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Up & Running

You can do a lot in 30 days--like start a business. Follow these steps to get going in less than a month.

Can you really start your business in 30 days flat? While it depends on the type of business you want to launch, our experts say you should be able to get at least one aspect of your business up and running within a month, whether it's an e-commerce website or a signed contract with your first customer.

Depending on your experience level with the type of business you want to start, some steps may be ongoing responsibilities, take longer to complete or need to be done in a different order than we've listed here. Other steps may be a snap and be possible to complete in a day. Even if the type of business you want to start takes longer to launch than 30 days, our step-by-step guide should have you well on your way to launching your business before your calendar turns over another page.

First, set aside time to work on your new business idea, says business consultant Paul Snare, a counselor with SCORE. Snare advises you to chart how you currently spend your time, plotted in 30-minute increments. Then pinpoint hours that can be freed up for working on your business idea. (If you can take a leave from your current job, hire a sitter or let the housekeeping chores slide for a while, so much the better.)

We've broken the process down into 30 simple, essential steps to take the first month if you want to get your business open fast. Now you're ready to start working toward opening your doors . . . even if they're just the doors to your home office or virtual storefront.

Paperwork

1. To legally be in business, you'll need to complete some basic paperwork. Which government office handles what form varies from state to state, but for the most part, the process is quick, inexpensive and can be done online, says business attorney Mark Kimball.
Most business registration steps can be completed overnight, either via messenger or the internet, by requesting expedited service and paying a small fee.

2. If you're forming a partnership, corporation or LLC, begin by registering your corporate entity, usually with the secretary of state's office. Sole proprietors can skip this step, along with the next one, obtaining a federal tax identification number from the IRS. Get a tax ID almost instantly through irs.gov.

3. Apply for a business license, typically through your state's department of licensing. If you're not a sole proprietor using your own name as your business name, be sure to register your business name with the state, searching state databases first to verify that your name isn't already being used.

4. Apply for any desired patents or trademarks as soon as possible. They can take six months or more to be approved, says Kimball. But you can begin operating before receiving these federally approved rights.

5. If your business requires a specialty license that you must pass a test to receive, such as a contractor's license, sign up for necessary classes or training ASAP, advises Peri Pakroo, author of The Small Business Start-Up Kit. If you try to operate before your license is official, your business could be shut down.

6. Once you have your business registration in hand, open a business bank account right away, suggests Pakroo. "There's something about doing that for a lot of business owners that makes it feel more real."

Network

7. Don't start a business before discussing your concept with other entrepreneurs, says Raman Chadha, executive director of the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center at DePaul University. While your family can provide you with moral support, you'll need other business-people to function as impartial sounding boards. Network through business organizations, find a mentor or coach, or form an advisory board to connect with entrepreneurs. "Only other entrepreneurs will say, 'What the hell are you doing? Find a cheaper way to do that,'" Chadha says.

Networking can provide you with shortcuts to needed supplies, vendors or funders. Actress Annemarie Lawless, 39, found this out when she and husband Michael Sanders, 41, launched their upscale women's clothing company, A Lawless, in New York City in 2005.

In her search for a factory to make her high-quality T-shirts and dresses, Lawless beat the streets of Manhattan's garment district, asking other designers for help. Inside an elevator in a clothing factory, Lawless met a designer who gave her an introduction to "the best knit factory in the fashion district," where her clothes are now made.

Just a few months after startup, Lawless had more than $80,000 in sales orders, and a mentor gave her a connection to a $20,000 loan to cover production costs. A Lawless was off and running, and expects sales to top $500,000 this year.

Market Research

Before you quit your day job, find out if there really is a demand for what you offer, says Paul Nicholas, president of business consulting firm Straticom.

8. Start by combing through public sources for information, Nicholas says. Search for market surveys published in trade magazines about your niche, or quiz industry suppliers to learn about what's selling and the type of customer that is buying.

9. To find a location that appeals to that customer, ask a local real estate agent for demographic information. "Realtors have already pulled together fact sheets for any community they're working in," he says. "If it's for a retail site, they'll also have information on foot traffic."

10. To get a quick summary of a community, including population and household incomes, Nicholas uses epodunk.com. He sizes up the competition by using Google Maps, which will plot all the locations for a business type over a chosen geographic area.

11. Don't overlook business owners in your industry in your hunt for data. They can be surprisingly helpful. Business consultant Snare had one client who staked out a business similar to the one she wanted to open, but in another city where she wouldn't be viewed as a competitor. She then recorded the number of customers who left with packages in a day, giving her a rough idea of sales. When she approached the business's owners, they were flattered to be asked for advice and talked to her for four hours, providing details on pricing, hours, wages and more.

Business Plan

12. Once you have confirmed that your idea meets a need in the marketplace, you're ready to write a business plan. Even if you're not seeking outside funding, don't skip this step, says Tim Berry, author of business plan software program Business Plan Pro and a regular blogger about business planning.
Many first-time entrepreneurs are intimidated by the need to create a business plan, says Berry, and their efforts to launch a business grind to a halt. If that's the case, think of business planning as an ongoing task, not a project you have to finish.

"It's not a ponderous, big, ugly document," he says. "It's not a barrier that stands between you and what you're doing. Plan as you go--don't stop what you're doing because you're doing a plan."
Berry encourages entrepreneurs to jump in at any point in the plan and get started. If you have a marketing background, perhaps you will write the marketing portion first. But all business plans should have three key elements: They describe your market, your business's identity and your business's focus.

If, for instance, you're planning a Thai restaurant, what kind is it: a family-oriented neighborhood eatery? A fine-dining restaurant that's more of a regional draw? Your focus will affect many other steps as you execute, so think it through before you move forward.

With this core in place, the rest of the business plan should outline the necessary tasks, the deadlines by which they need to be done and the person responsible for each item. "It's like dribbling a basketball," Berry says. "You're looking up to where you're going and down into the details."

One of the key details many newbies like to fudge is price--but don't. Research your market and get a good idea of what you could charge. You'll need price information to do a cash-flow projection, which is the final, critical element of your business plan. This estimates how long it will take for your business to start making money.

Figuring costs isn't hard, says Pakroo. Scan rental ads for lease costs, want ads for salaries, and read trade publications or talk to vendors to learn about the costs of goods. This will give you a good sense of what you would need to charge to make a profit, a figure that may or may not compare well to the price the market will bear.

"If doing the business plan makes you decide not to start your business, it's really done its job," Pakroo says. "Better to find out that it didn't have a good chance of making money before you spend $50,000 or more."

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The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Carol Tice, a freelance writer, is chief executive of TiceWrites Inc. in Bainbridge Island, Wash. She blogs about freelance writing at Make a Living Writing. Email her at carol@caroltice.com.

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This article was originally published in the March 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: Up & Running.

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