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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Plan Your Business Plan

Before you put pen to paper, find out how to assess your business's goals and objectives.



You've decided to write a business plan, and you're ready to get started. Congratulations. You've just greatly increased the chances that your business venture will succeed. But before you start drafting your plan, you need to--you guessed it--plan your draft.
One of the most important reasons to plan your plan is that you may be held accountable for the projections and proposals it contains. That's especially true if you use your plan to raise money to finance your company. Let's say you forecast opening four new locations in the second year of your retail operation. An investor may have a beef if, due to circumstances you could have foreseen, you only open two. A business plan can take on a life of its own, so thinking a little about what you want to include in your plan is no more than common prudence.
Second, as you'll soon learn if you haven't already, business plans can be complicated documents. As you draft your plan, you'll be making lots of decisions on serious matters, such as what strategy you'll pursue, as well as less important ones, like what color paper to print it on. Thinking about these decisions in advance is an important way to minimize the time you spend planning your business and maximize the time you spend generating income.
To sum up, planning your plan will help control your degree of accountability and reduce time-wasting indecision. To plan your plan, you'll first need to decide what your goals and objectives in business are. As part of that, you'll assess the business you've chosen to start, or are already running, to see what the chances are that it will actually achieve those ends. Finally, you'll take a look at common elements of most plans to get an idea of which ones you want to include and how each will be treated.
Determine Your Objectives
Close your eyes. Imagine that the date is five years from now. Where do you want to be? Will you be running a business that hasn't increased significantly in size? Will you command a rapidly growing empire? Will you have already cashed out and be relaxing on a beach somewhere, enjoying your hard-won gains?
Answering these questions is an important part of building a successful business plan. In fact, without knowing where you're going, it's not really possible to plan at all.
Now is a good time to free-associate a little bit--to let your mind roam, exploring every avenue that you'd like your business to go down. Try writing a personal essay on your business goals. It could take the form of a letter to yourself, written from five years in the future, describing all you have accomplished and how it came about.
As you read such a document, you may make a surprising discovery, such as that you don't really want to own a large, fast-growing enterprise but would be content with a stable small business. Even if you don't learn anything new, though, getting a firm handle on your goals and objectives is a big help in deciding how you'll plan your business.
Goals and Objectives Checklist
If you're having trouble deciding what your goals and objectives are, here are some questions to ask yourself:
  1. How determined am I to see this succeed?
  2. Am I willing to invest my own money and work long hours for no pay, sacrificing personal time and lifestyle, maybe for years?
  3. What's going to happen to me if this venture doesn't work out?
  4. If it does succeed, how many employees will this company eventually have?
  5. What will be its annual revenues in a year? Five years?
  6. What will be its market share in that time frame?
  7. Will it be a niche marketer, or will it sell a broad spectrum of good and services?
  8. What are my plans for geographic expansion? Local? National? Global?
  9. Am I going to be a hands-on manager, or will I delegate a large proportion of tasks to others?
  10. If I delegate, what sorts of tasks will I share? Sales? Technical? Others?
  11. How comfortable am I taking direction from others? Could I work with partners or investors who demand input into the company's management?
  12. Is it going to remain independent and privately owned, or will it eventually be acquired or go public?


