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6 min read

Get it Down on Paper! The First Step to Starting a Business is, Well, Starting

Take the first bite of an elephant

We’ve all been there. You’re on your way to work or lying in bed trying to sleep when inspiration strikes: you have a million-dollar business idea!

Despite the fact that everyone has these ideas, only a few act on them. In fact, just by reading this post, you've taken a first step that most people wouldn’t dare to take. So, congratulations!

Now, let's capitalize on your momentum, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.

If you ask 1,000 people how to start a business, you’re likely to get 1,000 different answers. In reality, starting a new business is a huge undertaking, and there is no exact methodology to go about it.

In fact, whenever I see those “Start your own business in 5 easy steps” articles, I cringe, because I’ve worked with hundreds of successful founders over the past six-plus years, and the one thing they all have in common is that they know starting a business requires far more than five steps, and none of them are simple.

“A Bite at a Time”

The late great Bishop Desmond Tutu, whom I had the privilege of hearing speak when I was in college, once said:

“There is only one way to eat an elephant, a bite at a time.”

In other words, it doesn't matter the size of your endeavor, you have to start somewhere, and that is the purpose of this article. Today I am going to show you how in just 15 minutes, you can take the first bite of the elephant.

What Is ‘Free Writing’?

According to Wikipedia, free writing is “a prewriting technique practiced in academic environments, in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time with limited concern for rhetoric, conventions, and mechanics, sometimes working from a specific prompt.”

Our goal for today is to jumpstart the “pre-business planning” process by quickly writing down all the thoughts spinning around in your head, with only one rule in mind: there are no rules. We don’t care about spelling, grammar, word choice, or even staying on topic. 

This exercise is for your benefit only, and you don’t have to share it with anyone. The goal is simply to get past mental blocks that might be caused by self-doubt or anxiety.

A typical free-writing session lasts from five to 15 minutes per prompt. If you’re just beginning to develop your business idea, I think you’ll find five minutes to be a lot of time and plenty to get you started. If you’re further along in the process, it may be appropriate for you to set your timer a little longer.

What You Need for this Exercise

  1. A quiet, comfortable space (I always clean my desk before I start free-writing; maybe it’s part of my ritual)
  2. A pen(cil) & paper or a keyboard (The key to free-writing is speed, so you choose a medium that works best for you)
  3. A timer (Your phone will work great)

That’s it. Some people like to light a candle and turn on some music to create ambiance, but it’s certainly not required. You just want to be free from distractions and relaxed. (Personally I find a cup of tea to be helpful for getting me in the right state of mind.)

And one other thing, a #ProTip if you will, if you don’t think you’re a good writer and that the act of writing will slow you down, you can also try this exercise aloud and record it for playback later. 

Business Plan Free-Writing Exercises

Now that you’re all settled, let’s begin the exercise with a series of prompts to write about. 

Exercise 1: What is The Business?

Write about what your business does. Force yourself to think beyond the obvious. For example, if you’re starting an elephant ear shop (see what I did there?), you should probably discuss the different varieties you’ll make, but also think about the intangible benefits you provide: a place where people can gather with their friends and catch up, or work on a free-writing business planning exercise.

Other prompts to consider if you get stuck:

  • What will your business not do? Many businesses start too broadly, so set your constraints. 
  • What other companies provide products that are similar or different from your idea? What are your impressions of them?
  • Dream big! In a perfect world, where do you see your business in 5 years?

Exercise 2: Why Do You Want to Start This Business?

Be completely honest with yourself. Are you starting this business because you want to make millions, or are you starting it because you’re ready to be your own boss? Or maybe you just have an idea you think people will like. 

Other prompts to consider if you get stuck:

  • Why would you be good at this business?
  • What gaps do you have in your skillset or experience that you’ll need to have filled either by learning or relying on others?
  • What will your life look like when your business succeeds?

Exercise 3: Who Will Be Interested in Your Business?

No businesses sell to everyone. Is your company targeting a more upscale or economic clientele? Are you planning to target customers in your local area, tourists, or someone else?

