Increasing numbers of Brits are now starting their own business, in fact there's a whopping 4.5 million businesses in the UK right now which employ 1-9 people. So if you've been hearing the jungle drums and want to become an entrepreneur then I can't light that rocket under you, but I can tell you how to do it!
My advice is simple, start at the beginning!
You don't need to invent a solution to solve all the world's problems and you don't need to invent the next Twitter or Facebook. Most successful entrepreneurs start with a product or service which they see as a gap in the market - that is, they probably want it themselves but are having trouble getting it! Yes, it really is that simple! Look around and find inspiration from what you're missing - but be warned, entrepreneurship is addictive and once you've spotted one niche you'll probably want to keep going and start plenty of businesses! But before you get to that point, take your "small idea" and let it grow. We talk of letting things grow "organically" and this essentially means at their own pace. It's unlikely you'll have 100k to sink in to your new idea right now - so we are back to start at the beginning!
In this digital age we are often tempted into doing market research online, and whilst this certainly has a place for almost any business with ideas of expansion - it still pays to talk to real people in the real world! So I'm going to say to you - have a wee dram for Dutch courage and then get out there with your clipboard and ask people what they think. Don't bore them to tears with endless questions - but give them an opportunity to tell you what they like about your idea and at the same time - and this is invaluable (!); let them tell you what sucks! If you can avoid the pitfalls your customers see then you're already a step ahead of the curve!
Do Your Numbers add up?
Maths isn't just for "mathletes"! I see unfortunately far too many businesses which do not have the capacity to even cover their own costs, never mind turn a profit! You must send your product or service to market at a value which will cover your costs, your time, your professional services (e.g., accountant/solicitor) and turn a profit. This is not a time to sit down and pull a figure out of thin air. You must do the "boring stuff" and work out exactly how much time and material it's going to produce to sell what you want to sell.
At this early stage it's wise to think about whether you're going to hit HMRC's VAT threshold which is currently 79k. Now there's a lot of advice which says if you're halfway through the year then don't got Ltd. because it's not as advantageous tax-wise - which is all well and good, but how are you going to justify upping your costs by 20% when you go Ltd in 6 months time? Your customers aren't going to like that! So you either start right now by factoring in VAT costs in the future or you go all out from Day 1 and incorporate.
Most businesses fail not due to financial problems, ill health or tsunami - but instead due to simple errors in planning. You may have an accountant, but if you don't have your eye on the figures then your business is not stable. I bet you know how much money you've got in your current account right now and how much you pay a month on your phone bill - but it's amazing how many people don't know how much cash is in their business account and what their outgoings might be!
Use the people you need (e.g., accountant/book-keeper/VA/coach/marketing consultant) to get your plans and systems in place now to avoid bottlenecks down the line which will cause you problems. Don't wait until HMRC come a-knocking before you get your finances in order! If you end up in a complete panic and fire-fighting (throwing all your energy in to saving one avoidable problem!) then you're not going to be able to dedicate your time and resources to serving your customers - bottom line = no customers and no cash!
Plan to make your business scalable - if you're reduced to selling only your time (i.e., on an hourly rate) then you are doomed to be doing just another 9-5, albeit for a better boss. So take the opportunity to consider playing around with additional revenue streams and don't be afraid to pivot. Pivot is just our fancy name for chasing the market, or where you predict it's going and taking the cash!
Branding is about what you represent and how you wish to be perceived. Whilst there's a current trend to be "authentic" and "be yourself" there are of course limitations - be your professional self - nobody wants to see your drunken selfies from "Marbs"! Sometimes it's hard to figure out what you're trying to project, so instead perhaps you can try working backwards! What I mean is - start by listing what you don't want to be! Once you have your list of keywords (about 10) which represent who and what you are then you can take these forward for use in your logo, website, marketing material and social media strategy always making sure that you incorporate these values in to what you're doing.
I don't need to tell you that it's 2013 and your business hasn't got a website then it doesn't exist - 'nuff said! But it's perfectly possible to build your own - and if you're capable of bashing out an email or a letter in Word, then you can build your own website. You'll probably need help with a logo and/or effective copy - but if you're bootstrapping, or even if you just want to know what's going on in your company - then don't be afraid to dig in to the technical stuff. The buck stops here when you're running your own business and you wouldn't let your accountant palm you off with "don't worry your pretty little head about it" would you!?
We're bombarded with messages about social media and of course online working has never been easier - but despite what the internet marketers will tell you, business at grass roots level starts with interaction, trust and networking. So don't ignore real-life networking situations in your eagerness to build an online following or presence. Decide what you want from each marketing campaign or social media channel before you take the plunge so that you're able to fully assess the results and metrics (fancy shmancy word for saying "what's actually happening"!). If you approach marketing with a scatter gun then you won't find it fulfilling and it'll be a waste of your time. And of course in business - time = money!
Many of us feel a little unsure when selling, we conjure up these images of Delboy and Arthur Daley types selling "hooky gear". People in service industries such as consultants, marketing experts and coaches often doubt that what they might be able to deliver is "good enough" and so they're afraid to push their product or service. This often stems from a feeling of fear of not wanting to "rip people off". But the thing is, you're not a snake-oil merchant - what you're selling is valuable and you're probably underestimating your expertise. Selling isn't about pushing your products and services on to an unwilling customer - it's instead the more subtle problem-solving by providing value. You can't sell to someone who really doesn't want it! Try not to look at is as "selling" but instead of making someone's life better or easier - and carry out your work with pride!
I won't tell you it's easy - I started my first business when I worked full-time and had two children under the age of two. But the rewards are immense and being able to do something which makes a difference to both the lives of my clients and myself makes it all worth it.
Alexandra Sheach is the owner of The Business Of Women and offers 8 week online Business Bootcamps for entrepreneurs.