Tips For Investing In And Managing A Small Business


Art DeThomas artde@planttel.net is a Professor Emeritus of Finance, Valdosta State University. He has been a consultant both to small and medium size businesses and has conducted a number of small-business workshops and management-training programs. He is a  business journalist and the author of various articles in professional journals and three books on small business financial management and planning.


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What It Takes To Be An Entrepreneur

The driving force behind the numerous small- and medium-size businesses that flourish in our economy, is the entrepreneur. For those interested in starting and operating a business, it is useful to understand who this unique individual is and whether they have similar personality traits.

Who Is an Entrepreneur?

Social scientists have conducted numerous studies to determine whether successful entrepreneurs evidence personality traits different from the general population.

They found that the typical entrepreneur is:

Needed Traits

The following simple assessment questionnaire should give the prospective entrepreneur a general idea of whether he or she possesses personality traits consistent with this entrepreneurial profile. To score your responses, assign one point to each "Yes" answer and a zero to each "No" answer. Add the point values and use the following suggested guidelines for interpreting your score.

When interpreting your score, realize that the results are only suggestive and not conclusive. There are successful entrepreneurs with scores less than 13 while a score of 17 or greater isn't an automatic guarantee of success. Success also requires a good business concept, organization and managerial skills, the necessary financing, a lot of hard, demanding work, good timing, and a measure of luck.

Entrepreneur Assessment Questionnaire

  1. Assuming you had the choice and understand the risk and sacrifices involved, would you choose a small business entrepreneur's career over any other? Yes ______ No ______
  2. Are you willing to take substantial risk, for example investing your life savings, if the potential reward is sufficient? Yes ____ No _____
  3. Can you make a decision and stick to it even though the decision is unpopular with those that are affected by the outcome? Yes _____ No _____
  4. 4. Do you enjoy having the responsibility for making decisions even knowing that you will be held accountable for poor results? Yes ______ No ______
  5. Do you set goals before beginning an important undertaking? Yes ____No _____
  6. Do you make a detailed action plan before beginning a major undertaking? Yes _____ No _____
  7. Are you able to effectively organize the resources required to complete a major undertaking? Yes ______ No ______
  8. Do you finish tasks or projects that you start in spite of difficulties or obstacles? Yes ______ No ______
  9. Are you willing to spend whatever time and effort are required to complete a task? Yes ____ No ____
  10. Do you enjoy meeting and dealing with people? Yes _____ No _____
  11. Do the people you deal with trust you? Yes ____ No____
  12. Do the people you deal with understand the concepts and ideas you attempt to communicate? Yes _____ No ______
  13. Are you able to motivate the people you deal with to go along with your ideas? Yes _____ No _____
  14. Are you in good health? Yes _____ No ______
  15. Are you innovative or creative? Yes _____ No _____
  16. Do you thoroughly investigate important undertakings before getting involved? Yes _____ No _____
  17. Have you done a self-analysis to determine your personal strengths and weaknesses? Yes _____ No ______
  18. Do you have technical experience in the type of business you plan to start? Yes _____ No ______
  19. Do you have management experience in the type of business you plan to start? Yes _____ No _____
  20. Are you willing to have people with expertise or talents you lack join you to operate the business you plan? Yes _____ No ______

Starting A New Business

A major factor contributing to the poor success rate of startup businesses is the entrepreneur's failure to carefully investigate and plan a new venture. For this reason, experts advise a two-fold approach to the pre-startup stage: do a feasibility study and, if the venture appears promising, prepare a comprehensive business plan. 

The Feasibility Study

As the name suggests, a feasibility study is a careful investigation into the question: what is the likelihood of commercial and financial success for the proposed new venture? To proposed answer this crucial question, the entrepreneur must first determine whether there is a good fit between the knowledge, skills, and experience required to effectively operate the business and the capabilities of the management team the firm will eventually employ. Next, the entrepreneur must gather information on the factors that are key to the venture's success. These include:

If the feasibility study does not indicate a good match between the required skills and management abilities, or if solid evidence supporting the likelihood of success does not exist, the business is probably doomed from the start.

The Business Plan

A well-prepared business plan is comprehensive blueprint for the firm. It details the business concept; how the firm will be organized, financed, marketed, and operated; the strategies used to guide operations; and the background and skills of its key people. By preparing a formal business plan, the entrepreneur is forced to:

The sizable investment of time and energy required to do a feasibility study and write a solid business plan usually prompt new entrepreneurs to question whether the effort is really necessary. Business experts say, "absolutely and positively, YES." They agree that a strong research and planning effort are the most important weapon the entrepreneur has for dramatically increasing the odds of success. What's more, a realistic feasibility study and business plan serve as evidence that the firm is in the hands of knowledgeable management. This is evidence that any prospective financier or investor expects to see.

Buying An Existing Business

Before you buy an existing business, be cautious and investigate carefully before you invest. Buying a going concern involves as weighty a planning and decision process as that required to start a business from scratch. Both ventures require enough information to provide a convincing answer to the following question: is there sufficient evidence to indicate a strong likelihood that the business will, under my management, generate sufficient sales, cash flow, and profit to compensate for the risk assumed and the money, time, and effort invested? To answer this question, the entrepreneur must carefully investigate both the competitive environment surrounding the business and the internal factors critical to its success.

The Competitive Environment

The firm's competitive environment refers to the external threats and opportunities that affect its success but are outside the direct control of management. The entrepreneurís investigation of this area should focus on the following key factors:

Industry Outlook The longevity of any business is directly affected by the success of the industry in which it operates. If the industry is in, or moving toward, a state of decline, then member firms cannot be far behind. To understand the dynamics of the target firmís industry, the entrepreneur must understand:

Market Outlook Closely akin to the health of the firm's industry is that of the market(s) it serves. The entrepreneur should be satisfied that this market has a strong economic base, is either growing or has the potential for sustainable growth, and has a legal and political climate which is business friendly. Again, it is a rare business that can be successful in a weak or hostile market environment.

Customer Base Without a solid, loyal group of customers, it is impossible for the business to generate a satisfactory return on investment. To assess the quality of the firmís customer base, the entrepreneur must have a clear understanding of:

Competitive Outlook Understanding the firm's competition and how it stacks up against that competition is as necessary for success as understanding its customers. The entrepreneur should identify:

Location If location is crucial to the success of the business, the entrepreneur must be satisfied that the firm is attractively situated and, if so, that there are no major changes in the works which would adversely affect this site. If the current location is not suitable, the entrepreneur must determine whether a move can be made or whether one would be cost prohibitive. If the latter is the case, it usually rules against a decision to purchase the business.

Internal Factors

Internal factors refer to those elements of the firm's operations that are under the direct control of management. These include the human, physical, financial, and intangible assets needed to run the business.

Personnel Chronic labor problems are usually the curse of small- and medium-sized firms, and the entrepreneur must be sure that he or she is not buying potentially irresolvable issues. The firm's personnel should be carefully evaluated to determine whether they are productive; adequately compensated; well-suited to the demands of the business and the management style that will be employed; and will remain with the firm when its ownership changes hands.

Physical Assets The firmís physical assets such as buildings, equipment, and inventory must be carefully evaluated to ensure that fair value is received for the price paid. The asset base must be large enough to accommodate the expected level of sales and sufficiently productive to meet expected operating needs.

