26. Test the Financial Waters: Want to apply for a loan from the comfort of home? C-Loans.com analyzes your loan application against a database of 700 commercial mortgage lenders and comes up with offers from the top 20 lenders who want your business. It can be a good trial run to help you determine whether you're ready to get a business loan.
27. Open source it: Some startups can't afford hundreds of dollars for name-brand software on top of their other technology expenses. That's where open source applications really shine. Check out OpenOffice as a free, downloadable alternative to Microsoft Office. It includes a word processor, spreadsheet program, drawing program and presentation manager. OpenOffice has made a lot of compatibility and usability improvements in the past couple of years. If Outlook is too pricey for you, take Mozilla Thunder-bird for a test-drive. --A.C.K.
28. Become the Expert: Become well-informed about your industry and you will automatically attract customers--and sales--to your business. Make a name for yourself by sharing your knowledge. Write a factual and informative article and post it everywhere--on your website, your blog and professional industry sites, says Liz Goodgold, speaker and author of Duh! Marketing. "The secret is the byline at the bottom," she says. "It all links back to your site." --S.W.
29. Solve a Problem: If you've got a problem that needs solving, chances are others have the same problem--and the solution could spark a business for you. Just ask Angie and David Porter, co-founders of Furminator Inc., who invented a tool that gets at pets' undercoats to solve the problem of shedding. "It hit a chord with pet owners, and it addressed that problem," says David. Today, their de-shedding product line is sold at stores like PetSmart and Petco, pushing annual sales to $20 million. --N.L.T.
30. Try home parties: Do you have a product to sell? Throw a party. But before the fun begins, ask yourself some serious questions, such as what kind of hours you want to work and whether you plan on building a downline, says Anita DeFrank, co-owner of DirectSalesHelpers.com. Home parties are good for all products, but if your product's good to eat or nice to touch, that's even better. "Hands- and mouth-on parties," says DeFrank, "seem to work the best." --S.W.
31. Get Web E-Mail: Having an e-mail address that uses your own domain name gives you an automatic leg up. Sometimes your web hosting company will offer e-mail services to go along with your website, or you can check into a service like Gmail for Your Domain, a free Google Apps product that hosts your e-mail with your own domain name and throws in a powerful calendar feature as well. Plus, you can check your e-mail from anywhere with a web connection. --A.C.K.
32. Tap Friends and Family for Money: Kenneth Shapiro, senior financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, recommends you document your loved ones' loans or investments just as you would for any other investor. Whether you hire an attorney to help you or simply download a form from the internet, you need to specify terms and conditions, such as how much money each person is investing, if you'll pay interest and how much, and what happens if you fail to pay them back.
33. Talk Business with Your Former Employer: Thinking about exiting the work force to enter the world of business ownership? Before you quit and run, evaluate your performance on the job, says SCORE counselor Jack B. ReVelle. If you did well and are leaving on good terms, you have a good chance of turning your last employer into your first client. Have the confidence to put yourself out there, and you might just give your business a powerful jump-start. --S.W.
34. Get Noticed by Search Engines: If your customers are going to find you using web searches, you need to be on the radar of all the major search engines. For starters, visit Google, MSN and Yahoo! and list your business and website with each. For example, getting listed with the Google Local Business Center will help you appear on maps when local customers search for your type of business. It takes a little legwork to make sure you're listed with search engines, but it's well worth the time. --A.C.K.
35. Price Your Product Right: Price your product too high, and would-be customers will walk away. Price it too low, and they'll perceive it as second-rate. The right price point, however, can make your product fly off the shelves--just like the 99-cent reusable shopping bags created by Earthwise Bag Co. Inc. in Commerce, California. Co-founders Stan Joffe and his nephew Steve Batzofin made their enticing price point a key part of their strategy, thus making environmentalism practical for customers. --N.L.T.
36. Win a Business Plan Contest: Many business schools and universities--and some states--host business plan contests, some with cash prizes of $100,000 or more. Contestants are judged on both written and oral presentations. "Judges typically look for sustainability and venture scale and the management team's ability to execute," says Loretta Poole, assistant director of NYU's Berkley Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. For a comprehensive list of business plan competitions, check out smallbusinessnotes.com/planning/competitions.html.
37. Get Government Assistance: SBA, SBDC, WBC, SCORE. If it all just sounds like a random bunch of acronyms, then you haven't tapped into your biggest resource yet: the government. Whether you're in need of capital, free counseling or small-business tools, the various departments of the SBA stand ready to help. Get started by exploring sba.gov and visiting your local office, advises Ellen Thrasher, director of the SBA's Office of Business and Community Initiatives. --S.W.
