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The Entrepreneur's Starter Kit
50 Things to Know Before Starting a Business
By Paul J. Christopher
American Library AssociationCopyright © 2012 the American Library Association
All rights reserved.
Look before You Leap
Things to know before starting a business:
It isn't easy to make a business successful; if it were, everyone would have given it a try.
A business start-up is wrapped in convictions, assumptions, and beliefs, many of which may be false.
You can never have enough preparation, and you can never have enough start-up money.
True commitment to a start-up business is a lifestyle change, not just a career change.
A Reality Check
If you are reading this book, you have obviously decided to take the first steps toward being an entrepreneur — meaning that you have chosen a nontraditional path to fame and hoped-for fortune. You are embarking on a program of planning, starting, operating, and worrying over your new business. As best you can, you have taken the necessary steps to ensure your success. Whether you are opening a boutique in a fashionable neighborhood or a consulting business in your home, your decision reflects the same aspirations as literally tens of millions of people worldwide. Basically you are motivated to work for yourself and build a business that you find both intellectually challenging and financially viable.
Your motivation for venturing out on your own may be simple or complex, a mix of events and circumstances, some of which may be beyond your control:
You have talent that is underutilized and often underappreciated.
You are absolutely positive you can "build the better mousetrap."
You have hit the glass ceiling — because of income limitations, lack of career advancement, or sheer boredom.
You are concerned about long-term security in the job market.
You need or want a change in lifestyle and work style.
You can afford to take the financial risk of starting your own business.
A large part of the reality check, and a necessary part of your long-term vision, is understanding, from the beginning, that your expectations may not go the way you thought they would. First and foremost, you must realize that you may fail, and fail badly. From a personal, financial, business, and family point of view, you need to understand clearly that businesses fail — for many reasons. The odds that you will not meet your goals are high, so high in fact, that the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that 40 percent of all new businesses fail within one year, and of those that do survive, 80 percent will fail within the first five years. Other sources place the failure rate even higher. Imagine these percentages and apply them to the one million businesses started each year — including yours.
What Can Go Wrong?
Plenty. There are countless variables that ultimately affect the success of your business. Some elements are in your control (like keeping inventory levels reasonable), and others are not (a national economic recession). Though all the factors that affect business success cannot possibly be examined in detail in a single book, if you are doing a reality check, it is essential that you consider the following questions.
Just how prepared are you really?
Preparation is the key, both psychologically (you are ready and mature enough to make that leap) and financially (you actually have a plan and some resources). Some people have to act sooner than they had hoped or expected, because of a sudden loss of employment, for instance. Others, out of enthusiasm or overconfidence, act prematurely — they think they are ready but have not sought outside counsel, perhaps not even discussed the idea with a spouse or friend. All they know is that they are "ready" to move; anxiety and irrationality, rather than planning and preparation, are driving the decision.
In some cases being ill prepared may be related to age or work experience. Ironically, some of the most successful entrepreneurs of late have been young technology wizards, but realistically their numbers are few and far between. With age comes more experience and better business judgment. You don't have to spend thirty years in the work environment before you step out on your own, but five or six years of solid management experience in which you gain significant operational and financial know-how can improve your odds for overall success.
Experience is especially important if you move from one field to another. Suppose you have a background in systems and technology but plan to open a retail operation. Working in a retail establishment of some sort will open your eyes to a host of areas that may not have been obvious as you began to plan your business concept. You probably have the experience to make the website for your retail business hum, but do you know anything about inventory control and staffing?
Personal maturity has a lot to do with your future success, whether you are an entrepreneur or in a corporate environment. Look objectively for signs that you need more seasoning before starting off, like these:
finding yourself easily bored
jumping from one idea to another
impatient when learning new areas of business
more concerned about completing work than quality
quick to make important decisions
not following through with promises to customers
unable to take or follow advice
overly sensitive when something goes wrong
Age does not have to be a barrier to your business dream. Remember, you can partner with someone who has more experience or seek the advice of a business coach. Both approaches, however, require making a mature decision based on self-knowledge — and this is not easy no matter your age.
Are your personal finances in order?
I devote a whole chapter to this subject, but if you cannot answer firmly right here and now that your finances are in order, or that you have a solid plan to get them in order before starting your business, you should not even be considering starting a business. Keep your day job. It is as simple as that.
