Here are the two of the most important things I feel I've learned throughout the process of starting my own business. Both points are pretty cliched, but I don't think that makes them any less important.
Know Thy Customer
The best business ideas are the ones that customers actually want. Seems fairly fundamental, but its a concept that is oft forgotten. Many businesses end up falling in love with a "cool" idea and launch without paying heed to the customer. Unfortunately, even the coolest ideas make poor businesses if nobody wants to pay for it, and committing to an idea without knowing the customer is an unnecessary and potentially ruinous risk.
One of my new acquaintences gave me a good personal example. He had thought about working on a mobile app that would help people in NYC find clean bathrooms throughout the city for handy, quick use in lavatorial emergencies. Sounded like a good idea - it provides a solid solution to an urgent problem. However, after asking around in the city, he found that almost nobody he talked to would have found the app useful since they already knew where to find a clean bathroom on any block in the city - Starbucks.
My friend averted any major committments and expenses by speaking to his potential users early on; however, not all have been as prudent. WebVan, a once dotcom darling, earned the title of e-commerce's biggest bust of all time in part due to its failure to understand its target market. WebVan's hook was convenience. Customers in specific metro areas could purchase all their grocery needs online and have it delivered to their doorstep. No more waiting in line at the register, no more wasting gas driving to the store. WebVan raised ~$1b and quickly launched. Once again, the idea seems pretty neat, until you consider that WebVan would have to sell regularly to ~10-15% of the target population to support its expenses. Not even Amazon.com has that sort of market share today in the highly standardized consumer electronics industry with today's computer-literate shoppers. There's no way customers would actually want to purchase perishable goods online back in 1999 in sufficient quantity to support WebVan.
Its important to remember what all businesses depend on - the customers. Know who they are, know what they are looking for, and build something that they will actually value.
Inspiration vs Perspiration
As important as it is to get the right, customer-centric idea, an idea is necessary but not sufficient for starting a business. Execution is the key. If you think your business is just an idea, then you don't have much, and it will drive you crazy. Anytime you see someone with a similar idea (and you will, guaranteed), you'll panic. Anytime you see a competitor getting ahead, you'll be disheartened. Your ability to execute is the only constant, and its the only thing that can add value to your business in a unique way that cannot be touched by others.
I ran into a post by Derek Sivers a while back that I feel really illustrates this concept. It states that "Ideas are just a multiplier of execution."
AWFUL IDEA = -1
WEAK IDEA = 1
SO-SO IDEA = 5
GOOD IDEA = 10
GREAT IDEA = 15
BRILLIANT IDEA = 20
NO EXECUTION = $1
WEAK EXECUTION = $1000
SO-SO EXECUTION = $10,000
GOOD EXECUTION = $100,000
GREAT EXECUTION = $1,000,000
BRILLIANT EXECUTION = $10,000,000
To find the value of a business, one should multiply the two together. Even the best idea is worth nothing more than a NYC lunch without execution.
Anyways, its mad late, and had no intention of writing so much, so I will end it here. Hope you guys enjoyed it, and I hope the points weren't too corny.