Starting Your First Business

If you've got the entrepreneurial itch, there's nothing more exciting (or scary!) than starting your first business. You probably have lists galore, and details run through your mind late at night like crazy. You wonder whether you're making the right decision and how you'll get everything done. There are so many things to learn about and take care of -- where will you find the time?

Finding the Time

As women, finding the time is an especially difficult issue. We're used to being responsible for so many things (for ourselves, our immediate and extended families, our jobs, and our house) that it can be hard to squeeze new things in and let old things go. (Turns out that we really don't have to have a clean house all of the time though. Just look at my family's carpet. Or better yet, don't.)

If it's important to you, you'll make the time and let the little things go. Your family members are also probably much more capable than you give them credit for. They just need a chance (or a push) to shine. For an entrepreneur, there's no question that starting your own successful business is important to you. You just won't be happy spending your day in a cube, carrying out someone else's ideas when you've got a dream of your own. So do your homework and then get started. Just answer the big questions first.

Should You Take the Plunge?

Your biggest question, of course, probably revolves around whether or not you should really take the plunge. How do you know? Well, trust your gut. You're the only one who can decide whether or not you should really take the plunge and start the business you've been dreaming of.

Ask for opinions from others, but know that you'll get different answers from different people. Those answers will probably have more to do with the other people than they will with you though. Immediate family members may be concerned about the impact on them. Your parents may worry about your finances. Your coworkers may think you're crazy. Other entrepreneurs will tell you to go for it. Behind the worry, conflicting opinions, enthusiasm, and concerns lurk valid things to consider, so make sure you do have a plan for your time and your finances -- and ideally the support of at least one member of your immediate family. It's much easier to do things when you have the support you need.

Speaking of support, it's a good idea to speak with other business owners about what's involved before you jump in. Many small business owners are perfectly willing to give you tips and the inside scoop. When I started my wedding photography business (which I later closed) I talked with other wedding photographers who'd been successful for years about what worked, what didn't, and what to watch out for. They were happy to help, and of course I was willing to help them in return.

Unless you have a super-select business where only one person could possibly be successful (and I can't think of many of those) "competitors" can often turn out to be allies. If that's not the case where you are or in your desired field, consider contacting a business owner who is outside your geographical or competitive area. Today's posts on 19 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting a Business and Entrepreneurship Pitfalls to Avoid offer good ideas on things to watch out for too.

Give your dreams a shot, but give them a good shot so that they have the best chance at success. Keep in mind too that "taking the plunge" does not necessarily mean "quitting your day job" -- at least not at first, and maybe not ever if you decide you're happy both working for someone else and yourself. Until you get things going at a satisfactory level, you can work during your former downtime at home to get things started. Other options include reducing your hours at work, changing to a more flexible schedule, etc. If you do need (or want) to just quit and move full speed ahead on your idea, getting your finances in shape first will help prevent undue stress.

Will Your Business Have a Shot at Success?

The next biggest question -- and the more important one long-term -- is whether or not your business will be a success. You might turn to statistics to see your chances, but statistics alone aren't going to help much. (If you're curious, according to the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy's FAQs "An estimated 552,600 new employer firms opened for business in 2009, and 660,900 firms closed. This amounts to an annual turnover of about 10 percent. Nonemployer firms have turnover rates three times as high, mostly because it is much easier for them to go into business and cease operations.")

In my opinion, the best way to judge whether or not your business has a shot at success is to get the one thing you need to start a small business: real, paying customers. Get a decent idea of what you have in mind, and then see if you can get an actual, unbiased customer to buy. (Not your friends or relatives.) This is especially true if you're going to be a solo entrepreneur, or in a partnership. Figure that stuff out, and then plan things out in more detail if it looks like you will have a shot.

If you're planning to open a business that has employees or requires a physical building and a lot of start-up capital, it may be a different story -- but you can still probably get a good idea of potential interest by going on sales calls or researching the success rates of similar businesses. Find out what those business owners did right and wrong, and what they wish they would have done differently. (It's amazing what people may tell you if you just ask.) See how hard it is to actually get clients. Write a thorough business plan and ask experienced folks to look for holes.

In both cases, remember that while clients are critical, it's not just about the customers. It's also about you. You can have a great business idea and customers banging at your door, but if you don't deliver -- on time, and as promised -- you won't have those customers for long. Remember the phrase "Under promise and over deliver", and make it your friend. You've promised to have the work done by noon on Tuesday? Get it done by 8am Monday. You'll stand out in a world full of excuses, and people will come back to you. They'll also share how great you are with others, and that's awesome because the best referral you can get is that of a happy customer.

The Nitty Gritty

Once you're ready to move forward with your business idea, it's time to take care of the details. You'll need to:

  • Decide what type of legal entity your business will be. There are a variety of businesses forms (everything from a sole proprietorship to a multi-national corporation) available. (The exact options open to you will depend on where you live.) The US Small Business Administration has an entire section on business types -- including a section specifically related to women owned businesses. There's plenty of information out there for Candadian- and UK-based businesses too.

  • Get legal, accounting, and tax advice. Getting advice from experienced professionals is always a good idea -- especially if you're starting a business that's more complicated than putting up a few paintings on Etsy as an experiment. (And even micro businesses can benefit from legal and tax advice.) The money you spend up front can prevent you from making costly mistakes later.

  • Research licensing and local tax requirements. You'll want to keep things on the up and up, so hit the internet or put in a call to your city, county, and state resources. They're used to getting business-related questions, and can point you in the right direction. Many governments have detailed requirement information available online. If you're unsure whether or not what you have in mind is ok, just ask.

  • Naming and branding your business. You may be wondering why I've waited so long to talk about naming and branding your business. That's because while doing so is important, it's definitely not the first thing you should be thinking of. You should have an excellent idea of exactly what you want to accomplish with your business, and how you will do so before you worry about what it will be called. When you do get to that point though, spend plenty of time on it. Be sure that the name you have in mind is available as a dot com (because an online presence is important regardless of what your business will do), that it's easy to spell, and that you're allowed to use it. Come up with a branding and marketing strategy that will help you be successful.

  • Get the equipment you need. This is another thing we're often tempted to do first that really should be done last. You probably don't need new computers and office equipment to start a small business. Buy things as you're actually ready to use them, and you'll avoid many unnecessary expenses. Remember, the phrase "it's a business expense!" does not mean "It doesn't cost me anything!" Sometimes spending too much can cost you your entire business, so go slow.

Remember, there are plenty of resources out there for you. Find the information you need, but be careful not to get sidetracked by learning all about things that you aren't ready for yet. Get started, do one thing at a time, and practice a version of "just in time learning" that will keep you on track without becoming overwhelmed. Remember also, that if your first business does fail, that it can still be a good thing. Entrepreneurs have tons of business ideas anyway, and sometimes it's a matter of finding the right one and learning from past mistakes. Mistakes are how we grow, get better, and then succeed. And, sometimes you are massively successful right from the get go. In either case, pay it forward by sharing your knowledge and helping other women succeed in business.