoyed by other clients (in terms of comfort and ease of use)?
… rely on benefits, not on features.
Insisting on the benefits has one major interest: it helps to build trust and authority, which means that the client will have a greater tendency to invest again with your products in the future, which is not the case if you only list features – because a competitor might list better features than yours.
In a related manner, Guillebeau discusses the importance of giving the buyer strong guarantees (without tricky conditions) and insists heavily on the power of overdelivering so as to increase – once again – the client’s perceived value of your product or service.
The theme also gives Guillebeau an opportunity to talk about launching products successfully. This point is really worth noting here because, while many authors say that launching is important, Guillebeau actually explains why and provides a checklist on how to launch a product successfully. Big difference. Again, as for the movies, the idea here is to make people feel impatient about waiting for your product. People wait? Good. People complain? Good! So, the author explains the process.
The relevant questions
The book looks at a variety of questions, as you can imagine.
For instance, how to think the process carefully? What tools can be used to tell a story? How to talk about yourself with “style and substances” (and avoid “substance without style” or, worse, “style without substance”). Can you build anticipation? When to talk about an idea? How to leverage benefits rather than specifics?
As usual, the idea is about increasing the perceived value for the client, and Guillebeau precisely describes the process, notably through a detailed 39-step checklist. If you have the opportunity to read the book… do it.
Writing on ways to make things practical also implies discussing cash management. Guillebeau does that, of course, and explains the difference between building a followers list and focusing on making cash come in. Simply put, the former is accessory to the latter.
Again, tons of examples are provided to illustrate a crucial formula: doing business and creating revolutionary products or services is about pricing in relation to the benefit you create (not about costs), proper pricing requires creating various packages to sell more of the same product (must-read section, again), and it is about ensuring customers remain customers and comeback. The important point is, spend as little as you can, focus on building the brand and make sales.
The $100 Startup – theme #3: Leverage.
Logically, the third theme focuses on ways to develop your micro-business when it becomes profitable. Again, Guillebeau illustrates his arguments with practical examples throughout and provides relevant easy-to-relate-to solutions.
One major point for him is the feeling shared by his “unexpected entrepreneurs” that take-off happens after the first sale, on its own.
The secret, he explains in great length, is then to create a succession of small changes (that he calls “tweaks”) that can help raise your income slowly but surely. Little-by-little, sale by sale. Then, he (of course) provides tips on how to proceed. How to work with traffic, how to look at conversion rates, how to progressively increase your average sale price or sell more to your existing customers.
Another important tip here is to transform consulting services into palpable and buyable products that allow you to touch additional clients without fundamentally changing your banners.
Guillebeau also warns about low prices, and he explores the various question new entrepreneurs and growing entrepreneurs ask themselves sooner or later.
Should you go bigger? How to franchise yourself and leverage your work and profit? Can you construct productive partnerships that generate results (more than diluting the work) and what to look for when starting to think about partnerships at all? How to outsource? Not to forget the unmistakable “what if I fail?” question… Again, the author elaborates on all those points, and the best way to get more detail is to get the book.
Guillebeau’s main arguments
Chris Guillebeau overall comes to the following conclusions:
- Anyone can build a business but you need a product or a service, a group of people ready to pay for it, and a way to get paid.
- Passion is the starting point, it gives the entrepreneur the skills, knowledge or expertise that others will want to use because they share a connected passion.
- Freedom is the luxury of those “unexpected entrepreneurs” who can live the life they want because their small business works for them.
- Value comes from your passion and from what you know. You create value for others when you solve a problem for them.
- Value is created by the solutions you provide; however, the perceived value can be increased by focusing on overdelivering.
- Build on customer feedback, but be careful as some customers can drag you down.
- Venture capitals and investors hardly matter, however; only minimal investment is required as long as you are ready to start doing now.
- ‘Doing now’ allows doing a one-page business plan which focuses on value and benefits, not on long-term expenses and funding.
- Launching a product requires planning, however, and there are effective tools to use to maximize impact. Again, for more, get the book!
Chris Guillebeau’s $100 Startup: Food for Thought
Now, let’s finish this book review with some food for thought!
The $100 Startup – Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future provides insights on a variety of issues and themes all related to small-scale entrepreneurship. But it is also one of the reference books on how to make money without a huge investment.
They didn’t necessarily plan it,
but they went for it. Read the book, it might get you there too…
More books on the topic?
Guillebeau’s book clearly focuses on those he calls the “unexpected entrepreneurs”, whom he describes as entrepreneurs who never planned on becoming entrepreneurs but who happened to become entrepreneurs for one reason or another. That’s very common as many people just decide to change life these days. Have a look at The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber if this is of interest. I highly recommend that book.
To some extent, The $100 Startup is also very much in line with the famous The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, which similarly deals with ways to transform your work into a new life built around the idea of making a good living in full financial independence. Except that Guillebeau’s approach is different to Ferriss’.
Ferriss focuses on ways to become a “New Rich” and uses his own story (supported by the example of others) to explain how he changed his routine. In sum, follow his method and you could trade your life for another. In contrast, Chris Guillebeau has exclusively based his book on a large survey aimed at assessing the characteristics of what he calls a “micro business revolution” led by hundreds of independent “unexpected entrepreneurs”.
That book isn’t about him. His goal is not to work on changing your routine. It is to help the readers understand the very basics of a new business model and to give them tips on how to leverage their own skills before turning to unnecessary external capitals.
The $100 Startup lesson: what matters is…
What matters is how you can leverage your own skills in the first place. The rest will come later, as your skills become valuable to others.
Since we’re comparing books and approaches, another interesting read would actually be The E-Myth Revisited, by Michael E. Gerber. That book also deals with small business creation, talks about value and so on. The approach followed by Gerber is however different because while he talks about business creation he rather discusses how to move a business to the next level.
Before we finish, Guillebeau recently released a second book on the topic called Side Hustle – From Idea to Income in 27 Days. That book was standing right next to $100 Startup in the bookshop so I took it too. Guess what? It is very much in line with the ‘$100 Startup’ and as a matter of fact, I read both in a raw.
Anyway! To wrap things up, The $100 Startup is a book you should know about. Even if you don’t plan on creating a business, even if you already have one, it will make you think about a couple of things that really matter. Just saying…
In my opinion...
… a fun book if you are interested in entrepreneurship, business creativity and challenges. Totally worth a read, especially if your own business is on the way!
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That’s it for now, but don’t stop here! My reading notes are meant to give you a very comprehensive overview of the books I read and some food for thought for the month. That’s why I’ll Make You Think SMART is the Kick-Ass Book Reviews blog after all!
Having said that, the next step for you is to keep digging! Remember, books are a cheap way to learn new things and to benefit from the experience of others at no cost. Not to mention the stories you’ll be able to tell after a good read!
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