Financial Performance Earning a satisfactory return on investment is the primary reason for business ownership and the entrepreneur must be satisfied that the firm's financial outlook is promising. Financial records should be analyzed to determine whether:

  • The firmís historical financial performance and current financial position are satisfactory;
  • The growth potential of sales, cash flow, and profits is satisfactory;
  • Operating costs are under control and in line with selling prices;
  • Customer accounts are credit worthy and collectible on a timely basis;
  • The firm's status with lenders and suppliers is acceptable and irresolvable credit problems will not be inherited with the business.

Intangible Assets Intangible assets refer to any non-material properties that are crucial to the success of the business such as leaseholds, patents, copyrights, valuable intellectual property, or exclusive territorial rights. If the firm's earning power is dependent on such assets, they should be carefully evaluated for transferability and to ensure that the competitive advantage they offer can be maintained.

Valuing An Existing Business

The most difficult and usually most crucial step involved in acquiring an existing business is negotiating a fair purchase price. To the buyer, a fair price is one which reflects the value today of the future cash flows and profits the firm is expected to generate under his or her ownership. If the purchase price exceeds this important measure of value, then a burden is placed on the firm's future cash flows that will limit its financial success. 

Commonly Used Valuation Techniques

In practice, a variety of valuation techniques ranging from unsupported rules-of-thumb to theoretically correct procedures are used to establish the purchase price of an existing business. Only one, the capitalization of future cash flows or earnings, provides a reasonable estimate of value. Yet, if the entrepreneur is to effectively negotiate an acceptable purchase price for the business under consideration, he or she must recognize the flaws in the more commonly used valuation methods.

Rule-Of-Thumb Methods All too often, business valuations are made using vague rule-of-thumb methods such as setting the price equal to some arbitrary multiple of the current level of sales or inventory value, or pricing the business on the basis of some arbitrary dollar amount per square foot of selling area. While the simplicity of these approaches makes them deceptively appealing, they lack rational foundation. For example, there is no reason why a multiplier of two or three times current sales is any better yardstick of value than four or five times that amount. Equally important, it is not sales, or inventory, or square footage that provides a satisfactory return on the entrepreneurís investment. Value is created by the cash flow and profits that these factors generate.

Asset-Based Methods Asset based methods refer to techniques that use an estimate of the value of the firm's assets to set purchase price. Either current book value, replacement value, liquidation value, or some combination of the three is usually used to establish asset value. Book value is the accounting value of the firm's assets as shown on the firmís balance sheet. Replacement value is an estimate of the dollar amount required to replace the firm's existing asset base, and liquidation value is an estimate of the resale value of the assets if the business were to cease operations.

While asset-based methods offer the advantage of computational ease, each suffers from the same fundamental flaw. The value of the business is mistakenly equated with an estimate of the value of its individual assets. It is not the value of individual assets that determines a firmís success. Rather, the value of a business asset is determined by its contribution to the firmís overall cash flow and profits when combined with the human, physical, and financial assets that make the firm a going concern.

Market Value Approach This approach is comparable to that used by realtors to value residential and commercial property. The purchase price of the business under consideration is based on prices at which comparable businesses have sold in the past. The problem with this method lies in finding representative historical data. It is virtually impossible to find past sales of businesses of exactly the same type and size, operating in the same industry and market environment, and reflecting a selling price based on estimated future cash flows and earnings.

The Correct Valuation Technique

The best estimate of the true value of a business is determined by setting a value today for the future cash flows or profits it will generate for its owner. Finance people refer to this valuation method as capitalizing cash flows.

A successful business is one capable of generating cash flows sufficient to meet the costs of operation the business, replacing assets as they wear out, and providing a rate of return that adequately compensates the owner for the risk assumed and the money, time, and effort invested. Arriving at this measure of value requires estimates of the firm's ability to generate future cash flows and earn a satisfactory rate of return. This latter figure serves as the capitalization rate used to reduce estimated future cash flows to a current value. (The current value of $110 to be received in a year at a 10 percent capitalization rate is $100.)

Assistance is Often Needed

Establishing a purchase price based on true value is not easy. Doing so requires knowledge of sound valuation principles, the ability to make realistic estimates of future cash flows and earnings, and a healthy dose of informed judgment. Unless the entrepreneur has the necessary financial background, he or she should seek professional assistance with this important task. Paying a reasonable fee to a financial consultant with valuation expertise is a small price considering the consequences of mistakenly paying too much for the business.

Exploring Franchising: Evaluating A Franchise Opportunity

While owning a franchise has provided financial independence for many entrepreneurs, the mere purchase of one does not automatically guarantee success. Franchise opportunities differ in many important respects and the entrepreneur should carefully investigate them before a commitment is made. Here are some tips for doing so.

Find the Hot Opportunity The franchise search should be focused on franchise companies experiencing, or have the potential for, above average growth. In general, these will be franchises that offer the consumer something unique such as a new product, new process, or new concept, rather than just "more of the same." There are several good publications that identify top performing franchises. Entrepreneur Magazine publishes two annual issues, the "January Franchise 500" and the "Franchise Yearbook," which provide opinions on attractive franchise opportunities. Other good publications include the Continental Franchise Review, Franchising World, and Opportunity.

Choose the Right Fit Operating a franchise unit, as true of any small business, is a time consuming, demanding task and unless the franchise and franchisee are a good match, it is doomed to failure from the outset. Before investigating franchise opportunities, the entrepreneur should take the time needed to identify his or her personal goals, business interests, strengths and weaknesses, and the financial resources available to invest in and sustain the new operation. These characteristics should then be matched with the franchise opportunities under consideration and those that do not provide a good fit scratched from the list.

Choose the Right Franchisor The fortunes of an individual franchise unit within the system are closely tied to the fortunes of the franchisorís company. The more experienced and successful the franchisor, the greater the likelihood of success for individual units in the system. Successful franchisors are able to offer a proven operating formula and their experience puts them in a good position to assess the sales and profit potential of a new unit, identify a suitable site on which to locate it, and provide guidance during both the start-up and early operational periods.

On the other hand, if the franchisor is not profitable, the company will not be in position to provide franchisees with the services and assistance promised in the franchise agreement. Even worse, an unprofitable franchisor wonít stay in business and this usually means failure for the individual units in the system as well.

Identify the Failure Ratio How well or how poorly individual franchisees in the system have fared is a good indicator of the probability of success for a new franchise. The higher the franchise failure ratio (the number of franchise failures divided by the total number of units in the system), the more likely the failure of a new franchise.

Identify the Happiness Quotient Included with the information provided by a franchisor is a list of both current franchisees and those who have left the system in the past year. Interviewing a representative sample of these people provides insight into such important issues as whether the franchisor has been truthful about what is contained in the UFOC, the type of franchisor/franchisee relationship that can be expected, and how effectively the franchisor addresses and settles franchisor/franchisee disputes.

Justify Franchising Costs Investment in the typical franchise involves sizable up-front investment as well as ongoing costs in the form of royalties and fees. The entrepreneur should be completely satisfied that prospects for sales and profits of the franchise are sufficiently high to justify the cost incurred and to provide an adequate return on the entrepreneur's investment of time and money. The entrepreneur should gather enough information to provide a clear-cut answer to the following crucial question: what will the franchisor do for me that I couldnít do for myself by starting the same individually owned business?

Heed the Restrictions It is important to keep in mind that the terms of the franchise agreement are legally binding for the life of the contract. The franchisee must abide by such stipulations as how the business is to be operated, royalties and fees that must be paid, methods of promotion and advertising used, the use of trademarks and logos, and sale of the franchise. In some respects, running a franchise is more like being a manager of someone else's business, rather than the owner of your own business. This reality is something the strong-willed, creative entrepreneur must seriously consider.

