Keep It Real by Gem Wilson is a great book for those building side hustles and soloprenuers. It is Gem’s story of building her energy gel business called VALA which she launched in June 2020. Don’t be fooled by that, Gem had been working on the business for over two years. In the book she shares the tools she used to build up ther business up till she launched it. Gem describe the book as:
A no-nonsense guide for solopreneurs starting their first business. Includes actionable step-by-step advice and mindset tips.
The book is structured into an Introduction section and 11 chapters. This is not a big book, it has just 80 pages, so you can read it in just over an hour. Each chapter in the book concentrates on an aspect of starting your business and tasks for you to do to move you towards building your business.
Folloing is a quick review of each chapter.
CHAPTER 1: THE LIGHT BULB MOMENT
The ligh bulb moments is that time when you suddenly get an idea that can potentially become a business. For Gem it happened when she realised that the energy gels that athletes used was full of artificial ingredients. She got to know this because her partner is a runner who consumes energy gels. Gem’s idea was to build a gel with natural ingredients so she started researching the idea while still doing a full time job. Gem found that there was a gap in the market for such a gel. She also discovered that people who wanted energy gels made with natural ingredients had to make their’s at home.
According to Gem:
The lightbulb moment was the most important part of my entrepreneurial journey, as it lit a spark of inspiration within me. We all have ideas of how to improve something, but if you find it becoming a dominating thought that you can’t shake, it’s time to take action.
The tasks Gem has for you in this chapter are for if you’ve had your own light bulb moment. They include:
- Researching the current market related to your idea.
- Asking how you can do things differently and how you can fill the gap in the market.
- Make a list of the skills that you already have from previous jobs – you might be suprised at how resourceful you can be! If you were a waitress, you will probably have great customer service skills. If you worked as an engineer, chances are that you’ll have an excellent eye for detail.
CHAPTER 2: TAKE ACTION
Having an idea is not enough, you’ve got to act on it. That’s Gem’s encouragement for us in this chapter using her own story. She says this:
I truly believe that we each have a purpose on this earth and that when we are in alignment with it, that’s when we are at our happiest and our most creative. I didn’t know how I was going to make this crazy idea a reality, but as the saying goes, “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.
So Gem got to work, even when the factories she needed to manufacture her product told her it was a good kitchen-top table idea, she didn’t let that discourage her, she pressed on. Some of ther actions she took include:
- Learning to tell people about her idea. She was scared to do so at first for fear of others stealing it but after being encouraged to do so, the more people she spoke to, the more people were ready to help her. People shared useful contacts with her and even before she had launched VALA, she built up a loyal following. There’s a lesson here, don’t keep your side hustle to yourself. A task attached to this is to make a list of five people you can speak to about your side hustle and ask for honest and constructive feedback.
- Do market research to discover how your market functions and don’t be overwhelmed if you discover that there are a lot of people already doing what you want to do. I like how she says this:
Do we really need 20 varieties of bread to choose from? Probably not. However there’s a market and a customer for each and every one of them. Remember that next time you’re feeling overwhelmed!
- Back to market research, Gem believes it’s an important step to validate your ideas. Some of the ways she did her research was learning about potential competitors to see what they were doing in order to know how she could do better, creating personas to understand people that would be buying her product and understanding customer priorities. That is, the priorities of people that will be using her products. For example will they like things such as sustainable packaging or will they prefer an organic product. An attached task for you here is to keep a folder of brands that inspire you or that are in the same market as your product. Things about them to research are their prices, packaging, stockists and target demographic.
Other actions we can learn from Gem are:
- Finding a business mentor who can help you.
- Deciding on your route into the market. Are you going to be selling directly to the consumer or taking a business to consumer route. They all have their advantages.
- Write a business plan.
- Creating a cashflow forecast.
- Being clear about your start-up costs.
CHAPTER 3: TAKING THE PLUNGE
In this chapter Gem writes about her decision to plunge into her business full time. It wasn’t an easy decision. She kept her day job while she poured time and energy into building VALA. But she decided to go into the business full time when combining both a business and a day job was becoming too exhasuting. On this she writes:
I remember having a call with my mentor during one lunch break and asking her, “When should I quit the day job?”. Her response ? “You’ll reach a tipping point and you’ll know when it’s time to give it your all”. Well she was right and six months later, after feeling exhausted from trying to squeeze everything in, I decided to go all in.
Gem offers some advice about preparing for the transitioning from doing a day job to working on your own business full time.
Having a day job means your day is planned for you but running your own business is very different and you will need to make adjustments. Some of the adjustments Gem had to make were:
- Redefining normal: she had to make peace with herself that the new normal of being your own boss is different from being managed by some one. There will days when you feel frustrated but you have to find ways to keep yourself motivated.
