Starting a small business is without a doubt a large undertaking, but it is fortunately something that can be attained by anybody with a good idea, a strong work ethic, and a good set of resources. Starting a business involves thinking of a business concept, writing a business plan, understanding the financial side, and finally marketing and launching.
|How to Start a Small Business|
Part 1: Setting Out the Basics
1. Define your goals. Do you want financial independence, eventually selling your business to the highest bidder? Do you want something small and sustainable, that you love doing and from which you want to derive a steady income? These are the things that are good to know very early on.
1. Choose an idea. It might be a product you've always wanted to make, or a service you feel people need. It might even be something people don't know they need yet, because it hasn't been invented!
- It can be helpful to have people who are bright and creative join you for a casual brainstorming session. Start with a simple question like: "What shall we do?" The idea is not to create a business plan, just to generate potential ideas. Many of the ideas will be duds, and there will be quite a few ordinary ones, but a few may emerge that have real potential.
- Consider your talents, experience, and knowledge when selecting a concept. If you have a particular skill set or talent, consider how these resources can be applied to meeting some sort of market demand. Combining skill and knowledge with a market demand increases your odds of having a successful business idea.
- For example, you may have worked with electronics as an employee for many years. You may have noticed a demand in your community for a particular form of electrical work, and combining your experience with the market demand can allow you to attract customers.
- Always check to see if the name is being used by somebody else before selecting it. Try to create a name that is simple and memorable.
- Think of popular brand names like "Apple". These names are memorable, simple, and easy to pronounce.
- Think of some of the biggest success stories in recent times, such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Bill Gates and Paul Allen; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak; and Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In every case, the partnership brought out the best in both sides of the equation.
- Think about the areas that you are either weak in, or have little knowledge of. Finding partners compatible with your personality who can fill in your knowledge or skill gaps is an excellent way to ensure your business has the resources you need to succeed.
- Does the other person complement your weaknesses? Or do both of you bring only one set of the same skills to the table? If the latter, be wary as you can have too many people doing the same thing while other things are left unattended.
- Do you see eye to eye on the big picture? Arguments about the details are a given, and are important for getting things right. But not seeing eye to eye on the big picture, the real purpose of your business, can cause a split that may be irreparable. Be sure your team cares about the and buys into the purpose as much as you do.
- If interviewing people, do some reading on how to spot real talent beyond the certifications, degrees or lack thereof. The area an individual is educated in is not necessarily the area they are most talented in. An interviewee may have a background in accounting for example, but their experience and your assessment of them indicates they may be a better fit helping with marketing.
Part 2: Writing a Business Plan
1. Create a business plan. A business plan helps to define what you think you need to launch your business, large or small. It summarizes the sense of your business in a single document. It also creates a map for investors, bankers, and other interested parties to use when determining how they can best help you and to help them decide whether or not your business is viable. Your business plan should consist of the elements outlined in the steps below.
2. Write your business description. Describe your business more specifically, and how it fits into the market in general. If you are a corporation, LLC, or sole proprietorship, state that, and why you chose to go that route. Describe your product, its big features, and why people will want it. Answer the following questions:
- Who are potential customers? Once you understand who they are and what they want, come up with a marketing strategy.
- What price are they willing to pay for your product or service? Why would they pay for your product or service over your competitor's?
- Who are your competitors? Do a competitive analysis to identify key competitors. Find out who is doing something similar to what you are planning, and how have they been successful. Just as important is to find the failures, and what made their venture fall apart.
- How will you create your product? Is it a service that you are offering, or if it's more complex software, a physical product like a toy or a toaster how will it get built? Define the process, from sourcing raw materials to assembly to completion, packaging, warehousing, and shipping. Will you need additional people? Will there be unions involved? All of these things must be taken into account.
- Who will lead, and who will follow? Define your organization, from the receptionist up to the CEO, and what part each plays in both function and financials. Knowing your organizational structure will better help you plan your operating costs, and fine-tune how much capital you will need to function effectively.
- Getting feedback. Friends and family make great resources for asking questions and getting feedback don't hesitate to use them as your sounding board.
