On Sunday September 5, 2010 I spoke at the Decatur Book Festival. This was my first appearance at a book festival as an author and I was thrilled about it. I attended several Author talks and presentations for informational content and the experience of hearing other authors talk about their work. Both a pinnacle moment and a learning experience, the weekend capped my summer long efforts to promote my book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Low-Cost Startups.
As the hour of my talk approached I felt excited and energetic. I was extremely fortunate in that Rana Cash, a columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had arranged to interview me during the Festival. Ms. Cash did a wonderful job of giving me a chance to address the critical issues faced by hopeful entrepreneurs today. We also discussed facing the difficult situations, such as when to call it quits if your business is not succeeding.
The very best part about the event was the people who came to hear the interview. It was a small amphitheatre that held about 100 people, but it was packed with entrepreneurs. The audience was engaged in the formal part of the interview and many asked their own questions at the end. And we sold out of books!
People are so eager for information and feedback to support them in building the foundation for a successful business venture. Resources and data are so much more accessible than ever before. Hopeful entrepreneurs are searching for the best ways to gather the facts, create meaningful information from the data and use this knowledge to make the right decisions as they launch their own businesses.
I came away from the weekend more certain than ever that helping entrepreneurs create successful businesses is important work.
Autumn is a time of new beginnings; cool breezes bring clarity of mind and renewal of purpose. Writing The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Low-Cost Startups gave me the opportunity to research, gather information and study the data about entrepreneurship in the 21st century. Now the challenge is to share this knowledge using the Web 2.0 and create a forum where people can find the answers they need and use it to make their startup a solid success. In the next few weeks I will be working with some Atlanta entrepreneurs who have asked for my help and in the process of supporting their startup efforts I will be re-shaping the format and future content for this website.
What do you need to create a success business? Share your comments and help create a place where hopeful entrepreneurs can find the support they are looking for.
With Labor Day, the official end of summer, rapidly approaching it’s a perfect time to get very serious about launching or improving your startup. I thought it was a perfect time to share my top ten list for creating successful business ventures. Follow these simple recommendations and you will see the positive results in “taking care of business”.
1) Study your competition – Research other businesses similar to the one you want to launch. Use secret shopper methods and phone inquiries. Look for a someone who has already done what you want to do and develop a mentoring relationship. Entrepreneurs are generous people; many will share their stories with you because they love to talk about their companies.
2) Understand the marketplace:
‘Not only if there is a gap in the market, but a market in the gap.’
Get feedback from potential customers by discussing your startup ideas with others. By listening to the voices of your imagined or potential customers and identifying their unfulfilled needs, you can create a business that provides a unique customer experience and really sets you apart.
The Japanese call this ‘Going to the Gemba’
3) Give yourself a competitive edge – Offer something different from your competition
4) Be systematic – use your business plan as a guide to logically take you through all the steps necessary to launch a successful startup
5) Use your budget – It’s not about putting one together – you don’t simply cross budget off your list after you’ve put the numbers together and
file it away in your drawer or on your hard drive. Review it constantly to see if your estimates proved correct. If not, get out the red pencil and REVISE.
6) Focus on driving your sales in an upward direction – Revenue and gross margin are the most important numbers on your spreadsheet. If you don’t understand what these terms mean, study them carefully until you absolutely get how important they are to your success.
7) My mother always told me that numbers don’t lie – Statistically, 50% of all startups will still be in business five years later. This is made possible by understanding that It’s NOT about your gut instincts – it’s all about the numbers. The more a new entrepreneur understands that this is not merely a cliché, the more likely s/he is to launch a successful startup and grow into a viable business that lands on the plus side of the 50/50 equation. Instinct can make a business extremely successful – if it’s backed up by winning numbers.
8. Spend money on getting the help you need from professionals – The right advisors can make or break a new business. You need to develop an inner circle that picks you up when you fall.
9. Keep yourself organized – We’ve all seen the caricature of the creative, big thinking entrepreneur who spends all day spewing orders at his team. Eventually you may be able to afford to hire others to keep you organized, but in the beginning, keeping your ducks in a row is a key element to getting off the ground.
10. Discipline yourself – Review the numbers, regularly gather your key advisors around you and brainstorm about taking the company to the next level. Measure, review, strategize, implement improvements and fresh ideas. This is where the rubber meets the road.