- Redesign your life: she had to redesign her life to align with her current goals. Self care which previously wasn’t important now became a priority for her in order to manage her time.
Create your own self-care to-do list and a business to-do list that allows you to have structure and purpose to your day.
- Hold yourself accountable: This one goes without saying, being your own boss requires self-accountability. Gem had to write out task lists and do the tasks even if it meant working longer hours because there was nobody else to do it.
- Gratitude: Be grateful for where you are and what you are doing.
CHAPTER 4: GET ORGANISED
In this chapter Gem emphasizes the importance of getting organised because soloprenuers have to wear many hats. She writes that:
Without structure and organisation, each day has the chance to slip through your fingers. Avoid this by making structure your friend and use your time wisely so that you don’t have to feel like you’re glued to your desk all day!
Some of the advice she gives include:
- Compartmentalise your time: Split your day into chunks of time to focus on specific tasks such as writing social media posts and replying to emails. This allows you to focus more and consequently make you more effective. Gem suggestions here are around having a to-do list and scheduling items into your calendar.
- Swallow the frog: Do the tasks you dread first, get the difficult things out of the way before you focus on the easier tasks.
- Schedule in breaks: Don’t stay glued to your desk, schedule in times for breaks. Do things such as going for a walk and breaking for a cup of tea. On this Gem writes that:
I definitely don’t subscribe to the ‘hustle’ mentality because I’ve learned through a decade of experience (which involved a medical diagnosis of ‘exhaustion’ at one point) that I need to take multiple breaks throughout the day for the benefit of my mental health.
- Have a designated workplace: Plan a place in your house to use as your working space. It does not need to look fancy though you can work a bit on it like Gem by having a good desk, chair, lamp and good looking stationery. Having a designated space gives you the feeling that you’re at work.
- Organise your paperwork: Set up folders for your paperwork so they are easy to access and file away. Gem created files for specific documents such as, brand assets (logos, photos), invoices, quotes, events and PR.
CHAPTER 5: SPEAK YOUR TRUTH
Gem gives some very good advice here. She writes that:
I can’t emphasise how important it is to be humble when starting a business.
When she started she knew very little about energy gels or the mechanics of running a business. But she would always ask people questions and got answers even from her potential suppliers. She found people willing to help her and this helped to drive her business forward. The lesson hers for all of us is this, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help.
Three other pieces of advice from Gem in this chapter are:
- Be honest about your start-up status. Don’t lie about where your business is. If you are a company of one don’t fake it that you have a team. Be proud of where you are and be honest about your business.
Be proud of your status and speak openly to your manufacturers and suppliers about being a start-up. You might be surprised by how much more helpful they are.
- Be grateful for the help of others. Learn to say thank you when people help you. Be grateful. Here’s a quote from Gem on that topic:
Gratitude has become my secret weapon along the VALA journey and has helped me to form strong relationships with my suppliers. If someone takes the time to teach you something new or send over some important information, be sure to send them a follow up email thanking them for their time and knowledge.
- Follow the process. This can be hard especially if you are highly impatient and target driven but learning to settle down and follow the process that is required to achieve what you need to achieve is important. This is something Gem had to learn and we can all learn it too.
CHAPTER 6: THE START-UP CHECKLIST
If you are building a start-up there are some seemingly boring things that you will need to do. Gem calls them ‘boring legal and logistical side of setting it up’. Some of the key things she had to tackle were:
- Deciding the type of business to start. Does she want to trade as a sole trader, limited company or partnership? You will have to do it.
- Getting a good accountant. Gem used an accountant for book keeping. Depending on the size of your business if you can afford to get a good accountant to sort out some of the financial aspects of your business then do so. It will save you time and money in the long run.
- Set up a business account with your bank.
- If you are going to be filing trademarks then find a trademark lawyer to help.
- Invest in business insurance.
- Get your suppliers to sign non-disclosure agreements to not disclose your trade secrets. You might need to sign them too.
- Register for a Post Office Box to get a post office address so you don’t have to put your personal address on your correspendence.
- Get your manufacturers to sign manufacturing agreement to deal with issues such as lateness in finishing a manufacturing job for you.
CHAPTER 7: BUILD YOUR BRAND
When you’ve built up the foundation of your business you will also have the foundations of your brand in place. Now you will need to build your brand. Gem writes a lot here about writing the story of your business. Tell people about why you started and what problems you are solving in a short paragraph. Gem does share her company story. She feels this is very important to ensure your business does not look like a ‘faceless entity with no evidence of human life behind it.’ To create your own brand story you can answer these questions:
- How did you come up with the idea?
- What makes your business unique?
- Who or what inspired you to make it a reality?
- What is your reason for wanting to bring the product or service to market?
- What sets you apart from other brands in your market space?
