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If entrepreneurs could recover all the time and money they waste, our GNP would soar. I can't prove that scientifically--researching the topic would be, well, a waste of time and money--but I've seen it often enough, in business plans, on income statements (including my own), during bankruptcy proceedings and just looking around.
To win the startup game, you need to be a miser with your money. You need to spend it on things that will make you a success, not on what will simply make you feel or look like one. You need to pander to what your customers need, not to what you need.
So before you sign that check, swipe that credit card or sign that contract, ask yourself, "Will this bring me business?"
If the answer is no, consider it one less dollar you need to beg, borrow or spend.
Based on my experience, here are 10 of the most common ways entrepreneurs waste money:
- Custom logos, fancy letterheads and other icons of success. They may make you feel like an entrepreneur, but they don't bring home the bacon. Instead, design your own with one of the many templates that come packaged with your word processing software. They include matching business cards, letterhead, envelopes and invoices. You can find templates in the Project Gallery of Microsoft Word or the Template Chooser in Apple's Pages. If you need more choices, HP.com and Avery.com offer free templates for use with their specialty forms and paper.
- Fancy offices. Speaking of bacon, maybe the dining room isn't the ideal office, but working there beats not eating. If you don't need a formal office, don't pay for one.
- A company car. The latest luxury car doesn't make you a better businessperson, it makes you a poorer one. If the wheels you have already get you back and forth to the grocery store, new ones are a waste of money. Just be sure to log your business travel so you can deduct the usage.
- A slicker-than-you-can-afford website, brochure, sign, ad, etc. In the beginning, good enough is often good enough.
- Consultants. Sorry to say, many of them will borrow your watch to tell you what time it is. If it's not rocket science, figure it out for yourself.
- Falling for the pitch "You'll be getting in on the ground floor." You're not in a position to be someone else's venture capital. If a rep for a new advertising outlet gives you the hard sell about how wonderful it's going to be, invite them to call you back when they can prove it. Leave the experimenting to others.
- Starting a business because your friends love your idea. It's one thing to like or even love an idea--it's an altogether different thing to be willing to plunk down money for it. There's no substitute for test marketing where real money changes hands.
- Basing your marketing strategy on what you think is wonderful. Good chance your customers are nothing like you (or them you). Instead, research your market thoroughly. What do they read? What do they eat? What do they watch on TV? Then craft your message based on what appeals to them, not you.
- Underestimating the competition. Or worse, thinking you don't have any. Any business plan that proudly states it has no competition earns itself an immediate place in my round file. If you don't understand your direct and indirect competition, you don't understand your market. And if you don't understand your market, you may be trying harder and harder to get better and better at something you shouldn't be doing at all.
- Thinking that your product or service is what sells. Here's the sad truth: A great marketing strategy beats a great product every time. Business owners can (and will) go on and on about their wonderful products or services. The successful ones spend their time scheming about who's going to buy it and how they're going to reach them. Products don't sell, marketing does.
Kate Lister is a former banker, small-business investor and veteran entrepreneur. Her books and websites include Finding Money: The Small Business Guide to Financing and Undress For Success: The Naked Truth About Making Money at Home.