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I'm breaking the law -- and loving it

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Turns out I have no regard for the law. Why? Because I just started a new business. Throw the book at me.

OK, enough of the gimmicky hook -- obviously starting companies is what many of us do and (most of the time) it isn't against the law. The "laws" I'm breaking are in the form of some widely-accepted small business rules about new ventures.

The business I just launched is in the yoga industry. Thing is, I'm not in the yoga industry; I've been making bags for laptops and other tech applications for 20 years. So yoga's about as radical a departure as I could make, and one that violates three principles that most successful small business people (usually including me) take very seriously. Here are the "don'ts" that I did, why I did them, and why I'm glad I did:

Don't get distracted
"Focus" is practically a business commandment (one of my favorite quotes is from Richard Tait, inventor of the board game Cranium, who said "We're so focused we could pee through a straw"). Yet I intentionally took some of my focus off my daily mission.

Why I did it: I happen to love yoga, and I happened to come up with an idea for a product that I thought was completely new, unique and innovative. I could have put it out of my mind -- as many a strong-willed, hyperfocused owner would -- but I couldn't let it go, I had to give it a shot.

Why I'm glad I did: Creating this product and business has reinvigorated me. After decades of doing the same thing, it's human nature to get a little fried at times. I've always done a good job of staying energized and inspired, but it isn't always easy. Starting something from zero has reminded me of how much fun it is to be brimming with fresh ideas, exploring new territory, and in general, just "figuring things out." It's been an entrepreneurial splash of aftershave. And that added burst of excitement and enthusiasm has flowed over into the way I wake up and think about my main business every day, so I can rationalize that I'm not losing focus - I'm cross-training.

Don't divert limited resources
The smaller the business, generally the fewer its resources, whether people, time or money (usually all three). And most small businesses don't have enough to do all the things they want to do to begin with, much less go off on tangents. It happens that the yoga product is suited for our existing design and manufacturing methods, expertise and facilities, with no significant additional overhead. But that's the only synergy. The application, market, customers, and everything else about the business has no connection to what we do.

Why I did it: In exchange for indulging myself, I promised myself that I would treat this like a true startup. Bootstrap everything: No ad budget -- word-of-mouth, PR and social media only. The only "leverage" from my existing business has been in the form of staff time (no question, a precious and limited resource): I now have some talented people to help do things I did myself the first time around. But everyone understands the need to launch this venture like we have little time and no money.

Why I'm glad I did: Believing we're onto something and starting it on a shoestring has been a great reminder to all of us about what it means to be a small, entrepreneurially-spirited company, and about the value and satisfaction of finding creative solutions and doing great work within small business constraints.

Don't confuse a hobby with a business
Spectacularly successful businesses have been born of a founder's personal passion, but many more have failed. Unfortunately, passion can get in the way of judgment or business sense, and love for an avocation can be a blindfold to reality.

Why I did it: After all these years, I'm aware of the hobby/business paradigm and (hopefully) past the naivete phase of starting a company. I've had many thoughts over the years about getting involved in yoga on a business level. But I never pursued it until the right idea came along, and I never assumed that the world would love the idea just because I did. I did the homework and research necessary to understand the market and feel confident that I wasn't just inventing something for myself. I treated it like any other business (maybe with just a little extra passion).

Why I'm glad I did: They say "do what you love and love what you do." Contrary to what many people think, that doesn't mean turning a hobby into a business. But if you get the chance...

Time will tell if the side venture will prove worth the rule-breaking. I have a hunch it will -- the first production run sold out in a week and the customer response has been extraordinary. We have a patent pending, inquiries from all over the world, and even some celebrity connections in the works. It's given me new energy and generated some fresh excitement among our team that has benefited our entire business. And if it doesn't work, we haven't bet the farm.

The jury's still out, but I did it, and (at least so far) I'd do it again.

Courtesy of Flickr user ell brown

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