- Needing to increase the size of your premises. This happens more often than expected. Once the stock starts piling up, you may find it ends up in your living room, bedroom and the garden shed. Think rental of storage premises if needed.
- You will want to include the type of marketing you will use. For example, will you use radio ads, social media, promotions, billboards, attend networking events, or all of the above?
- You will also want to define your marketing message. In other words, what will you say to convince customers to choose your product? Here, you want to focus on your Unique Selling Point (also known as USP). This is the unique advantage your product has to solve your customers problem. For example, you may be lower cost, faster, or higher quality than your peers.
- Consumers are increasingly conscious of the need to show that your business is concerned with labor conditions and isn't damaging the environment. Certification endorsements from reputable organizations, such as labels and stars, can reassure customers that your product or service is more aligned with their values than one lacking the certification.
- Cover your startup costs. How are you going to finance your business initially? The bank, venture capitalists, angel investors, Small Business Administration (SBA), your own savings: these are all viable options. When you start a business, be realistic. You will probably not roll out of the gate making 100 percent of whatever you project, so you need to have enough ready reserve to fund things until you are really up and running. One of the surest roads to failure is under-capitalization.
- What price do you intend to sell your product or service for? How much will it cost you to produce? Work out a rough estimate for net profit—factoring in fixed costs like rent, energy, employees, etc.
8. Build your product or develop your service. Once you have the business all planned, financed, and have your basic level of staffing, get going. Whether that's sitting down with the engineers and getting the software coded and tested, or getting materials sourced and shipped to your fabrication room (aka "garage"), or purchasing in bulk and marking up the price, the building process is the time during which you prepare for market. During this time, you may discover things such as:
- Needing to tweak the ideas. Perhaps the product needs to be a different color, texture or size. Maybe your services need to be broader, narrower or more detailed. This is the time to attend to anything that crops up during your testing and development phases. You'll know innately when something needs tweaking to make it better or to make it less like a competitor's stale offerings.
Part 3: Managing Your Finances
1. Secure start-up costs. Most businesses require capital to start. Money is typically required to purchase supplies and equipment, as well as keep the business operational for the period before your business becomes profitable. The first place to look for financing is yourself.
- Do you have investments or savings? If so, consider using a portion to fund your business. You should never invest all your savings into a business due to the risk of failure. In addition, you should never invest money put aside for emergency savings (experts recommend having three to six months of income put aside for this purpose), or money you will need over the next few years for various obligations.
- Consider a home equity loan. If you have a home, looking to get a home equity loan can be a wise idea, since these loans are typically easily approved (since your home acts as collateral), and interest rates are typically lower.
- If you have a 401(k) plan through your employer, consider borrowing against the plan. Plans typically allow you to borrow against 50% of your account balance up to a maximum of $50,000.
- Consider saving ahead as another option. If you have a job, save a portion of your monthly income over time to cover your start-up costs.
- Visit a bank to inquire about small business loans or lines of credit. When doing this, always visit many providers to ensure you are getting the best rate.
3. Have more than the minimum. You may determine it will take $50,000 to start your business, and that's fine. You get your $50,000, buy your desks and printers and raw materials, and then then the second month arrives, and you're still in production, and the rent is due, and your employees want to be paid, and all the bills hit at once. When this happens, your only likely recourse will be to pack it in. If you can, try to have the reserves for a year of no income.
4. Pinch those pennies. Plan to keep purchases of office equipment and overheads to a minimum when starting up. You do not need amazing office premises, the latest in office chairs and pricey artwork on the walls. A broom cupboard in the best address can be sufficient if you can artfully steer clients to the local coffee shop for meetings every time (meet them in the foyer). Many a business start-up has failed by purchasing the expensive gizmos instead of focusing on the business itself.
5. Decide how to accept payment. You will need to do something to get payment from your clients or customers. You can get something like a Square, which is great for small businesses since it requires the minimum amount of paperwork and the fees are minimal. However, if you feel uncomfortable with technology, you can inquire about a more traditional merchant account.
