For most first-time entrepreneurs, there is a considerable lag of time between thinking about starting a business and actually taking the first steps toward turning a business idea into reality. This time is usually spent rationalizing inaction — that is, thinking about all the reasons that now is not the ideal time for a startup. For the most part, these justifications fall into one or more categories:
- Lack of Time
- Lack of Money
- Lack of Product or Service Idea
- Concerns About Security
- Concerns About Personality, Knowledge and Skills
- Not Knowing Where to Start
While these are all valid concerns, none are factors beyond your own control. As one management expert once said, an entrepreneur “…doesn’t see risks; he sees only factors he can control to his advantage.” Each and every excuse you can think of to resist taking the plunge into entrepreneurship is just that — an excuse. If you are serious about working for yourself and building your idea into a successful company, there is a way to start on that road immediately. Working obstacles into opportunities is a basic skill of successful entrepreneurs, and now is a good time to start honing those habits.
Lack of time is a common reason for delaying the startup of a business idea. For some, there just isn’t any time today to work on the business idea. For others, the thought of taking months, or even a year, to start a business seems overwhelming and too far off. Instead, many potential entrepreneurs put off planning their business idea until they will have enough time. The problem is that life has a funny way of never leaving us with enough time to do everything we need to do! The trick to getting started with your business idea now is to organize your time effectively.
Many potential entrepreneurs have a great business idea or two but can’t find the time to develop these ideas into an actual business. This is particularly true for those who work full-time for someone else and have significant personal and family obligations. The reality is that with a little effective time management and commitment you can find at least a few hours per week to work on your startup. Many of you are thinking, “Sure, I could find a few hours a week, but it would take a year to get my business off the ground at that rate!”
The year will pass whether you work on your business idea or not, but by scheduling just 3 hours per week, you will have put in nearly ONE FULL MONTH of work hours by the end of that year! For most business ideas, a full month of work is enough time to complete just about everything that needs to be done to launch!
The trick to getting started on your business idea with limited time available is to organize your time and responsibilities effectively. Use a daily planner to schedule all of your current commitments, along with time dedicated to your startup. Plan for which part of your startup you will work on during each work session, including clear objectives. That is, identify the specific tasks you will accomplish during each startup session and hold yourself accountable for getting those tasks completed on schedule.
Try using a 90-day planning strategy for managing long-term goals. For most people, it is difficult to accurately predict how much can be accomplished within a full year from today. It is far easier to estimate what can realistically be accomplished within a 90-day window. If you can spare 3 hours per week to work on your business, a 90-day plan would include the work you think you could accomplish in one full workweek (3 hours x 12.5 weeks = 37.5 hours).
Just remember, time will go by whether or not you move forward with your business idea. Don’t wait any longer for your independence — get started today!
Lack of money is, by far, the most common argument for not starting a business. Obviously, business ideas vary in the amount of capital required to successfully launch, but most can be modified and bootstrapped into manageable startup costs. Most first-time entrepreneurs develop an “order of magnitude” estimate of how much they think they need to start their business, based on nothing more than general ideas of what the big things should cost. Without detailed research and planning of your business idea, there is no way to gauge whether the cost of startup is too much. In addition, it is far easier to raise the capital you do need once you have thoroughly planned all aspects of your idea. A well-thought out idea and accurate financial projections will convince potential family and friend investors, and perhaps the SBA, that you are serious about succeeding.
Even if you work through your idea and find that you are unable to finance the full startup, you will find it much easier to modify and bootstrap your idea into smaller, less costly niches that you can ultimately grow into the company you imagine. You can start out part-time, barter with other small business owners for needed goods and services, or pick up side consulting gigs to increase income during the early stages. The internet provides significant opportunities for free marketing — it takes a little more time and effort than paid advertising, but can be extremely effective over the long run in building your brand and customer base. Once you know where you need to spend money to get your business off the ground, it is far easier to find the places to bootstrap.