Every element of your life — spouse, children, house and all its trappings — makes it harder to leave the ranks of the employed for a life as an entrepreneur. And it takes time to get your financial life in order — not just months, sometimes years. Be realistic: Why put yourself and your family under financial duress when some planning and time to pay down bills and save money before acting will improve yours odds of being a successful business owner? Remember that in life, just as in business, the unexpected can happen; everything from an illness to the loss of your spouse's job can set back your timetable.
Do you have the right motivation?
Closely examining your motivation for going into business is critical to your success. Take the example of a business analyst for a regional communications company. He is paid decently, but he hates his job, dislikes his boss, finds the commute tiring, and gets up every morning wanting to be somewhere else. There are few lateral job opportunities in his area for his skills, so the only solution from his point of view is to start his own company. In fact, he is obsessed with the idea and thinks about nothing else, even to the point of jeopardizing his current employment.
The problem is not the basic motivation; wanting to improve life by owning a business is fine. The problem is that his plan is basically driven by the perception that business ownership is the only solution to his problem. He is not motivated to succeed — only to avoid a frustrating and colorless job. He really needs objective advice from a third party to sort out his feelings and better understand his own motivations. Does he really have the drive to succeed over the long haul? There has to be a stronger, more compelling motivation for starting a business than avoidance.
Is your business potentially undercapitalized?
It is difficult to know if you have sufficient capital. It seems that there is never enough start-up money in a new business once the business has begun. And this is clearly one of the most common problems faced by new business owners. Everything costs more than you planned, and income is much slower to arrive than you expected. You must have reserves to withstand the ever-present gap between costs and income.
Ironically, some people will never start a business because they are risk averse and use the lack of "adequate" capital as an excuse. Cash reserves are never enough for these entrepreneur wannabes. A lifetime goes by without action. The other extreme is the person with debts, mortgages, loans, and a few thousand in the bank who thinks he is ready to go. This is why a business plan is so important and why being in a hurry is the recipe for disaster.
Are you willing to ask for help?
There are volunteer groups, the Service Core of Retired Executives (SCORE), for example, who are willing and eager to assist small business owners. You also have family, friends, and colleagues who are by nature generous and able to assist you with a clear, objective reading of your business plan. People are flattered to be asked and more often happy to assist — with no strings attached. And ask several experienced businesspeople to assist, not just one.
Unfortunately, some budding entrepreneurs simply do not want to rack up billable hours talking to their accountant, lawyer, or business coach. They want to save money; they are convinced that they cannot afford professional advice. Naturally, this is poor economy. If you want to save money, buy used furniture; but ask for and get high-quality advice before you act.
Do you understand all this business about taxes?
The IRS takes a dim view of business owners who do not pay their payroll, withholding, and unemployment taxes, among others. There is no quicker way to get into trouble than to be casual about these matters. If you are a registered company, the tax man expects to hear from you regularly and on time — even if you do not owe money.
Take a lesson from a local retail store that sold upscale wine and fresh-baked goods as a sideline, seemingly prosperous for years in the same city location. Customers found the store shuttered one day with a posted notice from the IRS, which overnight had closed the business and seized all of its assets — including cash, inventory, and the physical store. The owner was served papers stating that his checking, savings, and investments must be forfeited to satisfy an IRS demand for payment. He had paid his vendors, but he had not paid employee withholding taxes or made FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act — more commonly known as Social Security and Medicare) payments for months. If the amounts are large enough, the IRS may also consider criminal prosecution, not just fines and interest charges.
If you do not understand these matters, learn about them. The IRS website has everything you need. Most business accounting software also has the core information. You can buy new withholding and tax tables each year. If you still do not understand it, hire a part-time bookkeeper to handle taxes and reporting.
Were You Thinking This?
While you are considering answers to the above questions, be on guard for the following, usually misguided, assumptions many people make as they approach the idea of starting their own business:
One business is like another, right?
Wrong. Businesses share many elements, but the devil is always in the details. A retail store is an entirely different operation than an Internet-based service business. It is essential to know what you don't know. Don't assume that your current skills can be applied to any business; this is arrogant and foolish. Take the time to learn to adapt skills and acquire new skills needed for your chosen business. This is why business coaches recommend that entrepreneurs focus on a business they know something about. Stay close to home; stick to the kinds of businesses that are close to your skill set.
You will learn on the job.
Walking into a new business assuming you can wing it is tantamount to disaster. You may as well take your hard-earned cash and throw it away. If you have researched franchises, no matter what industry they are in, you will see that consistently the keys to success are the mandatory training program and the requirement that a franchisee have management (read business) experience.