Your Financing Goals

It doesn't necessarily take a lot of money to make a lot of money, but it does take some. That's especially true if, as part of examining your goals and objectives, you envision very rapid growth.
Energetic, optimistic entrepreneurs often tend to believe that sales growth will take care of everything, that they'll be able to fund their own growth by generating profits. However, this is rarely the case, for one simple reason: You usually have to pay your own suppliers before your customers pay you. This cash flow conundrum is the reason so many fast-growing companies have to seek bank financing or equity sales to finance their growth. They are literally growing faster than they can afford.
Start by asking yourself what kinds of financing you're likely to need--and what you'd be willing to accept. It's easy when you're short of cash, or expect to be short of cash, to take the attitude that almost any source of funding is just fine. But each kind of financing has different characteristics that you should take into consideration when planning your plan. These characteristics take three primary forms:
  • First, there's the amount of control you'll have to surrender. An equal partner may, quite naturally, demand approximately equal control. Venture capitalists often demand significant input into management decisions by, for instance, placing one or more people on your board of directors. Angel investors may be very involved or not involved at all, depending on their personal style. Bankers, at the other end of the scale, are likely to offer no advice whatsoever as long as you make payments of principal and interest on time and are not in violation of any other terms of your loan.
  • You should also consider the amount of money you're likely to need. Any amount less than several million dollars is too small to be considered for a standard initial public offering of stock, for example. Venture capital investors are most likely to invest amounts of $250,000 to $3 million. On the other hand, only the richest angel investor will be able to provide more than a few hundred thousand dollars, if that.
Almost any source of funds, from a bank to a factor, has some guidelines about the size of financing it prefers. Anticipating the size of your needs now will guide you in preparing your plan.
  • The third consideration is cost. This can be measured in terms of interest rates and shares of ownership as well as in time, paperwork and plain old hassle.

How Will You Use Your Plan

Believe it or not, part of planning your plan is planning what you'll do with it. No, we haven't gone crazy--at least not yet. A business plan can be used for several things, from monitoring your company's progress toward goals to enticing key employees to join your firm. Deciding how you intend to use yours is an important part of preparing to write it.
  • Do you intend to use your plan to help you raise money? In that case, you'll have to focus very carefully on the executive summary, the management, and marketing and financial aspects. You'll need to have a clearly focused vision of how your company is going to make money. If you're looking for a bank loan, you'll need to stress your ability to generate sufficient cash flow to service loans. Equity investors, especially venture capitalists, must be shown how they can cash out of your company and generate a rate of return they'll find acceptable.
  • Do you intend to use your plan to attract talented employees? Then you'll want to emphasize such things as stock options and other aspects of compensation as well as location, work environment, corporate culture and opportunities for growth and advancement.
  • Do you anticipate showing your plan to suppliers to demonstrate that you're a worthy customer? A solid business plan may convince a supplier of some precious commodity to favor you over your rivals. It may also help you arrange supplier credit. You may want to stress your blue-ribbon customer list and spotless record of repaying trade debts in this plan.
Assessing Your Company's Potential
For most of us, unfortunately, our desires about where we would like to go aren't as important as our businesses' ability to take us there. Put another way, if you choose the wrong business, you're going nowhere.
Luckily, one of the most valuable uses of a business plan is to help you decide whether the venture you have your heart set on is really likely to fulfill your dreams. Many, many business ideas never make it past the planning stage because their would-be founders, as part of a logical and coherent planning process, test their assumptions and find them wanting.
Test your idea against at least two variables. First, financial, to make sure this business makes economic sense. Second, lifestyle, because who wants a successful business that they hate?
Answer the following questions to help you outline your company's potential. There are no wrong answers. The objective is simply to help you decide how well your proposed venture is likely to match up with your goals and objectives.
Financial:
  1. What initial investment will the business require?
  2. How much control are you willing to relinquish to investors?
  3. When will the business turn a profit?
  4. When can investors, including you, expect a return on their money?
  5. What are the projected profits of the business over time?
  6. Will you be able to devote yourself full time to the business, financially?
  7. What kind of salary or profit distribution can you expect to take home?
  8. What are the chances the business will fail?
  9. What will happen if it does?
Lifestyle:
  1. Where are you going to live?
  2. What kind of work are you going to be doing?
  3. How many hours will you be working?
  4. Will you be able to take vacations?
  5. What happens if you get sick?
  6. Will you earn enough to maintain your lifestyle?
  7. Does your family understand and agree with the sacrifices you envision?
Sources: The Small Business EncyclopediaBusiness Plans Made Easy, Start Your Own Business and Entrepreneur magazine.

