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12 Months to Startup

Ready to take the plunge? Follow these 12 steps to have a business up and running at the end of a year.

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What are you going to be doing a year from now? If your answeris "Same old job, same old life," then it might be timeto shake things up and start that business you've been dreamingof. To help you out, we've outlined 12 monthly tasksthat'll put you on the path to entrepreneurial success. By thistime next year, you don't have to be in the "same oldjob"-you can be in business.

Month 1: Take a skills and interests inventory

Begin a soul-searching process to determine which business isright for you. You'll definitely have an advantage with abusiness that's a spin-off of your background or experience.You can also enjoy success in an area where you have stronginterest yet lack experience, though you may need to qualifyyourself through entrepreneurial training or professionalcertification programs.

Jot down the skills in your talent bank. What do you like to dowith your time? What technical skills have you learned ordeveloped? Do you have hobbies or interests that are marketable?Don't forget the personality factor. Do you like workingindoors or outdoors? Do you enjoy working with the general publicor with a few close clients? Every business has its ownpersonality, and your own personality should be a complement to theone you finally choose. Talk with others in businesses similar tothe ones you're considering about the traits and temperamentsneeded to be successful.

Keep searching until you find an idea that couples your love forthe work with your marketable talents.

Month 2: Research and Evaluate Your Interests

Many people have great ideas, but their businesses flounder inthe marketplace because there really isn't an audience for theproduct or service. Thorough research will help supportexpectations about a business's success as well as uncover anypotholes in your thinking. Ask yourself these questions: Whatproblem does my product or service solve? Whose problem does itsolve? Does my idea flow with the direction society is moving in?For example, our society is becoming more mobile, reliant ontechnology, culturally diverse, and pressed for time. How does youridea fit in? Dig up trends, statistics, surveys and other data fromsources like Business Information Centers, the U.S. Census Bureau, theEconomicStatistics Administration, Government Research Centers and industryassociations. Once you're able to substantiate the viability ofyour idea, then you can confidently move ahead.

Month 3: Choose a Business, a Location, a Structure, andName

Gather books and other resources related to your respectivebusiness, i.e. "How to Open & Operate a. . . ." Usethis material to determine how to best make your business real.Ponder how well a home office space will professionally accommodateyour business choice. Then check out local home business zoningordinances, so you can comply.

Your legal structure can make a big difference in how you paytaxes, handle lawsuits, or dissolve or pass on the business. Willyou operate as a sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation orlimited liability company? Seek advice from a professional on howto 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. Thumbthrough phone books, DBA filings, directories and The TrademarkRegister of the United States to research names already in useor similar to yours. Determine if your chosen name has an availabledomain name for your future website, and reserve it. Be sure tochoose 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, suppliesand people needed to operate your business. Itemize startup costsfor inventory, signage, sales and marketing literature or tools,research, licenses, permits, operating capital, and legal orprofessional fees. Calculate your monthly overhead for rent,supplies, utilities, business and health insurance, taxes, Internetaccess and other services. Factor in your salary and employee orcontractor wages. Refer to industry specific startup books andresources for additional costs that may apply to your respectivebusiness type. Tally and double-check the numbers before you beginyour 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 securea loan package for you. It's a working document that helps youprepare 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 financialmanagement plan and the management plan. Addenda to the plan shouldinclude an executive summary, supporting documents and financialprojections.

Writing a plan forces you to think through every aspect of yourventure. The process will convince you to proceed with your idea orlook for a new one. Glean some inspiration and guidelines fromresources below.

Month 6: Identify Sources of Startup Financing

Many entrepreneurs self-finance their businesses throughpersonal savings, loans or credit cards. You may also be able tomatch your qualifications with a microloan: Private and SBA-backedagencies make loans from a few hundred dollars to $25,000. You canfind a local microlender through the SBA's website.

You may also qualify for a niche or specialty loan. A newlending and learning organization called Count Me In makesloans from $500 to $10,000 to women entrepreneurs. Wells Fargo andBank ofAmerica offer special loan programs for women, minorities andsmall-businesses.

