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Get Your Startup Started Not sure where to begin your startup efforts? This 12-step process will help you get up and running.

By Romanus Wolter

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Step 1: Gain Personal Focus

Starting a business is tough. Whenever we have an idea, othersmay provoke our self-doubt by asking, "Where will you get thestart-up money? How will you market it?"

Your best strategy for redirecting this energy is to create apersonal focus that's rooted in your passion. Start by definingyour intent, your goal and your purpose. This is the underlyingemotional foundation of your business.

There are two forms of intent: internal and external. Yourinternal intent states the main objective that your business willaccomplish in your life; your external intent defines how yourbusiness benefits others.

Write down your internal intent, and share it with others. Itprovides you with direction and self-confidence. When people hearand understand your objective, they become motivated to helpyou.

Next, record your external intent, describing the problem yourproduct or service solves and who it will ultimately help. Peoplerelate personally to benefits, and they'll give you ideas onhow to improve your product rather than question its validity.

Most likely, someone else has started a business similar toyours. However, no one has your intent. Gain your true focus, andyou will inspire others rather than pique their doubts.

Step 2: Create an Instant Impact Message

When most people hear about a new product or service, theyimmediately ask themselves "How will I or someone I knowbenefit from this idea?"

People process this question instantly-usually within 10seconds. To inspire others to help you succeed, you need to developan "instant impact message" that helps people immediatelyrecognize the value your business offers. Your instant impactmessage is a brief, powerful message that's based on thebenefit you offer to your customers. Benefit distinguishes yourbusiness from the competition and makes it easy for people toremember you. They then become part of your sales team as theyshare information about your business.

Creating a winning message that clarifies your purpose andmaintains a specific focus is really quite simple. First, writedown how your business helps your customers. Circle any keydescriptive words--ones that resonate with your heart. Then use themost exciting words to form a single statement that focuses on thekey benefit your business provides. For example, if you own arestaurant, you can use "Healthy food that satisfies anyappetite." Use your instant impact message everywhere--atbusiness functions and on your business cards. The more people hearabout your business, the more business and ideas you'llgenerate.

Step 3: Discover What Works

Companies pay millions of dollars to professional marketresearchers to find out what people really want and how they wantit. You can uncover a wealth of information by taking field tripsto discover how your product or service will satisfy people'sdesires.

Get out of your head, unplug yourself from the computer, andspeak with others who have succeeded to discover what really works.The real-world information you gather will save you time, money andfrustration.

Visit business owners in your neighborhood and in other cities.Ask them how you can succeed faster and what mistakes you shouldavoid. Simply ask them to brainstorm with you and share any ideasand strategies that come to mind, without censoring or judging.

In addition, research recent articles written about yourindustry. A reporter's job is to investigate the marketplaceand report the latest trends and best strategies. Learn from them,and uncover new resources, outstanding marketing ideas and newcontacts that will help you grow. Don't lose any of your ideas.Purchase a "product notebook," a place to store anyinformation, ideas and articles you collect.

Step 4: Protect Your Idea and Yourself

Great ideas need protection. You don't have to register yourbusiness name, logo or slogan to obtain copyright and trademarkprotection. Protective laws work under the first-use rule--whoeveruses an item first owns it. However, these rules work more like"No Trespassing" signs. You must be willing to go tocourt to enforce them.

A wonderful preventive measure is using a daily planner andcreating a paper trail--tracking all meeting dates, attendees anddiscussions. If necessary, this information can someday serve asevidence in court.

Continue as a sole proprietor as long as possible; this willallow you to test out the entrepreneurial waters without incurringany extra expenses. If you discover any risk for which insurance iseither too costly or unavailable, consider protecting yourself bycreating an LLC or a corporation.

Consult a lawyer early in the startup process, and obtain his orher advice on how to best protect your business. For greatreferrals, contact your local SBA office or chamber ofcommerce.

Step 5: Stop Struggling to Convince Others

Instead, inspire them with a one-page sales script.

When you speak positively about your business, it inspiresothers to help you succeed rather than question your abilities.Your one-page sales script quickly generates trust by showing keysupporters the value you offer and how you will successfullydeliver on your promises. In your script, confirm your passion andshare your successful experiences by:

  • Focusing on the benefits: State the name of your business andyour instant impact message.
  • Telling what's for sale: List your top three products orservices.
  • Showing that it works: Provide at least two real-lifetestimonials--from paying or nonpaying clients who have experiencedyour work.
  • Proving you can make it a success: Share a brief biography ofyourself outlining why you created your business and your relatedexperiences.
  • Making it easy to find you: Cite your contact information.

Your one-page sales script becomes the foundation for all yourmarketing efforts. It can be used to open conversations atnetworking events or when speaking to potential customers.

Step 6: Conduct a Reality Check

As you begin developing your business, you will uncoverunforeseen threats that may shake your confidence. This doesn'tmean you are no longer passionate about your business; it means youare grounded in a new reality. To succeed, don't dismiss anythreats. Reaffirm your commitment, and create a strategy to moveforward by conducting a reality check.

  • Review everything you have accomplished, and list any businessopportunities you uncovered.
  • Write down any threats you've discovered, and mark themeither avoidable (if there's a way to counter them) orunavoidable.
  • Create action steps to manage any unavoidable threats byconnecting with someone you trust. Ask that person how he or shewould overcome the threat and turn it into an opportunity.
  • Create your own "three rules to live by" that statesthe key opportunities you will take advantage of and the actionsyou will take to counter any threats.
  • Gain confidence by promising to work through any threats youencounter.

