Expert Advice for Starting Your Own Business

Expert Advice for Starting Your Own Business

Have you always dreamed of owning your own business? Getting a business successfully off the ground isn’t easy, but it is possible—especially if you have a team of experts to show you the ropes. We’ve gathered the advice of a seasoned startup advisor, a marketing and PR professional, a franchise consultant, entrepreneurship educators and local entrepreneurs to help you figure out if starting your own business is right for you.

As part of Make It Better’s last RE:WORK V program, Amanda Wurzbach, owner of Total Dish Marketing, and Diane Tarshis, founder of Startup Distillery, presented their “Roadmap to Starting Your Own Business.” In it, they laid out five important questions you should ask before launching a business:

1. Is your idea rooted in your passion?

“We excel at things we like to do,” says Meg Schmitz, franchise executive recruiter and consultant. Schmitz matches potential business owners with franchise opportunities, and always begins by asking her clients about their interests.

Another option is starting a business that provides a lifestyle in support of your passion and priorities. When Stephanie Macakanja, owner of BlackSheep General Store, wanted to start work again after taking time off to raise children, it was important for her to remain near her kids. Macakanja says, “I wanted to still be close, engaged and available.” That desire drove her to open a shop in her town of Glencoe, where her kids could walk over after school.

2. Is your business idea a good one?

“The best business ideas solve a problem,” Tarshis says. Andy Friedman, founder of SkinnyPop Popcorn, learned that lesson in the popcorn business.

“At Wells Street Popcorn we had devoted customers, but they didn’t buy frequently enough,” Friedman says. “They’d say ‘I love you guys, see you next month.’”

The nature of the product—delicious but fattening popcorn—meant that it was more of a treat than an everyday snack. Friedman and his partner set out to solve that problem by creating a healthier popcorn alternative. “It’s easier to sell 100 bags in a grocery store than to get 100 customers to come into our store,” Friedman says.

3. Can you make money doing this?

“This is the single most important question for any new business,” Tarshis says. When calculating costs and projected profits, make sure to include overhead expenses like real estate, supplies and website maintenance—not just product costs.

4. What sets you apart from the crowd?

Consider what makes your product or service unique. Keep in mind Wurzbach’s “Law of Competitive Advantage”: There’s room for everyone—as long as everyone is different.

5. How will you sell it?

“‘If you build it, they will come’ is a myth,” Wurzbach says. Steve Blank, Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneur and Kauffman Founders School educator, says it’s important to do thorough market research before starting a business.

“There are no facts inside your building, so…get the heck outside” to test your key ideas and product features—make sure they’re what your customers want. He says that upfront effort will save time and money later.

In her work with Chipotle, Wurzbach says the company gave away free burritos to nearby schools to encourage their target customers to try their product. “We knew once they tried it, they’d be back,” she says.

Compel others’ interest in your new venture by creating what Tarshis calls an “elevator pitch.” Be able to describe your business in 10 words or less. Her personal business example? “Distilling ideas into viable business ventures.”

Other Tips for Would-Be Entrepreneurs:

  • Meg Cadoux Hirschberg, author of “For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families” and a Kauffman Founders School educator, suggests having an open conversation with your spouse and family before you begin. Discuss your spouse’s role—whether it will be bringing in more income, taking more responsibility at home, or getting involved in the business. Most importantly, Hirschberg says to establish together the “cut-bait” number—“a point beyond which the family will not go in terms of devoting financial resources to the business.” These discussions can potentially save you from a lot of miscommunication and frustration.
  • Friedman says you have to be willing to do “anything and everything” in your business. He and his partner initially popped popcorn, hand-sealed bags, packed boxes and delivered them to stores in the trunks of their cars. “Nothing is below you,” he says.
  • Tarshis urges entrepreneurs to wait as long as possible before potentially finding investors and giving up control. She notes that some businesses are capital-intensive, but that “you’ll get a better deal later than in the pre-revenue stage.”
  • If you don’t have a solid idea of your own, consider investing in a franchise opportunity. Schmitz says that successful business owners she’s worked with “have a passion to succeed and the ability to prioritize, while also being able to follow a tried-and-true system.” She notes that you don’t have to be an expert in everything: “You’re in business for yourself, but not by yourself.”

Additional Resources for Entrepreneurs

  • Funded by a private foundation, the Kauffman Founders School is an online educational resource dedicated to entrepreneurship with free video lectures from successful entrepreneurs and business school professors, along with a rich curriculum.
  • UP America is a nonprofit that offers the opportunity to connect with a national network of entrepreneurs and to receive the Startup Digest. They also provide inexpensive local educational programs.
  • Startup Small Business Toolkit offers hundreds of articles on topics such as incorporating your business, managing your taxes, growth strategies, business resources for women and much more.
  • Startup Distillery’s Operation: Startup kit includes resources to help you create a business plan and deal with things like branding, legal, logo creation, setting up a website and QuickBooks.
  • 1871 is a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that offers educational opportunities and co-working space for local digital entrepreneurs.
  • Doer Hub is an online portal to help you locate like-minded collaborators for your business opportunity.
  • Suggested journals and magazines: Entrepreneur, CNNMoney: Small Business, Inc. magazine and Wall Street Journal: Small Business News.

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