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A Short Guide To Starting A Business

Let’s say you’re not so keen on working for someone else. Maybe the thought of working at McDonald’s doesn’t thrill you. Maybe you’re just the independent type or want to earn more than most entry-level jobs allow for. And maybe you’ve heard of people—even people without a college education—starting and running a successful business.

Starting a business in this decentralized age is easier than ever. Even in the aftermath of the dotcom disaster, small companies are thriving. I joined the crowd of entrepreneurs three years ago, and now my graphic design firm completely supports me. I enjoy the flexible hours, the control I have as owner, and the ability to look back and say: I did that. There are few things as rewarding as seeing your own business grow and thrive.

Interested? Here are a few tips to get your thoughts going:

[GENERATING IDEAS]

Let’s say you are all forward-thrusters with the desire for your own business. So what do you do? What kind of business should you start? Try these ideas:

o Pick something you already do. What are your hobbies? Can they be adapted to a paying job? I had been doing design for friends and myself for several years, so that was an easy choice.

o Find something you might enjoy. What would you like to do? You may be fascinated with making furniture even if you’ve never done it. Research a variety of possibilities.

o Fulfill a demand. What needs does your area have? Find a lack of something, and fill it with your product or service. Repair floors, repair roofs, wash windows—whatever.

o Subcontract. Many companies rely on subcontractors to do work for them. If you have a specialty, call around and ask if local business would be willing to pay you as a subcontractor. You’ll still be independent, but you won’t have to do so much footwork to find business. If they like you, they’ll just pass work your way.

o Network. What opportunities do you have? If there are people who are willing to teach you in a certain field, think seriously about it. It may be your opportunity!

[ADVISORS]

Find people who have been successful entrepreneurs. Talk to those who work in your chosen field. Start with your church and work outward. I got advice on taxes, marketing, tithing, image-consulting and much more just inside my church. One of the deacons (an accomplished salesman) instructed me how to drum up business, even taking me cold-calling businesses in the area for a day in exchange for a website. A local printer took me under his wing and explained the print design business at his shop several hours a week. Friends across the U.S. offered valuable help on how they succeeded in web design. The bottom line: Don’t be afraid to ask. People love to help out.

[RESEARCH]

I’ve always thought that the library was the most wonderful place in the world—next to the Internet, church and home, though not necessarily in that order. Read all you can about home businesses. Find out about taxes and forms. Find out about the difficulties of a home office. Learn how to sell. Learn how to answer the phone. Create your logo and letterhead. Gather information about your industry. Find out what you don’t know, and learn it or learn how to work around it.

You should also find out about your competition, which is a little bit harder than hiking it down the local library. Call other businesses, perhaps cleverly disguised as a clueless customer, and find out about their rates and other work.

[THINKING AHEAD]

As a nameless guru said: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Trite, but true. A business plan will help even if no one else sees it because it forces you to think through what you want to do. There are recognized formats for business plans, and again, a good book or Internet site helps here. I found a great guide to writing business plans at A List Apart.

[LEGAL HURDLES]

I can’t help much in this area as rules change from state to state. Do some research. Find out about zoning, registering your company name, income tax, self-employment tax, etc. It’s best if you can talk to others who have successfully started businesses in the area. A good, certified accountant is essential.

[MEET THE FAMILY]

I would not be where I am if it weren’t for my father. He invested in my business and provided valuable advice, read over business letters, critiqued my designs and gave me a pep-talk before I’d go to a new client meeting. The rest of my family helps too, giving me new perspectives on my work and generally lending moral support. My younger siblings want to work for me as they learn the ropes of the web design world. I look forward to it. Right now they help by taking on some of the more repetitive, menial tasks. They get money; I save on therapy costs. It’s a win-win situation.

[PRICING]

Don’t under-price your product. Especially if you’ve never had a job before, $200 for a few days work sounds like a whole lot. But if your product or time is worth more, charge more. Find out what your competition charges, and go slightly below. Or add services onto the package and charge more. I’ve found that if I offer high quality work with fast turnover, I can charge more, and clients will pay. If you don’t learn that you have to charge big, you’ll be stuck doing small jobs for life.

You can adapt your prices to the client. Charge more for bigger companies; give smaller companies a discount. If the client is fun and easy to get along with, charge a little less; if they’re difficult, charge a little more to pay the psychoanalyst’s bill next week.

[GETTING THE WORD OUT]

Salesmen are those annoying people who only call during meal times, right? Rude, insistent and generally unloved by the masses. Welcome to our world. The truth is, good marketing techniques and salesmanship are some of the best skills you can learn. Once you have them down, you can sell anything—and these skills are transferable to any kind of job. A few thoughts:

o Know your product or service. Write down and perfect a sentence or two describing exactly what you do. Have your parents/friends/advisors look it over. Talk into the mirror till you can say it in your sleep. Zap it off in front of friends who are curious about your work.

o Be polite. Don’t call during dinner. Always dress neatly and have a smile. Firm handshakes and good eye contact work wonders.

o Find people who know how to sell. Sit down with them for an hour or two, asking them for specific advice related to your business.

o Read as many books as you can. Learn business etiquette, how to close deals, how to advertise—anything.

See Also

o Do work for non-profits. It will give you experience, help out a cause you’re sympathetic to and get your name out. See if your church or a local non-profit organization needs help. Do a good job and they’ll be more than willing to recommend you to future customers.

[YOU’RE JUST A KID!]

Few big companies will want work done by a kid, if they can help it. They want experience, and age generally brings that. Here are a few pointers on how to win the age game:

o Keep your age out of it if at all possible. You may look young, but don’t say how young you are. Let them assume you’re older.

o Dress to look older. Borrow your dad’s tie, wear that Sunday button-down and a pair of chinos. Leave home the jeans and T-shirt. People will automatically assume you’re older if you’re dressed more conservatively. Comb your hair conservatively; trim that goatee. It will help you, I promise. Remember, it never hurts to overdress, especially if you’re going to a bigger company to sell something. Dress the way you would if you were successful, and people will treat you as if you were.

o Let your work speak for itself. Use quality to your advantage. If your work’s good enough, age won’t matter much.

o And now for something completely different: Use age to your advantage. Play the, "I’m a 17-year-old new to business. Could you do me a good turn, help me out a little?" game. Emphasize that you’re local (if you are), that you do good work, and that if they decide to go with you and spread the word around, they’ll feel warm fuzzy feelings because of their good deed. People want to help you out; just make sure you’re nice to them and always keep your word.

[PATIENCE, PATIENCE …]

Good things come to those who wait. Don’t think that you’ll be earning six figures in three months. It can take years. Remember: Don’t give up. Don’t throw in the towel—stay the course. If I were the type to use clichés I’d say, "Rome wasn’t built in a day."

[GOD AND THE ENTREPRENEUR]

I put this last not because it is least important, but because I want it to be foremost in your mind. The Puritans, great examples to any Christian, taught that working on a farm is just as holy and God-honoring as bringing the Gospel to some foreign land. Whatsoever you do, whether you cater, wash or program, do all to the glory of God. The Puritans may not have put it that way, but you get the idea.

Remember above all that pleasing your Creator is much more important than making money. You may not make much, but if you are working diligently, honestly, and conscientiously, then consider yourself a success.

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