Step 7: Use Focus Groups to Test and Improve Your Idea

Passion sometimes clouds judgment. Thinking that you know whatis best for your customers is one of the most common mistakes instarting a business. To avoid "selling only to yourself,"seek real-world advice by holding regular focus groups.

A focus group gathers together potential customers, friends,family and other entrepreneurs who can provide unbiased, objectivefeedback on how to improve your business. It's important toobtain these fresh ideas early in the startup process because youcan improve your business for a relatively low cost.

Think of your focus group as a business meeting. Open by readingyour one-page sales script, and then ask for honest feedback:"How can I improve my idea?" "Is the business nameappropriate?"

During the session, keep an open mind and don't defend yourbusiness. Write down every idea. Afterward, analyze the ideas, andkeep and implement those that are most useful. To continuallydiscover new ways to improve every aspect of your business, hold afocus group once every two weeks.

Step 8: Get Price Quotes From Manufacturers

Your business's identity begins with those things that needto be created or produced--such as business cards, menus or aproduct. To get the best price when requesting information fromoutside entities, prepare a request for quotation (RFQ).

1. Clarify your idea. Create a detailed example of whatyou want produced, even if it's only a drawing.

2. Develop a list of manufacturers. Sources includecolleagues, the Internet, association lists and store owners.

3. Create a table with three columns. The first columnlists your specific requirements, the second shows responses fromcompany contacts, and the third is for evaluation purposes.

4. Send your RFQ to one company as a practice run. Updateyour RFQ with industry-specific terms. Showing that you areknowledgeable about the industry will lead to better prices. Thensend your RFQ to three more companies.

5. Evaluate your responses with a trusted colleague. Thiskeeps your bias at a minimum.

6. Negotiate with your top two manufacturers. This is abusiness relationship, so make sure you like and trust your chosenpartner.

Step 9: Create Your Marketing Strategy

Marketing is not about persuading people they need something.It's about telling the right people about the benefit yourbusiness provides. You can maximize your resources by using"octopus marketing"--creating one program that reacheslots of your customers. Hit an octopus on the head, and itstentacles stretch out in many different directions. The head of theoctopus represents any organization or person who has contact withmany of your customers. The tentacles spread out, sendinginformation about your business over and over again. Follow thesesteps to create a marketing program that works for you:

1. Define your customer. What is the unique benefit youoffer? Create a list of customers who need that benefit.

2. Create a list of "octopus marketing" ideas tospread the word. Invite your friends, family and colleagues toprovide you with ways you can reach your target customers.

3. Implement your favorite idea. Choose one program youwould love to do, because then you will actually do it!

4. Test it. If the idea works, do it again. If itdoesn't, try another. Conduct at least three differentmarketing programs each month.

Step 10: Set Prices for Success

Your product or service must be priced to entice buyers andcover your overhead, production, distribution, labor and marketingcosts. And most important, you need to make a profit. To dothat:

  • Define your personal financial goals. Your goals impactyour pricing strategy. Some people want to make a million dollarson one idea. Others want to make $50,000 to help fund theirbusiness development activities.
  • Investigate market trends. Pricing is subject to marketforces and consumer demands. Obtain information to help you predictyour market in terms of sales potential, growth prospects andtrends.
  • Obtain competitive information. Consumers price shop.Walk into stores, and use the internet to uncover yourcompetitors' pricing strategies. Unless you provide specialfeatures for which consumers are willing to pay more, your pricehas to be competitive.
  • Cover your cost of doing business. At first, you will beusing your "best guess" cost estimates. As your businessgrows, track your real costs of doing business, and reflect them inyour pricing structure.

Step 11: Organize Your Future With Process Sheets

Process sheets define the action steps and resources associatedwith key day-to-day business activities. They enable you toidentify, develop and test your back-end business support systems,saving you time and frustration. Together, they form your"operations manual"--the policies for running yourcompany. Writing your processes down shows people how you willconduct business, which makes it easier for them to offerenhancements. Develop your own process sheets using thesesteps:

1. Put the name of the process at the top of each page--forexample, "customer service" or "orderfulfillment."

2. Build a three-column table beneath the name of the process.The first column lists the action steps necessary to complete theprocess, the second shows the person who is responsible, and thethird states the expected time frame for completing each step.

3. On your first sheet, define your customer service process.The steps alleviate your customers' fear of the unexpected,giving them a sense of control and speeding up your salescycle.

4. Create process sheets for other areas of your business asappropriate. In addition, improve your process sheets byperiodically reviewing them with colleagues.

Step 12: Stay Motivated With a Business Action Plan

Congratulations, you've reached the last step in our 12-stepstartup plan. Most startup plans ask you to begin with a businessplan. Instead, we've had you take real-world action to create abusiness that works. But now it's time to put something inwriting by creating your business action plan.

Similar to a business plan, the business action plan synthesizesyour research and describes your business. However, it alsoidentifies the necessary steps you will take to keep your momentumgoing.

1. Start your plan by clearly defining your business. State yourbusiness's main benefit, and finalize your sales script. (See"Countdown to Startup" in the June 2004 issue fordetails.)

2. Break your plan into sections by outlining the operationaland administrative areas of your business, including legal,marketing, pricing, finance and internal process controls.

3. In each section, explain the work, research and markettesting you've completed to date.

4. Conclude each section by specifically stating the next actionsteps you will take to create results.

Your business action plan continually evolves as your businessgrows. It monitors and allows you to evaluate what has worked todate--resulting in your continual business success.

Speaker and consultant Romanus Wolter, aka "The Kick StartGuy," is author of Kick Start Your Dream Business.

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