Choosing The Form Of Business Ownership

Choosing the legal form of ownership under which the new business will operate is one of the most important decisions the entrepreneur must make. Since numerous legal, financial, tax, and strategic issues grow from this choice, it should be carefully planned. To do so, the entrepreneur should understand the basics of the major organization forms and, where necessary, obtain expert assistance.

The Sole Proprietorship

A sole proprietorship is owned and operated by the entrepreneur and has no tax or legal status separate from that of its owner. Federal income taxes are not levied on the business, and the firm's profits or losses flow directly to the entrepreneur's personal tax return. A sole proprietorship is easy to start and dissolve. For these reasons it is the most popular organization form for startup businesses. On the downside, the sole proprietorship suffers from the disadvantages of unlimited legal liability and limited life. Because the sole proprietorship is not a separate legal entity, both the assets of the business and the personal assets of the owner are subject to legal judgments against the firm. What's more, the operating life of the business is technically limited to that of its owner.

The Partnership Form of Organization

A partnership can be divided into two broad categories of ownership: the general partnership and the limited partnership. Under the former, two or more general partners pool skills and resources to act as co-owners of the business. General partners, absent any restrictions in the partnership agreement, have equal decision-making authority and are legally bound by the business-related debts and actions of each other. As true of the sole proprietorship, the general partnership is not a separate legal or taxable entity and, unless a pre-established buy-out agreement exits, it is dissolved upon the death or departure of a partner.

General partners have unlimited liability and their personal assets along with those of the firm are subject to legal judgments against the business. Since a general partnership is not subject to federal income tax, it also serves as a conduit through which a partner's share of the firm's profits and losses flows to his or her personal tax return.

The most common variation of the general partnership is the limited partnership. A limited partnership has two classes of partners: general partners and limited partners. The general partner manages and controls the business and has unlimited liability for the business-related debts and actions of other general partners. On the other hand, the limited partner does not have a voice in management but personal liability is restricted to his or her investment in the business.

As true of the general partnership, both general and limited partners' share of profits or losses flows to their personal tax returns. Unlike the general partnership, however, the death or departure of a limited partner does not dissolve the partnership.

Two major roadblocks to the success of many startup businesses are insufficient capital and limited management expertise. The reasons are simple: initial financing for a startup is usually restricted to the entrepreneur's personal wealth and it is difficult, if not impossible, for a new entrepreneur to have the broad range of administrative skills necessary to single-handedly manage all aspects of a business. A possible solution to both problems is the addition of one or more partners who can bring both capital and management expertise to the table. This article discusses the characteristics to look for when seeking a partner and the next in the series looks at the components of a good partnership agreement.

Pros and Cons

A well-conceived partnership can offer the entrepreneur several advantages including shared business risk, increased capital, shared administrative and decision-making responsibilities, and the synergy that results when partners are well matched. Despite these advantages, the partnership form of business organization is not for everyone. Business statistics indicate that over fifty percent of the partnerships started each year are dissolved within three years. Like marital spouses, partners can become disenchanted with each other or even hostile for a variety of reasons including personality conflicts; changing goals and interests; disagreement over money, authority, or major decisions; and dishonesty.

Since a partner retains his or her ownership position for the life of the partnership, taking a partner is one of the more important decisions the entrepreneur can make. It requires caution, good judgment, and a clear understanding of the characteristics that make a good partner.

Finding Mr. or Ms. Right

A successful partner relationship is built on personal compatibility, complementary abilities, mutual goals, and a meaningful contribution of resources and effort. When considering a prospective partner, the entrepreneur should make sure that he or she has characteristics such as the following.

Resources The primary reason for taking a partner should be the contribution he or she is able to make to the success of the business. This contribution should take three forms: financing, management abilty, and business know how. A prospective partner should be able to make a monetary commitment of up to fifty percent of either the required owner's investment at startup or up to fifty percent of the existing equity if the business is a going concern. Equally important, a partner should understand the business and bring management skills that fill an existing void.

Compatibility In many respects a business partnership is like a marriage and it is important that the principals get along, work well together, share the same vision for the business, and have an established procedure for resolving problems and disagreements. The combination of money, egos, and the rigors of operating a business make for a potentially explosive environment. So, no matter how capable a partner may be, if his or her personality clashes with that of the entrepreneur, the business will suffer and the partnership is probably doomed to fail.

Personal Attributes Having a partner with desirable personality traits is nearly as important to the success and longevity of a partnership as money and management ability. Some of the more important traits the entrepreneur should look for are:

The Corporation

A corporation is an artificial person granted existence by the state of incorporation. As such, it is a legal and taxable entity which can own property, conduct business, sue and be sued in its own name, and have a life separate and distinct from its owners. Technically, its board of directors governs a corporation. This group makes major policy decisions and appoints the firm's management. The owners of the corporation are its common stockholders. They elect the board of directors and are entitled to all profits remaining after other claims on the firm's income have been satisfied.

If the corporation is properly organized and its business appropriately conducted, the liability of its shareholders is limited to their investment in the business. Also, since the corporation is a separate taxable entity at both the federal and state level, profits or losses do not flow through to the stockholders' personal returns. This feature allows earnings to be retained in the business without being taxed as income to stockholders.

Because the corporate form can separate the business and its management from its owners, stockholders can sell or transfer their ownership interest more easily. It is also easier for stockholders to raise capital, expand the business, extend ownership interest to valuable employees, and do estate planning.

The disadvantages generally associated with the corporate form include the difficulty and added cost of incorporating the business; the double taxation that results from the tax levied on corporate earnings and on dividends or salaries paid to stockholders; and the obligation to pay other taxes such as franchise taxes and out-of-state business fees.

The S Corporation

Subchapter S of the Internal Revenue Code allows those small corporations meeting established requirements the option of being taxed as a partnership while, at the same time, maintaining their legal status of a corporation. Since S corporation income is not taxed, the firm's profits or losses flow directly to the tax returns of shareholders. This feature provides stockholders the advantage of avoiding double taxation on corporate earnings and dividends and, at the same time, retaining the luxury of limited stockholder liability.

Limited Liability Company

Most states in the U.S. have enacted or introduced legislation that approves the formation of a limited liability company (LLC). This unique entity has the tax status of a partnership and the limited liability protection of a corporation. These features allow profits or losses to flow to the personal returns of the owners (called members) while protecting members from personal liability for judgments against the business.

The LLC offers other advantages over the limited partnership and S corporation. For example, under certain conditions a limited partner may be unable to take full advantage of a partnership loss on his or her tax return unless an active role in the firm's management is taken. Doing so, however, causes the loss of the limited liability privilege. On the other hand, LLC members enjoy both limited liability and the full tax flow-though benefits of the partnership form of ownership. Relative to the S Corp, the LLC can offer different classes of ownership, is not burdened by eligibility requirements, and may, under certain conditions, have some tax advantages.

Minimizing The Risk Of Failure

The failure rate among startup businesses is high. About fifty percent of new businesses fail in the first year of operation and over eighty percent fold by the fifth year. These unfavorable odds can often be reversed if the entrepreneur understands why startups fail and then takes the steps necessary to avoid the pitfalls. The key reasons for the low survival rate and the remedies for combating them fall into three categories: pre-startup preparation, management competence, and financial safeguards.

Pre-Startup Preparation

The old adage about, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" should be the Golden Rule for the new entrepreneur but this sage advice is rarely followed. All too often the research, analysis, and planning done in the pre-startup stage only scratch the surface of what is needed. Experts suggest that new entrepreneurs give inadequate attention to or omit one or more of the following steps.

