Deciding on a location for your business is one of the most important and unchangeable decisions you'll make, but it's often an afterthought for many startups--which may end up on the fast track to a liquidation sale. "You can always change your promotion strategy and mess around with your prices," says Sean O'Halloran, founder of GeoMarketing Research , an Oreland, Pennsylvania, market research firm that focuses on business location analysis. "But once you sign a retail lease or get a mortgage on a place, those are usually pretty long-term contracts [that are] difficult to get out of." Here's what to do before you call a realtor or landlord:
31. Know your market. O'Halloran makes an analogy between retail concepts and the animal kingdom: McDonald's is a retail rat because it can exist and thrive anywhere, in affluent areas as well as poor areas. Other companies, however, might be considered retail pandas because they need to be in specific areas to survive. Think about the habitat your new business will require, and whether you're about convenience and commodities or specialty items. The answer will keep you one step ahead in retail's survival of the fittest.
If you're thinking of starting a service business such as an accounting practice, you may be considering your home as your business's habitat. If this is the case, don't just weigh the overhead expenses when making your decision--also consider whether operating from home suits your product or service. Could potential customers be put off by the thought of doing business at your house? Or will customers overlook where you're located because selling will be done largely via phone, fax and the web? Keep in mind that there might be local zoning laws regulating where homebased businesses can be located, so check with your city government before hanging your shingle. Also, it's a nice gesture to make sure your neighbors are OK with more foot traffic and fewer open parking spaces if you expect to receive customers at home.
32. Gather some data. Websites such as Economy. com provide quick and practical economic profiles of every urban area in the United States. A general profile of an economy can be helpful in deciding where to locate your business. "A reliable, basic profile of whether a local economy is heavily dependent on one industry or sector is useful," says Pamela Hannigan, professor of real estate economics at New York University in New York City. The data will help you see trends and determine where your target customer shops.
33. Think like the competition. It's not an accident that the same large retailers--Home Goods, Michaels and Target, for example--locate within a stone's throw of each other. It may seem counterintuitive to settle right alongside the competition, but clustering can increase business and lead to cost savings in hiring and shipping, among other things. Says Hannigan, "Becoming part of a cluster that attracts a much larger market can still make [you] better off than if [you] try to establish [your] own market in some virgin territory."
34. Take to the streets. Demographics on paper are one thing; actually spending time in your desired location is another. "Not every field is a field of dreams," Hannigan says. When visiting a potential location, is your gut reaction that this is an area in which you'd like to shop? Something seemingly small, like parking availability and expenses, can greatly impact the amount of foot traffic coming through your door. Also, consider your industry when choosing a location. If you're a quick, in-and-out type of business--like a latte shop or a dry cleaner--it pays to locate your business in a central part of town. These days, you may also want to consider whether you could convert the location to include a drive-thru window for added convenience.
35. Ask questions. Visit small stores in various locations to see how busy they are. If you're daring, you can ask if leasing at the location was worth it and how much turnover they see going on with stores in the area. You never know what you might hear. Being aware of whether you're running a day or night business is important as well. A pub, for instance, might not fare as well in a strip mall that attracts mostly daytime traffic. You'll find plenty of information to help you online: Start your research by visiting our Starting a Business section or www.geomarketingresearch.com .
Continue learning: " How to Find the Best Location " has 22 questions you should ask regarding any potential locations for your new business. And if you're considering a shopping mall location, be sure to read " How to Select a Shopping Center Location ."
There's more to equipping your new business with the right technology than just walking into a big-box store and buying a desktop off the shelf. Much more. Think about the technology your startup will need beyond today--because a little planning and some smart buying decisions will help keep your business running smoothly during your startup days and beyond.
36. Start with a network. A lot of entrepreneurs aren't sure where to begin when it comes to buying and setting up the technology they need for their startups. Your network is your backbone, so start there. "You need to have a client/server-based network operating system," says Greg Alevizos, manager of professional services with Salem, Massachusetts-based IT consulting firm New England Network Group . "You want to have at least one server that has file and printer services and is configured to back all that up." Don't worry if this sounds like more than you want to tackle on your own--just see tip No. 42.
37. Get dedicated internet access. Dial-ups need not apply. But you do need enough broadband bandwidth to handle the employees you plan to hire--now or in the future. You can look into getting DSL, cable or higher-end internet solutions like a T1 line, which can handle up to 100 users. "If you go with a lower-end solution, you might not get the service-level agreement, which means that if your internet line goes down, they don't have to fix it in a hurry," says Alevizos. "You don't want to skimp on that."
38. Get anti-virus protection. This is a must in Alevizos' book. Instead of having a hodgepodge of applications on everyone's computers, consider getting an anti-virus package that resides on your server. It will be easier to manage in the long run.
39. Back it up. Do not skip this tip--data backup is a must. Alevizos recommends three different kinds of backup: 1) tape backup, an old standby that requires a bit of watching; 2) backing up off-site, or online through a third-party provider; or 3) installing a network-attached storage system at your place of business. "If you [use] two of [these methods]," says Alevizos, "then you have close to a 100 percent guarantee that you have viable backups that can be restored."
40. Don't buy your computers piecemeal. "It's ideal to get a homogenous environment so that all the machines are identical hardware-wise," says Alevizos. "The maintenance needs go down, and the total cost of ownership goes down in terms of scalability." He recommends staying with major vendors like Dell or Hewlett-Packard and getting a warranty and a service contract.
41. Buy printers that meet your needs. Alevizos points out that every startup should have a heavy-duty, network-capable printer--often a black-and-white laser will do. "If [you have] a need for color printing in [your] business model, it's a good idea to make the investment in a workhorse network-capable color laser printer," he says. Prices are more affordable than ever, and a color laser can save you from racking up big bills at the copy shop.
42. Know when to get outside help. "If you don't have in-house IT [staff], you definitely want to bring someone in during the initial stages to set up the baseline of the network," says Alevizos. It's important to get your network up and running efficiently from the get-go, and most entrepreneurs don't have the time or the expertise to do it themselves.
43. Plan for the future. Following the tips above will help you not only during your initial startup phase, but also as your company grows. You'll be prepared to add employees and still keep a handle on your technology. Just don't forget to budget in some ongoing expenses. Says Alevizos, "Don't put the blinders on when you're looking at your IT expenses annually. Never assume that the initial cost is the only cost you're going to have for any IT solution."
Continue learning: Visit our Technology section to learn about all the latest gear for your business.