Do you have some other recommendations that make your top ten list for successful startups? Please feel free to share them in the comment section.
Have a safe and restful holiday weekend.
Today’s post is Part 2 and the conclusion of a previous article published on March 22nd.
Last month, as we were driving from Los Angeles to New Orleans, my daughter (Mlle. Butterfly) and I were in a 1989 Toyota Celica. We had done all the right preparatory measures before starting a long road trip in an old car – oil change, new tires, fluid checks, etc. But the potential for car trouble is ever present in a car this old, and by the end of our second 500 mile day, we saw two warning symbols light up as we pulled into our hotel in Van Horn, Texas at 9:30pm.
We called my daughter’s mechanic in LA in the morning since the lights were back on the dash; he thought we might have an alternator problem. But the car started so we headed for Austin. Two hours into our drive the radio stopped working and the car started to decelerate even though Mlle. Butterfly’s foot was on the gas pedal. Looking to the right and the left of the Interstate, there was nothing in view for miles (which you can clearly see in this desert-like part of the country).
One of the best ideas I had before leaving home turned out to be grabbing my GPS to bring on the trip; it located all auto shops on demand, with a special icon just for Auto Services. After a few seconds of searching I see we have hit the jackpot – a few miles away in Johnson City, Texas is the Commercial Alternator and Starters Company. We manage to make our way to the shop.
Upon arrival we are looking at a garage that is piled high with alternators. There are alternators in the storage area, piled outside the building and all over the floor and work benches in the work area. We realize that we are not in an auto repair place – this company refurbishes car and equipment alternators and starters for commercial customers. There are no other cars on in the driveway, no parking lot full of cars awaiting repair.
We are in the birthplace of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 39th President of the United States. I poke my head into the dark inner sanctum of the workroom and say ‘hello’ several times in a loud voice. Finally a man emerges and I explain our predicament. He is visibly agitated – he’s already had a long day. He tells us he has no help, he is working alone today. “Can’t get good help”, he explains. Moreover, he already has 70 orders that he needs to research parts for. But he comes over to our car and I ask him just to take to see if he thinks we can make it to Austin which is another 50 miles from here. Ever so begrudgingly, he opens the hood.
We learn that our mechanic’s name is Kenneth, and that he was born and raised Johnson City. He quickly confirms that our problem lies inside our alternator. He shows Mlle. Butterfly the label indicating that her alternator is the original from the Toyota factory, and predicts he will find worn out alternator brushes at the root of our engine trouble. Within minutes he has taken the alternator apart and is showing us the difference between the worn down “brushes” and those of the new part he has pulled from his extensive inventory. He takes Mlle. over to the work area and lets her watch him rebuild the alternator, test it for power generating ability on his specialized equipment and place it back in the engine.
How lucky were we to find one of the remaining alternator rebuilders in the country, easily the most knowledgeable in Texas if not the Southwest, who not only knew how to repair our car, was willing to do the hard work to get it done in an hour? And one who had the part we needed on hand for a 20 year old car?
What has become of these unsung heroes who were once the bedrock of our economy? Why are there fewer people with auto repair skills when this is still a viable way to make a living?
“…(with) an aging workforce that is either retiring or nearing retirement, there are more efforts to attract and retain technicians in this industry.” ~Robbie Addision, AutoInc. online edition
Manual labor may be passé in the eyes of younger generations, but automobile travel is far from an outdated concept. Addison goes on to state that “Customers are pushing businesses to delve further into the new dimension of electronic communication. Today’s customers want to communicate with speed, simplicity and (most of all) convenience.” We can read between the lines and see what a terrific opportunity there is for Generation Y to partner with Baby Boomer repair shop owners to create a true win/win – the elders would exchange hands-on technical knowledge about their craft with a younger apprentices who grew up in the electronic age and bring an intuitive understanding of all 21st century media.
There is further proof of strong business potential in these numbers – It is estimated that 70 percent (176 million) of out-of-warranty vehicles are repaired at independent shops. This is a good customer base for a small business.