Industry Analysis A study of the firm's industry is essential to estimating the potential for its product or service and the type of competition it will face from both other firms in the industry and substitute products and services. Research findings suggest that products or services that are too new or too old are far more likely to result in failure for a startup firm than those in a strong growth phase.

Market Research Careful research of the firm's prospective market is necessary to determine its most likely target customer group, to identify the nature and strength of its competition, and to make a reasonable estimate of the firmís sales potential. A thorough analysis of the firm's industry and market is essentially a feasibility study which allows the entrepreneur to make a realistic estimate of the startup's chances for success and to prepare a convincing business plan if the decision is a go.

Business Plan A well-prepared business plan details the new firm's business concept as well as the operating, marketing, financial, and human resource strategies that will direct day-to-day activities. Preparing a business plan forces the entrepreneur to zero-in on each aspect of the business, to identify the factors which determine its success and failure, to establish guidelines for managing operations, and to gather the information essential in the quest for outside financing.

Expert Assistance The task of preparing a convincing business plan can be daunting for most entrepreneurs, so expert help should be sought. Paid and free professional assistance is available from variety of sources including consulting firms, financial planners, bankers, other entrepreneurs, vendors, trade associations, the U.S. Small Business Administration, Small Business Development Centers, and university business faculty.

Management Competence

While many new entrepreneurs have a strong technical background in the area of the startup business, many more lack the basic management skills important to success. Management deficiencies that severely limit a startup's chances include the lack of:

There are a number of options available to the entrepreneur for improving management skills including enrollment in management workshops and seminars, executive development programs, hiring employing personnel with the requisite expertise, acquiring co-owners possessing the requisite expertise, and using outside consultants to help with major decisions.

Financial Needs

Startup firms are often inadequately financed and the entrepreneur rarely has the level of financial management skills necessary to ensure a continuous supply of positive cash flow. Important among the list of financial failings is:

Insufficient Start-Up Capital To avoid the risks of under capitalization, experts suggest that the entrepreneur first make an estimate of the most likely amount of financing needed to sustain the business and meet his or her personal needs for one year if the firm were to operate at a loss for that period. Second, the amount of this estimate should then be increased by a comfortable percentage to allow for the estimating error that usually occurs.

Inadequate Financial Records A record-keeping system that produces both traditional financial accounting information and a detailed statement of cash inflows and outflows is a must for any business. Without this crucial information and the entrepreneur's clear understanding what these data mean, it is impossible for him or her to track the financial health and financial performance of the business.

The Absence of Financial Controls Closely coupled with the need for financial information is the need to monitor and measure results. Sound business practice suggests that goals for such key performance areas as sales, operating costs, cash flows, and profits are established, and actual performance is routinely measured against desired results. A good financial control system gives the entrepreneur immediate feedback on whether the business is headed in the right direction, the rate at which it is progressing, and if and where corrective action may be needed.

Improving The Odds For Success: The Business Plan  

Most business experts agree that a sound business plan is important to the organization and development of a new venture, for convincing a prospective financier that the venture is worthy of financing consideration, and crucial to the effective operation of a going concern. A business plan is a written description of the business, its goals, the action plans that will achieve these goals, and the background and skills of its key personnel. The business plan should be prepared by the entrepreneur with, where necessary, professional assistance.

The focus of the business plan should be providing the information needed to answer to two crucial questions: why the firm should succeed and how success will be achieved. The content needed to do so is outlined below.

The Executive Summary

The executive summary is a brief sketch of the firm's business and how and why it is expected to be successful. It is included in the business plan for the convenience of an outside reader, for example a prospective financier, and should briefly describe the following points:

 
  • The firm's business concept;
  • The intended market for the firm's products or services;
  • The firm's sales potential in this market;
  • How, why, and when the firm is expected to achieve success in this market.

The Financing Proposal

The financing proposal is a summary of the key issues surrounding a request for financing. These include:

The Business Description

The business description is a concise summary of the key points discussed in each of the various sections of the business plan. It provides the reader with answers to such questions as:

Industry and Market Analysis

Research and analysis of the firm's industry and market is needed to address two critical issues: "where" will the firm do business and "why" will commercial success be achieved. The entrepreneur can use the following guidelines to gather this information:

Operating Plans

Operating plans are the basic strategies that establish the firm's long-term goals and the means for achieving them. The following operating plans are typically included in a business plan.

A Word To The Wise

A convincing business plan is based on realistic forecasts, projections, and strategies that depend, in turn, on a solid foundation of assumptions about the future. In order for it to have creditability with an outsider reader such as a prospective financier and be useful to the operation of the business, its underlying assumptions must be documented with supporting facts, figures, and sound reasoning. A business plan without this documentation is useless and will be viewed by any knowledgeable reader as nothing more than wishful thinking.

Managing the Business

Success as an entrepreneur is no guarantee of success as the manager of a growing business. The individualistic, freewheeling, personality traits that mark the entrepreneur are often at odds with the management skills needed to be a first-rate CEO. If the firm is to grow beyond that of a self-managed, one-man operation, the entrepreneur must learn a new role. He or she must realize that management skills do not automatically accompany business ownership. They must be acquired and refined.

While a firm is struggling to gain a profitable foothold in the market, the entrepreneur can get away with a management style that is largely self-management because the do-it-yourself approach is the swiftest and surest way to get things done. It is when a fortunate firm enters the growth stage that the differences between entrepreneurship and management are in stark contrast and, most often, when these differences create major organizational problems. As the firm grows, the business becomes more complex, the number of employees and size of its asset base grow, and staff specialists and managers are added to fill administrative voids. It is at this point that the do-it-yourself personality traits of the successful entrepreneur are at odds with the management skills needed to effectively accomplish goals through the efforts of others. At this critical juncture, the entrepreneur must have his or her management skills refined and be ready and willing to make the difficult jump to being a good manager.

What Management Is

Experts generally agree that management is a process consisting of clearly defined activities. These activities distinguish a true manager from other employees of the firm. Unlike the entrepreneur, a manager is not the primary "doer." Good managers are strong leaders, and good motivators. They inspire others and get things done through the efforts of other people. It is a manager's job to plan activities, organize resources, direct the people who will carry out plans, and control operations so things remain on course. These key activities are referred to as the functions of management and a good manager relies heavily on the conceptual, interpersonal, and decision-making skills needed to do them well.

What Managers Do

Simply put, what successful managers do is effectively execute the functions of management: they plan, organize, direct, and control what happens in the firm.

Planning is the most basic of management functions and, along with control, is the activity to which a successful manger devotes the majority of his or her time. Planning means deciding in advance what needs to be done, how and when it should get done, and who will be given the responsibility for getting it done. It can be thought of as the continuous process of taking a peek backward to determine where the firm has been, a close look at where the firm is, and a long hard look forward to establish where the firm is expected to go. Formal planning is primarily a mental activity. It requires the small-firm manager to think through actions in advance using a combination of good information and informed judgment. The good news on planning is that it works. Managers who engage in formal planning on a regular basis have businesses that are more profitable and less prone to failure than those who donít plan. The bad news is that the management group least likely to do formal planning is small-firm managers.

Organizing involves blending the human, physical, and financial resources needed to carry out planned activity. It means creating a highly coordinated combination of people, jobs, information flows, activities, and organizational relationships that are all on the same page and all headed toward the same ends. To accomplish this, the manager must create a working environment that gives employees the opportunity to maximize their contribution to the firm's goals.