- A merchant account is a contract under which an acquiring bank extends a line of credit to a merchant, who wishes to accept payment card transactions of a particular card association brand. Previously, without such a contract, one could not accept payments by any of the major credit card brands. However, the Square has changed that, so don’t feel locked in or limited to this option. Do your research.
- The Square is a card swiping device which connects with a smartphone or tablet and turns that device into a sort of cash register. You may have encountered this device in the businesses you frequent, as they are becoming common at coffee shops, restaurants, street food stands and other businesses (look for a postage-stamp sized plastic square plugged into a tablet or phone).
- Note that Paypal, Intuit, and Amazon all offer similar solutions. Make sure to look into all options before making a selection.
- If you are online business, services like PayPal offer an excellent way to receive payment and make transfers.
Part 4: Covering the Legal Side
1. Consider finding an attorney or other legal advisor. There will be many hurdles to leap as you go from working stiff to overworked and underpaid small business owner. Some of those hurdles will be composed of stacks of documents with rules and regulations, ranging from building covenants to city ordinances, county permits, state requirements, taxes, fees, contracts, shares, partnerships, and more. Having somebody you can call when the need arises will not only give you peace of mind, it will give you a much-needed resource who can help you plan for success.
- Choose someone with whom you "click" and who shows that he or she understands your business. You will also want someone with experience in this area, as an inexperienced legal advisor could lead you to legal trouble or even fines and prison time.
3. Form a business entity. You’ll need to decide what type of business entity you want to be, for tax purposes and hopefully to eventually attract investors. You will do this after you've decided whether you will need money from others either in equity or loans and with the advice of your legal and accounting experts. It is one of the last steps taken before you actually spend money or ask someone for money. Most people are familiar with corporations, LLCs, etc., but for the vast majority of small business owners, you will need to form one of the following:
- A sole proprietorship, if you will be running (not including employees) this business on your own or with your spouse.
- A general partnership, if you will be running this business with a partner.
- A limited partnership, which is composed of a few general partners, who are liable for problems with the business, and a few limited partners, who are only liable for the amount in which they invest in the business. All share profits and losses.
- A limited liability partnership (LLP), where no partner is liable for another’s negligence.
Part 5: Marketing Your Business
1. Get a website. If you're selling online, get your ecommerce in gear and either build a website, or have one built for you. It's your storefront, so anything and everything you can do to make people want to visit, and want to stay, do it.
- Alternatively, if your business is more oriented toward the "in person" experience, traditional marketing may be just as important. For example, if you're starting a landscaping business, focus on getting the word out to neighbors before starting a website
- When making a website keep in mind that simplicity and clarity are key. A simple design that clearly states what you do, how you do it, and what you charge is most effective. When making your website, remember to emphasize why your business is the best solution to a clients problem.
3. Discover your inner publicist. You might truly believe in your product or service, but in order for it to be successful, everyone else must believe in it too. If you're new to advertising and marketing or you dislike doing the sales pitch, now is the time to overcome such feelings and put on the publicist persona. You need to develop an excellent short pitch to convince people they need your product or service, one that reflects the value, purpose and potential of what your business is offering. Write down this pitch in many ways until you find one that you feel satisfied says it all and is something you can say readily. Then practice it like crazy!
- Depending on your business, it could be appropriate to have interesting, eye-catching business cards printed.
5. Implement your marketing and distribution plans. With your product being built or services developed, and a reasonable expectation on when either is ready for selling, begin marketing.
- If you will be advertising in periodicals, they will need copy or images at least two months in advance of publication.
- If you will be selling in stores, get pre-orders sold, and shelf space allocated. If you will be selling online, get that e-commerce site ready to sell.
- If you're offering a service, advertise in appropriate trade and professional journals, newspapers and online.
Part 6: Launching Your Business
1. Secure space. Whether it's an office, or a warehouse, if you need more space than your garage or your spare bedroom, now's the time to get that.
- If you don't generally need an office beyond your home, but may occasionally need meeting space, there are often places that can address those needs. A quick Google search on "business meeting rentals [your city/state]" will deliver plenty of rental options in your area.
- Be sure to contact your local municipality about zoning laws. Some types of small businesses cannot be ran out of a home, and it is important to ensure your business is operating within its proper zone.