Tips for a Successful Small Business





Today's tips come from a collection of online resources that I have put together. Hope you find them useful and an enjoyable read. Do take a moment and subscribe to the Startup Pro Plus to have the latest posted articles directly in your inbox.

Be clear on why you want to start a business
While the idea of starting a business may be daunting, the fatigue of looking for a job may be even greater. Taking control of your working life by venturing out on your own may be scary, but doing noting can be worse. That said, don't start a business because you've run out of options. If you're truly interested in doing your own thing and you're ready to go for it with gusto, then small business ownership can be the most frustration and the most freeing avenue—with the possibility of the greatest financial security.


Determine your business type
You don't have to reinvent the wheel. The best idea for you may be tried and true with your personal twist. When I started Women For Hire 12 years ago, career fairs were a dime a dozen -- still are. I put my spin on the category by focusing on women and I created a very successful business. Today I'm doing the same thing with my new venture -- Spark & Hustle. I'm putting my twist based on my experiences on helping current and aspiring small business owners to launch and grow their businesses. Take a look around and you'll see no shortage of repeatable ideas: People buy cupcakes, we all get haircuts, everyone likes some kind of jewelry, at some point plenty of homes need plumbers. Competitors can co-exist quite successfully. You just have to execute your version really well. So nail your idea -- and keep in mind that a service business (a service you provide based on your expertise) is much less expensive to launch than a product business where it costs money to create a tangible good. (For basic business advice on the legalities of getting started, click here for a Q&A with Rocket Lawyer.)
Write a business plan, any business plan 
You have a passion, and you'd like to make it your profession. No matter how enthusiastic you are about your small business, though, it won't be successful unless you have a plan in place for how you're going to start and run it.

It doesn't matter how long or detailed your plan is, as long as it covers a few essential points. Most successful small businesses will need to have a break-even analysis, a profit-loss forecast and a cash-flow analysis. A cash-flow analysis is especially important since you could be selling your products like hotcakes, but if you won't be paid for six months, you could still run out of money and have to close your doors. 


A business plan is essential because it allows you to experiment with the strategy for your business on paper, before you start playing for keeps.


Determine how you'll make a profit
Profit is, after all, the ultimate goal of any successful small business. You should examine your business' expenses (rent, materials, employee compensation, etc.) and then figure out how much you will need to sell to cover those costs and start generating a profit. This is known as a break-even analysis.

Start with as much of your own money as possible

Many small business owners cover their start-up costs entirely through loans, with the expectation that they will begin paying back the loans with the profits from their new business. New businesses can take months or years to generate a profit, however, and loan payments can really become a millstone around the neck of a fledgling operation.
If you can save up as much of the start-up capital yourself before you open your doors, you will help ensure that loans won't sink your new business. Remember, also, that there's an outside chance that a lender will call a loan or add unfavorable terms if your business isn't as successful as you initially planned. If you provide as much of the start-up money as possible, it will lessen the odds of a nasty surprise like this hindering your business.


Protect yourself

Most small businesses are sole proprietorships or partnerships. While these types of businesses are nice and easy to form, they also expose their owners to liability for business debts and judgments. Creditors and judgment holders can come after the owners' personal assets, like savings accounts and homes, once the business' money is depleted.
While insurance can reduce this liability somewhat, it's worth it to consider forming a corporation or limited liability corporation (LLC). These business structures will shield owners from personal liability, but there are more rules and requirements associated with them.


Start small

Everyone wants their small business to be successful, with multiple locations, lots of employees and loads of revenue, but you have to learn to walk before you can run. Don't spread yourself too thin or take on too many expenses at the beginning, especially if your income might take a while to catch up to your ambitions.
By starting small, you ensure that you can survive the inevitable hiccups associated with running a small business. Those entrepreneurs who begin with modest operations can recover and learn from their mistakes without taking on a lot of debt. Starting small will help your small business grow into a successful enterprise.