Directing refers to the use of interpersonal skills to influence the behavior of others and motivate them to put forth their best effort. These skills include leadership, the ability to motivate, awareness of the individual strength and weaknesses of subordinates, sensitivity to their interests and personal concerns, and the ability to communicate effectively. Good managers understand that there is a clear-cut distinction between authority and leadership. The former refers to the right to command or control and stems from ownership or position in the organization. Positive motivation and influence do not automatically accompany ownership. They are products of good leadership. A successful manager understands the importance of downplaying authority and earning the respect and loyalty of employees through effective leadership.

Controlling means comparing actual results with planned performance. It involves designing the standards and identifying the feedback information needed to determine whether actual outcomes are in line with expectations or corrective action is required. Performance standards are established in the planning process and serve as both formal expressions of what management expects to achieve and as yardsticks for measuring the progress. They can be established for both the firm and individual employees. At the firm level, they take the form of progress indicators such as market share targets, an expected level of profitability, or cost control guidelines. Employee performance standards are the predetermined personal goals by which employees are evaluated and accomplishments rewarded or failing efforts redirected.

The Cornerstone of the Management Process

Central to each management function is the quasi-science, quasi-art of effective decision making. Unfortunately, too many small-firm managers confuse good decision making with seat-of-the-pants guessing. Good decision-making involves a series of well-defined steps that are consistently applied. A good decision maker:

Essential Management Skills

Because managers of different businesses perform varied tasks, it is virtually impossible to make general statements about the specific duties managers perform. Yet, management specialists are quick to agree that truly effective managers share a common skill set that includes:

Financing The Firm

Of the many problems confronting the new small-firm entrepreneur none is more troublesome than locating and attracting reliable sources of financing. To improve the odds of raising capital for the firm, the entrepreneurís search should start with:

Financing sources can be divided into two broad categories: Private sources including individuals and non-government institutional lenders and investors; and government agencies including those sponsored by or working in conjunction with those agencies. 

Primary Sources of Small Firm Financing

Personal Resources The most frequently used financing for startup firms is the personal resources of the entrepreneur and those of interested family and friends. These resources include hard assets such as personal savings, certificates of deposit, and stocks and bonds, and what can be borrowed against a home equity or credit card line-of-credit or a signature loan from a credit union, bank, or personal finance company.

Trade Credit  Business firms that sell goods and services to other businesses usually offer qualified customers credit terms on purchases. This form of financing is known as trade credit and, while it does not involve the direct loan of funds, it is a major source of financing for business inventory. What's more, since trade suppliers are interested in the profit margin on repeat business, the credit standards applied to determine customer eligibility are usually more liberal than those used by traditional lenders.

Equipment Manufacturers Manufacturers of business equipment often provide financing for the purchases of their qualified customers. This financing usually takes the form of installment loans or industrial leases and is arranged and made through the manufacturers financing division or subsidiary. Like trade suppliers, equipment manufacturers are interested in earning the profit margin on the sale and typically apply more lenient standards to determine credit eligibility than traditional lenders.

Angels Angels are wealthy individuals interested in making equity or ownership investments in startup businesses and going concerns that hold the prospect for generating above average rates of return. Since angels are equity investors, the firm does not have to meet the collateral and credit capability standards required by traditional lenders. The downside to this type financing is first finding an interested investor and then parting with the sizable equity interest and degree of management control that will be demanded.

Commercial Banks Commercial banks are the largest single group of suppliers of short and extended term debt financing to small and medium size businesses. However, because of the many regulatory restrictions on management and the use of depositors' funds banks must face, they are not normally aggressive risk takers. The major concern of the typical banker considering a business loan is safety of principal and interest. This means the typical small-firm borrower will have to meet stringent credit standards, demonstrate the ability to repay the loan, and pledge hard assets sufficient to collateralize it.

Commercial Finance Companies Like banks, commercial finance companies make short and extended term loans to businesses. While the credit standards used by commercial finance companies are less rigorous than those of the typical commercial bank, these lenders make only asset-backed (collateralized loans) and the interest rates charged are higher than those of a bank.

Venture Capitalists Privately owned, non-regulated venture capital firms are highly specialized financiers. They make equity investments in small and medium size businesses that represent more risk than what is acceptable to the traditional institutional lender but, at the same time, hold the promise of producing abnormally large rates of return. For entrepreneurs with the good fortune to attract the interest of a venture capitalist, the financing provided will usually have the following characteristics:

The Two Sides of Debt Financing

Under the right conditions, debt can be an attractive method of financing the firm. As long as the rate of return earned on invested borrowed funds is greater than the cost of the debt, the excess return accrues directly to the business along with a tax deduction on the interest payments. But debt financing has its downside in the form of the financial risk it creates. Debt payments are legal obligations that have to be met even if the business loses money on the invested funds.

The creditor has the legal right to foreclose if payment is not made and having too much debt can literally sink the ship if times get tough.

Estimating Debt Capacity

There are a number of factors influencing the firmís capacity for debt financing such as its life-cycle stage, rate of growth, stability, and expected cash flows. While one size does not fit all firms, there are a few critical constants that apply to every situation.

How Much is Needed? If youíre in the market for debt financing, the first question to be answered both for yourself and the prospective lender is exactly how much money is needed and for what purpose. This figure is used to judge the merits of the financing request and the effect the loan will have on the firmís existing debt capacity.

Rule-of-Thumb Estimators. Two important considerations to the question of appropriate debt capacity are:

To answer these questions, lenders will first decide whether there is a sufficient proportion of ownerís invested capital to support both the loan request and the total amount of debt for the business. Then, they will compare earnings and cash flow to amount of debt payments the firm.

Calculated ratio values are measured against an acceptable standard such as an average for a group of firms in the industry or the lenderís subjective criteria. To get an idea of how a lender will judge your firmís ratio values, compare them to averages for your firmís industry. Industry averages can be obtained from references such as Robert Morris and Associates Annual Statement Studies that are available at Small Business Development Centers and some libraries.

The Litmus Test The most telltale measure of a firmís ability to use debt financing is the extent to which its cash flow from operations (CFFO) is sufficient to meet mandatory financial obligations. Any serious consideration of debt capacity, then, must focus on realistic estimates of a reasonable range over which CFFO will fluctuate as business conditions change. The important question to be answered is how low can available CFFO fall during a business slump. It is this expected lowest level of cash flow that determines the maximum amount of debt-service charges the firm can meet and hence the maximum level of debt it can safely afford.

The tool used to make these troubling estimates is the most basic and, as many business experts suggest, most important approach to small-firm planning, the cash budget. A cash budget is a projection, usually monthly, of itemized cash inflows and outflows over a specific time horizon. Projections are made and available cash flow measured using a combination of assumptions about the planned level of operations and the "most favorable," "most likely," and "least favorable" scenarios for the firm.

Government Related Sources of Financing

For most small firms finding capital is at best a difficult task. It takes careful preparation and an understanding of who provides small-firm financing and how they evaluate a financing proposal. Of the two major categories of small-firm financiers, private and governmental, government and related agencies offer the most promising opportunities.

There are a number of state, municipal, and federal government sponsored financing programs available to eligible small businesses. Some programs are limited to firms in a given industry or conducting a specified type business, some are aimed at businesses which provide jobs and contribute to the economic growth in a community, and some are intended firms meeting general eligibility requirements. 

State and Municipal Programs

State governments and many of their municipalities have their own economic development agencies or sponsor quasi-governmental agencies whose purpose is to promote business and economic growth in their jurisdictions. To accomplish this goal, they offer a variety of services and incentives to qualified businesses. One of the more important services usually offered is either direct- or participating-loan financing at interest rates slightly better than the going market rate. The primary purpose of these loans is to induce businesses to locate in the area and to encourage existing firms to make job-creating investments in new plant and equipment. Information of these agencies and their programs can be obtained from a number of sources including the State Information Office, state and local Chambers of Commerce, and local Small Business Development Center offices.