38. Take Time to Stay Sane: It took a bit of resolve and a lot of planning for Paige Arnof-Fenn to disconnect herself completely from her marketing consulting firm, Mavens & Moguls, when she decided to take a month-long vacation to Tuscany. But by urging her employees to close deals before she left, Arnof-Fenn gave them the boost and encouragement they needed. She says, "[Your vacation] is when you have some of your most creative ideas, and you recharge the batteries and get energized." --K.O.
39. Start an Association: The Foundation for International Community Assistance helps entrepreneurs form self-employment associations. Through loans from FINCA, these groups are able to offer members access to a series of short-term loans that provide working capital for small businesses. Based in Washington, DC, the foundation has locations in several states; visit villagebanking.org or call (202) 682-1510 for more information.
40. Get Your Tech for Less: eBay can be a gold mine for tech deals, especially if you're open to the option of buying used or refurbished gear. Look beyond the big tech purchases to also find deals on everything from ink cartridges to packing materials. In addition, check out Best Buy for Business for technology buying and IT assistance options from the in-store Geek Squad. --A.C.K.
41. Spread the Word: Word-of-mouth is often the most desirable form of marketing. To get people talking, run a contest, stage an event or assemble a group of "influencers." A company that markets products to preteen girls, for example, could use its website to enroll several hundred girls to act as advisors on every-thing from product design to naming. The members could also be the first to receive information about new products. You can bet influencers like these will share their inside news with friends.
42. Get the Good Life: Choose a business that will allow you to create your ideal life. The key, says Louis Barajas, author of Small Business, Big Life, is to "develop clarity as to what you're truly passionate about and what you're gifted at." Create a life blueprint by listing your life roles, life focus, key relationships and ideal calendar. Write your business plan detailing how you'll create sales, bring in profits and sustain your business by doing what you love. --N.L.T.
43. Connect with Veteran-owned Businesses: The National Veteran-Owned Business Association helps the estimated 3.6 million veteran business owners in the U.S. establish government and corporate contacts. Membership is open to nonveterans, but only members who are veterans are able to access the "Marketplace" section of the site, where they can post their profiles and network with other members. Along with networking opportunities, members receive a subscription to Veterans Business Journal, the NaVOBA newsletter and members-only access to other online resources. --J.P.
44. Place Your Product in Mail Order Catalogs: First, research the catalogs your target market reads by doing an online search for similar products--and pitch those niche publications. Says George Hague, senior marketing strategist at catalog consulting company J. Schmid & Associates, "Catalog companies are always looking for a new product that fills a need." Have your products specs and/or samples ready to go when you pitch--and make sure you can supply the product with high quality and quick turnaround. Says Hague, "Deliver on what you promise." --N.L.T.
45. Do Market Research: Being competitive in the marketplace takes serious research. Steve Tennant, market research expert at Tennant Consulting, suggests starting with one to two weeks of desk research--online and in the library--to learn market trends, stats and who the big players are. Local business-school libraries are excellent for this. Then, in two to four weeks, glean the knowledge of your network of "friendlies and experts in a particular market," he says. Finally, seek your prospective customers: Ask how and why they buy--and how they want to buy. --N.L.T.
46. Find Simple Accounting Software: Padgett Connect is an accounting software program from Padgett Business Services geared toward the average user who doesn't have in-depth knowledge of accounting. It's customized by Padgett for each client's business, and user support is free. The program can handle everything from writing checks to sending invoices. It also aims to make everything easy to use, with simple terminology and preset charts of accounts tailored specifically to the user. --J.P.
47. Hire Smart: The foundations of any good business are the people who work for it. And while hiring a staff of full-time employees sounds ideal, it may not be the cheapest or most beneficial route for your business. Hiring interns and temporary employees is an inexpensive alternative, says Lee Froschheiser, founder of Management Action Programs. So how do you start looking? "Align yourself with a temp agency [whose] selection process you've spent time getting to know," says Froschheiser. Need interns? Contact colleges and universities to find and hire the best candidates. --K.O.
48. Teach Kids: Diverse new educational programs for kids, from cooking schools to abacus learning programs, have experienced growing popularity since 2006, while the revenue for tutoring, test-preparation and supplemental content programs grew 6 percent to make child education a $21.9 billion industry in 2005, according to market research firm Eduventures LLC. As more kids start aiming for college, that elusive acceptance letter is becoming increasingly hard to snag--the younger generations will need all the help they can get to maintain a competitive edge. --J.Y.
49. Alert the Media: Do-it-yourself PR is a cheaper alternative to advertising, but it requires know-how and time. For the best results, tailor your stories to the needs of the individual media outlets on your list. Then send a release or pitch letter, and follow up by phone. These initial contacts lay the groundwork for ongoing relationships with key members of the press.