Of the companies included in the 2008 Inc. 5000, 87% were funded, at least in part, by the owners themselves. The median amount of capital spent to launch these companies was $25,000 — that means half of those 5000 successful companies were started with less than 25K. A bootstrapped startup of $5,000 or less is very common, and most people can raise 5K with a little motivation. Cut your spending, sell some stuff on eBay, do some side jobs, whatever it takes, there is always a way to get started without a major outside investment. By starting your business with an eye toward conserving cash, you will develop a culture of financial responsibility that will ensure your business’s long-term growth and success.
Friends and family are the second most popular source of funding for startups (after self-funding). In order to protect and separate the business and personal relationship, it is important to follow basic business principles in making deals with those close to you. Negotiate all the terms, set a clear repayment schedule, and memorialize your agreement in writing. There are companies available who will service your family and friends loans, for a fee, which can be a great option if you and your lender would prefer an intermediary to handle any potential problems or disputes regarding the investment.
Another new avenue to raising capital for your startup is through social lending websites. These sites allow you to post your request for loans along with a description of the purpose and the interest rate you are willing to pay. Interested users pledge their own funds toward your loan in increments from $50 to your full requested amount. You repay these lenders through the website. This can be a great option if you have limited access to your own capital. Peer-to-peer lending is gaining in popularity, which also means there are some kinks to work out. Be sure to check into any lending site you consider before you commit.
Bank loans are very difficult to secure for startups. Generally, the only way to use the bank’s cash for startup is to personally guarantee the loan, usually with collateral. The SBA offers a number of excellent startup financing programs which require a full formal business plan and good personal credit. Of course, these loans take a significant amount of time and effort to secure, so if your startup expenses are relatively low, you may be better off scraping together your own cash and looking to friends and family for the rest.
Angel investors and venture capitalists are often touted as the ideal route to funding a startup. The reality is that very few companies are funded at startup through either Angels or VCs, the competition is very stiff, and you must be willing to give up significant control and ownership, in most cases. Generally, both Angels and VCs are looking for quick and enormous returns on their investments and are far more inclined to be second round investors — on board after the R&D and grunt work is complete, and all that is needed is cash to send the company to the stars. The process for most VCs is long and tedious, and very few of those seeking capital actually get funded. If you are selected, you will give up most of your ownership stake in your business and be expected to heed the advice of the professionals that come with the money. However, if your idea is one that fits the VC profile, destined for overwhelming success, you will likely be willing to make those trade-offs for the cash your company needs to succeed.
Whatever your startup plans, there is a way to get started, with or without outside financing. It is critically important that you work through your business idea in detail, including all planning and financial projections, before you reject your idea because of lack of money. The more you plan, the better able you are to see ways to bootstrap by starting smaller, cutting expenses, and exploiting opportunities that will allow your business to get off the ground.
Many potential entrepreneurs are excited by the idea of starting a business, but do not have a particular product or service in mind on which to base a business. Currently, the most popular advice is to select something you are “passionate” about, and build a business around that. The theory behind this advice is that you will be more dedicated and committed to a business that involves something that you love. The flipside of this advice is that involving yourself in that activity 60 hours per week may take some of the joy away — a pastime that was a great escape from the grind suddenly becomes the grind. For some, this choice is obvious, and you have probably considered turning your hobby into a business for a long time. For others, especially if you are still unsure about what business idea you should pursue, the chances are that you don’t have a passion that you want to turn in to a business. This is not an indication that you should not become an entrepreneur. In fact, many extremely successful entrepreneurs couldn’t care less what type of business they are in, as long as they can control the factors that make it successful!
If you fall into the “whatever business will work” category, your first order of business is to identify needs that must be filled, or new needs that can be created. How do you do this? Pay attention! Everywhere you go, everything you do, keep an eye out for problems people have and brainstorm potential solutions. Keep a pad of paper with you and write down every idea you come up with. The reality is that just about everyone could come up with at least ten business ideas right now if desperate enough. Think about what you are good at, jobs you think you would enjoy, things your friends and neighbors complain about, improvements on products or services that could save time or money. Consider the market you are most interested in targeting — what do they do? How can it be done better? What product or service do they need that they don’t even know they need yet? Include ridiculous and impossible ideas. The act of writing down even outrageous ideas can enhance creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, eventually leading you to a business idea that is viable and fits you.
