75 Startup Secrets

Here are the tips, tricks and inside info you need when starting a business.

Many people who have always wanted to start their own business never do, simply because they're overwhelmed by the process and unsure of what specifically is involved. With a to-do list that includes everything from writing a business plan to coming up with a name to hiring employees, startup can seem daunting. But don't worry--we've simplified the process by going straight to the experts to find out their top 75 tops for startup succss, so you can master the process step by step. Your first step: Start reading.

Got a (Business) Plan
A solid plan can help you start off strong and stay that way.

Writing a business plan is one of the first steps you should take toward startup, well before you launch your business. "A lot of businesses fail to write a business plan at all until they get in a jam," says Linda Pinson, author of Anatomy of a Business Plan: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Business and Securing Your Company's Future. "They need money or a strategic partner: They come across a requirement for [which they need] business planning, and all of a sudden they're panicked."

A business plan will serve as your guide to decision making during the life of your business, starting with the question of whether to start in the first place. The second use of a plan is to satisfy lenders and investors, virtually all of whom will require a written business plan before approving a loan or making an equity investment. Plans also serve as a means of communicating with potential partners, allies, vendors, employees and even customers.

1. Before putting pen to paper, research resources and tools that can help. In addition to books, software programs can automate the task. You can get live help from your local SBA office or Small Business Development Center, college and university classes, and private courses or conferences. You probably shouldn't plan to farm the entire job out to a consultant, however: "Good consultants run anywhere from $300 an hour down, and generally the quality of the services is commensurate with the fee," says Pinson, adding that having a consultant craft a good plan will run you $5,000 to $10,000.

2. Back up your concepts with numbers. Keep in mind, a business plan is both qualitative and quantitative. "A business plan is not just writing about what your vision of your business is," Pinson says. "It's interpreting it in financial terms that you can measure." That means you'll need some numbers--as precise and accurate as possible--in addition to verbal descriptions of your plans.

Start by writing the conceptual part, then move to the financial part. "Interpret those concepts in terms of dollars," says Pinson. For instance, starting with an idea of how frequently you'll advertise, how large the ad will be and where it will run, you can find out how much it costs. This will give you a number to plug in for advertising costs. Says Pinson, "The conceptual or text part of your plan has no validity without the financial part."

3. Be realistic when making projections. "One of the most frequent errors made when writing a business plan is over-estimating revenue and under-estimating expenses," Pinson says. Improve revenue estimates by narrowing your target market down to a realistic niche, then interpret revenue and expenses in terms of that market, Pinson advises. Start by identifying potential customers, then slice off those who aren't ready to buy, can't be marketed to effectively, can't afford your solution or don't consider it a need.

4. At minimum, include monthly cash-flow projections for the first year. "Cash flow is the critical issue," Pinson says. Also prepare an overall projection of profit and loss for three years, as well as a projected balance sheet. Calculate the break-even point at which sales will cover costs. Research financial ratios specific to your industry, and look at published industry-specific ratios to make sure your assumptions are realistic. Says Pinson, "If grocers make a one-half-percent profit and you're [projecting your] grocery store [will have] a 28 percent profit, you'd probably better rethink your projections."

5. Pay special attention to marketing. First, develop goals. Second, do a market analysis, including identifying target markets, researching competition and assessing market trends. Then prepare a marketing strategy, including your approaches to sales, promotions, advertising, PR, networking, community building, customer service and other marketing channels and tools. Develop a plan to implement that marketing strategy, and include benchmarks to see if what you planned actually happened.

Continue learning: Visit our Business Plan center for an in-depth guide on writing your business plan, calculators that'll help you determine your business numbers, and more than 50 sample business plans to download.

Right on Target
Choose your target customer, then take aim in the right direction.

Open the doors to your business, and it's easy to think of the whole world as your oyster. Why focus on a target market and exclude all those other market segments with which you could be conducting business, right?

"A big problem for many small businesses is that they are so desperate and so grateful for anyone who buys from them, they don't go the next step and ask who they should be doing business with," says Lisa Fortini-Campbell, adjunct professor of management at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Chicago and founder of market research and consulting firm The Fortini-Campbell Company.

Targeting the right prospects can mean the difference between success and failure. Before taking a scattershot approach to building a customer base, consider these tips:

6. Don't assume. Fortini-Campbell, who is also the author of Hitting the Sweet Spot: How Consumer Insights Can Inspire Better Marketing and Advertising, says that too often, small-business owners assume they know what their customers will want before doing their homework. "If you want to launch a catering company and think it's only about serving good food, but your customers really want all the trappings that come along with having someone serve them--such as the dishes and the table décor--you're going to lose business if you're not prepared to deliver that experience," says Fortini-Campbell.

She says that since your future customers are currently buying from other places, you should use your competitors as a research tool. Make note of not only what your competitors are selling, but how they are marketing and selling their products and services. "All your future customers are out there buying from someone else now," says Fortini-Campbell. "What are they buying? Who are they buying from? What can you learn about what others are doing?"

7. Find the perfect match. "The most important thing a small-business owner can do is figure out what kind of customers will help them get to the goal. Who are the most strategically valuable people to them?" says Fortini-Campbell. "Do you need a lot of people who buy a lot, or people who buy across an entire service line?" Is your ideal customer a business or an individual? Affluent or middle-income? Is he or she local, or does geography not matter? Identify as many traits as possible so you can organize your business to keep those customers coming back.

8. Identify different segments. After you've outlined whom your best customers will be, recognize that you may have more than one profile, says Fortini-Campbell. For instance, the catering business we mentioned may find lucrative market segments in cooking and presenting elaborate holiday meals for affluent families, as well as providing simple, daily heat-and-serve meals for busy working parents.

9. Use free market-research tools. "The internet is a wealth of information," says Fortini-Campbell. "Search on any topic and you will find websites, blogs and discussion rooms on everything imaginable." In addition to the great number of books available on market research and targeting customers (including her own), she recommends checking out the free market-research resources available in your state, county or municipal economic development offices to see which market segments are growing in your area.

10. Service, service, service. "More small businesses lose customers [due to] poor service than bad products," says Fortini-Campbell. Your business's most important marketing tool is the way you conduct sales and service customers. Every time you do work for a client, you are marketing yourself, she says. When you do that well, customers pay you back with loyalty and referrals.

Continue learning : Got your target market figured out? Then go the extra mile and complete your marketing plan. Our how-to will guide you.

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This article was originally published in the March 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: 75 Startup Secrets.

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