U.S. Small Business Administration

The SBA, operating through its many regional offices, is the major provider of governmental assistance to small businesses. While this agency makes only a limited number of direct loans, it does sponsor a variety of federally supported financial assistance programs to eligible startup and existing small firms. Of this group, the following are the most important.

Loan Guarantees Through its loan guarantee program, the SBA underwrites up to 90% of a loan made by a private lender to an eligible small business. The purpose of the guarantee is to remove the default risk for the lender. By doing so, a loan, that would otherwise be considered too risky, becomes more attractive to the lender. There is a $750,000 ceiling on the guarantee portion of the loan as well as a maturity limit of 25 years. To qualify for the loan guarantee program, the firm must meet the SBA's size and industry-affiliation criteria and demonstrate that:

SBA Certified Development Companies The SBA also participates through its 502, 503, 504, and 7a programs with community organizations known as Certified Development Companies. The purpose of these programs is to make packaged loans in which the CDC, banks, and SBA participate to eligible startup and existing small businesses. This financing is made available for the purchase of land, buildings, machinery and equipment, and for legitimate business expansion.

Micro-Loan Program Through this program the SBA finances non-profit organizations who, it turn, make small loans of $25,000 or less to start-up or existing businesses. These are firms that would normally have difficulty borrowing from conventional sources. Each micro lender sets its own criteria for a loan and charges an interest rate that is slightly above market rates. The small-firm borrower does not, however, pay loan origination or loan preparation fees to the lender. To be eligible for micro-loan borrowing, the business must generate less than $5 million in sales and the loan proceeds must be used to finance any legitimate business purpose.

Small Business Investment Companies SBICs are privately owned, profit seeking, venture capital firms that are licensed, financed, and regulated by the SBA. SBICs make venture capital investments in small firms which meet the their particular investment criteria. They finance small firms in three general ways: straight loans, hybrid loans, or equity investments.

Straight loans made by SBICs generally have a long maturity and are similar to those of other conventional lenders. Hybrid loans, on the other hand, are debt contracts with an added provision that gives the SBIC an exercisable option to buy an ownership interest in the business at a pre-established price. Through equity financing, the SBIC buys an immediate ownership position in the firm.

Other SBA Programs The SBA also supports small businesses through other finance-related programs such as:

The SBA also provides assistance to small firms seeking contracts from governmental agencies through programs such as the Small Business Innovative Research Program.

Farmer's Home Administration

The FmHA provides financial assistance through a loan guarantee program to businesses located in areas with a population of 50,000 or less. Like the SBA, the FmHA will guarantee up to ninety percent percent of a loan to an eligible business. The terms and interest rates on the loan are, however, set by the lender and reflect current market conditions.

Budgeting

In order to get the most out of the dollars flowing through a business you must get a handle on the costs of operating it. Effective cost control means more of your scarce cash is retained in the business, profits are increased for any volume of sales, and less outside capital has to be raised.

Like cash management, cost control is more a management task than a financial one. It involves nothing more than a basic understanding of cost concepts, how costs behave in your firm, and careful planning and control. Also like good cash management, the planning and control of costs starts with budgeting. 

What It Is and Isnít

A budget is simply a plan expressed as numbers; for example, dollars, units, or percentages. It reflects the entrepreneurís estimates of what costs should be for planned levels of operation. While the firmís accountant or financial advisor can and should help compile and estimate cost numbers, the meat of the budget process is a management activity. It is basic to the planning and control responsibilities of every entrepreneur.

While a well-prepared budget details the entrepreneurís expectations, it is not rigidly etched in stone. Since the budget is developed under assumptions about the future, it should be adjusted when actual conditions are significantly different from what was anticipated. Budget numbers then are guidelines that provide the entrepreneur with a greater ability to anticipate what should be and how well actual results compare with those expectations.

Why Budget?

The best answer to this simple question is found in the old business adage, "no one plans to fail, they just fail to plan." Entrepreneurs often take the shortsighted view that budgeting is a waste of time because there is no immediate payoff. But the truth is that budgeting saves time and money in the long run. With a solid budget the entrepreneur:

Equally important, the act of preparing a good budget produces as many benefits as the budget itself. Working through each expense line of the budget forces the entrepreneur to look at what costs "should be" and adds to his or her understanding of how the firmís costs behave and affect profits when activity levels change.

If these are not reason enough for budgeting, this one fact should be. While budgeting is certainly not a panacea for all small-business problems, a large percentage of small firms that fail have entrepreneurs who do not budget.

Building the Budget

The first step in developing budget projections is to take a hard look at past financial records so that costs can be divided into variable, semi-variable, and fixed categories. Studying these data provides insights into:

Armed with these insights, the entrepreneur is in position to translate planned operations and assumptions about business conditions into budget projections. When these projections are combined with a cash budget, the entrepreneur not only has guidelines for cost control but a working knowledge of when expenses must be paid, which can be delayed, and for how long particular payments can be delayed without adversely affecting the business as well.

Youíre not Alone

Budgeting and forecasting is not necessarily complex, and budget savvy can be developed with practice and by using available help. Today, typical small-business accounting and dedicated budgeting software packages contain the tools needed by the entrepreneur to effectively crunch numbers. Whatís more, how-to budgeting literature and assistance with budget development are available from regional U.S. Small Business Administration Offices and local Small Business Development Centers.

Targeting The Customer

A number of key variables must come together for a business to be successful but none are more important in the mix than its customer base. The revenue that customers produce is the lifeblood of the business and planning the advertising strategy that will reach them is an essential part of the firmís overall marketing plan.

New entrepreneurs learn quickly that customers wonít be lined up eagerly awaiting the arrival of the business. Rather, the support of good customers must be earned and it is up to the entrepreneur to identify the group the firm can effectively reach and how it can attract and hold their business. Here are some tips on how to go about this important task.

Words To The Wise

You can't win them all. Inexperienced entrepreneurs often overlook the fact that consumers are not all alike. Their needs, motivations, and purchasing capabilities differ, and one firm cannot be all things to all people. Instead of using a shotgun approach to attracting prospects, the entrepreneur should concentrate on a clear-cut target market. A target market is a specific consumer segment with common traits or characteristics. To attract this customer group, the firmís offering must be consistent with their distinguishing characteristics; it must be able to reach them with the right message given the resources available, and it must be able to profitably serve them once they are on board.

Understand the differences In order to identify a suitable target, the entrepreneur must first identify the traits that distinguish the intended consumer group from others. Distinguishing characteristics cluster around such factors as:

Find The Target The easiest and most cost-effective way to identify the target market is to identify a small sample of customers who regularly use the firmís product/service or a close substitute. Once identified, the sample can then be queried directly or by survey to determine their identifying traits or characteristics. These characteristics are then used to develop the target market profile. The representative sample can be identified through such means as talking with the customers of a competitor, through door-to-door inquiries or telephone surveys, or from an existing customer list if the firm is a going concern.

Send The Right Message To The Right Customer All too often, the small firmís advertising is nothing more than a bland, unimaginative, stereotype, clone of other advertising. To effectively attract customers, advertising must convey the right message and the message must reach the right audience. Again, the key to developing the right message is to understand the target market and then tailor the message to fit the circumstances.

Results Are In The Detail Once the target customer group has been reached, the firm's offerings must be fine-tuned to meet their specific needs. This usually means doing the little things that separate the firm from its competitors. For example:

Location Isnít The Only Answer While location is critical to some businesses, it is not a universal prescription for success. More often than not, if the firm's specific mix of product/service, promotion, and customer relations are right for its target market, they will find the business.