If you have trouble getting started, surf the web for lists of business ideas, scan startup magazines at the grocery store, and talk to your friends and neighbors about your desire to start your own business. There are many, many business ideas that can be developed into successful companies. If you are determined to work for yourself, finding the right business idea is a minor obstacle. Of course, it’s hard to argue with “doing what you love” — just remember that the reality of owning your own business requires the bulk of your focus to be on the business side. Most successful entrepreneurs will tell you that the right set of business skills can make any business idea enjoyable and profitable. As long as you are willing to put in the time and commitment to learn everything you can about your business, you will succeed.
Many potential entrepreneurs who are on the fence about whether to launch their own business are concerned about the perceived lack of security and high risk involved in going out on their own. There is a common belief that working for others is more secure than working for yourself because of the “guaranteed” paycheck. As the recent economy is showing us, working for others is no guarantee of job security! One in ten of your peers are currently unemployed, and the job market is going to get worse before it gets better.
Working for yourself is often considered “risky” by non-entrepreneurs, but most business owners don’t see it that way. Instead, entrepreneurs see every factor as within their control and as an opportunity to build their business into a successful company. With your own business, you are in complete control of the direction of your business, you decide how and when to market, you manage all the finances, and you make the final decisions about every aspect of growing and developing your idea. While it’s true that any failures are your responsibility, business ownership tends to drive entrepreneurs to pay closer attention to the details and factors that drive success or failure, and have far more incentive to pick themselves up when they slip and try again.
The primary factors in reducing the risk in any startup are good planning, efficient marketing, and solid financial management. Good planning does not mean throwing together a basic business plan using a ready-made outline. Rather, you need to completely flesh out your business idea, considering all relevant factors from your business name to target market to expenses. Efficient marketing begins with a complete understanding of who you are trying to reach and how your product or service will grab their attention.
With the ever-changing marketplace, it is more important than ever to research and understand the various marketing options available and establish procedures for ensuring your business is getting the best return for your marketing dollar. Financial management of the business is often a struggle for new entrepreneurs. Owning a business is all about turning a profit, regardless of the type of business you choose. It is critical for new business owners to select the right accounting system (not necessarily the most popular) that will allow you to accurately evaluate the financial health of your startup, and to understand the basics of evaluating the numbers on a regular basis.
If you are working a full-time job now and are reticent to give up that steady paycheck, consider starting your business part-time. As mentioned in the earlier, working on your idea just three hours per week for one year is equivalent to taking one full work month to focus on your startup. In addition, starting your business while still employed eases the financial pressures inherent in startups. By tightening up your personal expenses, many entrepreneurs may be able to launch their business without any outside investment. At a minimum, completing all of your business planning while working will make it clear whether working for yourself will be successful enough to support you financially and how much capital you will need on hand to survive those first few months.
One side note — some potential entrepreneurs worry that if they start a business and it fails, then all of their personal assets (house, savings, etc.) will be at risk. The primary avenue for protecting yourself from that possibility is to organize your business as an LLC or corporation and to make the effort to keep your business compliant. Basically, this entails keeping all personal and business records completely separate, filing all required paperwork and fees with the state on time, and maintaining accurate records of your business entity. In addition, new business owners should avoid providing a personal guarantee to any lenders or suppliers, if possible. Business failure does not necessarily mean a devastation of your personal assets as long as you plan from the start to protect and separate your business and personal worlds.
The slow economy and tight job market make this an excellent time to start up your own business. By planning your company conservatively enough to survive this economy, you will develop a culture of careful spending, efficient marketing, and consistent oversight that will prepare your company for explosive growth once the economy bounces back.
Personality, Knowledge & Skills
Some potential entrepreneurs worry that they do not have the right personality, knowledge, or skills to successfully launch and run their own business. While certain traits are generally associated with the entrepreneurial spirit, there is nothing magic about owning a business — anyone with the desire can learn what they need to know.
