How to Start a Small Business in 10 Steps
There are more than 28 million small businesses in the United States, making up a whopping 99.7 percent of all U.S. businesses, according to the Small Business Administration. When you consider some of the most popular reasons to start a business, including having a unique business idea, designing a career that has the flexibility to grow with you, working toward financial independence, and investing in yourself — it's no wonder that small businesses are everywhere.
But not every small business is positioned for success. In fact, only about two-thirds of businesses with employees survive at least two years, and about half survive five years. So you may be in for a real challenge when you decide to take the plunge, ditch your day job, and become a business owner. The stage is often set in the beginning, so making sure you follow all of the necessary steps when starting your business can set the foundation for success.
Here are 10 steps that are required to start a business successfully. Take one step at a time, and you'll be on your way to successful small business ownership.
Step 1: Do Your Research
Most likely you have already identified a business idea, so now it's time to balance it with a little reality. Does your idea have the potential to succeed? You will need to run your business idea through a validation process before you go any further.
In order for a small business to be successful, it must solve a problem, fulfill a need or offer something the market wants.
There are a number of ways you can identify this need, including research, focus groups, and even trial and error. As you explore the market, some of the questions you should answer include:
- Is there a need for your anticipated products/services?
- Who needs it?
- Are there other companies offering similar products/services now?
- What is the competition like?
- How will your business fit into the market?
Don't forget to ask yourself some questions, too, about starting a business before you take the plunge.
Step 2: Make a Plan
You need a plan in order to make your business idea a reality. A business plan is a blueprint that will guide your business from the start-up phase through establishment and eventually business growth, and it is a must-have for all new businesses.
The good news is that there are different types of business plans for different types of businesses.
If you intend to seek financial support from an investor or financial institution, a traditional business plan is a must. This type of business plan is generally long and thorough and has a common set of sections that investors and banks look for when they are validating your idea.
If you don't anticipate seeking financial support, a simple one-page business plan can give you clarity about what you hope to achieve and how you plan to do it. In fact, you can even create a working business plan on the back of a napkin, and improve it over time. Some kind of plan in writing is always better than nothing.
Step 3: Plan Your Finances
Starting a small business doesn't have to require a lot of money, but it will involve some initial investment as well as the ability to cover ongoing expenses before you are turning a profit. Put together a spreadsheet that estimates the one-time startup costs for your business (licenses and permits, equipment, legal fees, insurance, branding, market research, inventory, trademarking, grand opening events, property leases, etc.), as well as what you anticipate you will need to keep your business running for at least 12 months (rent, utilities, marketing and advertising, production, supplies, travel expenses, employee salaries, your own salary, etc.).
Those numbers combined is the initial investment you will need.
Now that you have a rough number in mind, there are a number of ways you can fund your small business, including:
- Small business loans
- Small business grants
- Angel investors
You can also attempt to get your business off the ground by bootstrapping, using as little capital as necessary to start your business. You may find that a combination of the paths listed above work best. The goal here, though, is to work through the options and create a plan for setting up the capital you need to get your business off the ground.
Step 4: Choose a Business Structure
Your small business can be a sole proprietorship, a partnership, a limited liability company (LLC) or a corporation. The business entity you choose will impact many factors from your business name, to your liability, to how you file your taxes.
You may choose an initial business structure, and then reevaluate and change your structure as your business grows and needs change.
Depending on the complexity of your business, it may be worth investing in a consultation from an attorney or CPA to ensure you are making the right structure choice for your business.
Step 5: Pick and Register Your Business Name
Your business name plays a role in almost every aspect of your business, so you want it to be a good one. Make sure you think through all of the potential implications as you explore your options and choose your business name.
Once you have chosen a name for your business, you will need to check if it's trademarked or currently in use. Then, you will need to register it. A sole proprietor must register their business name with either their state or county clerk. Corporations, LLCs, or limited partnerships typically register their business name when the formation paperwork is filed.
Don't forget to register your domain name once you have selected your business name. Try these options if your ideal domain name is taken.
Step 6: Get Licenses and Permits
Paperwork is a part of the process when you start your own business.
There are a variety of small business licenses and permits that may apply to your situation, depending on the type of business you are starting and where you are located. You will need to research what licenses and permits apply to your business during the start-up process.
Step 7: Choose Your Accounting System
Small businesses run most effectively when there are systems in place. One of the most important systems for a small business is an accounting system.
Your accounting system is necessary in order to create and manage your budget, set your rates and prices, conduct business with others, and file your taxes. You can set up your accounting system yourself, or hire an accountant to take away some of the guesswork. If you decide to get started on your own, make sure you consider these questions that are vital when choosing accounting software.
Step 8: Set Up Your Business Location
Setting up your place of business is important for the operation of your business, whether you will have a home office, a shared or private office space, or a retail location.
You will need to think about your location, equipment, and overall setup, and make sure your business location works for the type of business you will be doing. You will also need to consider if it makes more sense to buy or lease your commercial space.
