What are you going to be doing a year from now? If your answer is "Same old job, same old life," then it might be time to shake things up and start that business you've been dreaming of. To help you out, we've outlined 12 monthly tasks that'll put you on the path to entrepreneurial success. By this time next year, you don't have to be in the "same old job"-you can be in business.
Month 1: Take a skills and interests inventory
Begin a soul-searching process to determine which business is right for you. You'll definitely have an advantage with a business that's a spin-off of your background or experience. You can also enjoy success in an area where you have strong interest yet lack experience, though you may need to qualify yourself through entrepreneurial training or professional certification programs.
Jot down the skills in your talent bank. What do you like to do with your time? What technical skills have you learned or developed? Do you have hobbies or interests that are marketable? Don't forget the personality factor. Do you like working indoors or outdoors? Do you enjoy working with the general public or with a few close clients? Every business has its own personality, and your own personality should be a complement to the one you finally choose. Talk with others in businesses similar to the ones you're considering about the traits and temperaments needed to be successful.
Keep searching until you find an idea that couples your love for the work with your marketable talents.
Month 2: Research and Evaluate Your Interests
Many people have great ideas, but their businesses flounder in the marketplace because there really isn't an audience for the product or service. Thorough research will help support expectations about a business's success as well as uncover any potholes in your thinking. Ask yourself these questions: What problem does my product or service solve? Whose problem does it solve? Does my idea flow with the direction society is moving in? For example, our society is becoming more mobile, reliant on technology, culturally diverse, and pressed for time. How does your idea fit in? Dig up trends, statistics, surveys and other data from sources like Business Information Centers, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Economic Statistics Administration, Government Research Centers and industry associations. Once you're able to substantiate the viability of your idea, then you can confidently move ahead.
Month 3: Choose a Business, a Location, a Structure, and Name
Gather books and other resources related to your respective business, i.e. "How to Open & Operate a. . . ." Use this material to determine how to best make your business real. Ponder how well a home office space will professionally accommodate your business choice. Then check out local home business zoning ordinances, so you can comply.
Your legal structure can make a big difference in how you pay taxes, handle lawsuits, or dissolve or pass on the business. Will you operate as a sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation or limited liability company? Seek advice from a professional on how to pick the structure that'll best manage your liabilities.
An effective name will establish your marketplace presence, convey what you do, and create a memorable impression. Thumb through phone books, DBA filings, directories and The Trademark Register of the United States to research names already in use or similar to yours. Determine if your chosen name has an available domain name for your future website, and reserve it. Be sure to choose a name that you can live and grow with.
Month 4: Calculate the Costs
It's critical to determine how much cash you'll need. Create a checklist of expenditures. List the equipment, supplies and people needed to operate your business. Itemize startup costs for inventory, signage, sales and marketing literature or tools, research, licenses, permits, operating capital, and legal or professional fees. Calculate your monthly overhead for rent, supplies, utilities, business and health insurance, taxes, Internet access and other services. Factor in your salary and employee or contractor wages. Refer to industry specific startup books and resources for additional costs that may apply to your respective business type. Tally and double-check the numbers before you begin your money hunt.
Month 5: Write Your Business Plan
You gain an advantage by building your business on paper first. A business plan's value goes beyond its ability to help secure a loan package for you. It's a working document that helps you prepare for opportunities as well as difficulties.
The body of a business plan can be divided into four sections: the description of your business, the marketing plan, the financial management plan and the management plan. Addenda to the plan should include an executive summary, supporting documents and financial projections.
Writing a plan forces you to think through every aspect of your venture. The process will convince you to proceed with your idea or look for a new one. Glean some inspiration and guidelines from resources below.
Month 6: Identify Sources of Startup Financing
Many entrepreneurs self-finance their businesses through personal savings, loans or credit cards. You may also be able to match your qualifications with a microloan: Private and SBA-backed agencies make loans from a few hundred dollars to $25,000. You can find a local microlender through the SBA's website.
You may also qualify for a niche or specialty loan. A new lending and learning organization called Count Me In makes loans from $500 to $10,000 to women entrepreneurs. Wells Fargo and Bank of America offer special loan programs for women, minorities and small-businesses.