Quote for today:
“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”
~ Tim Cahill
Within an hour of stopping in on Kenneth, we were back on the road and headed to Austin, driving past dozens of family owned ranches like the one in Kenneth’s family. He works on the ranch on the weekends and helps take care of his elderly parents. He’s been keeping this schedule for the last eight years, since his father had a stroke and was no longer able to keep up the ranch himself. Kenneth told us that hard work was the story of his whole life. Which is not entirely true – his “whole” life includes being an expert at his trade, owning and operating a successful small business, and daily acts of kindness to friends and strangers alike. And for me and Mlle. Butterfly, Kenneth will always be the hero in the story of our 2010 road trip across Texas.
It is a well known truth that Manufacturing has become the dinosaur industry of our land. Men like my husband, a Mechanical Engineer who loves to work with his hands and can spend hours on end fixing things around the house, have a tremendous sense of the decline of U.S. manufacturing. He told me this Decline is a frequent topic of conversation among his colleagues. They lament that America is no longer a country that makes things.
These sentiments are not restricted to the engineering world. They show up in Pop Culture as well. Last Thursday’s episode of 30 Rock, (the Tina Fey sitcom of her experiences as a head writer for a live television comedy show) includes a great example.
Alec Baldwin’s character, Jack Donaghy is an executive of GE whose biggest claim to fame (he claims) is thinking up the rotating platform of the microwave oven. In last week’s show, Jack learns that GE has been purchased by a cable television conglomerate. His first reaction to the news is that his career is over; he will no longer have the potential to ‘make things’. He says “Kabletown doesn’t make anything. ….
“American businessmen were born to make things.”
Jack Donaghy, TV Executive of NBC’s 30 Rock
But what about the art/skill/talent for repairing “things” – keeping them going, or as we like to say in CPA world “extending the useful life”? Is this not a corollary to the Decline of American Manufacturing – that the potential for a respectable livelihood earned with highly skilled labor is rapidly fading? Is it now true that using skilled labor as a basis for a low-cost small business startup is no longer a viable business concept?
Planned obsolescence is a concept I learned from the Intro to Economics course I took at college. As America became a nation of insatiable consumers, it became acceptable to manufacture goods that simply wouldn’t last very long –reliability became less important than cheaper prices. This was especially true for what was the Number One iconic industry in the U.S. – the manufacture of automobiles. Over time we began to take it for granted that a car was meant to last only as long as it “looked good”, or was “in style”. Locally owned auto repair shops, with talented mechanics who kept our cars running for ten years or more slowly gave way to Convenience Stores.
Younger generations may not realize this but those of us who have been driving for 20 years or more appreciate the fact that we deal with much less car trouble than we did with our first cars, primarily because cars have become more disposable than they once were. Our passion for consumerism has prompted Americans to buy cars more frequently. It’s not uncommon to hear someone in the market for a new car explain that “they prefer to drive a car that is still under warranty”.
So the decline of manufacturing has been accompanied by the decline of skilled repairmen. Which made what happened on Day 3 of my recent road trip from LA to New Orleans the minor miracle of a lifetime. And it includes answers, both pro and con, to the questions raised above - How are opportunities for low-cost startups affected by this trend? My road trip story, which continues here later this week, will provide some good discussion points for this question.
I am so pleased to announce that The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Low-Cost Startups is now on sale at major book sellers across the country. You can order it from Amazon.com by clicking on the icon to the right. Or if you are someone who still prefers the “touch and buy” experience of the pre-Amazon.com days, you can venture to any major bookstore and pick up a copy today.
It’s been a long time since I was in a situation that gave me butterflies, but that is exactly what I was feeling as I walked through the doors of Borders in search of my book. It was just one more reminder that Intention is the first step to making your dream your reality. There were many more steps along the way (and a great deal of writing and editing) but the idea and commitment to make something happen are the keys to unlocking the doors of new possibilities, just like launching a low-cost startup. Here you can see me with my dream come true in my very own hands.
I know it has been a while since I posted to this blog, and so much has happened in the past two weeks. It’s hard to believe that there were more important things going on for me than the release of my first book, but that is the long and the short of it.
