Small businesses are the engine of the U.S. economy, and entrepreneurs still constitute the vast majority of employers. If you’re thinking about joining the ranks of the self-employed, then start by learning from the mistakes of others. The following is a list, in no particular order, of the most common problems for new businesses.
Poor Market Research
The foundation of every successful business is a rock-solididea. But how do you know if your new business idea is any good? Your best friend might think it’s brilliant, but what if your customers think it’s lousy? So before you invest a single penny in your new business, you need to conduct market research.
A common problem for new businesses is that they overestimate the size of their potential market. All products and services have one or more target demographics. An automatic shoe buffer isn’t going to sell well with 12- to 24-year-old females. It would be much smarter to target 50- to 65-year-old men. Go to the U.S. Census Bureau Web site and see how many older men with salaries above $75,000 a year (more likely to wear dress shoes daily) live in your area. Now you have a realistic projection of the size of your target market.
Other good resources for free market research are trade shows and expositions [so. Take a prototype of your shoe buffer to a technology or housewares show and solicit feedback from attendees and vendors.
Pay particular attention to negative feedback. One common mistake of entrepreneurs is to filter out everything but the most positive comments. It will cost you much less time and money to fix a problem in the prototype stage than to make changes when you’re already in production.
Bad Business Plan
Too many entrepreneurs subscribe to the “paper napkin” fantasy; all you need is an ingenious idea scribbled on a napkin, and the millions start rolling in. The truth is that no new business has ever succeeded without a detailed and thorough business plan.
Writing a business plan will help you focus the mission and scope of your business, figure out exactly how the business will run and realistically project how much money the business will make.
A common problem for new businesses is that they rush a product or service to market without a clear focus. The result is that the business owner ends up chasing too many potential markets and new products. At the beginning, it’s much more important to have a single focus with a proven client base.
All good business plans should include honest sales projections based on solid market research and competitive analysis. If there’s another organic sandwich shop in town, don’t expect your sales to be much higher. In fact, they’ll probably be significantly lower at the beginning.
Think of your business plan as an investment in your future. If you consider every detail now, there will be fewer surprises later. To help you get started, check out the sample business plans available at the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Web site
Not Enough Money to Startup
A common and deadly mistake is to assume instant profitability . The experts recommend planning for the worst, meaning at least two years before turning a profit. In your business plan, write up a detailed budget that will sustain you through those lean times. Once you’ve figured out how much startup capital you’ll need in the bank, add 50 percent just to be safe.
One way to save startup capital is to start as simply as possible. A common mistake of new businesses is to invest heavily in unnecessary luxuries like fancy office chairs or even an office at all! Many successful businesses begin in the home. Don’t run out and hire 10 employees or launch an expensive marketing campaign. Be patient and start slowly.
Remember that even if you have clients locked in before you launch, not all of those clients will pay immediately. There might be a significant lag between the time you perform your service and time you have the cash in the bank. In the meantime, you’ll still have employees and suppliers to pay. Don’t let cash flow problems sneak up on you.
Poor Marketing Strategy
One of the most important elements of a successful business plan is a well-researched marketing plan. It starts with the market data you produced from census reports, feedback and competitive analysis. Once you have a clearly defined target customer, you need to design a marketing campaign that turns him or her into a paying customer.
A common problem for new businesses is to rush into newspaper ads, glossy brochures, billboards and radio commercials. The first consideration should be the budget. You need to figure out how much each type of advertising costs and how many of your potential customers it will reach. Opt for the marketing strategy that gives you the most bang for the buck.
Another danger of rushing into an expensive marketing campaign is that you haven’t truly solidified your product, service or business model. Let’s say your marketing campaign is a huge success, driving hundreds of first-time customers to your store. If your employees aren’t properly trained or you’re still getting the “kinks” out of your product, then all of these customers are going to have a lousy experience. And bad word of mouth is the worst kind of marketing.
