How to Start a Business

Don’t follow MBA, SBA or SCORE advice.

The SBA’s SCORE site had a “how to start a business” blog recently, but the traditional MBA-style advice is too “ivory tower” to work. It’s both much simpler and a little harder than they make it sound.

The SCORE blog post says figure out 1)what you’ll do 2)who your competition is 3)your overhead 4)how much money you can make 5)your potential profits, and 6)your funding. If you follow these six steps, you’re almost certainly going to fail.

It’s well-meaning advice, but doesn’t reflect how it really works. I’ve started and grown seven businesses, two that are international and made enough mistakes to figure out some basics. Here’s how I would start a business:

1) Take your product or service to market, put a high price on it (it’s always easier to come down than go up) and see if someone will buy it. If this doesn’t work, don’t do any of the other steps above – they are a waste of time if you aren’t already selling something. And if it does work, most of the other steps above will force themselves on you at the appropriate time.

Finding someone to buy your product or service is the first and only thing you should do before you do anything else. It should have been #1 on the SCORE list.

2) DON’T do a business plan (steps 1-6 in the SCORE blog) – they are nonsense and fortune-telling, and they keep you from going out and trying to sell your product to see if you have something viable. They also make you think you know what you’re doing, which keeps you from seeing great opportunities and obstacles. And they uncover 127 things that COULD go wrong (not WILL go wrong), which causes you to spend precious time and resources mitigating things that will never happen, and paralyzing you with all the bad things that might happen if you go into business.

The second worst thing you can do starting a business is to do a business plan. The absolute worst thing you can do is follow it. Check out the story of Webvan – a $2billion startup that is the classic case of a company that built an incredibly elegant business plan with brilliant management, then followed it right off the end of the earth (and they didn’t do #1 above until they were $1 billion in debt). Do a 2-Page Strategic Plan instead.

3) Figure out your profit margins. How? See #1 above – sell something at as high a price as you can – well above your minimum margin. Again, you can always come down. I worked with one client whose product cost $.35 all in (including marketing). They made a few of them, put it on the market for $8.50 and it didn’t sell. Over a period of a couple months they got the price down to two for $6.50 and they sold like hotcakes. Once they knew that their margins were huge, they had real data to determine their profitability. Do not determine your profitability in the ivory tower of a business plan – it’s voodoo.

4) Never take outside money unless there is no other way. 84% of the Fortune 500 companies never took VC or other early stage funding. It’s a myth that you need money to grow your business. VCs want you to believe it’s a must because they want to grow your business REALLY FAST so they can sell it out from under you and run off with cash. They’re building cash cows, not businesses.

5) Do NOT figure out your competition. You don’t have any competition except your own head. Do NOT look at what other people are doing to find out how to be successful. If you don’t have enough creativity and uniqueness to enter the market without looking at what others are doing, you shouldn’t be in business. See my blog titled Your Competition, Isn’t.

Doing it Wrong and Fixing the Process
I worked with a business owner recently who made the mistake of consulting with SCORE and doing everything they recommended. He had 80+ products defined and produced, a warehouse, financing, a great retail location, and $250,000 in inventory. When he finally started taking his products to market, the market wanted them packaged in entirely different ways and amounts and at different price points, and about 70 of his products were not selling.

We recommended he dump the warehouse, the retail shop and 75 of his products, and get on an airplane to major retailers, get their feedback, and learn his “business plan” in the trenches. With this approach his overhead is nearly gone, and he is now making money and profit. He would have been out of business in six months the other way. He can build all that other stuff after he makes some money.

How to Start a Business – redux; Sell Something.
Real businesses do not start with thinking, planning, researching, compiling, statistical analysis, building a “great” product in a lab, marketing, vetting your competition, estimating your overhead or finding a possible funding source.

Real businesses don’t start that way – not HP, Apple, Honest Tea, Google, 37Signals, Facebook, a plumber, or just about any other real business you can name. Read Bill Hewlett’s quote under HP’s Early Days here – he went and sold something (a few really stupid things) – this is how you start a business.

Go sell something. If it doesn’t sell, do what Hewlett and Packard did, sell something else. Don’t do anything else first. Once you have something that sells, your “business plan” will unfold in front of you in real time, in the real world. It’s counter-intuitive and doesn’t follow the mantra of the MBAs or the SBA/SCORE who think you should get it all figured out ahead of time, but it’s the way real businesses are successful.

Stop planning – get selling (quickly and inexpensively, on a very small scale).