As a writer, I know how to organize information and make it look good. But like many would-be entrepreneurs, I don't know much about balance sheets, cash flow, marketing budgets, ad sales, or other essentials for running a company.
So I grabbed the chance when it came along to attend a free boot camp for entrepreneurs from the Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurship. I'd been thinking about starting a travel site for parents, and the time was ripe. The program, called Fastrac, has been around for 17 years but has taken on new popularity in the recession. It's offered around the U.S., often in conjunction with city governments and nonprofits. I attended the New York City program, which is co-sponsored by a city business-assistance service and is coming up on its 1,000th graduate.
Related: Boot Camps for Entrepreneurs
The program seemed like a good way to help me find out whether my company would be viable and devise a concrete plan to get started. Fastrac offered that and much more. The boot camp gave me tools to whip my business idea into shape, by helping me in these four key ways.
1. Identify the right questions to ask.
On the first day of the seven-day program, I began jotting down questions I thought I needed to answer before I could forward in a sensible way. On the second day, we began working out the details of our start-up and fixed costs, pricing and revenue streams to estimate a break-even point and profitability. I soon realized I hadn't considered many costs, such as filing and legal fees, much less the technical capabilities I'd need from the start. Worse, while I knew vaguely where revenue might come from, I no idea what form it would take, or how to put a price on it. By the third class, my list of questions covered a legal-size page. Most revolved around money, customers and marketing.
2. Meet fellow classmates who can help.
As I kept adding new questions, I did manage to cross a few off, too. A few classmates were also launching web-based businesses and another had had a marketing job where she targeted websites like mine for her clients. These folks shared data and resources with me, and helped me think about my problems from different angles. And the questions themselves helped focus my research and dig around better.
3. See other would-be entrepreneurs battling similar problems.
Most gratifying was the fact that many of the other 25 people in the class also had difficulty with the numbers. I would guess most entrepreneurs do. Aside from the few who among us who had master's degrees in business administration, most of my classmates brought to the table the skills and experience specific to theor venture, such as backgrounds in fashion, architecture, medicine, food service and so forth. Just like me, they worked through their questions and slowly began to form answers, often in the form of cost/revenue prospects far more intimidating than my own will be.
4. Build confidence as an entrepreneur.
I came into the class afraid that I would uncover some critical piece of information that would instantly make my idea seem laughably impractical. Or that I would conclude that my lack of experience packaging and pricing services, measuring cash flow and finessing spreadsheets would render me unlikely to succeed.
Quite the opposite happened. As I struggled and watched my classmates struggle and eventually make progress, I realized that there aren't many deal breakers for start-ups. There are just challenges. And most of them have to do with money. But with the right questions and resources and determination, you find answers and move on to the next challenge.
I did manage to fill in some of the blanks that I wanted to, or get close enough to trust that an answer would present itself along the way. For an entrepreneur, that is sometimes as good as you'll get -- and understanding that might have been the best lesson of all.