The one exception to this rule is a small home-based business, starting part-time with little capital at risk while still holding a full-time position with an employer. You can take your time because you are under no pressure to make a profit and pay yourself to support your family and household. You can make mistakes, experiment with your website, and learn as you go.
You can turn your hobby into your business.
This certainly has happened, and sometimes successfully. But the odds are against you. Try to understand your motivation in this situation. Are you really interested in a business, or do you just want to spend more time with your favorite activities? Are there really enough potential customers to monetize your recreational activity? The IRS takes a dim view of people who insist that their hobby is a business and then take the tax relief offered to a legitimate business.
Everyone will want this!
Famous last words. One of the biggest mistakes is to extrapolate from survey or census data and conclude that the market for your product or services is huge. Most businesses appeal to a specialized market, and even if so-called interested parties run into the millions, it does not mean that you can reach them effectively and cheaply, and it does not mean that they will sign up and buy.
Take the situation of two partners who found the "perfect" property from which to run an upscale garden center. The information they received from the buyer told them that the average family income within three miles in all directions was in excess of $72,000. This seemed ideal, until reality showed them that much of the census tract was made up of young families with one income and one stay-at-home spouse, along with retired people living on fixed income. Even if everyone in the area did like their garden goods and services, many could not afford boutique prices and would instead head for the nearest big box store.
The Internet also fuels this kind of fuzzy thinking by making it appear that everyone is online and therefore a potential customer. If that were true, the art of search optimization and keyword/concept utilization to get customers to your site would not be needed. And even if these potential customers buy, that is no guarantee that they will buy again. Repeat customers are one of the strongest elements in a successful business — and why businesses work so hard for customer loyalty and brand recognition.
You can do it better, faster, and cheaper.
The parallel to "everyone will want this" is the notion that the competition is weak, ineffectual, or technologically backward and you have the better mousetrap. Once operating, you may be surprised how ingrained the competition is, no matter how much you shout that you are better, faster, and cheaper. Buyers are reluctant to make changes if they are generally satisfied — one of the biggest reasons it is so hard to take customers away from competitors. Unless your competition has consistently mangled the customer experience, you will find it very difficult to divert their customers to your products or services. And then you have to deliver to keep those customers happy. And don't think you can do it by price alone. Unrealistic pricing is one of the big reasons small businesses fail.
All this planning is a waste of time.
Why write a business plan? You know what you are going to do. In some cases, you may have been in this business a long time and you have thought of everything. These are, of course, the famous last words of an ill-prepared and unrealistic entrepreneur. Even the tiniest start-up needs a plan. It does not have to be a lengthy, overly formal document. It could be a detailed outline. But if you are going to put money into it or at some point you hope to interest a partner or an investor, and certainly if you plan to go to the bank for a business loan, you must have a proper planning document.
The bank will not give you a loan, so why bother?
If this is your view, then you clearly do not hear the hundreds of commercials sponsored by the banking industry. Not only will they lend money, but many banks participate in programs through the Small Business Administration that back loans to small businesses. Often the banks have little, if any, risk. Having said this, the recent banking crisis may affect availability of funds and interest rates charged. Be prepared to be flexible, and have a strong concept.
Ask friends and colleagues about banking relationships. Visit a bank near your business and talk to a commercial loan officer. Establish a relationship and rapport long before you may need a loan. The obvious start is to open a basic business checking account, make sure that you never go below the prescribed balance, and never, under any circumstances, overdraw the account. Keep in touch by e-mail or another visit or two. Be sensitive about the loan officer's time, but remember that she is in the business of making loans. She wants to add high-quality loans to the bank's portfolio.
Be prepared to sign loan documents that make you personally responsible for loan repayment if the business cannot meet its obligations. The lender wants as much collateral for a business loan as it possibly can get. Never, absolutely never, put up your home or condo as collateral for a loan.
You don't need to be computer-savvy.
In most cases you need the basics to run a business — something like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and a business accounting software package such as QuickBooks — along with an e-mail application and web browser, plus services such as Skype, Go to Meeting, SurveyMonkey, LinkedIn, and, of course, Facebook and Twitter, to make your communications inexpensive and seamless. If you do not even know how to turn on a computer, keep your day job. If your computer skills are weak, ask your kids, your spouse, your neighbor, or a friend for pointers. Or check out continuing education courses at your local community college. Just be sure to find some avenue for learning the basics.
Excerpted from The Entrepreneur's Starter Kit by Paul J. Christopher. Copyright © 2012 the American Library Association. Excerpted by permission of American Library Association.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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