From the December 2000 issue of Startups

If you've ever felt that you have the ideas but not the skills, backing or know-how to make things happen, you know what the search for the perfect start-up is like. You think you've found a promising idea. You can just see that business running along successfully, with plenty of orders rolling in.

But then you try to get started. And it's like putting on a sweater and getting your head caught in the arm hole. You're thrashing about, going nowhere. You can't get in-or out.

And that's my point. I've seen too many entrepreneurs get hogtied like this. They find an idea that sounds really interesting, but somewhere along the way, it gets stuck. That stinks, because these people usually have terrific skills and accomplishments to draw from. They're super workers, with solid dreams. If they'd tweak their plans, they could build a business that fits them like a pair of comfortable shoes.

So let's break that curse right now. Stop getting stuck on business concepts that don't match you-because there's a better way. It's time to discover your "hot zone." The business you were born to start. The concept that has your name written all over it. The start-up that will make you sizzle.

Hot zones are business areas that dovetail with your natural strengths. Maybe your hot zone is "selling products for young mothers." Maybe it's "brokering information on the Internet." Whatever it is, your "hot zone" is the place where your skills, contacts and personality make a sweet collision, with a real marketplace need.

And once you know your hot zone, it becomes very easy to launch a great business. That "What's my next step?" feeling disappears. No more trouble finding customers-or selling them. Stay in your hot zone, and you'll get peak results from all your entrepreneurial efforts. And those frustrating business concepts? The ones that never work out? You'll leave those ideas out in the cold.

You can find your hot zone by taking our convenient, heat-seeking "hot zone" quiz. Discover if your latest idea is hot, or not. Or take the biz you've already started up to full burn. No ideas? No problem. Do the quiz-and feel the heat.

You'll rank each idea you test from 10 (scorching) to 1 (leaves me cold), in eight categories. The hotter your overall score, the faster that business will likely succeed for you. Just scribble out your answers, or swap them with friends. We can have fun with this. Now let's cook.

Whew! That's eight burning questions, all about you, your motivation, your experience and your life. More than enough to discover if any business holds the spark.

But whether you're steamy hot or Arctic cold during your first time through, the real key to this exercise is using this test on every business idea you hatch. Do that, and a funny thing will happen. You'll see your highest scores all clustering around a "zone" (or zones) of businesses and industries. Maybe it's around the Net. Or great coffee. Or people who love to snowboard. Or a restaurant in a rusty old thimble mill. Whatever it is, you've found your hot zone-the business that will cook for you.

So rake those coals, because you can always make a hot idea hotter. Hit the trade shows, cultivate new contacts, and collect the new experiences you need. That will push those tepid fours up to steaming sevens and move chilly prospects into hotter contention.

Keep it hot with a promise that you'll never go back. And those hype ideas? The ones that promise everything but never seem to catch fire? Give them all the cold shoulder. Stay warm in your hot zone. And when opportunity knocks, you'll already be opening the door.

Hot Zone Quiz

1. Does this business get you excited?

Someone once said that shopping for a business is like watching a peep show. OK. But will you stay excited after that first peek? I don't mean about the money or the success. I'm talking about staying motivated to do the grunt work-like getting customers and moving product. "It's so cool to think about it" isn't enough to make a business happen. On a scale from 1 to 10, rank your motivation:

10 points: "I would give my left lung to make my first sale in this business."
5 points: "I'm willing to work hard."
1 point: "We can finish this business plan later. Isn't Friends on?"

2. Is this business "you"?

Describe the perfect CEO for the business you've chosen. ("She's daring." "He can mix with all kinds of people.") Now describe you.

10 points: "I must be looking in a mirror!"
5 points: "There's a resemblance. But that person can do some things that I can't."
1 point: "Who is this stranger? And how did he get here?"

A word to the wise. If you need to re-tool your entire personality to make a business fly, then it's not the business for you. No matter what some guru might tell you, you already have what it takes to succeed-when you pick a business that's in your hot zone.

3. Have you done this before?

You have "past lives." They're the skills, contacts and experiences you've sucked up and stored away during 20-odd years of doing, working and fooling around. OK, so you've never run a software firm. But you have written code (in college), handled finances (for your dad's store) and connected with all the suppliers (that job at cyberland). This seance says "You have the experience."

So do the déjà vu. List the key duties in your new business (such as dealing with vendors and getting product on the shelves). And for each one you've done (somewhere) before-give yourself 3 points.

4. Can you walk the walk?

There was once a waiter who wrote a screenplay for Jack Nicholson. Trouble was, the only thing Jack wanted to buy from him was coffee.

This question is about "being a player," or selecting a business that's at the right level for you. Customers need to trust your ability to deliver. Do people "see" you in the business you want to start? That's terrific! Because before they buy your product, they must buy you.

10 points: No problem. I'm the perfect image for this business!
7 points: There's a gap here. But I can close it.
1 point: Picture a short, bald Abraham Lincoln. And I'm not even that close.

5. Got customers?

Vague plans, like "we'll advertise," just won't do. But the good news is, you don't have to! In your hot zone, you already know your customers. They're the moms at your Gymboree class, the shops in your town. Or other moms and shops just like them. They're the customers you've lived, worked or played with. That's why you know what they need.

Right now, start naming every real, living, breathing customer that you can actually reach with your product or service-give yourself 2 points for each.

6. What's your "natural advantage"?

"I'll use my DJ contacts to start a catering firm." "My cousin runs a bait shop-I can sell my lures there." "I can do Web sites for my alumni group." There's something about you (your friends, your job, where you live), that gives your hot zone business a foot in the door. That's your "natural advantage." "My natural advantage in this business is _____." Fill in that blank, and give yourself 10 points.

7. Can you do it now?

The clock is ticking. And a million distractions (collectively, we call them "life") want to trip your plans down the black hole of never-never land. Believe the fortune cookie. It says "New business is like used car. Longer it takes to start-less likely it starts at all." If you can make at least one sale in the next six months, give yourself 10 points. But subtract 1 point for each extra month you'll need.

8. Will it support you?

They asked that of the man on the flying trapeze. But it's just as true for entrepreneurs, because they walk a tightrope called making your own pay. And until that business takes off, you're working without a net. So it's not in the hot zone unless it makes the money you need. If it will-before time, patience or your marriage runs out-give yourself 10 points.

Score It!

75 and Up: I call this the "Marilyn Monroe" zone, because some like it hot, and a business can't get hotter than this!

55-74: You're like a cat on a hot tin roof. I'd say this business is a go!

35-54: Definitely warm; you have something.

25-34: Trouble; I'm starting to feel a chill in the air.

Below 25: Iceberg, dead ahead! And the water's freezing! To avoid one hell of an impact, I'd think about changing directions fast.


Nick D'Alto is director of IEG, a nonprofit that helps people create new businesses and careers. E-mail him at ND2020@aol.com.