The Best Books, Sites, Trade Associations and Resources to Get Your Business Funded and Running When it comes to business, information grows money. And there is an incredible array of free and low-cost resources available for passionate entrepreneurs.
This is part 8 / 8 of Write Your Business Plan: Section 6: Getting Your Business Plan to Investors series.
Never forget that information grows money.
Thanks to the internet, market research for business planning purposes has become much easier and less time-consuming. For example, by logging on to the U.S. Census Bureau website (www.census.gov), you can learn everything you need about population trends in your market, which helps you determine market share—a key piece of information in any business plan. Using your site or email, you can set up an online focus group to get a handle on what prospective customers want from a product or service like yours, how they'd use it, where they'd like to buy it, and how often they'd purchase it.
This kind of information will help you establish pricing, distribution, and promotional strategies.
You can garner a wealth of valuable information via the web on your competitors—and on businesses similar to yours operating in other markets. Visit these companies' websites to see what their product/service lines are, what their unique selling propositions are, who their target markets are and what media are used to reach them, what their prices are, and where and how their product is distributed. If their websites have a section called "News" or "Upcoming Events," you can learn about their plans for future marketing efforts and determine how they'll affect your business.
Trade Associations: Key Source of Targeted Information
Trade associations are an excellent source of specific trade and industry information. Suppose you are an artisan specializing in concrete countertops and related items. Is there a trade association? Sure, see The Concrete Network's newsletter for specialized information.
Because there are more than 22,000 trade associations in the United States, you will be hard-pressed not to find one that will include your business. Most have periodicals—magazines or newsletters—whose editors are eager to justify their positions by providing the membership with up-to-date information of all kinds. You can call the editor directly (they like to hear from members) or send him an email with your particular questions.
Trade associations often sponsor trade shows, which can help you get information on suppliers, industry trends, consultants, and even seminars directly related to your business. The people you meet and the informal exchange of knowledge that results provide the greatest value: production tips, problem solutions, contacts, and ideas.
If your business is already established, use your website and social media presence to solicit valuable feedback from your customers. Stay in touch with them to foster customer loyalty. After a sale is made, ask them whether they're satisfied or if more service is needed. Let them know about upcoming events and specials. Ask them what changes, if any, they'd like to see made in your product or service and how it's delivered.
Keep in mind the 80-20 principle in business, which says that 80 percent of your business comes from repeat customers and 20 percent from new customers. Too many businesses spend an inordinate amount of money trying to lure new customers when their repeat customers and the friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family members of those regular customers are the backbone of most successful businesses.
Use the web and email to get the information you need about vendors and suppliers. Get a list of customers you can email, text, or phone so you can assess their business relationships before you make any commitments.
If you don't yet have your business up and running, you may want to tap into social media on your own to discuss your upcoming business— don't give too many secrets away, but go to online groups, discussions, or Facebook pages where you may find your demographic audience and start a conversation. See what they think in general about your ideas—get feedback.
If your business plan will double as a financing proposal, visit the U.S. government's Small Business Administration site to learn more about the many different types of financing programs available. In addition to financial assistance through guaranteed loans, the SBA also offers counseling services, help in getting government contracts, management assistance through programs like SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), and lots of publications.
Other government organizations also offer financing to small businesses, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Commerce's Export Assistance Centers. To find nongovernment organizations that provide financing to small businesses in your area, visit the Association for Enterprise Opportunity and ask which programs serve businesses in your area. Your banker and state economic development office can also help.
Books and How-To Manuals
Scores of books have been written on how to write a business plan. Most provide skimpy treatment of the issues while devoting many pages to sample plans. Sample plans are useful, but unless planners understand the principles of the planning process, they can't really create sophisticated, one-of-a-kind plans. The following books will help you with the details of various sections in your plan:
Dictionary of Business and Economics Terms (Barron's). In its fifth edition, this compact, 800-page dictionary is a cure for jargon overexposure. It provides concise definitions of business and has appendices that explain common business acronyms, provide tables of compounded interest rate factors, and more. It's the kind of book you'll turn to again and again.
Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days (Entrepreneur Press) by Jay Conrad Levinson and Al Lautenslager. The most recent edition of this marketing classic provides updated marketing techniques for those with little cash but high hopes. Levinson's insistence on the central role of planning and his simple but effective explanations of how to do it will serve business planners well.
What Every Angel Investor Wants You to Know: An Insider Reveals How to Get Smart Funding for Your Billion Dollar Idea (McGraw Hill) by Brian Cohen and John Kador. If you want an inside and honest look at what angel investors think, this is a good book to get the perspective from the other side of the table. Cohen is chairman of the New York Angels, an independent consortium of individual accredited angel investors.
The internet provides a virtually inexhaustible source of information for and about small business, including numerous sites with substantial databases of tips and ideas concerning business planning. Some of the best include the following:
Entrepreneur.com. This is the website of Entrepreneur Media, the nation's premier source for information for the entrepreneur and small business community and the parent corporation of this book's publisher. The site contains a vast array of information resources, practical advice, interviews with experts, profiles of successful entrepreneurs, product and service reviews, and more.
The site offers resources for new entrepreneurs, including sample business plans and sections on startups, marketing, and technology, all of which can be helpful while in your planning process.
The Entrepreneur website also hosts Entrepreneur Media's Bookstore, a source for books— including this one—that offer expert advice on starting, running, and growing a small business. These include business startup guides, step-by-step startup guides to specific businesses, and business management guides, which offer in-depth information on financing, marketing, and more.
Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov). The SBA's website is a vast directory of services provided by the federal agency devoted to helping small businesses. These include special lending programs, electronic databases of minority- and disadvantaged-owned businesses, directories of government contracting opportunities, and more.
There is also a generous selection of answers to frequently asked questions, tip sheets, and other advice. You can get a list of questions to ask yourself to see if you have the personality of an entrepreneur, find help with selecting a business, and browse an entire area devoted to help with your business plan.
BPlans.com. Bplans offers a very comprehensive website with a host of information about all aspects of business plans, as well as starting and growing a business. Funding, tools for creating a plan, and robust business plan guides and templates are all available at bplans.com/business-planning.
Trade Groups and Associations
You're not in this alone. There are countless local and national organizations, both public and private, devoted to helping small businesses get up and running. They provide services ranging from low-rent facilities to financial assistance, from help in obtaining government contracts to help with basic business planning issues. Many of these services are provided for free or at nominal cost.
SCORE. The Service Corps of Retired Executives, known as SCORE, is a nonprofit group of mostly retired businesspeople who volunteer to provide counseling to small businesses at no charge. SCORE has been around since 1964 and has helped more than three million entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. SCORE is a source for all kinds of business advice, from how to write a business plan to investigating marketing potential and managing cash flow.
SCORE counselors work out of nearly 400 local chapters throughout the United States. You can obtain a referral to a counselor in your local chapter by contacting the national office. For more information, visit Score.org or call (800) 634-0245.
International Business Innovation Association. The InBIA is the global organization for business incubators, which are organizations specially set up to nurture young firms and help them survive and grow. Incubators provide leased office facilities on flexible terms, shared business services, management assistance, help in obtaining financing, and technical support. For more information, visit inbia.org or call it at (407) 965-5653.
U.S. Chambers of Commerce. The many chambers of commerce throughout the United States are organizations devoted to providing networking, lobbying, training, and more. If you think chambers are all about having lunch with a bunch of community boosters, think again. Among the services the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offers is a web-based business solutions program that provides online help with specific small business needs, including planning, marketing, and other tasks such as creating a press release, collecting a bad debt, recruiting employees, and creating a retirement plan.
Related: Capital Sources For Your Business
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the umbrella organization for local chambers, of which there are more than 1,000 in the United States. If you're planning on doing business overseas, don't forget to check for an American chamber of commerce in the countries where you hope to have a presence. They are set up to provide information and assistance to U.S. firms seeking to do business there. Many, but not all, countries have American chambers. You can find the national chamber of commerce at USChamber.com or call its Washington headquarters at (800) 638-6582.