From the April 2000 issue of Startups

What do you need to start your business? Guidance? A business plan? Financing? Marketing strategy? Advice? Feedback?

Before spending big bucks on consultants, attorneys or other specialists, spend a little time surfing the Web for a wealth of free information and assistance. For would-be entrepreneurs whose brilliant ideas are still in the intangible, conceptual stages, http://www.miniplan.com is an excellent starting point that's ideal for free feedback and guidance. One of several interactive sites operated by Palo Alto Software, MiniPlan.com tests and evaluates business ideas. Just answer some questions and receive an evaluation of your concept, a market analysis chart, and a break-even table and chart. It's fast, secure and confidential.

If you're only in the exploratory stage, try our mother magazine, Entrepreneur's online library, http://www.smallbizsearch.com/starting_out. The site offers insight on choosing a business; ideas on which small, inexpensive businesses to start; and information on what you'll need and where to get it. While you're there, access the vast books section as well as essential articles from the Entrepreneur family of magazines.

Ready for a real business plan? Without one, your chances of success are lower-as are your chances of getting financing. Go to http://www.bplans.com, which offers realistic advice, sample business and marketing plans, outlines, helpful hints and links to great related sites.

If you're not sure what category your business falls into (service, retail or manufacturing, for example), http://www.planwizard.com has the answer. After responding to several questions, your business type is defined and you're provided with the appropriate business plan format. Sample matching plans are suggested for your review.

Once you've determined your financial need, check out http://www.garage.com for help in getting it. Garage.com's primary objective is helping start-ups obtain seed-level financing through mentoring, a high-quality investor network, advice, research and reference materials, and topical forums. Apply online for free membership.

CCH Business Owner's Tool Kit (http://www.toolkit.cch.com) provides thousands of pages of essential information on starting, financing, managing and marketing your small business. Find credit reports, trademark searches, critical industry data, an archive of recently published news items and "Ask Alice" advice columns. You'll also find downloadable checklists, model business plans, forms and useful documents. Definitely worth a look.

American Express offers visitors a free Small Business Start-Up Guide (http://www6.americanexpress.com/smallbusiness/resources/starting/startup) that walks you through the entire process: naming a business, licenses, the most common silly start-up mistakes, and tools and advice to help you develop concepts and business plans. A plethora of articles and advice cover everything from buying, managing and financing a business to expanding, hiring, marketing, taxes, and money issues of all kinds.

Entrepreneur.com (http://www.entrepreneur.com) features not only insightful articles on starting and operating a business, but also tips on financing, marketing, sales and management as well as links to other sites of interest to start-ups.

Are you sure entrepreneurship is for you? The SBA helps answer that and other questions in its free Start-Up Kit (http://www.sbaonline.sba.gov/starting). The site also offers tips on what initial steps to take, financing paths, how the SBA and others can help you along the way, rules of the road, and everything you wanted to know about the agency. A helpful little tool at any step of the way.

For online counseling from professionals with time-tested knowledge and expertise, turn to SCORE (http://www.score.org). The nonprofit Service Corps of Retired Executives, a resource partner with the SBA, is ready to mentor you, answer questions and guide you in start-up endeavors. Remember, people are willing to help you. Just ask.


Paul DeCeglie (MrWritePDC@aol.com) is a former staff reporter for Journal of Commerce and American Banker.