You should also develop an elevator pitch that ensures you can tell people what you do in a short sentence. Here is Gem’s elevator pitch:
My name is Gem and I help athletes to naturally fuel their exercise by offering them a plant-based, additive free energy gel.
According to Gem you should also have brand values which will be informed by your brand story. Gem advises us to establish our brand values earlier on, so they will inform all aspects of your business.
Your brand values will allow you to convey your purpose and personality.
The section on brand guidelines is a long one. It deals with the importance of ensuring that our visual and verbal identify is consistent. Essentially this is about how our business ‘looks’, ‘feels’ and ‘sounds’. Gem covers brand guidelines in the areas of:
- Colour palette
- Tone of voice
And of course once these guidelines are in place they should be applied to all touchpoints of a business such as:
- our website
- social media
- any printed communications
CHAPTER 8: SPREAD THE WORD
It’s not enough to create a product or service, you’ve got to let people know about it. In other words you have got to market it.
The whole purpose of marketing is letting people know how you can solve their problems and transform their lives with your product.
Gem discusses the usual stuff that you would read about in a 21st century book on marketing. The difference is that she’s writing about her experience and not head knowledge. So expect to read her marketing through:
- her website
- social media
- printed materials
I once read a great quote that said, “The purpose of marketing is to get your brand name as far away from you as possible”. As soon as I read it, I knew exactly what it meant and started to think of all the ways that I could promote VALA and get the logo and brand out there.
Gem goes into some details about each of the mediums mentioned above so if you want learn more, be sure to read them because you will get to understand how she went about marketing VALA successfully.
If you’re a start-up with a limited or non existent marketing budget (I’ve been there!) then it’s time to get resourceful and creative with spreading the word. Having less money to promote your product is somwhat of a blessing, as it forces you to be creative and think outside of the box.
CHAPTER 9: THE MESSY MIDDLE
If you have a successful business launch and sell a lot of your product, how do you maintain that level of success? How do you ensure that you can have that level of success consistently? It’s that struggle to consistently be successful that Gem refers to as the messy middle. Maintaining this level of consistency to succeed can be hard and discouraging but according to Gem:
During moments like these, take a step back and remember, why you? Think of how many people’s lives you are positively impacting with your business.
Here are points that Gem discusses about this issue:
- Embrace the challenges: Gem says this, are you going to allow it (your business challenges) defeat you or are you going to rise up and overcome it? Challenges are opportunities to show your true character so don’t give up or give in but rise to the challenges.
- Prepare to pivot (with a smile): Gem writes that, Although I love having a clear vision of what will happen in my business, sometimes life has other plans. It’s essential that you are open-minded to the possibility of change. Be ready to change and adapt when necessary.
- Have perspective: Don’t be discouraged by what you see other businesses offering on social media. Mostly companies offer up their best side for people to see. Take the time to keep working on your brand consistently and over time you will become polished too.
- Comparison is the thief of joy: Resist the urge to compare yourself to other established businesses.
Comparing yourself negatively to an already established business will only demotivate you and lead to a feeling overwhelmed. Whilst it’s good to get inspiration from others and to see what tools they are using to market themselves or create their content, remember that everyone’s journey is unique.
CHAPTER 10 – THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
I firmly believe in running a business with a conscience and I always say that a business is only as good as it’s customers.
Gem understands that VALA is successful because of her customers so she takes time to priorities the VALA customer experience. To do that here are some actions that Gem focuses on,
- Put your customer at the centre of your business: Find various ways to consistently add value to your customers. Make them feel highly valued when they encounter your business.
- Packaged with love: Gem writes that, I put so much thought into the way that VALA is packaged and shipped out because I wanted to give our customers the best experience when recieving their parcel. Find a way to apply that concept to whatever you are doing.
- Use sampling to your advantage: Send out samples of your product to people (potential customers) who have supported you in building the business in some form. It’s a great way to spread the word about yor business.
- Encourage all types of feedback: Use both positive and negative feedback to learn and improve your business.
- Ask your customers what they want: About this Gem writes that,
By using surveys or asking questions on socila media, find out what challenges your customers experience what interests them. This is essentially free market research and this insight will prove to be invaluable as a customer satisfaction tool.
CHAPTER 11: NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP
I love the opening paragraph to this final chapter. Here I quote it,
Now that we’ve covered the many aspects of starting your business, from the lightbulb moment all the way through to marketing, the most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to have all the answers right. Be open to figuring some things out as you go along and realise that one day everthing will eventually make sense, even if that seems unfathomable right now.
In closing Gem encourages us to get up, get working and get out there creating your dream and destiny. She encourages us not to dwell on mistakes of the past but to keep taking steps and moving forward, learning and improving consistently.
In the midst of it, we should not forget to look after ourselves because without your energy, passion and presence you cannot build anything successful.