A lot of people walked into new year with a big dream– to start a company doing what they love.
I’m here to tell you it’s absolutely possible. And I’m here to tell you it’s not scary. In fact, I only wish I’d started sooner.
In 2005, I got together with some friends, put $72 on my debit card, and started up my first company. We had no idea what we were doing. But we learned quick, grew quick, and in 2008 we sold that first company.
Flash forward to 2011. I joined up with another friend to jump in as a partner on another start-up. And while we always wish we were doing a little bit better– what entrepreneur doesn’t– we’re doing great.
I don’t have a business degree. I don’t really want one.
As I learned in Good Will Hunting:
See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a f***in’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!
With that in mind, I wanted to share some tips for those thinking of taking the plunge, I’ll save you the buck fifty at the public library.
15 Tips for Start-Ups
- Follow your passion– the money will follow. A lot of people are passionate about making money. But the simple reality is that money will follow what you’re passionate about. You don’t stay up late dreaming about working for the man, do you? If this is a dream worth chasing, it better come from a place of passion.
- Don’t worry about having the biggest or best idea, worry about delivering quality. Over and over again people have beat me to the market with their better financed ideas, bigger brand name, or deeper marketing budget. But I win out in the long run for two primary reasons: quality of productand quality of business model.
- Google Everything. Really, everything you could ever need to know about starting a business is available online for free. “How do I…” is something I Google a lot. Read a few articles, follow a few links, there’s tons of free and fantastic advice out there already.
- Ask the government for help. In both Michigan and California, where I’ve been involved in start-ups, I’ve found people working at the city and state levels to be extraordinarily helpful with questions If I can’t find the answers to by Googling stuff, I ask an expert. Think about it like this… it’s in the best interest of your state for you to start a business so they really want to help you. Politicians LOVE to talk about job growth and business start-ups– so you aren’t bothering them to ask your questions. In fact, most states have an Economic Development department just for this purpose. Ask them lots and lots of questions. They will help you! And even if you’re doing it wrong I’ve found that they’ll help you get it straightened out before you’ve got a big problem.
- Don’t hire a lawyer. There are things down the road which you might need a lawyer for. But most start-ups really don’t need to go through the hassle. In a lot of states, you can file all the necessary paperwork yourself. I’ve found LegalZoom to be a great resource for things that do require an attorney. When we started up and eventually sold our first business in Michigan I never hired a lawyer. (Though I did ask advice of a friend who was an attorney.)
- Pick a business structure as soon as possible. Sole proprietorship, LLC, corporation, non-profit… the list goes on and on. It all starts with a simple question: “Who owns this thing?” I don’t care which one you pick, just pick one.
- Get right with the state and federal government right away. Get an EIN. And don’t you dare pay someone to do this for you. You can do it online. It’s free and takes 5 minutes. You’ll need that EIN for about 100 other things… get it.
- Separate your money. Don’t ever use your personal accounts for business. Even if you’re a sole proprietorship and all the money is ultimately yours anyway, it’ll help you to not get emotionally attached to or get tempted to start using that money for personal business.
- Don’t quit your job. I’m of the opinion that you should keep your “side business” on the side of your main job for as long as possible. Heck, if you could keep doing whatever you’re doing right now and make 50% more money on the side forever… do it.
- Don’t pay yourself until you absolutely have to. This is so simple but so many people mess it up. The more you can re-invest in your business out of your profits before you have to pay yourself, the better. Buy equipment, buy more product to sell, invest in marketing, invest in employees, or just stock pile profits for a rainy day. Everything but that last option is good for your taxes while helping you build your business. Always take free money.
- Jump when you get to about 200% of your monthly income needs. The scariest part in starting up is needing to make money to feed your family. My advice? Put off jumping, if you can, until you have the first 2 months of income in your business bank account. (On top of your personal savings.) I’ve found that if you don’t jump off when you have the money… your little start-up will sputter along but never take off. But if you do jump off the cliff and need it to work… you’ll put in that much more effort. Just give yourself a couple months buffer if you can. (I keep at least 2 months reserve income in a business savings account at all times. Took me a while to get there, but it’s a HUGE confidence boost and allows us to take some risks without worrying about going homeless.)
- Take accounting seriously from day one. I kind of suck at my own personal finances. For instance, I balance my checkbook annually when I do my tax return. But I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t do that with your business. I’d suggest setting up basic accounting from day one using a Google Spreadsheet (super basic) or something like Freshbooks. (a little more complex) I actually track one of my business accounts with a personal edition of Mint. I’d highly suggest doing it all online.
- Anywhere you can automate, do it. I eliminate tons and tons of paperwork (read, busywork) simply by picking stuff that automates. For instance, when someone buys something from our online store, the store software automatically puts that transaction into our accounting software, our payment processor automatically deposits that money in our bank account, the transaction is automatically logged and our system automatically tracks their purchase, sending them a follow-up email a few weeks later to make sure they’re happy. The same is true with our payroll system. I login to process payroll, but that system handles everything at the bank, with our accounting, the state, and IRS all automatically.
- Don’t do a business plan. People get hung up on this because it’s a ton of work. You only need a business plan if you plan on borrowing money from a bank or the Small Business Administration. I’ve never done one. To me, it’s kind of like a resume… I don’t have one of those either. I feel like if I do things right I don’t need either. While I do think the exercise of a business plan is ultimately necessary (and useful) I just don’t think you should start with one because you really don’t know what your plan is when you’re just starting out. I think it’s way more important to get whatever your product is to market first, start the money flowing, then worry about formalizing who you are and how you do business later on.
- If at all possible, bootstrap. Every business idea can’t get started for $72 and sweat equity, I get that. But I think most of the time you can figure out ways to get things going, generate some cashflow, without taking on a bunch of start-up debt. That won’t work if your big dream is to open a bar. But it will absolutely work if you want to start selling at the local farmers market. I think it’d be way better to seek a personal loan from family or a friend than to take on a start-up debt from your bank or the SBA. (Which would put you in a hole financially, plus all the effort of getting the business plan done, etc.) Basically, you don’t want to be owned by debts when you’re just getting going. Further down the line debts or a line of credit will be useful. You just don’t want to start-up being owned by the bank.
So those are my tips for those taking the plunge in 2015. I’d love to hear what you are planning to start-up.