An even bigger problem is to assume that marketing will take care of itself. A clear marketing strategy is a necessity for any business. Marketing informs what products you sell and how you sell them. It dictates important budgeting and long-term planning decisions. It affects how many employees you need. Word of mouth is great, but it doesn’t constitute a marketing plan.
Charging Too Little
One of the most common problems of new businesses is trying to beat the competition by offering lower prices. Unless you’re already a brand and you are already recognizable by your potential customers , this strategy is not going to work. And here’s why.
Larger, more established companies save money by purchasing on scale. They’ve learned how to cut costs through longstanding relationships with suppliers and through careful logistical planning. Wal-Mart, can offer low prices because it has exclusive contracts with suppliers. Suppliers give rock-bottom wholesale rates because they know the multinational chain is going to buy 100 million units.
You’re not so lucky. It will take time to build relationships with suppliers. And since you’re starting small, you won’t be able to get the lowest wholesale prices.
The better strategy is to price your goods or services at a fair market value and try to beat the competition on high quality, customer service and your “unique selling proposition,” also known as marketing.
Choosing a Bad Business Location
A common new business mistake is to assume that you need an office or a storefront immediately. If your house is zoned to allow a small business, then use the space you are already paying for.
Many service businesses — a cleaning service, plumbing service or roofing operation — don’t need an office at all. Your “office” can be the front seat of your van with a cell phone. All of your work is done at the client’s site, anyway.
If you’re convinced that you will need to rent space for your new business, then it should be part of your business plan. Make a detailed list of the location’s requirements. How much space do you need? Do you want high foot traffic? Will you need parking? Do you need visibility, or is it OK to be tucked away in a suburban office park? What are your zoning requirements?
Then you need to do research into the rental market. What is the average monthly rent on a place that meets your criteria? Consider consulting with a commercial real estate agent who really knows the local market. Once you have a price in mind, lock it into your budget and don’t be tempted to splurge on the perfect location.
Also remember to budget for improvements or alterations that will need to be made to your location. If you want to open a restaurant in an old shoe store, plan for significant costs to install a professional kitchen and bathrooms that are up to code.
Doing almost everything by Yourself
A huge problem for many new business owners is that they think they can do everything on their own. This “one-man band” strategy might be a great way to keep costs low at first, but it’s not the smartest way to ensure long-term success.
You may not need to go out and hire full-time employees, but small business experts say that all entrepreneurs need at least two additional team members: a lawyer and an accountant. Find an experienced, highly recommended small business lawyer and pay him or her a retainer. You don’t want to have to scramble to find a lawyer when you desperately need one.
The same is true of an accountant. Do your homework and find a reliable accountant with experience working with small businesses. You should do this well before tax season so that you don’t feel rushed. A good accountant can help you organize your financial records from the beginning to make everything easier later on.
When you decide that you can afford to hire more employees – perhaps a full-time marketing professional or a salesperson — spend the time and energy to find the most qualified person for the job. Good employees are one of the most important investments you can make in your business. Never hire friends or relatives out of pure convenience. It’s hard enough to fire a stranger, let along your brother.
Entrepreneurs need to ask themselves a lot of important questions before launching a new business. What is the best product? Who is my target customer? Where would be the best location? But perhaps the most important question of all is, “Why?”
A common problem of many new businesses is to take a huge financial risk for the wrong reason. Too many entrepreneurs are motivated chiefly by the desire to be their own boss. The truth is that you will always have a boss: the customer. And you might even find that cranky customers are harder to deal with than a grumpy boss.
If you start your own business simply because you’re sick of your old job or you want to work fewer hours, those are bad motivations. The truth is that successful new business owners average 50 to 60 hours of work a week for at least the first two years [source: Gallagher]. That kind of commitment requires a real passion for the project. Anything less than full commitment will mean failure.
The greatest motivation for starting a new business, not surprisingly, is to make mone. You don’t have to be in it to earn millions, but no one starts a business with the goal of losing cash. If your chief motivation is to make money, then you will take the necessary steps to ensure that your business plan is sharp, your product is of the highest quality and your employees are well-trained.