My story. In 1999 I started Women for Hire to put on career fairs. I worked from home with no experience running a business, but I had a serious entrepreneurial itch — that burning desire to run my own shop, do my own thing, be my own boss and provide what I thought was a much-needed service to the workplace.
I didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t have much time. Because my household very much relied on my income, I had three months to launch the company and generate a profit. If the venture failed, I’d have to quickly get a traditional job, which of course I didn’t want to do.
Instead of spending months and months writing a business plan, I put my thoughts on one sheet of paper and I dived in. That’s also the impatient side of me; I didn’t want to think or talk about starting a business, I just wanted to do it.
With a background in corporate communications, I knew the importance of establishing immediate credibility. I’d be targeting human resource professionals to use my services, yet nobody in human resources departments knew my name. My company was totally unknown.
I bought 100 copies of Star Jones’ new book at wholesale from the publisher and I arranged for Jones, who was debuting on “The View” at the time, to do a free book signing at my very first career fair. I also formed a marketing partnership with Mademoiselle magazine, allowing it to distribute copies to my career fair attendees.
Those two names — Star Jones and Mademoiselle — were very well known, even though I wasn’t, so I benefited instantly from that borrowed recognition.
Incidentally, Jones moved on from “The View” and Mademoiselle went bust, but Women for Hire is still going strong! Knock on wood.
My focus from Day 1 has remained the same: provide a top-notch service, get the word out to the target audience and sell it. If you’re thinking of starting a business, that’s what you should do too.
Get the Word Out
First step, put it in writing. Write a brief plan outlining your goals. You don’t need anything formal unless you’re going to seek substantial capital. In fact, researchers at Babson College found that in businesses started between 1985 and 2003, there was no difference in the performance of those that launched with or without a written business plan.
Go through a simple exercise of putting a few things on paper for your own good: describe your business in one sentence. Who will buy your products or service? How much money do you absolutely need to get started? How much can you realistically charge for your product or service? What will it cost you to deliver that product or service? In the worst-case scenario, how much can you make?
Don’t assume the best-case scenario because more often than not, you won’t meet those projections. A baker may dream of selling 100 cakes a week, but is five more realistic to start? A dog walker might assume he can handle 10 customers a week, but is two more realistic to start?
Know the competition. Don’t worry about reinventing the wheel. Chances are you’re going to provide a service or product that already exists. That’s OK. There are multiple banks, coffee shops, clothing stores and restaurants on every street. There are thousands of doctors and dentists in every major city. It’s wise to know your competition, but don’t be intimidated, especially if you offer a quality product or service.
Create marketing materials. You need a marketing plan to target the right people about your business. Because you aren’t going to run expensive newspaper ads or Super Bowl commercials, think free and inexpensive.
Web site. When you’re looking to buy something — from a haircut to a custom cake — you likely hit the Internet. So even if you’re not selling online, every business should have a Web site. Before you decide on a name for your business, check the availability of domain names, because it could affect the name you choose.
A Web site can cost as little as $10 a month and many hosting companies offer free site-builder templates to get you up and running in a few hours. Register.com and GoDaddy.com are two services I’ve used.
Google’s AdWords program is an affordable and measurable way to attract visitors to your Web site. Sign up for free and set a budget for how much you want to spend to appear in search results when Google users look for content related to yours.
Print business cards and flyers. I use both VistaPrint.com and GotPrint.com for high-quality printing at affordable prices.
Phone system. If you worry about your kids answering your business calls but you don’t want to install a dedicated phone line, consider a service like RingCentral.com to have calls routed to an 800 number with voice mail exclusively for your business starting at $10 a month.
Use free social and business networks. Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and others are valuable tools for spreading the word about your business.
Establish mutually beneficial partnerships. Recently a “Good Morning America” viewer asked me for ideas on how to spread the word quickly — without spending a dime — about her new pet massage business. I suggested partnering with the most popular pet store in her area to host in-store events every Saturday where owners could bring their animals for on-the-spot mini massages. It’s good for the store because it brings new and existing customers into the shop, and it’s good for attracting awareness — and customers — for this new pet massage business.
A cake baker might offer to do fundraisers for her kids’ school. She could talk to wedding vendors about offering affordable alternatives to new brides. She can visit local coffee shops with samples of her baked goods to persuade them to carry her stuff.
Generate free media coverage. One of my favorite new resources is Help a Reporter Out, which enables anyone to sign up for a free e-mail alert, delivered three times daily, listing the immediate needs of writers and producers from major TV and print outlets to blogs and books. By registering for the daily e-mails, you can respond to queries from journalists that relate to your business and your expertise — without hiring a publicist to do the work for you.
Find free helping hands. When you have little to no money to start, you have to be resourceful to get as much as you can for free. In addition to begging family and friends, contact colleges in your area to post internship opportunities (or post them on Craigslist) for students who’d welcome a compelling role in assisting with your start-up.
Tap free expert resources. Contact the Chamber of Commerce in your area, Small Business Association or SCORE, which provides free and low-cost advice on every aspect of your business, including the licenses you may need to operate and the tax and insurance considerations.
Among my favorite resources for small-business owners: Make Mine a Million, StartupNation, Small Business Television, and Collective-E.
Finally — just do it. If you can’t get out there and sell your product or service, you don’t have a business. It doesn’t matter how fabulous your offering, your expertise or your Web site, if nobody will pay you for it, there’s no business. Get your ducks in a row and then get in front of your target audience. Nobody will have the same passion and enthusiasm as you, and your passion is priceless.