Although there's no such thing as "free money" forsmall businesses, there are some cash awards, prize money andminigrants offered by a dwindling pool of organizations. Begin yoursearch in Awards, Honors & Prizes, a publication by theGale Group thatshould be available at your local library.

Whatever your funding source, remember to incur any debt inmoderation. You'll make better business decisions whenyou'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" businesscenter-you can usually find it through the government listings inyour phone book or through your local chamber of commerce. Theseoffices can provide information about licensing, permits, yourparticular business type, and running a local business in general.Find more information at your local library in Gale's NationalDirectory of State Business Licensing and Regulation. Youcan also learn about other laws that may affect you from theU.S. Federal TradeCommission; the agency offers hundreds of free businesspublications.

Learn how to set up your books through free programs andresources offered by Uncle Sam. Request a copy of Small BusinessResource Guide-CD 2000 (publication 3207) by calling (800)829-3676. Sign up for the IRS's Small Business TaxEducation Program (STEP) online.

You should also speak with an experienced insurance agent aboutpurchasing a business owner's policy (BOP) and additionalcoverage that will protect you against lawsuits and naturaldisasters.

Month 8: Develop Your Marketing and Customer Service Plan

A marketing plan consists of the strategies and devices you useto communicate to your target audience. A customer service planfocuses on customer requirements and ways of filling thoserequirements. The two work in concert. Descriptions of your marketand its segments, the competition and prospective customers shouldbe in your business plan.

Prioritize your tactics and begin with the ones that yourresearch has shown to be the most effective for your audience. Forexample, a TV repair service's marketing program may besupported mainly by paid advertisements in the phone book, since"Television Repair" is one of the most often looked-upheadings by homeowners. For your customer service plan, think aboutsatisfaction and money-back guarantees, buying incentives, andresolution of customer complaints. Your program should evolve asthe 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-tellingeveryone you know about it. Ask for referrals from colleagues,suppliers, former employers and other associates. Improve thequality of your referrals by being specific in your request. Forexample, an insurance broker developed a successful referralnetwork by asking clients whom they know who is "in atwo-income professional family with young children," ratherthan just asking if they know anyone who needs insurance. Consideroffering free consultations or an introductory price to first-timebuyers. Once you hear from a satisfied customer, ask him or her fora 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 otherself-employed people whose talents, knowledge, resources and skillscan be used to handle the demands of your business. Besides helpingyou with overflow work, the collaborative talents of your team canhelp 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 projectfirst. If you need to hire employees, consider interns, students orpart-timers as your first-time hires. Your advisory board caninclude a mix of professional peers, legal or financial advisors,or mentors. Meet with them a few times a year to solicit theirprofessional feedback.

Month 11: Execute Your Marketing Plan

Establish your marketing infrastructure. You work againstyourself when you're not prepared to respond to opportunitiesthat result from your marketing efforts. Your stationery, businesscards and marketing materials should be ready for distribution. Ifyour customers can reach you via e-mail, set up autoresponders tohandle their queries. Whatever response methods buyers can use, youshould have materials that can be sent via those same mediums.

Mail a press release to the local media. Do a joint mailing withother complementary businesses. Beat the deadline for your YellowPages ad, and talk with your manufacturer about co-op advertisingopportunities. Take advantage of all free directory listings.Contribute an article to a trade journal. Send out special offerpostcards to prospects. Create a coupon offer. Make a speech at anetworking event. Track the results of your devices by asking allrespondents 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-mailgreeting. You've marked the calendar with a few prospectmeetings and networking events. You even have a few projects linedup. Now it's time to open your doors to more opportunities andmuch success as a homebased business owner. (And please be sure tosend me an invitation to your one-year anniversarycelebration!)

Kimberly Stansell is a Los Angeles-based author,entrepreneur and businesswoman. She has a knack for turning herdesires into reality with little or no money and helps others dothe same in her book, Bootstrapper's Success Secrets: 151Tactics for Building Your Business on a Shoestring Budget.

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