From the April 1999 issue of Startups

Julie Bick arrived at Microsoft in 1990, fresh out of The Wharton School of Business, she quickly realized the biggest part of her business education was still to come. After starting out as a product manager for Microsoft Word, Bick advanced to become a group manager in charge of more than 20 CD-ROM products. Her national bestseller, All I Really Need to Know in Business I Learned at Microsoft: Insider Strategies to Help You Succeed (Simon & Schuster, $12, 800-223-2348), reveals insights from her five-year tenure at one of the world's premier corporations.

What Bick learned at Microsoft can work for you, too. Here, her hard-won tips for the entrepreneurial-minded:

Eat your own dog food. Live in your customer's shoes and see how they fit. "Whether you're making chocolates or software, you should try out the product yourself and live it as the customer would live it," says Bick. At Microsoft, that meant everything from building a reality-based "home of the future" complete with a computer in the kitchen, to rolling out its latest e-mail product for employee use before it was ready for prime time. "[By testing,] you realize how important those things are to real customers," she says.

Mistakes are OK. If you're not making any mistakes, you're probably playing it a little too safe. "A lot of people think `I'm starting my own business, so I don't want to do anything wrong,' but [that means] you're not really pushing the envelope at all," says Bick. "Respond to a snafu by asking `How did this happen? What can I do to fix it? What have I learned that will keep it from happening again?' As long as you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go on, it's better to make the mistake [than not to try at all]."

Your Web site is never finished. "The Web is a great place to let customers know about your product, but it takes as many resources to maintain your Web site as it does to build it in the first place," says Bick. Whether revamping your technology to make your pictures redraw faster or keeping up with increased traffic to your site, don't be outdone by your competition.

It's almost never as bad as you think it is. "There's always some bizarre thing that happens," says Bick, "and you're thinking `Oh, God, my life is over now.' " But don't sweat it, she advises. It's just a bump in the road. "One time at Microsoft, a direct-mail piece advertising Word and Excel went out to tens of thousands of people. But the phone number on the back was not the phone number for Microsoft," remembers Bick. "Everybody was about to tear their hair out, but then we [set out] to fix it. We apologized and said `Well, poor Pete's Poodle Parlor got a bunch of phone calls, and some customers had some hassles, but it's not the end of the world."

Study the competition. Microsoft does that through a SWOT analysis, which evaluates the competition's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. "[Microsoft employees] go to trade shows to see how [competing products] are being presented. They study the ads and tear apart the products," Bick says. "Then they write a marketing plan as if they were that company, beginning with, `If we were that company, what [opportunities] would we take advantage of?' "

Real entrepreneurs eat lunch. Entrepreneurs are in their offices 24 hours a day, observes Bick. "They kind of live there," she says. But they also understand it's essential to take a break, whether it's to talk to friends and bounce ideas off them or relieve stress at the gym.

Big events make good deadlines. For example, if you're attending a trade show, says Bick, "you have a [built-in] deadline for getting all your materials and [your product] ready for that day. You can coordinate a press release to go [with the event] or have your advertising roll out on that day."

Stay flexible. "Everything unforeseen comes up--both opportunities and problems," Bick advises. "If you can jump on both and not be freaked out by either, you'll win the game."

Bick is currently working on a sequel to her national bestseller. As yet untitled, it's scheduled for a November release.