Price Isnít The Only Answer While new entrepreneurs tend to be overly concerned about what price to charge for their product/service, research indicates that consumers are usually more concerned about considerations other than the absolute rock bottom price. Factors such as convenience, good product/service mix, quality, good customer relations, and reliable service are often more important than minor price differentials.

Getting The Most From Advertising Expenditures

Among the many challenges facing the startup firm is the difficult task of creating the right advertising message. One that effectively:

Unfortunately, the message delivered by many new firms misses the mark and advertising expenditures end up in a non-productive black hole. To avoid costly mistakes and, at the same time, increase the likelihood that the advertising investment will reap positive returns, the entrepreneur needs a well informed, carefully thought out strategy. 

Strategy Guidelines

Advertising strategy should be an offshoot of the firmís overall marketing plan, and it should be developed with the following basic rules in mind.

Set Precise Goals Certainly, the ultimate goal of all advertising is to attract customers and increase sales. But inexperienced advertisers often fail to appreciate or even choose to ignore a basic advertising reality: There is no universal formula for reaching all audiences at once and scatter-gun approaches either waste money or are unsuccessful. To be effective, advertising should be aimed at specific, narrowly defined goals and the first step in preparing an advertising campaign is to clearly identify exactly what each expenditure is expected to accomplish. Examples of commonly used advertising goals include:

Both the advertising message and the medium used to deliver it would normally differ with each goal. For example, what is said, how the message is delivered, and who is targeted to receive it would be quite different if the purpose of the advertisement is, in one case, to announce a grand opening and, in the other, to generate customer inquiries.

Send the Right Message One important goal of advertising is to communicate a message that is clear, convincing, meets its intended goal, and is seen as important by the targeted audience. The characteristics that should be contained in the message are found in the simple acronym AIDA which stands for:

Hit the Target Getting the message to the right audience is as important to the success of advertising as the message itself. The right audience is the target market identified in the firmís marketing plan. This is the group of potential customers whose identified demographic characteristics, behavioral traits, needs, and wants make them likely candidates to buy the firm's product or service.

Pick the Right Messenger The small-firm entrepreneur has a wide variety of cost-effective advertising mediums from which to choose. None is inherently good or bad. Rather, each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages and the right choice depends on the firm, the advertising objective, the message, the target audience, and cost. The guiding principle for choosing an advertising medium is simple: Use the medium that most efficiently reaches the target market. To make good choices, the entrepreneur should learn as much as possible about the characteristics, effectiveness, advantages, and disadvantages of each advertising vehicle that fits within budget limitations.

Frequency is important Advertising is most effective when it is done regularly as part of a well-planned campaign. While one-shot advertising may occasionally be justified: for example, when introducing a new product or announcing a special sale, such advertisements are quickly forgotten and even more quickly lose effectiveness unless they are done frequently and linked directly to an overall marketing strategy.

The World Wide Web

For the right business the World Wide Web offers an opportunity to broaden its advertising and promotion horizon or even tap into the vast potential of the e-commerce market. But making money on or from the Web is not a foregone conclusion, and doing business there is certainly not for everyone. 

Before jumping into cyberspace, it is important to learn the basic jargon. Here are some of the more important concepts and terms.

The Internet is a worldwide network of millions of computers linked by a maze of telephone lines, satellite signals, and even cable TV. The Net was established in 1969 as a government funded medium for exchanging information between the U.S. Defense Department and high-level university researchers working on sensitive government projects. Since that date, the purpose and character of the Internet have changed dramatically. The Net now accommodates a wide variety of personal, political, social, and business commerce and its users range from elementary school students and chat-group junkies to businesses advertising or selling virtually every conceivable product or service.

The World Wide Web (WWW), while often mistakenly referred to as the Net, is neither the Internet nor a computer network. It is an information access system or, more technically, a multi-media (text, images, pictures, sound, etc.) software system running on the Internet. This system consists of the following major components.

Electronic Commerce (e-commerce), which is also known as e-business or e-tailing, refers to business conducted online and involves everything from buying tickets to a football game to the complete management of the supply and distribution chain of large pharmaceutical companies. At least one of the two web sites involved in a web transaction has the software necessary to provide a secure environment, a shopping cart system, and electronic transaction processing. In business transactions such as the distribution of pharmaceuticals, the two firms can transmit a variety of data such as inquiries, orders, invoices, and payments directly through their computer systems.

Affiliate Networks or Integrated Solution Providers are large web-site hosting services (ISPs), such as GeoCities, zStores, XOOM and Tripod who provide free web sites in exchange for advertising links and/or e-commerce-site development services.

Before you leap into cyberspace, use the following doís and doníts to fine-tune your strategy.

Do it Right Creating an attractive web site that effectively promotes the business involves much more than technical proficiency with a web-programming language and graphics. An effective site is "message oriented." It describes the business, projects the intended image, and answers the questions a potential customer will have. So take the time to find a web developer who has the necessary combination of programming, graphical, and marketing skills to do the job right. Given todayís relatively low cost of web-site development, it definitely pays to get good help.

Hit the Target The World Wide Web consists of a broad demographic spectrum of users and, to be effective, it is crucial that the firm's target customer group is clearly identified before the web site is created. If you donít know who is to be reached and what motivates their interests and buying habits, you canít tailor the right message to reach them.

Hit the Target Quickly Web surfers are impatient and it is important that the first (home) page quickly captures their interest. Be sure the homepage has a definite purpose that is clearly conveyed, an attractive appearance, is well organized, immediately lets them know what the site has to offer, and provides useful information.

Keep it Lean and Mean To help send visitors where they want to go on the site as fast as possible, well-designed sites will:

Track Results A common advertising mistake of many small-firm entrepreneurs, regardless of the media used, is placing an ad and then forgetting about it. They donít monitor and evaluate results to determine what works and what doesnít. To do this with a web site almost certainly dooms it to failure. Site development is an ongoing, ever-evolving process. At the minimum, hit rates should be closely tracked and feedback information actively sought from visitors. For example:

Update Another important key to a successful brochure site is fresh, useful information. There are a number of effective ways to periodically update your site. For example, including an archive of useful articles or information pieces, an advice section, a Q & A page, news releases, promotions, and price specials are easy, low cost ways to keep the site current.

Facilitate Response The primary goal of a brochure site is customer communication, so make it easy for the customer to do so. Make certain the firmís address is prominently located, include an e-mail response page, and list the firmís telephone number on each page. If the budget allows, a toll-free number is recommended. It not only facilitates communication but also helps promote an image of a reliable business that is there to meet customer needs. 

Recruiting Good Employees

The entrepreneur is the biggest fish in the pond, right? Sometimes, but there are two groups who are at least as, if not more, important. These are its customers and its employees. Why, because customers are the lifeblood of the business and its employees the backbone.

But finding good employees is often as difficult for small firms as establishing a loyal customer base. Since a business can only be as good as the people who make up the organization, it is important that the entrepreneur take the time and effort to find good employees. 

One Step at a Time

Know the Firmís Needs. One key to having good employees is correctly matching the knowledge and skills of the individual to the needs of the job. To do so effectively, you must first:

Taking the time to complete these four steps is important. The effort clarifies the information needed from applicants to determine who is the right person for the position. Equally important, a written job description eliminates confusion over what is expected of the employee, the training that must be provided, and the basis for evaluating employee job performance.

