Tricks Of The Trade
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It's a big step from dreaming about starting a new business to actually doing it. For those who've owned a business before, learning to run a new venture typically requires training and skills specific to the new business. For those who've never run a business, learning to run a new venture also involves mastering the finer points--everything from accounting and advertising to composing a business plan.
Entrepreneurs with varying needs approach the learning process in remarkably different ways. Accordingly, our Building Blocks entrepreneurs are back to share the procedures they followed when learning to run successful businesses of their own.
A business writer for the past eight years, Kylo-Patrick Hart has run a successful homebased consulting business since 1989.
Al Schneider, usedmall.com
Al Schneider, 57, and his current business partner, Harvey Berlent, had plenty of professional experience in the technology industry and were running another computer-related business together at the time they decided to start http://www.usedmall.com .
So when he and partner Berlent launched their Internet-based, electronic classified-listings service in March 1996, they already knew a great deal about running their own business.
Before starting usedmall.com, Schneider already had a solid understanding of what the Internet was all about. He'd worked for General Electric Information Services Corp., which, in the late '60s and early '70s, helped to pioneer the online services industry. He and Berlent tracked the development of the Internet, exploring predictions for its future and surfing the Web.
"Because of that background, we had an in-depth knowledge of what it takes to offer an online service. The main thing we needed assistance with, though, was designing a Web site that would make us unique in this new medium," Schneider says. "We did searches on the Internet throughout the summer of 1995, checking out other sites for what was closest to our concept.
"We found a local site-development company that specialized in producing the kind of site we wanted," he says. "We gave the company's employees a set of specifications that described the primary features we were looking for. The entire process took approximately six months." Since then, he and Berlent have become skilled at making modifications to their own site.
Suzanne George, Suzanne George Shoes
Before Suzanne George, 34, went into the business of hand-making custom shoes in the summer of 1995, her formal training had been in communications and psychology, not handicrafts or business. So learning to run her San Francisco shoemaking business involved two distinct types of preparation.
First, George needed to learn to create custom-made shoes by hand. She enrolled in a reputable technical college in England specializing in shoemaking. "They teach you everything involved in the construction of shoes, from start to finish," George says. She also worked as an apprentice to learn more about sizing before returning to San Francisco.
Next, George enrolled in a six-month training course at the San Francisco Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a business incubator and community economic development program, on how to operate a profitable small business. "I wanted to create a business plan, and I didn't know how to do that myself," she says. "I also realized that the thought of running my own business was starting to feel a little scary; I kept wondering if I could pull it off. Enrolling in the course took me to the next phase of formalizing my business and understanding what it would take.
"The course was challenging because it was so short-term and really packed with information," George says. She found the experience so valuable that she's retained ties with the Center to help other entrepreneurs. "I review business plans for other people now."
D.J. Waldow, B-School Cleaners
"Because our business was launched with support from members of the entrepreneur club at our school, I learned to run it primarily by asking tons of questions along the way," says D.J. Waldow, 21, who's been operating a dry-cleaning service from the student lounge of the University of Michigan Business School since January. Matt Campbell, a fellow University of Michigan student, is Waldow's partner.
From a technical standpoint, the beauty of Waldow and Campbell's business is they don't do any of the dry cleaning themselves. Instead, they've subcontracted with a local dry cleaner who professionally cleans all items for them. All they really needed to learn was how to operate their own business successfully. Waldow says this, too, was a relatively easy process.
The partners learned plenty from the entrepreneur club at school. "A big goal of the club is to serve as a networking tool to help people meet and learn from others," Waldow says. "Most of the members are MBA students who have actually run a business of their own at one point or another, and several have been very helpful. The club also sponsors events from time to time to help people prepare to run their own businesses, such as an entrepreneurial forum earlier this year which featured talks and tips from 20 entrepreneurs and venture capitalists flown in from around the country."
Waldow says he and Campbell have also learned from the dry cleaner with whom they work.
"We weren't sure what we needed to do about getting insurance for our business, so the dry cleaner explained and added us to his insurance policy as a drop-off station," Waldow says. "He provided us with invoices and taught us how to fill them out properly. He also taught us about the need to ask people about any stains on their clothes when they bring them in for cleaning. That's really important in this business, because the last thing you want is for someone to get an item of clothing back and find a stain still on it."
Where To Find Expertise
There are plenty of places you can turn when you're learning to run an unfamiliar venture. Seek guidance from other entrepreneurs, reference materials, professional organizations and associations, training seminars and schools. Community colleges and business, trade and professional associations also frequently offer relevant classes and seminars.
Some of the most valuable resources for acquiring the knowledge you need to get your new business started are Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), which are co-sponsored by the Small Business Administration (SBA) and affiliated with universities nationwide. SBDC counselors are available to answer a range of business-related questions and provide information about local training courses and specialized publications to help you start your business. Call the SBA at (800) U-ASK-SBA to find the SBDC nearest you.
Business incubators, too, can help a new business get off the ground. Incubators are organizations sponsored by private and public investors that help to nurture new businesses, providing fledgling entrepreneurs with much-needed guidance and support. To learn more about incubators, visit the National Business Incubation Association's Web site at http://www.nbia.org , or call them at (614) 593-4331.
B-School Cleaners, email@example.com
Suzanne George Shoes, 526 Seventh Ave., #3, San Francisco, CA 94118
usedmall.com LLC, 25 Rockwood Pl., #4, Englewood, NJ 07631, (800) 683-1608