Step 9: Get Your Team Ready
If you will be hiring employees, now is the time to start the process. Make sure you take the time to outline the positions you need to fill, and the job responsibilities that are part of each position. The Small Business Administration has an excellent guide to hiring your first employee that is useful for new small business owners.
If you are not hiring employees, but instead outsourcing work to independent contractors, now is the time to work with an attorney to get your independent contractor agreement in place and start your search.
Lastly, if you are a true solopreneur hitting the small business road alone, you may not need employees or contractors, but you will still need your own support team. This team can be comprised of a mentor, small business coach, or even your family, and serves as your go-to resource for advice, motivation and reassurance when the road gets bumpy.
Step 10: Promote Your Small Business
Once your business is up and running, you need to start attracting clients and customers. You'll want to start with the basics by writing a unique selling proposition (USP) and creating a marketing plan. Then, explore as many small business marketing ideas as possible so you can decide how to promote your business most effectively.
Once you have completed these business start-up activities, you will have all of the most important bases covered. Keep in mind that success doesn't happen overnight. But use the plan you've created to consistently work on your business, and you will increase your chances of success.
How to Start a Business With (Almost) No Money
You’re excited to start a business. Maybe you have an idea, or you’re just fascinated with the idea of launching and growing your own enterprise. You’re willing to take some risks, like leaving your current job or going without personal revenue for a while. But there’s one logistical hurdle stopping you: You don’t have much money.
On the surface, this seems like a major problem, but a lack of personal capital shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your dreams. In fact, it’s entirely possible to start and grow a business with almost no personal financial investment whatsoever -- if you know what you’re doing.
Why a business needs money
First, let’s take a look at why a business needs money in the first place. There’s no uniform “startup” fee for building a business, so different businesses will have different needs. It’s important to first estimate how much you need before you start finding alternative methods to fund your company.
Consider the following uses:
- Licenses and permits. Depending on your region, you may need special paperwork and registry to operate.
- Supplies. Are you buying raw materials? Do you need computers and/or other devices?
- Equipment. Do you need specialized machinery or software?
- Office space. This is a huge expense, and you can't neglect things like Internet, utilities costs, janitorial services and whether to outsource back office tasks, like payroll and invoicing.
- Associations, subscriptions, memberships. What publications and affiliations will you subsribe to every month?
- Operating expenses. Dig into the nooks and crannies here, and don’t forget about marketing.
- Legal fees. Are you consulting a lawyer throughout your business-development process?
- Employees, freelancers and contractors. If you can’t do it alone, you’ll need people on your payroll.
With that said, you have two main paths of starting a business with less money: lowering your costs or increasing your available capital from outside sources. You have three options here:
1. Reduce your needs
Your first option is to change your business model to demand fewer needs as listed above. For example, if you were planning on starting a company as a consultant or freelancer, you could reduce your “employee” expenses by being the sole employee at the start. Unless you need office space, you can work from home. You can even do your homework to find cheaper sources of supplies, or cut out entire product lines that are too expensive to produce at the outset.
There are a few expenses that you won’t be able to avoid, however. Licensing and legal fees will set you back even if you cut back on everything else. According to the SBA, many microbusinesses get started on less than $3,000, and home-based franchises can be started for as little as $1,000.
Your second option invokes the idea of a “warmup” period for your business. Instead of going straight into full-fledged business mode, you’ll start with just the basics. You might launch a blog and one niche service, reducing your scope, your audience and your profit, in order to get a head-start. If you can start as a self-employed individual, you'll avoid some of the biggest initial costs (and enjoy a simpler tax situation, too). A payment processing company, such as Due, can be a big help when you are struggling to invoice and follow up professionally.
Once you start realizing some revenue, you can invest in yourself, and build the business you imagined piece by piece, rather than all at once.
Your third option is all about getting funding from outside sources. I’ve covered the world of startup funding in a number of different pieces, so I won’t get into much detail, but know there are dozens of potential ways to raise capital -- even if you don’t have much yourself. Here are just a few potential sources for you:
Friends and family. Don’t rule out the possibility of getting help from friends and family, even if you have to piece the capital together from multiple sources.
Angel investors. Angel investors are wealthy individuals who back business ideas early in their generation. They typically invest in exchange for partial ownership of the company, which is a sacrifice worth considering.
Venture capitalists. Venture capitalists are like angel investors, but are typically partnerships or organizations and tend to scout businesses that are already in existence.
Crowdfunding. It’s popular for a reason: with a good idea and enough work, you can attract funding for anything.
Government grants and loans. The Small Business Administration (and a number of state and local government agencies) exist solely to help small businesses grow. Many offer loans and grants to help you get started.
Bank loans. You can always open a line of credit with the bank if your credit is in good standing.