Last week I was literally on the road, making a road trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans. No, I was not on a book signing tour (although I am working on my book marketing strategy), but traveling in my capacity as a Mother – I accompanied my older daughter as she moved across the country. Driving through the Southwest on Interstate 10, we saw the vast and open terrain of Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona and West Texas. I had never been in this part of the country before, and I found the views from the car fascinating. It was a lesson in geography, economics and sociology all rolled into a four day road trip. There is so much open land in this section of the country, so much possibility.
As we were leaving California and crossing into Arizona, we saw some large windmill fields, a sign of burgeoning new technology and the hope of green energy for the future.
This sight and the suburban sprawl and city centers of El Paso and Houston were the trip’s exceptional symbols of the 21st century “new economy”. For the most part these particular highway scenes looked very much the same as they might have 50 years ago. Small towns dominated the landscape; large big box stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot were few and far between. Mostly we drove through rural areas with their own home-grown businesses – local restaurants, discount stores, and, especially in Texas, lots of ranches and farms. It was a reminder to me that the concept of making a living as an entrepreneur is not limited to large metropolitan areas. It is an opportunity open to everyone, anywhere. In fact, this is even truer in the vast rural sections of the country, where there are no major employers for hundreds of miles.
When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road. ~William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways
We had the chance to chat with a couple of small business owners during our four days on the road. Most of the people we met had been born and raised in the small towns we stopped in. These encounters made a huge impact on me and my daughter, and have given me a lot to think about, not only in relationship to starting a business but in the context of human connection in general.
Next week I will share some personal stories about the business people we met on our journey across the Southwest.
For many, many years hopeful but nervous entrepreneurs perceived excessive working hours as one major downside of running their own business – the long hours it takes to get a business up and running. This perception goes hand and hand with beliefs that
· The boss never really gets to go on vacation
· The boss takes his/her work everywhere
· The boss has to be thinking about his business 24/7
· The boss is the one person who can’t call in sick, take a snow day, or go home early.
For all generations before this decade, the upside of having to report to a manager and be told what to do and when to do it was being able to leave work at the end of the day, confident that you had earned your pay for hours worked. Most employees were not required to worry about their jobs once they left for home.
In the new age of constant connectivity this is no longer a truism. In fact, it has become much harder for many employees to disconnect from work during off hours. This is primarily due to two critical drivers in today’s economy:
1) High unemployment and the corresponding lack of jobs make everyone skittish about holding onto the jobs they have. There are at least six people looking for work for every available job opening today (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). Employees in periods of high unemployment are extremely vulnerable. Many of those who are still gainfully employed are threatened with possible layoffs in the near future. Even government employees, who used to be able to bank on virtually ‘lifetime’ employment, are at high risk from the impact on government budgets by the revenue declines of the Great Recession.
2) In today’s world of digital connectivity, we are all expected to be plugged in, if not every minute of every day, at least once a day to answer emails, reply to blog comments for those of us writing online, check voice mail, text messages, our Facebook wall, LinkedIn updates, etc. You get the picture.
These two facts have made it more demanding to be an employee than to be your own boss, a situation true today that was never before the case, except for extremely highly placed executives. In his recent Generation B column (New York Times Sunday Styles Section, January 14, 2010) Michael Winerip wrote a telling article about the changes he and his adult family members have made in their annual family vacation habits. His piece articulates the crux of this situation extremely well so I will not try to paraphrase his article but encourage you to take a few minutes to read it.
But I will use this excerpt from Winerip’s article as Today’s Quote:
“As we talked, it was clear that while we all felt lucky to still have jobs, there wasn’t one of us whose business hadn’t been seriously wounded by this not-so Great Recession.
And yet, even as business has slowed, we have been speeded up…” ~ Michael Winerip, Generation B
In essence, here is the new formula for work in America:
Great Recession = Layoffs
Layoffs = Increase demand for Productivity from Remaining Employees =
More time spent working and less time off for the same or less salary
Which brings us back to the initial point of this post. The path to entrepreneurship has equalized by the increasing hurdles to life as a salaries employee. Once upon a time the additional working hours to build your own company was a significant change in lifestyle from remaining under the protective wing of corporate America. This is no longer the case – in fact you could argue that as an independent business person, you have more control over your time than a corporate employee, who no longer has the luxury of working a 9-5 job or a 40 hour work week.
How would you describe the changes in your own working life since the beginning of the 21st century?