From the October 2006 issue of Startups

Many new business owners look at successful entrepreneurs and envy their million-dollar lifestyles and accomplishments. "If only I knew their secrets," they think. "Why isn't my business as profitable or growing as fast?" The secret is simple: It's not hard work or long hours; it's acting like a CEO, no matter what the size of your enterprise.

CEOs expect a payoff for every venture. Millionaire entrepreneurs focus on the business practices that create the biggest results. When you choose how to invest your time, money and resources, you should ask "What's the payoff?" Once you make that investment, if the return is insufficient, find a way to make that project profitable, or ditch it.

Millionaire entrepreneurs use these six secrets to guarantee an enviable payoff.

1. Everything Is Marketing. The success of a company is based more on the marketing of the product than on the product itself. Everything is marketing, from the way you say "Good morning" to the contacts you make on an airplane to your company name and brand, your wardrobe and vocabulary. Here's how to approach each aspect of your business like a marketing genius.

Treat every opportunity as a marketing opportunity. The waiter at your favorite restaurant might introduce you to a new client. A stranger in the elevator at your bank is a potential referral. You always create where your next client comes from.

Realize that not all marketing opportunities are created equal. Sticking business cards under 30 windshield wipers in a parking lot isn't as effective as speaking to 30 people at a luncheon. Speaking to 30 people at a luncheon isn't as effective as exhibiting at a national convention attended by thousands.

Be your own number-one fan. That means announcing your achievements. This is hard for many people, but if you don't do it, who will? With humility, let people know when your business wins an award, you have an upcoming speaking engagement or you add a new service. Announcing your achievements also lets your clients know they bet on a winner.

Know that your existing clients are your best prospects. It costs much more to get a new client than it does to increase the cash flow from an existing client. The best client is a loyal one.

Never stop marketing, no matter how successful you become. When you get busy, you may be tempted to cut down on marketing, but that's the time to rev it up. It's always time to send out more promotional packages. It's always time to call on new prospects. It's always time to update and optimize your website. Don't wait until you're going hungry to replant the garden.

2. Million-Dollar Ideas Can Come from Anyone. Ninety-five percent of CEOs never ask the $8-an-hour employees for their opinions. Yet, those employees are the ones touching the product and speaking to the customers. Brilliant ideas are generated by the most unlikely employees, and you'll never know what they're thinking if you don't ask.

Tapping into my employees' ideas at Vickie Milazzo Institute helped me grow my $12 million legal nurse consulting firm more than 300 percent over the past five years. We have monthly brainstorming sessions where the entire staff, from the mailroom clerk to the director of finance, offers ideas and opinions on new products, marketing strategies and ways to streamline systems. Everyone works as a team. Back in their departments and offices, they continue to brainstorm with one another and solve problems brought up at the original brainstorms.

If you don't have an employee base yet, collect gray matter wherever you can find it. Someone else has already solved every single problem you will encounter. Don't limit yourself to the experts; you can learn from everyone. Your daughter's soccer coach who's been a successful salesman for 20 years can be a gold mine of sales tips.

Leveraging other people's talents and ideas to accelerate your future success is just plain smart. I've met many entrepreneurs who say, "I want to do this all on my own." When I hear that, I think, "That's crazy. Ride the horse of anybody who has what you need."

Ditch Networking and Don't Underprice

3. Networking Is Not Working. Many new entrepreneurs spend more time at networking events than on their businesses. Millionaire entrepreneurs are selective about relationship building. You won't find them at networking events. They're busy building their companies, not their business card collections.

The people you really need to be networking with are most likely not at your typical networking event. Always strive to network above your level. Just as you improve your tennis game by competing with better players, so too will you become better at your enterprise by interacting with people who are already successful.

If you do spend valuable time at a networking event, make sure plenty of prospects or powerful resources will be there. Don't confuse networking with socializing, and don't give credence to anyone just because they show up at a networking event. Though ideas can come from anywhere, you do need to be selective about whose advice you decide to follow. Always assess the validity of the advice offered, and don't take advice from people who mean well but are not qualified to give it.

4. Don't Underprice Yourself. Smart buyers understand that anything cheap can be expensive in the long run. They'll buy in to your enterprise as long as you provide value for their dollar. For 24 years, people have said my products are too expensive--until they purchase and use them.

Whatever you do, don't create a commodity business. For example, my company doesn't sell $16 DVDs or CDs, although those are the media we employ. Instead, we sell a $7,400 educational system. We build value by providing the highest quality products and innovative services such as free mentoring. We build trust by providing unmatched attention to customer service. Competitors might be able to duplicate our ideas, but they can't duplicate the experience our customers receive. Stamp your enterprise with innovation and originality so it's not easily duplicated by a cheaper, low-quality version.

