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Countdown to Startup Not sure where to begin your startup efforts? This 12-step process will help you be up and running before you know it.

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, others may provoke our self-doubt by asking, "Where will you get the start-up money? How will you market it?"

Your best strategy for redirecting this energy is to create a personal focus that's rooted in your passion. Start by defining your intent, your goal and your purpose. This is the underlying emotional foundation of your business.

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

Write down your internal intent, and share it with others. It provides you with direction and self-confidence. When people hear and understand your objective, they become motivated to help you.

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

Most likely, someone else has started a business similar to yours. However, no one has your intent. Gain your true focus, and you 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, they immediately ask themselves "How will I or someone I know benefit from this idea?"

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

Creating a winning message that clarifies your purpose and maintains a specific focus is really quite simple. First, write down how your business helps your customers. Circle any key descriptive words--ones that resonate with your heart. Then use the most exciting words to form a single statement that focuses on the key benefit your business provides. For example, if you own a restaurant, you can use "Healthy food that satisfies any appetite." Use your instant impact message everywhere--at business functions and on your business cards. The more people hear about your business, the more business and ideas you'll generate.

Step 3: Discover What Works

Companies pay millions of dollars to professional market researchers to find out what people really want and how they want it. You can uncover a wealth of information by taking field trips to discover how your product or service will satisfy people's desires.

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

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

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

Step 4: Protect Your Idea and Yourself

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

A wonderful preventive measure is using a daily planner and creating a paper trail--tracking all meeting dates, attendees and discussions. If necessary, this information can someday serve as evidence in court.

Continue as a sole proprietor as long as possible; this will allow you to test out the entrepreneurial waters without incurring any extra expenses. If you discover any risk for which insurance is either too costly or unavailable, consider protecting yourself by creating an LLC or a corporation.

Consult a lawyer early in the startup process, and obtain his or her advice on how to best protect your business. For great referrals, contact your local SBA office or chamber of commerce.

Step 5: Stop Struggling to Convince Others

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

When you speak positively about your business, it inspires others to help you succeed rather than question your abilities. Your one-page sales script quickly generates trust by showing key supporters the value you offer and how you will successfully deliver on your promises. In your script, confirm your passion and share your successful experiences by:

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

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

Step 6: Conduct a Reality Check

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

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

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

Passion sometimes clouds judgment. Thinking that you know what is best for your customers is one of the most common mistakes in starting 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, objective feedback on how to improve your business. It's important to obtain these fresh ideas early in the startup process because you can improve your business for a relatively low cost.

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

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

Step 8: Get Price Quotes From Manufacturers

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

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

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

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

4. Send your RFQ to one company as a practice run. Update your RFQ with industry-specific terms. Showing that you are knowledgeable about the industry will lead to better prices. Then send your RFQ to three more companies.

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

6. Negotiate with your top two manufacturers. This is a business relationship, so make sure you like and trust your chosen partner.

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 your business provides. You can maximize your resources by using "octopus marketing"--creating one program that reaches lots of your customers. Hit an octopus on the head, and its tentacles stretch out in many different directions. The head of the octopus represents any organization or person who has contact with many of your customers. The tentacles spread out, sending information about your business over and over again. Follow these steps to create a marketing program that works for you:

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

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

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

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

Step 10: Set Prices for Success

Your product or service must be priced to entice buyers and cover your overhead, production, distribution, labor and marketing costs. And most important, you need to make a profit. To do that:

  • Define your personal financial goals. Your goals impact your pricing strategy. Some people want to make a million dollars on one idea. Others want to make $50,000 to help fund their business development activities.
  • Investigate market trends. Pricing is subject to market forces and consumer demands. Obtain information to help you predict your market in terms of sales potential, growth prospects and trends.
  • Obtain competitive information. Consumers price shop. Walk into stores, and use the internet to uncover your competitors' pricing strategies. Unless you provide special features for which consumers are willing to pay more, your price has to be competitive.
  • Cover your cost of doing business. At first, you will be using your "best guess" cost estimates. As your business grows, track your real costs of doing business, and reflect them in your pricing structure.

Step 11: Organize Your Future With Process Sheets

Process sheets define the action steps and resources associated with key day-to-day business activities. They enable you to identify, develop and test your back-end business support systems, saving you time and frustration. Together, they form your "operations manual"--the policies for running your company. Writing your processes down shows people how you will conduct business, which makes it easier for them to offer enhancements. Develop your own process sheets using these steps:

1. Put the name of the process at the top of each page--for example, "customer service" or "order fulfillment."

2. Build a three-column table beneath the name of the process. The first column lists the action steps necessary to complete the process, the second shows the person who is responsible, and the third 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 sales cycle.

4. Create process sheets for other areas of your business as appropriate. In addition, improve your process sheets by periodically reviewing them with colleagues.

Step 12: Stay Motivated With a Business Action Plan

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

Similar to a business plan, the business action plan synthesizes your research and describes your business. However, it also identifies the necessary steps you will take to keep your momentum going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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