With one or more of these three options, you should be able to reduce your personal financial investment to almost nothing. You may have to make some other sacrifices, such as starting small, accommodating partners or taking on debt, but if you believe in your business idea, none of these losses should stand in your way. Capital is a major hurdle to overcome, but make no mistake -- it can be overcome.
How to Start a Business: A Step-by-Step Guide
How To Start A Business With No Money
“I’ve got a great idea for a business. But I don’t have any money to start it up.” This phrase is something I’ve heard again and again . . . and again—from students, friends, and sometimes even colleagues. While it’s true that a generous credit line, a team of investors, or an uncle with deep pockets can make starting a company easier, not having money is no excuse. If you are confident that you have a product or service people want, don’t allow the lack of capital to deter you from your business goals. By pivoting, grinding it out, getting creative, and differentiating yourself, you can bootstrap your way to a successful business.
1. Pivot. Use services to generate cash flow and fund a product-based business.
Starting a service-oriented business is easy: First, you provide services, and then you collect funds. But a product-based business often requires significant up-front capital to get it up and running. If you’re in this situation, consider selling services to generate cash flow and to build up funds for a product-based business.
My current company, Outbox Systems, began this way. We wanted to connect two software applications, but we didn’t have the capital to build the integration. Knowing we needed to generate money to fund our product development, I approached the partner channel at AtTask and asked if I could build a software integration for them. Fortuitously, an enterprise AtTask customer needed to integrate AtTask and Salesforce and was willing to pay us $125 per hour to build the integration. Then we turned around and resold the product to others. A typical tech entrepreneur thinks, “Raise money, build software.” But we turned the model on its head and essentially got the company to help us develop intellectual property for our business.
2. Grind it out. There’s no substitute for sweat equity.
Sometimes you have to get into the trenches and make it happen. During the first two years of business at my prior company, PC Care Support, I knocked on doors, worked my own booth, and closed my own deals. I set up a table at the local college’s business school, hired five college students to work solely on commission, and knocked on people’s doors 7-8 hours per day looking for business. For those two years I didn’t receive a paycheck. But I believed in my service, and I believed we could be successful. I was, as billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk said, “hell bent on making it work.” The hard work eventually paid off.
3. Get creative. Funding sources are everywhere.
Traditional entrepreneurship philosophy dictates that, to be successful, you should stick with one thing and not deviate from it. But desperate times call for desperate measures. If you are having trouble finding access to funds, there are a number of creative things you can do, such as the following:
Use current resources in new ways. Like most young companies, we encountered a cash flow crunch at PC Care Support. We had about 50 employees, and we wanted to protect everyone’s jobs. We looked at all of our departments and all of our employees’ skill sets to see where we could generate revenue. A few employees in the tech support department stepped up and offered to develop software for other customers. Then a few in the marketing department offered to develop websites. We added website and software development to our suite of services and landed a contract with Nationwide Insurance, taking the company from negative cash flow to 15% net profit per month in three months. This got investors interested in our company, and it enabled us to have the cash we needed to get back to our core services.
Get a credit line. It is not uncommon for most startup businesses to rely on a line of credit. The American Express Plum Card, for example, offers a 60-day term for payment rather than a typical 30-day term. Some banks or credit institutions offer credit designed to allow growth in the early stages of business. A word of caution: to keep from getting bogged down in debt when you are trying to expand a business, keep purchases to a minimum.
Use an Incubator. If you believe you have a solid idea and a workable business plan, you may want to consider a business incubator. Upon acceptance, these programs provide funding designed specifically to financially assist a startup company. Sometimes they offer office space or shared administrative services. Most incubation programs are sponsored by local or regional economic development organizations, and some are sponsored by colleges and universities.
Find an Accelerator. These are much like incubators in that they are designed to provide funding. However, an accelerator expects a rapid response to its investment. If you are prepared and ready to hit the market quickly, this is a great option.
Crowdfund. Crowdfunding platforms are changing the face of capital, whether you’re growing a tech business, filming a movie, or selling jewelry. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms allow the public to invest a small percentage of money in return for a future buy-in.
4. Differentiate yourself. Small things make a big difference.
Once you get to a million dollars in revenue, your odds of funding increase exponentially. Banks, for example, look at funding strictly from this perspective. Banks don’t care what kind of company you are—they simply look at your profit/loss statement and make a decision. If you’re a profitable company with a million in revenue and good personal credit score, there’s a good chance that a bank will lend you up to $200,000.
If you have some revenue coming in but need an extra boost to get to the million-dollar mark, make sure to consider every possible way that your company can differentiate itself. Do you have a letter of commitment from a notable investor? Do you have some revenue or a contract to get some revenue? Do you have valuable intellectual property with the potential to generate revenue? Differentiators like these can make the difference between getting funded and being overlooked by investors and lenders.
The only real way to start generating revenue for your business is to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Despite what others may tell you, there is no easy shortcut to profit. But if you are confident you have a product or service that people want, you can propel your way to the top by pivoting, grinding it out, getting creative, and differentiating yourself.