Last Updated Feb 15, 2011 6:05 PM EST
Prepare yourself. The next six months (or more) are going to be full of endless small decisions and incremental steps you need to take to jumpstart your business. But don't let the minutia defeat you.
The first rule of any major undertaking is to break it down into smaller, more manageable projects. To help, we talked to entrepreneurs and small business experts for a rough launch timeline. Of course, there's no way to come up with one plan that will cover every step for every type of business, but consider this a first draft to help you get started.
We don't mean to sound like skeptics, but now's the time to make sure you know what you're getting into. If you're totally new to the industry, spend some time connecting with owners running businesses that are similar to the one you plan to launch. If you need any additional training, find out what it entails and make arrangements to get it.
If you can, test your business idea. You don't need a big R&D budget to figure out if it's going to work. If you're planning to sell a product, build a prototype and put it in front of whomever will try it — family, friends, strangers. Get feedback now so that you know if you need to make tweaks, or — worst-case scenario — scrap the thing and start over entirely.
Five months out isn't too soon to come up with a name for your business. After all, you need to make sure it's yours for the taking and doesn't run into any trademark issues (check out the government's trademark website to do a search of pending trademarks).
If a website is key to your business, you're going to need to be able to turn your company name into your domain name — and odds are good that someone else has already taken your first choice. Research potential domain names at a registrar like godaddy.com. It's better to find out now how much it's going to cost you to buy that premium domain, or if you need to settle for a cheaper, less-than-ideal alternative.
- After you've settled on a business name, meet with a lawyer and/or accountant to determine if you should incorporate, form an LLC or operate as a sole proprietorship and to find out if you need any particular types of business insurance. If you are forming a partnership, work with your lawyer to draft a partnership agreement and any other related documents.
- Ask about how to protect the intellectual property you develop at the business, whether it is a product you have invented or written material you have developed.
- If you plan to seek outside financing, such as a microloan, find out what the criteria are and gather the necessary paperwork. Bear in mind that it has never been easy to get a bank loan for a startup — and that the credit crunch has made it tougher.
- Set up a business bank account.
- Start networking and reconnecting with contacts who might be useful. But don't ask for favors right away. Tell them what you're up to and provide information that might be useful to them. If you have time, look at what your competitors are doing on Facebook and Twitter and start thinking about your own social media strategy.
- Write a business plan (SCORE, the nonprofit small business advice center, can help) that includes a detailed marketing plan.
- Research the different ways that products or services in your industry are sold and start thinking about your pricing structure and how you will accept payments.
Join a trade association in your industry to keep up with regulations you must follow and types of insurance you may need.
- Start applying for necessary licenses and other paperwork required in your state and city for your type of business. (If you plan to open in a major city with lots of bureaucracy, you may need to do this earlier).
- Decide whether you will start up from home or rent office space. If it's the former, make sure zoning requirements in your community don't make it illegal. If you're looking into office space, check out low cost options such as subleasing space from an existing firm or renting space in a business incubator or shared office suite.
- Look into getting a merchant or Paypal account if you plan to accept credit cards on your website.
- If you have to buy health insurance, make sure you know the necessary steps and start making arrangements, so there's no lapse in your coverage.
- Get started on your website. Network with business contacts to find a recommended website developer.
- Hire a designer to create a logo for your company.
- Get a small set of business cards printed, so you can use them for networking.
- If your lawyer has advised you to get some kind of business insurance, meet with a business insurance broker to check out your options.
- Look into how you will advertise. If you can do so without risking your job, test out a few methods on a small scale, such as Google Adwords or local print options.
- If applicable, start taking on small freelance or consulting projects — again, as long as it won't violate any agreements with your employer. Don't overlook volunteering your services to nonprofits as way to introduce potential clients to your services.
- Research the best options for the technology you will use, such as computer, Internet, and phone service.
- If you are planning to hire people, start tapping your network for leads on good candidates.
- If you will be buying insurance, make sure you are set up to pay the initial premiums, if you aren't already.
- Continue experimenting with the best ways to advertise your product or service.
- Take on more work for your new business if it's feasible.
- If you have sold your product or service, ask satisfied customers for testimonials that you can put on your website.
- If you haven't already, take your website live.
- Start interviewing candidates for jobs, if applicable.
- Give notice at your job
- Get your office set up and technology installed.
- Launch a full-fledged marketing strategy.
- Sell, sell sell. If you haven't been able to go after business because of agreements with your employer, start going after it now.
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