Maria Contreras-Sweet often hears friends and acquaintances eager to quit their job say they want to start their own companies. But the successful entrepreneur and bank owner counsels them to wait. "Do some things in the evenings, on weekends and holidays to push that business forward so you're not burning through your own capital," she recommends. "I began to do research while I still had my corporate job because I didn't want to be on my nickel any longer than I had to be."
Contreras-Sweet is a former corporate executive and one-time government official. She was Westinghouse's government affairs officer for 15 years. She started her own public affairs agency and served as secretary of business, housing and transportation in California Gov. Gray Davis' administration. In November 2006, she started Promerica Bank (short for Promise of America), the first Hispanic-owned bank in Los Angeles in 35 years.
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Contreras-Sweet advises would-be entrepreneurs to explore their proposed business concepts carefully. She addressed some of the same issues in an IBM webcast during Global Entrepreneurship Week in November. Here are six things to consider regarding proposed business concepts:
- Is your concept unique? Entrepreneurs start as small fish in a big pond. If you're planning to start a business, Contreras-Sweet recommends you ask yourself these questions: "What's my niche? How do I distinguish myself in the field? What's the innovation here? What am I fixing that isn't fixed today?
"People want innovation," she says. "They're looking for a distinction, something new, something cutting-edge." Otherwise, you blend in with everybody else.
- Do you have barriers to entry? Consider whether someone can easily copy your idea. "What if someone comes along with more marketing resources and takes your work and makes it larger?" Contreras-Sweet asks. "Make sure you've trademarked it [and] registered it. What can you do to make yours special that somebody else can't do?"
- Choose an emerging market. In the tumultuous economy, "You want to be in a place that is growing. You want to be in a place where it has potential to have a long-term viability," she says
- You need a good network. Contreras-Sweet says your network should include your personal confidential network, like a good lawyer, accountant and marketer, along with friends and people who'll give you a discounted rate until you grow your business. Also network with what Contreras-Sweet calls "disciples of change"--people who're talking about and promoting your product and thus spreading the word about your company.
You can create your network while still in your job, getting involved in organizations that include your target customers. If you're a government affairs consultant, for example, you might want to hang around legislators. If you're selling dolls, she recommends connecting with children's organizations.
- You have to have passion. "I call it passion, but it really is endless energy," Contreras-Sweet says. "You have to get up early, work late. It takes a lot of passion, a lot of energy; it takes a lot of yourself. I always say to women that we have to take care of ourselves first, so that we're refreshed--that we have the energy."
"I find too many of us as women are so giving to our spouses, to our children, to our extended families, to our parents that we forget to take care of ourselves. So how could we possibly bring passion to the workplace when we're exhausted?" she asks. Instead, avoid draining yourself, and make sure you take care of yourself before taking care of everything else.
- Have good credit. In this downturn, people aren't managing their credit. You need to call creditors and rework your payment schedule or ask them to work with you on the interest rate.
"You've got to maintain a good relationship with your creditors so that they don't mess up your FICO score. When I see businesses coming in here and, based on their FICO score, one person will have a credit card that's giving him a 7 percent or 8 percent rate and somebody else has a 22 percent interest rate on his credit card--because one person's not been paying on time and the other one has. That spread makes the difference as to whether that company makes it or not," she says.
Good credit is also fundamental to getting loans.
"When you have crummy credit, you have to go to private equity or angel financiers or venture capital. Then you're giving someone else a part of your company because you don't have enough credit to take out a loan."
She likens equity capital to marriage. "Once you receive equity capital from somebody, you can't fire them," she says. "Equity partners are there for the long haul. You can't get rid of them that easily. They're part-owner of your business."
Along the same lines, Contreras-Sweet advises would-be entrepreneurs to understand the financial inner-workings of their business.
"Know how to price your product. Know what your margins are. Know what to set aside for research and development. Pay your bills on time," she says. "Master it before you delegate it to somebody else. You need to know as much as the CFO about how your biz operates and its financial condition."
Since starting the bank, Contreras-Sweet has embarked on a long journey, but she's come a long way. "Starting a business isn't a sprint," Contreras-Sweet says. " It's a long, long run, so pace yourself."