Get it in writing

While, it's nice to do business with a handshake, there's no substitute for a well-written contract. Indeed, many contracts are not valid unless they are in written form. The exact number of this type of contract varies between states, but here are a few common examples:
  • Sales of goods worth more than $500
  • Contracts lasting more than a year
  • A transfer of ownership in copyrights or real estate
While contracts can be valid when orally made, they are much harder to prove and enforce. Make sure you get all agreements in writing -- it will save you headaches down the line, and could even save your business.


Keep your edge

There are many ways to gain a competitive edge over other businesses in your industry: you could have a better product, a more efficient manufacturing or distribution process, a more convenient location, better customer service, or a better understanding of the changing marketplace.
The best way to hold onto your competitive edge is to protect your trade secrets. A trade secret is that information that isn't known to others that gives you a competitive advantage in the market. There are many kinds of trade secrets, and trade secrets receive legal protection as long as their owners take steps to keep them secret. Those steps could be anything from marking confidential documents to requiring partners and employees to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Another way to hold onto your competitive edge is to stay proactive. If you know that your business is going to face challenges or encroachment by a competitor, don't wait to react -- plan ahead and you'll stay ahead.


Hire the right people

Don't just hire the first person to come along with the basic qualifications you need. Look for someone with motivation, creativity and the right kind of personality to make it in your industry and fit in with your business. Then, once you've found that person, treat them well, engage them and make sure that you create the environment that they will thrive and give their all in.


Make sure you create the right kind of employee relationship

Lots of businesses try to save money by hiring people as independent contractors rather than full-time employees. The IRS will impose large penalties on businesses that do not withhold and pay taxes for workers that it considers full-time employees rather than independent contractors. Here are some things the IRS will look at to determine whether a worker is an independent contractor or a full-time employee:
  • The worker performs tasks that are essential for your business
  • The worker only works for your business
  • The worker works 40 hours a week, or nearly 40 hours
  • The worker receives instructions and training from you, and you exercise control over how the worker does their job
Also be sure to create an "at-will" relationship with your employees. Employers can terminate at-will employees for any reason, which is essential if an employee isn't working out. There are many ways to make it clear that the employment relationship is at-will, including in employee handbooks and through offer letters. Don't make any promises to employees about the length or terms of their employment, as these could become binding on you later.


Pay your bills and taxes on time

It should go without saying, but it's important to pay what you owe -- especially when dealing with the IRS. The IRS can impose harsh penalties and even come after a business owner's personal assets if the owner doesn't remit payroll taxes on time.
It's also important to pay your regular debts in a timely fashion. If you get a reputation for stalling on a debt, you could find it difficult to form business relationships in the future. Plus, if you stay current on your debts and pay them as you incur them, it will help you avoid being overwhelmed by cash flow problems if several debts come due simultaneously.

Go Out and Get Customers
This is where the magic happens. Nothing else matters if you don't have customers. The majority of your time and effort must focus on sales. Having a smart marketing plan to attract interested people, and then convert them to customers is your number one priority. Don't get overwhelmed about how to dive in: just start where you are. Create a list of 50 potential prospects that you'll go after and begin making calls one by one. Build a serious social media presence for your business where you can engage directly with your target market.
Dreaming about how fabulous your business can be is good; but doing some to get it there is sensational. It's all about the hustle: the decisions you make and the actions you take each and every day – that'll get you where you want to go.
Source: http://abcnews.go.com/Business/tips-starting-small-business/story?id=14447409#.T50HPLP9N5I
Source: http://smallbusiness.findlaw.com/starting-a-business/tips-for-a-successful-small-business.html






Monday, April 23, 2012

The Risk-Averse Entrepreneur's Guide to Startup Success


So you've got an idea for a small business. Congratulations! Now, it's time to figure out how to make it one that survives and even thrives.
Many would-be entrepreneurs are held back by fears of failure due to the risks of starting a business. But there are ways to lessen those risks -- by taking a sane, step-by-step approach to getting ready to launch. 