Beat the Bushes Making a good hiring decision is partially determined by the size of the pool of talent from which to choose. The larger the pool, the greater the chance that the right person will be hired. To improve the chances of finding enough qualified prospects from which to choose, consider the following sources.

For unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, outlets such as the following typically provide a fertile, low cost, method of attracting job applicants:

The search for high-skilled, staff, or management personnel is usually more productive if directed toward specialized recruiting sources such as:

Using employment agencies can be costly, but the expense is somewhat offset by the time and effort saved. Since the agency advertises the position and screens applications, the entrepreneur is relieved of these responsibilities. Also, donít ignore the online services. E-commerce has literally revolutionized the recruiting business. You can now be in contact with prospects from around the globe with no more effort than a mouse click.

Ask the Right Questions The odds of correctly matching job needs and employee skills are greatly improved if the entrepreneur gets good information. The information requested on the application form and the questions asked in the interview should be directly related to the needs of the job. Again, a good job description is crucial.

Equally important, avoid gathering irrelevant information. Itís a waste of time and a good source of frustration and annoyance. For example, if information traditionally found on application forms such as marital status, hobbies, or gender is not relevant to job performance, why ask the questions?

Stress the Positives Small businesses are often at a disadvantage relative to large firms when it comes to attracting high caliber employees. Larger businesses have the resources to offer such initial attractions as higher starting salaries, better fringes, and more formalized training programs. Employment in small firms can, however, provide the right individual with distinct advantages. Those advantages should be stressed in the job announcement and in the interview session. For example, the typical small firm can offer:

Keep 'Em When You Get 'Em Woe to the entrepreneur who thinks the firm can prosper and grow through his or her efforts alone. Itís just not going to happen. Good employees must be appreciated and successful entrepreneurs find ways, non-financial as well as financial, to recognize and reward their contributions.

Growing Your Business: Increasing Sales  

A nagging question haunting most entrepreneurs is how do I profitably increase sales and grow my business in ways that donít cost a fortune? For many small firms this can be done in ways that arenít too expensive, risky, or time consuming. 

Techniques for Increasing Sales

Many entrepreneurs believe that increasing sales means finding new customers through such time-honored techniques as media advertising, cold calls, or direct mail. While these approaches may generate new customers and sales, they are costly and there is no guarantee that the expenditure will produce worthwhile results. The following techniques are low cost, take relatively less time and effort, have little or no risk, and work for virtually all types of small businesses.

Referrals Despite common belief, small businesses attract more new customers through referrals from existing customers than by any other means. If handled properly, satisfied customers can be the firmís most powerful sales force. But it is up to the entrepreneur to stimulate referrals through a creative, carefully planned, and systematically applied approach.

Some effective ways of getting referrals include:

Increase Average Sales The idea here is to increase either the amount of each customerís purchase or the frequency of purchase. One effective way of accomplishing the former is to add products or services that compliment the firmís product line. For example, the traditional bookstore may add a complimentary product line consisting of books-on-tape or CD and reading accessories. Another technique for increasing the average expenditure is to focus selling effort on upgrades of the basic product. For example, PC makers offer a base desktop model and then sales personnel tantalize the customer with component upgrades such as larger monitors, better speakers, or expanded memory.

In order to increase the frequency of purchase, the seller must provide the incentive for the customer to do so. One technique that is effective for many firms is the special invitation service. For example, the womanís clothing store has an exclusive showing of its new fall line for good customers. Or, selected customers are invited to see an item that fits their tastes or interests before it is put on the shelf. Often, a discount on an immediate purchase is given the invited customer.

Add Value Another effective way to increase sales is to make the customer feel that he or she has maximized the value received for the dollars spent. This can be accomplished by including with the purchase an item that cost the firm little or nothing but adds value in the customersí eyes. For example, a hardware store may include a complimentary instructional book or video with the purchase of a major or do-it-yourself, home-improvement item. Likewise, a service firm may include extra time for the standard fee in order to make good customers feel they are getting a little more than what they paid for.

Use Risk Reversal Another method of adding value is to offer products or services that are as risk free as possible for the customer. This can be accomplished in a number of ways such as money-back guarantees, increased warranty periods, or the purchase of an extended warranty. In the case of a service firm, risk reversal may take the form of no payment on the service rendered unless and until it provides measurable results for the customer.

Use Crossovers Crossovers are reciprocal selling or referral agreements between businesses. That is, each firm offers or recommends the otherís products or services to their respective customers. For example, a movie theater might include with ticket purchases a discount coupon on a pizza purchase at a local pizzeria while the pizzeria offers a discount on movie tickets with each pizza purchased. Likewise, a small business consultant may have a reciprocal recommendation agreement with banks, savings and loans, and attorneys.

Do It Right

Unless the firm is one of the fortunate few, new customers and increased sales are not going to make a magical appearance. Making it happen requires a careful planning, a creative strategy, and the expenditure of time and effort. It takes time to develop a well-thought out plan of attack and it takes time to put the plan into effect. Experts suggests that about one-third of a small-firm entrepreneurís time should be spent developing new business.

Whatís more, increasing sales takes some measure of creativity. The techniques suggested above are flexible and can be varied to fit different situations. If one is not perfectly suited to a particular business, the entrepreneur can explore different ways to adapt it to the firmís purposes.

Increasing Profits

Increasing sales is usually thought to be the only key to improving the firmís profits. Yet, reducing cost is often much quicker and a more effective way of boosting the bottom line. This is because a one-dollar increase in sales produces only pennies of operating income. How many pennies depends on the firmís operating profit margin; what remains after expenses are deducted from a sales dollar. On the other hand, every dollar reduction in operating expenses results in a full dollar-for-dollar increase in operating income. But controlling costs is not automatic. It takes a diligent effort and here are some tips that may help get the job done.

General Guidelines

Know Thine Enemy An effective cost control program requires the entrepreneur to first learn basic cost concepts and then how to measure and evaluate the cost behavior. These are basic management tools that should be an important part of every entrepreneurís arsenal.

Monitor Costs Regularly Effective cost control also requires a continuing effort. Unless costs are reviewed on a regular basis, cost awareness becomes less vigilant or, even worse, non-existent. The result is cost excesses and shrinking profit margins.

Use Available Technology Entrepreneurs often fail to gather and analyze cost information because of the effort involved. However, the low cost and availability of user-friendly software reduces the burden of information gathering and analysis and advances in data-gathering tools such as bar codes help the entrepreneur know what costs are and how to handle them.

Take Charge There is only one sure way to identify who is spending the firmís money, what they're buying, and whether the firm is getting its money's worth: the entrepreneur authorizes all expenditures and signs all checks. This is especially important when times get tough and unnecessary expenditures associated with better times are likely to still be hanging around.

Avoid Overkill When cutting costs, be cautious about where they are cut. Avoid excessive reductions in areas that could cripple the firmís ability to do business such as advertising and key inventory items.

Lease where Possible Leasing property or equipment under a cancelable lease provides the firm cost flexibility and reduces its risk exposure. If these assets are owned, the firm is locked-in and unable to adjust rapidly to significant changes in sales.

Labor Costs

The largest operating expense for most small firms is labor cost. Management and employee compensation, payroll taxes, and fringe benefits average almost 50% of each sales dollar for the typical small firm. Cost-cutting techniques that help keep labor costs in line include:

Purchases

The purchase of goods and services, including merchandise inventory, is a significant cost to most small firms and usually the largest single cost element for retailers and wholesalers. Cost containment in this area is important to maintaining competitive prices and adequate profit margins. Techniques that help control purchasing costs include:


B>Quest 

(Business Quest) 

A journal of applied topics in business and economics


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