Other prompts to consider if you get stuck:

  • Pick a friend or associate you think would be a perfect customer. What is it about this person that makes you think that’s the case?
  • Where do the people who might be interested in your product congregate?

Next Steps

And with that, you’re done! First and foremost, congratulate yourself on taking this step. And quickly take a look at how much you wrote down!

BUT DON'T READ IT. At least not yet.

You’ve accomplished enough for today. If you're using a computer, save your work (or simply close your notepad) and go do something else. Try not to think about what you wrote; allow your subconscious to do its work instead. If you get an idea, jot it down, but then let it go.

The key, however, is not to lose steam. So I want you to pick up what you wrote tomorrow (or some day really soon). Before re-reading it, remind yourself that this was an exercise to get your ideas flowing, so leave out the criticism. What you’re looking for are the little gems that stand out. I like to copy and paste those insights into a new document and elaborate on them now that I’ve had time to reflect. 

Another #ProTip: many people find that repeating the exercise yields even better results.

An Example of a Business Free-Write

I wanted to see what this exercise could produce, so I decided to do a timed free-write for my made-up elephant ear shop. I set the timer for five minutes, but I was on a roll and didn’t stop when the buzzer went off. I’m guessing this took about seven minutes, and for reference, it’s 419 words.

I want to open an elephant ear shop. The base of my batter will be my great-grandmother’s Portuguese sweet bread recipe, which is what they use to make malasadas in Hawaii. So they’ll be a fry bread version of that, but may also sell malasadas too. The traditional flavor will be cinnamon and sugar, but our real thing will be all the toppings that we’ll offer. Fresh berries, jams, compotes. Maybe even a savory option with like ham and a light cheese? These are going to be messy and loaded, so maybe we serve it with a big napkin or wet wipe or apron or something though I want to keep paper waste to a minimum.

Why elephant ears? They’re nostalgic, fun, and family friendly. This is not an every day treat so we’re no Starbucks. I don’t picture people coming here and working like out of traditional bakery. This is a special treat, something people do once in a while. More of a destination. So finding a location with high foot traffic and maybe tourists will be key.

We will really lean into the one product tho. No sandwiches or fancy coffees. Just black coffee (but good black coffee) and we’ll do milk for kids.

I want to lean into a counter-culture alt-vibe. Funky. Fun. Whimsical. Hip. Definitely not a cozy coffee shop with ambient music. More upbeat and maybe punk type music. Maybe vinyl records on the wall. For some reason the color pink jumps out at me, maybe because that’s the color of an elephant’s ear, at least in cartoons. But I want to avoid a circus-tent feel, I think that’s too cliché and even tho I want to make this nostalgic, I don’t feel like people are that nostalgic for the state fair these days. So I want to downplay the carnival connection so maybe pink isn’t the right answer.

Our main competitors will be donut shops, so maybe that’s another reason to not do pink. Too similar to Dunkin. I can see this place being more popular late night than early morning like a traditional donut shop tho. Maybe we even do a cart that can serve them where there’s a nightlife scene, or maybe that’s the location we go for.

I could picture the kind of place where someone places an order at the counter and the cashier yells the order to the back. And maybe there’s some specialty where when a person orders it everyone yells. That kind of upbeat, fun, environment.

I did edit my free-write for spelling but did not make any other changes. I wanted you to see what kind of results you could expect if you performed the exercise on your own. As you can see, this exercise has helped me better understand my fictional concept: messy, fun, counter-culture, energetic, and so on.

Also, if any of you want to run with this business idea, let me know and I'll be your first customer because I’m now craving elephant ears. 

Once you have refined your idea into something a little more complete, share it with a trusted friend and ask for their honest, objective feedback. I’d be happy to provide my perspective if you send an email to!

And if you're feeling inspired (which we hope you are), you can try our Make A Fake Ad exercise, which was designed to help you refine your unique selling proposition.

That’s all there is to it. In just 15 minutes, you’ve taken the first step in starting your own business!

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