Here are seven fundamental steps for planning a low-risk launch:
1. Know how you'll fund it. There are many costs to starting a business, even if it's an online one. Do you have money saved up, or access to a credit line you could tap? Will you work a side job? Get relatives to help you? Have a strategy for how you will pay for business expenses.
2. Be realistic about ramp time. Even with a simple business idea, expect it will be at least six months to a year before the business starts throwing off enough cash to support you. Know how you will cover your living expenses until then.
3. Keep overhead low. See how you could start getting sales before paying rent on a big retail store. Try a kiosk, direct sales, e-commerce or even renting space within an existing store.
4. Have a business model. Just because Groupon's founders started without any idea how their business would make money doesn't mean you should do the same. The reality is the vast majority of businesses that begin this way will fail. Figure out a revenue model at the start.
5. Test your idea out on prospective customers. It's better to find out if nobody would buy your product before you invest time and money in launching it. Get feedback about whether there is a real market for what you want to sell.
6. Be ready to evolve your idea. Venture funders like founders who know how to "fail fast." Don't cling to what's not working. One key entrepreneurial skill is quickly recognizing problems and testing out new twists on an idea until you find the approach to which customers respond. 
7. Build your network. You will not succeed at this alone. Find other entrepreneurs and mentors who will be a sounding board and share their experiences.
If you decide to go for it and start a business, be committed to it. If you're not passionate about what you're trying to do, you probably won't stick out the inevitable bumps in the road.
What tips do you have for startup entrepreneurs? Add to this list in the comments below.

7 Ways to Help Ensure Your Business Succeeds


The darkest days of the Great Recession are over, so we are told, but I'm finding that sales have increased only slightly for some small-business owners, while revenue remains deeply depressed for many. While some customers are loosening up their wallets a little, it is clear purchasing habits have changed.
Deep economic changes have occurred, and business will never be the same.
Entrepreneurs -- whether they're an unemployed person striking out on their own or a seasoned veteran trying to get the mojo back again -- must do things differently in order to survive. Everyone must change, especially small-business owners.
Luckily, what have not changed are the business fundamentals, those management traits that successful entrepreneurs almost all possess: tenacity, commitment and vision, and basic business skills.
New strategies are required, however, strategies designed to work in a changing business climate.
I've had a chance to develop and implement these strategies first-hand during the recession and its aftermath -- and have employed them myself. Not only have I consulted with many businesses over the years, but I've had a hand in running over 57 businesses of my own. I have a good idea of what works and doesn't work today, learned in the front lines of hand-to-hand small-business combat. 
Here are seven tips that will help to ensure your business is a success:
1. Have a written plan. Without a plan, it is merely a dream. It doesn't have to be a book, but you need a few pages outlining specific objectives, strategies, financing, a sales and marketing plan, and a determination of the cash you need to get things done. Writing it all down is a crucial first step.
2. Don't marry your plan. Every great military general in history has known that even the best-laid plan sometimes has to be thrown in the fire when the bullets start flying. Adjust, confront and conquer.
3. Keep your ego in check and listen to others. Advisors are crucial because you need people to bounce ideas off, inspect what you're doing, and push you to greater accomplishments, holding you accountable for what you are committing to do. Always be good to your word and follow through on commitments, even when difficult and challenging. This isn't about you; it's about the business. Don't take things personally and stay out of emotion. Do not let your ego take control.
4. Keep track of everything, and manage by the numbers. Create written systems for everything, because you will reap benefits from them later on. This is how you train your employees and retain consistency. Know your numbers and check them daily and make all decisions based on what they tell you. One of the most important calculations is cash flow pro forma. Determine how much cash you need to do the business, and do not start without the required cash on hand.
5. Delegate to employees and avoid micromanaging them. A manager's job is to delegate and then inspect progress. So don't be a control freak. Keep business organization flat. If you delegate effectively, you will get more and better then you expect. Have an actual written training and orientation plan so your employees know what is required of them. Use an incentive-based rewards system, and maintain a no-problem attitude about issues that crop up.
6. Use the Internet. It is incredibly powerful and very cost efficient, but it takes time and some skill. It is about creating a community, using social media networking such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogging to build rapport with your market. You need to get on the train and do it, because your competitors are.
7. Reinvent your business. It is net profit, not gross revenue, that you want to focus on. Separate yourself from your history and create a new competitive advantage, be it a focused niche or super service, but not by discounting.
Above all, have fun. Being an entrepreneur is your choice, so make it work. It can be done. You can survive, emerge and succeed in this downsized economy, if you follow the right path.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Estimating Startup Costs for a New Business



