Here's Ten Tips for Starting and Running a Successful Small Business:
1. Save up as much money as possible before starting. All too often, people go into business without any savings, exclusively using loan money from friends, banks, or the SBA. They except to be able to start paying the loans back right away with their profits. What these business owners don't realize is that it can take months or years to make a profit. And once a lender discovers a business isn't as profitable as expected, the lender is likely to call in the loan or refuse to renew it for another year. Often new business owners then have to take out home equity loans or use credit cards to pay off their loans (which puts their home and credit rating at risk).
A better plan is to save up as much of the needed investment money as possible, including your living expenses for the first year, or even two. Odds are that your business won't be profitable for one to two years. Even if you get plenty of business coming your way -- and your customers pay you on time, which isn't always a sure thing -- you'll want to be able to invest most of that money back in the business for space, equipment, advertising, and insurance needs.
2. Start on a shoestring. Think small. Don't rent premises if you can work somewhere else, and don't hire employees until you can keep them busy. (You can hire independent contractors or temps in the meantime.)
People who start their small business on the cheap, often in a garage, den, or some other scavenged space, and create their first goods or services with more sweat than cash, have the luxury of making their inevitable rookie mistakes on a small scale. And precisely because their early screw-ups don't bury them in debt, they are usually able to learn and recover from them.
3. Protect your personal assets. When you go into business for yourself, you are usually personally liable for all judgments and debts that the business incurs. This includes business loans, taxes, money owed to suppliers and landlords, and any judgments against the business as a result of a lawsuit. If you don't protect yourself, a creditor can go after your personal assets, such as your car and your house, to pay for these debts.
While you can protect yourself against lawsuits by buying business liability insurance, this won't help you with business debts. If you will be running up big debts, consider forming a corporation or limited liability company (LLC). Just one person can form either of these types of businesses.
4. Understand how -- and if -- you will make a profit. You should be able to state in just a few sentences how your business plans to make a substantial profit. For starters, you need to know your costs: how much you'll spend purchasing inventory, paying the rent, compensating any employees, and covering what is likely to be a surprisingly long list of other costs. Then you can figure out exactly how much you need to sell each month, for how many dollars, to cover those expenses and have an adequate profit besides. These numbers are all you need to create a "break-even analysis."
5. Make a business plan, no matter how short. Understanding your profit numbers and creating a break-even analysis is the first step in making a business plan. For most small companies, the key portions of a business plan are the break-even analysis, a profit-and-loss forecast, and a cash flow projection. (Projecting your cash flow is key and will make or break your company: Even if your business is getting plenty of work or selling its products, if you're not getting paid for 90-180 days, you're not going to survive unless you've planned for it.) With a cash flow spreadsheet in place, as well as a profit-and-loss forecast, you can tinker with your business idea and improve it before you start -- and continue to use them after you start.
Creating a business plan also allows you to determine what your projected start-up costs are (how much money you'll need to save) and what you marketing strategies are (how you'll reach customers to make sales). If you can't make the numbers work on paper, you won't be able to make them work in real life.
6. Get and keep a competitive edge. Building a competitive edge into the fabric of your business is crucially important to long-term success. Some ways to get this edge are by knowing more than your competitors, making a product that is hard or impossible to imitate, being able to produce or distribute your product more efficiently, having a better location, or offering superior customer service.
One way to hold on to your competitive edge is to protect your trade secrets -- confidential information that gives you a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Examples of trade secrets include customer lists, survey methods, marketing strategies, and manufacturing techniques. To protect your trade secrets under the law, you need to take steps to keep the information confidential. This includes marking documents "Confidential," using passwords to protect computer information, using nondisclosure and/or noncompete agreements, and limiting access to employees with a reasonable need to know the trade secrets.
Another way to keep your competitive edge is to react quickly to bad news. Once you see that your business faces some kind of adversity, you need to come up with a plan to deal with it immediately. This may involve moving your offices, introducing a new product or service, or developing a better way to reach customers.