Although there's no such thing as "free money" for small businesses, there are some cash awards, prize money and minigrants offered by a dwindling pool of organizations. Begin your search in Awards, Honors & Prizes, a publication by the Gale Group that should be available at your local library.
Whatever your funding source, remember to incur any debt in moderation. You'll make better business decisions when you're not under the pressure of heavy debt.
Coming Into the Home Stretch
Month 7: Work Through the Startup Paperwork Maze
Visit your city's "first- or one-stop" business center-you can usually find it through the government listings in your phone book or through your local chamber of commerce. These offices can provide information about licensing, permits, your particular business type, and running a local business in general. Find more information at your local library in Gale's National Directory of State Business Licensing and Regulation. You can also learn about other laws that may affect you from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission; the agency offers hundreds of free business publications.
Learn how to set up your books through free programs and resources offered by Uncle Sam. Request a copy of Small Business Resource Guide-CD 2000 (publication 3207) by calling (800) 829-3676. Sign up for the IRS's Small Business Tax Education Program (STEP) online.
You should also speak with an experienced insurance agent about purchasing a business owner's policy (BOP) and additional coverage that will protect you against lawsuits and natural disasters.
Month 8: Develop Your Marketing and Customer Service Plan
A marketing plan consists of the strategies and devices you use to communicate to your target audience. A customer service plan focuses on customer requirements and ways of filling those requirements. The two work in concert. Descriptions of your market and its segments, the competition and prospective customers should be in your business plan.
Prioritize your tactics and begin with the ones that your research has shown to be the most effective for your audience. For example, a TV repair service's marketing program may be supported mainly by paid advertisements in the phone book, since "Television Repair" is one of the most often looked-up headings by homeowners. For your customer service plan, think about satisfaction and money-back guarantees, buying incentives, and resolution of customer complaints. Your program should evolve as the business grows.
Month 9: Court Your First Customers
You have a profile of the end user of your product or service. Get in the habit of "talking up" your business-telling everyone you know about it. Ask for referrals from colleagues, suppliers, former employers and other associates. Improve the quality of your referrals by being specific in your request. For example, an insurance broker developed a successful referral network by asking clients whom they know who is "in a two-income professional family with young children," rather than just asking if they know anyone who needs insurance. Consider offering free consultations or an introductory price to first-time buyers. Once you hear from a satisfied customer, ask him or her for a testimonial letter to use in your promotional materials.
Month 10: Create Your Support Team
You'll need a team of reliable contractors, suppliers, advisory board members and employees. Create a network of other self-employed people whose talents, knowledge, resources and skills can be used to handle the demands of your business. Besides helping you with overflow work, the collaborative talents of your team can help you obtain larger projects and grow with your clients' needs.
Make contractor and supplier connections through networking. Test the reliability of a contractor on a small, nonrush project first. If you need to hire employees, consider interns, students or part-timers as your first-time hires. Your advisory board can include a mix of professional peers, legal or financial advisors, or mentors. Meet with them a few times a year to solicit their professional feedback.
Month 11: Execute Your Marketing Plan
Establish your marketing infrastructure. You work against yourself when you're not prepared to respond to opportunities that result from your marketing efforts. Your stationery, business cards and marketing materials should be ready for distribution. If your customers can reach you via e-mail, set up autoresponders to handle their queries. Whatever response methods buyers can use, you should have materials that can be sent via those same mediums.
Mail a press release to the local media. Do a joint mailing with other complementary businesses. Beat the deadline for your Yellow Pages ad, and talk with your manufacturer about co-op advertising opportunities. Take advantage of all free directory listings. Contribute an article to a trade journal. Send out special offer postcards to prospects. Create a coupon offer. Make a speech at a networking event. Track the results of your devices by asking all respondents how they heard about you.
Month 12: Hang Out Your Shingle
You've done all the legwork. All your permits are in hand. Your dedicated business line is set with a professional voice-mail greeting. You've marked the calendar with a few prospect meetings and networking events. You even have a few projects lined up. Now it's time to open your doors to more opportunities and much success as a homebased business owner. (And please be sure to send me an invitation to your one-year anniversary celebration!)
Kimberly Stansell is a Los Angeles-based author, entrepreneur and businesswoman. She has a knack for turning her desires into reality with little or no money and helps others do the same in her book, Bootstrapper's Success Secrets: 151 Tactics for Building Your Business on a Shoestring Budget.