The Small Business Challenge

What a great time to start a business!

I don’t mean that in a Pollyannaish, “rah-rah, you can do it!” way, but rather, as a very serious business proposition. In the history of business, this happens to be an amazing time to start your own enterprise.

Of course the economy is a bit rough right now; no doubt about that. And yes, that is a challenge. But what I am talking about is taking a broader view. The fact is, between technology, the Internet, and global capitalism, this is the golden era of small business – a moment in time unmatched.

That is one reason I am so excited to be part of USA TODAY’s Small Business Challenge. For the next six months we will be following six entrepreneurs and their startups, and along the way, my colleagues Rhonda Abrams, Gladys Edmunds and I will be offering coaching and advice. While you will be able to read about their progress both in the paper and online, to help kick things off, I want to offer some general advice that I would give anyone starting a business right now.

Be a business person: This may seem obvious, but I don’t think so. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of any entrepreneur is their passion. It is passion that led our five entrepreneurs to start their own enterprise in the middle of this recession. It is passion that got them to enter the Small Business Challenge, and passion is part of the reason they were selected. All entrepreneurs are passionate about their startup – and they better be!

But passion alone is not enough.

One error I see far too many small business owners make is mistaking passion for business acumen. There are two parts to any business: 1) The part you love to do, that thing that got you in it in the first place, and 2) everything else – the hiring and firing, doing the books, advertising, and all the rest.

If you want to stick around for the long haul, be passionate yes, but also learn all of those other things. That is what makes you a real business person.

Look for vacuums and waves: To succeed in your business, you must strike a balance between being relevant and being different.

With so much competition out there, it is important to find vacuums – areas where your competition is not as strong. For example, I recently met a business person who started using posters and flyers to advertise; his thinking was that few people do that anymore so he stands out.

Similarly, catch a wave when possible. If everyone is tweeting, there may be a very good reason for that. Stay relevant.

Have a great online presence: People today now spend as much time online as they do in front of a television. You have to go where the eyeballs are, and if they are online, then you have to be there in a big way. That it is so affordable makes it even smarter.

And notice I didn’t say you need a “good” online presence. You need a great one: A great website, a great social media presence, a great e-marketing strategy – the whole great enchilada.

Use available technology: Technology can be your competitive advantage. Whether it is software, outfitting your mobile workforce, or some cool gadget, technology can make the difference. So, for instance, don’t just buy some program and learn the basics, but really figure out how it can be used to your advantage . . . because it can.

Don’t lead: Especially in the beginning of your enterprise, especially as you are just learning the ropes, I suggest that following can beat leading. You don’t have to invent the Next Big Thing, or create some brand new scheme. It may work, but it may not, and in the beginning there is little room for error. So learn about business, learn about your business, learn what works, and do that. Later on you can go for your big idea, but probably not yet.

Take advantage of free resources: As I mentioned, there is a lot of free (or almost free) help out there. SCORE counselors will help you learn areas of your new business where you may be a little weak, as will the SBA. There are tons of great websites, magazines, and books that can help (including mine!) Social networks can offer free support and so on.

Market and advertise, and do it some more: Become a marketing expert. Period.

Good luck!

 

Today’s Tip: My friend Rieva Lesonsky (the former editor-in-chief of Entrepreneur Magazine and now the CEO of her own business) just wrote a great e-book if you are looking to start a business. Called 23 Hot Businesses to Start Right Now!, it is chock full of cutting-edge strategies and ideas. Steve says check it out!

 

 

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