Confounded over how much money you'll require for your startupbusiness? Well, don't fret. There's an easy approach to breaking this mystery down and creating a clear picture of the funds that your startup business will need.

Startup cost categories

Bear in mind that different small businesses will have different types of startup costs. For example, a furniture retailer might need a storefront and staff to man it, while a toy manufacturer might need manufacturing equipment, a warehouse and staff that is trained to operate the equipment. And then again, if you're operating an online retail business, you might be doing it at home in your PJs, and don’t need a facility or staff at all.
Costs for a startup business can be divvied up into six major categories:
  • Cost of sales:  Product inventory, raw materials, manufacturing equipment, shipping, packaging, shipping insurance, warehousing
  • Professional fees:  Setting up a legal structure for your business (e.g. LLC, corporation), trademarks, copyrights, patents, drafting partnership and non-disclosure agreements, attorney fees for ongoing consultation, retaining an accountant
  • Technology costs:  Computer hardware, computer software, printers, cell phones, PDAs, website development and maintenance, high-speed internet access, servers, security measures, IT consulting
  • Administrative costs:  Various types of business insurance, office supplies, licenses and permits, express shipping and postage, product packaging, parking, rent, utilities, phones, copier, fax machine, desks, chairs, filing cabinets – anything else you need to have on a daily basis to operate a business
  • Sales and marketing costs: Printing of stationery, marketing materials, advertising, public relations, event or trade show attendance or sponsorship, trade association or chamber of commerce membership fees, travel and entertainment for client meetings, mailing or lead lists 
  • Wages and benefits:  Employee salaries, payroll taxes, benefits, workers compensation

Factor in the time to get your startup business off the ground

One critical component of getting an accurate startup cost estimate is to determine the length of time it's going to take you to open your startup business. It might be very different if you're opening a restaurant versus an eBay business. No matter what your business type, take into account everything you will spend, from the moment you dig in to the startup process, through the time you're ready to sell a product or service. If you need three months from the time you sign a lease to the time you can put the "open" sign on your retail storefront, calculate how much money you will need for salaries, electricity, rent (and your mortgage payment!) during those three months.
Learn about the specific costs for your type of new business
There's a variety of resources you can tap into to understand specific costs associated with your chosen dream startup business. Start with the StartupNation Community, where you can search for other people in your industry, and post a message on the boards asking for help from fellow entrepreneurs.
Also make sure you check out your industry's trade association. It should have an active group of members who are going through or have successfully navigated the startup process, and they typically will be happy to share tips with you. You might even get access to sample business plans and checklists for your market niche, but most importantly, you’ll find out which hidden costs to be wary of in your industry.
Take every opportunity you can to network with business owners in your industry, whether it's online or in person. They will have the best understanding of how the costs of a typical business in your industry balance out across those six categories. With that knowledge, you'll be able to create a reasonable cost estimate for starting a business of your own.

Put all the pieces together

Once you've pulled together the costs for your startup business, take advantage of StartupNation's downloadable Cash Management Report, which also helps you project your monthly cash flow.
Above all, be realistic when calculating startup costs for your new business. The first calculation may not be the right one. Continue to refine your analysis until you’re satisfied with the final number, and then do yourself the favor of adding a miscellaneous line item for 10% of your total budget. You’ll spend more than you think to get your that dream startup business going, and the "miscellaneous" category will cover any unexpected costs.