Above all, you must make a profit. People who say, "I love this so much I'd do it for free" are not entrepreneurs--they're volunteers. An enterprise is profitable, otherwise it isn't an enterprise--it's a charity. The word profit stems from the Latin word profectus, which means "advancement or improvement." Millionaire entrepreneurs are willing to start small and grow slowly, but they fully intend to make money.

5. Expect Icebergs. Millionaire entrepreneurs know that no matter how successful they are, no enterprise is unsinkable. The Titanic sank its first time out, but if you're prepared, even enormous icebergs won't sink you.

In 1990, I hit an iceberg when my company's largest clients dissolved their firm. Thankfully, I had the necessary lifeboats in place. I quickly reorganized and was able to put more resources into building the education portion of my business, training RNs to become Certified Legal Nurse Consultants. My business stayed afloat, and I charted a new course that changed my future.

Icebergs happen, but you have to sail before you can fail. Starting small is better than not starting at all. Be willing to set out and maneuver around icebergs. If you never leave the dock, you'll never have an enterprise to keep afloat. Had I missed the iceberg, I might have continued happily in my original direction, satisfied with my solo consulting practice. That iceberg turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me and my bank account.

Compete Only With Yourself

6. Compete Only With Yourself. While mushing a dog sled across an Alaskan glacier, I learned firsthand that if you're not the lead dog, the view from the rear never changes. And the rear is exactly where you'll be if you compete only with others. Innovate--don't imitate. To excel in enterprise, you must be aware of your competition, but you can't allow that awareness to steer you off course. Compete with your own best performance--be the lead dog your competitors imitate, and you'll leave them with that rear view.

If anyone had told me 24 years ago that I could own a multimillion-dollar company, I wouldn't have believed it. It took me two decades to learn these secrets. I wish some millionaire entrepreneur had shared them with me sooner. I invite you to use these six secrets to earn the ultimate payoff: the satisfaction of creating your own million-dollar business.

5 Promises to Keep
Vickie L. Milazzo, founder and president of the Vickie Milazzo institute, uses the following promises to guide her every decision. The magic of the promises is that they are simple and can work for any entrepreneur.

1. I will live and work a passionate life. Listen to your heart; then build your enterprise based on that passionate desire. When you wake up every day to a business you love, you'll do what it takes to succeed.

2. I will go for it or reject it outright. Don't spend your life in a holding pattern. Do it or forget it. Make a plan, and be realistic. Do you have time? Can you afford it? If not, reject it and come up with an attainable goal.

3. I will take one action step each day toward my ultimate vision. Unfulfilled dreams make people miserable. Acting on those dreams makes people happy. By taking action every day, you develop the habit and discipline to make your dream a reality. Success is in the motion.

4. I commit to being a success student for life. Anyone can launch a new business. Growing a successful business, however, requires learning every day from every available resource, including books, classes and especially successful mentors.

5. I believe I can do anything. Believing is 90 percent of the win. Imagine your success with sensory detail. If you believe you'll achieve your goal--no matter what the challenges, no matter what anyone else tells you--you will succeed.

Top 18 Dos and Don'ts for Business Startups

Do engage big things that can grow your business dramatically.

Do practice uncompromising integrity at all times.

Do live beneath your means, and have six months of business and living expenses in savings.

Do develop a strategic business plan, solidly emphasizing marketing.

Do choose a company name that will still represent you in five, 10 and 20 years.

Do ditch perfectionism; get yourself and your product out there now.

Do hire professionals to help in any area where you're not an expert, especially for your marketing materials.

Do have a backup plan, not just for your computer, but for every essential system.

Do start building your customer database before you start building your business.

Don't get distracted by naysayers; trust your vision.

Don't quit your day job until you're making real money.

Don't risk losing your home by getting a home equity loan; explore other financing options instead.

Don't invest in unnecessary bells and whistles such as expensive office furniture.

Don't try to do it all yourself; delegate to family members until you can afford to hire your first employee.

Don't cut corners on image; invest wisely in quality promotional materials and your wardrobe.

Don't get addicted to time-stealers like e-mail and voice mail.

Don't wait for the phone to ring; go after your prospects.

Don't let stress wear you down; make time to take care of yourself.


Vicki L. Milazzo, RN, MSN, JD, is the author of Inside Every Woman: Using the 10 Strengths You Didn't Know You Had to Get the Career and Life You Want Now.