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Most people have probably spotted a successful business and thought, “I wish I’d thought of that.” A good idea can be golden, but inspiration alone is not enough to make it a reality. Launching a new business, however small, is a major undertaking that involves many steps — some fairly mundane and some a bit intimidating. Here’s a list of some of those important tasks to help you get started the right way.
Take time to think it through — thoroughly.
This step is listed first for a reason. Properly done, the analysis you do here will allow you to think clearly and critically about your business idea. And your answers will apply to other key steps in this process. Essentially, you want to know if your idea is unique (in all the world or specifically in your local area) and if it meets a genuine need for an identifiable market.
Think about financing, market research and competitive analytics. Think about what your business will do, how it will reach customers, your competitors, what makes you different from your competitors, what resources you’ll need, what expenses you’ll have, and how you’ll make money.
“It’s really important to think about the details at this stage,” said Mitch Bienvenue, director of the Illinois Small Business Development & International Trade Center at the College of Lake County. “Who am I going to sell to, how am I going to sell it, what am I going to charge, is it financially feasible and so forth.”
Create a business plan.
Business plans don’t necessarily have to be full-blown, 40-page documents anymore. If the business you have in mind is a simple one, the plan can be informal and brief — though it should still grow out of a thoughtful first step.
Taking time to create a robust business plan is one of the smartest things you can do. Studies have shown that companies that start with a business plan grow 30% faster than those that don’t.
If you need outside funding, say through lenders or investors, your business plan will have to be much more detailed. But you won’t need to work from scratch — there are plenty of templates available to help you assemble all the necessary information.
Make a plan for funding.
Business owners fund their companies in a variety of ways, ranging from using their own savings or personal loans to investments, crowdfunding, economic development grants and loans from financial institutions. Commercial lenders typically require a strong business plan, a good credit score and collateral, too.
For new businesses, getting a regular bank loan can be difficult. “If you’re just starting out and you have no business history or business assets to put up as collateral, it can be very tough,” Bienvenue said. “We tell those people they’ll probably have to dig into their own pocketbook, use savings, appeal to friends and family or use credit cards. It’s uncomfortable and it’s scary, but it is a reality.”
Choose your business structure.
Before you can register your business or get a tax identification number (EIN), you need to decide on the legal structure of your business.
“It’s an important decision involving two major factors — what amount of protection from liability you need and how you’re going to report your taxes,” Bienvenue said. “We always encourage people to consult with a business attorney and a CPA.”
The major types of structures include:
- Sole proprietorship: This is a single-owner business where the owner has total control. It also means your personal liabilities and assets are not separate from the business. This is the default if you don’t set up any other kind of structure.
- Partnership: This is a way for two or more owners or partners to operate a business together. There are different types of partnerships depending on the role each person will play or how assets are treated.
- LLC: Here, an owner’s personal assets are free from liability and profits and losses are not taxed at the corporate rate.
- Corporations: These are expensive to form, but they offer the most protection from personal liability. Bienvenue usually recommends a Subchapter S Corporation — commonly known as an S corporation — over a sole proprietorship since it’s fairly similar, yet offers some liability protection. An S corporation setup gives business owners the asset protections of a corporation, but with some additional tax benefits.
Make it official.
Once you choose your business’ legal structure, you’ll want to apply to the IRS for an employer identification number (EIN), unless you’re a sole proprietorship, which doesn’t require one. Every state has different requirements for small businesses, so make sure you visit your state’s website to find specific information on registering your business, getting permits and licenses and filing your business name. Don’t forget to set up a business banking account and apply for a business credit card.
Set up a bookkeeping system.
Preparing to properly manage your company’s finances is one of the most important decisions to make, right at the very beginning. If you have the resources, consider hiring a part-time bookkeeper — or paying one to help you set up and use the accounting software yourself.
“You can do a lot yourself with software like Quickbooks, but you absolutely have to set up and maintain some sort of system for bookkeeping,” Bienvenue said. “It’s essential. If you don’t, and you get into a bad spot, that could be the end of your business.”
A lot of people wait until tax time to hire a CPA, which is fine as long as you’ve done a good job of keeping your books.
Start branding and marketing your business.
You should have spent some time already doing market research and competitive analysis while writing your business plan. Now use that information to start promoting your business. After you’ve made branding decisions like designing a logo and a company slogan, marketing involves reaching out to potential customers through your website and social media profiles.