The personality traits that non-entrepreneurs generally associate with entrepreneurs are that they are extreme risk-takers, are very outgoing, have no fear of failure, and have a high tolerance for uncertainty. While it seems, at first consideration, that these traits might be required for taking the chance on your own startup, they are not. All different types of people have successful companies, the trick is to use your own traits to your advantage. If you do not see yourself as a risk-taker, you are likely to put more time and effort into planning each facet of your business idea, researching and comparing options to find the best avenue to reach your business goals. If you are an introvert, you can choose a business model that allows you to work independently, add key personnel to handle public appearances, and practice your networking skills in smaller, controlled environments.
A healthy fear of failure is an excellent motivator, as long as you don’t allow yourself knee-jerk reactions to setbacks. For many successful entrepreneurs, the fear of failure translates into the drive to succeed. Changing your mind about how you channel your fears can be a critical factor in the success of your business idea. A low tolerance for uncertainty is often reflected, again, in careful planning as well as close attention to the financial management of the startup. In reality, some of these presumed “entrepreneurial traits” can be a real disadvantage to a new business owner. If you have no fear of risk or failure, you are far more likely to take uncalculated risks that are far more likely to put your success in jeopardy.
Most business responsibilities fall into two broad categories — operations and business. Operations refers to what your business actually does — makes and delivers pizza, trains construction managers, publishes a sports magazine, etc. The business side refers to the tasks that must be handled for all businesses — accounting, marketing, customer service, etc. Entrepreneurs tend to be very strong in one area or the other, but often not both. Those who choose a business idea because it is something they are passionate about usually have the operations under control but worry about handling the business side of the equation. Even if you are “doing what you love,” the whole point of business ownership is to turn a profit. It is critical to understand how to handle the money and to equip yourself with the right tools to make financial management of your startup as accurate and straightforward as possible.
In addition to basic accounting skills, an entrepreneur must be familiar with research and planning, marketing, and dealing with customers and, in most cases, employees. None of these skills are particularly difficult, but those with little or no experience will need to take the time to understand and master these areas in order to drive their business to success. For those who have a particular business idea but have limited knowledge of the actual operations, you can take classes, work in the industry to learn the ropes, or hire key personnel with the experience your business needs. Whatever skills you lack to successfully startup your dream business, a little time and dedicated effort can get you where you need to be.
Where to Start?
Congratulations! You have eliminated all the usual excuses for not getting started on your new business…..now what? Figuring out where to start in developing your business idea is a major stumbling block for most first-time entrepreneurs. The available advice is all over the place and often lists “business requirements” without telling you how, when, or why to do them. Simply registering your business and posting a website is not enough, and the available fill-in-the-blank business plan templates do not tell you how to dig into the details of your startup or what you should be looking for.
For every business idea, the first order of business is to actually plan your business. Merely writing down your business idea and throwing together unjustified numbers for projected financials is not a plan. Rather, you need to thoroughly define your product, identify your target market and how to reach them, determine all legal requirements, and develop solid, justifiable financial projections before you can decide whether your business idea is viable. In addition, you need to develop a complete marketing plan, from the role, design, and SEO of your website (yes, your business must have a website!) to the best routes for reaching your market through paid advertising to the role of networking in developing your business.
Quite a bit of effort goes in to a well-developed plan, but the experience will leave you completely prepared for managing your business once it is up, running, and making money. Your well-developed plan will provide you a roadmap for where your business is going and how to get there. In addition, if you will need outside investment to launch your startup, all of this research will easily develop into your formal business plan and will clearly show that you have done your homework and know your business inside and out.
With your completed plan, you will know whether you can finance the startup yourself or will need outside investment. If you can fund it yourself, the next steps are to execute the plan and open for business! Then, your responsibilities shift to the actual operations, managing employees, overseeing the financials, and planning for growth.
There is a lot to starting your own business, but the independence and flexibility that comes with entrepreneurship is well worth the effort. The process is not as complex as it seems, and the keys to success are easy to remember — Planning, Marketing and Financial Management. If you begin your business with these factors in mind, you will greatly reduce your risk and greatly increase your odds of success.