You want to start a business; congratulations! It’s an exciting adventure that is fulfilling, challenging, and wonderful all at once. It’s likely that you are feeling unsure of where to start or where to go to launch your small business. If that’s the case, you have come to the right place. We’ve compiled a 20-point checklist of essential “to dos” when starting a business. It’s the soup to nuts guide for how to get your business out of your mind and into reality.
Before you do anything, these seven elements need to be in place for your small business to take flight.
- Develop an idea: An idea is everything! You’re probably starting a business because you had a need that wasn’t fulfilled in the marketplace or you saw an opportunity to do something better than the competition. Make this idea concrete and put pen to paper. From here, your business is on its way to formation.
- Test the plausibility: We all know ideas are great, but they need to be tested. Have your idea go through the ringer to see if it is a feasible model. Consider if it is sustainable, how many competitors are in the market, and if you have the right tools, talent, and skills to make the idea come to life.
- Identify your market: Create buyer personas that embody specific demographic information, preferences, and buying styles, among a list of other qualities, to narrow your target audience. At the beginning of business, having a market focus is best for longevity.
- Select a business name: Once you come up with an idea, it’s likely that you have a working business name in mind. However, before you get moving, settle on the actual name. It will be needed on all important documentation as well as in presentations to investors and banks. Consider what makes your business stand out from the competition and how you can leverage that in a clever, but straightforward way in your business name. This handy trademark electronic search system will help you avoid selecting a name that’s already claimed.
- Determine the costs: Figure out what it’s going to cost to get your business out into the world. Itemize everything so you’re not surprised by fees down the road. Do you need funding? Retail space? Additional employees? Branding help? Marketing materials? The list goes on and on. Get a handle of your expenses for the first year, at least, so you can prioritize costs and decisions once your business is in motion.
- Write a business plan: The previous steps have laid the groundwork for your business plan. This is when you formalize your idea and create the strategies and tactics needed to launch a business. Everything from concept to technology needs to office space should be addressed within the plan. Ideally, the scope includes detailed information for year one, three, and five so you can show growth and long-term objectives within the document. Create a business plan that is actionable and useful and you’ll thank yourself down the line when you have clear routes to success. The U.S. Small Business Administration has a free business plan resource that assists you in filling out a comprehensive business plan at your own pace. You only need to login to start the process today.
- Establish a budget: A budget is natural outcome of a business plan, so this step should be near completion once your business plan is finalized. Review your budget and ensure all the nitty gritty details are accounted for and that you have a six, twelve, and 24-month budget in hand. Planning for two years in advance helps the business keep its focus. It outlines where the big spends are being allocated, and identifies opportunities where the business can be more creative with funding, such as looking for free resources or bartering with another small business.
With your business idea well thought out and on paper, it’s time to make it official. Take care of these four steps to avoid any legal delays or future snags.
- Register your business name: Since you selected your business name, protect it by registering it through a county clerk’s office or state government. This allows you to claim you are “Doing Business As” your chosen business name. It is the required step to officially operate a business as a sole proprietor, an existing corporation or LLC. If your business’s location requires registration with state agencies, use this guide to find the correct office and registration process.
- Set up the books: It’s time to get your finances in order. Open a bank account specifically for your business, record every penny that’s spent, establish a list of vendors and clients, and continually balance your checkbook. There’s much more that goes into setting up the financials for a business, and QuickBooks created a useful accounting infographic to simplify it for those who are not trained CPAs. If you’re an accounting novice, it’s a good idea to meet with an accountant to make sure you’re covering all your bases and don’t leave your business vulnerable to unforeseen taxes and fees.
- Secure permits and licenses: Much like registering your business name, each state has specific license and permit requirements. You can find all state-specific information here. Some industries, such as agriculture and transportation, require federal licenses and permits. Review these permit and licensing guidelines to see if your business falls into this group.
- Buy insurance: Your small business is likely an extension of yourself and may even feel like your child. What do you do when a baby is born? Get them health insurance immediately! Same goes for starting a business. As with licenses and permits, your business may need different types of insurance based on a host of factors. The most common insurances are general liability, product liability, professional liability, commercial property, and home-based business insurance. Review the insurance descriptions and purchase whichever combination of plans make sense for your business.
To get your business up and running, you need a handful of things to make it real to your prospective buyers. Incorporate these five checklist items to give your business the presence and credibility it deserves.
- Build a website: In today’s world, a website is a requirement for any business. It is often how people discover new businesses and validate a business’s authenticity. Create a professionally designed website to reflect your business’s values and offerings to communicate your brand promise to prospective buyers.
- Order marketing materials: Don’t overlook the importance of print marketing materials. Business cards and flyers are useful materials that can be used in a multitude of ways. Design materials that are consistent with your brand standards and include all relevant business information so they are useful to prospective customers.
- Set up business email account: Business email is so important for credibility purposes. If a business has a Gmail, Yahoo or AOL account, it takes away from its professional authority. Set up a business account for yourself and a general inquiries account for website messages and other correspondence. This way you can effortlessly manage all correspondence.
- Network: Use every opportunity to network and spread positive word of mouth about your business. Attend local community gatherings, talk to people while you wait in line for coffee, and revisit old contacts who may be interested in your new venture. Networking and connecting is half the battle of getting a business off the ground.
- Provide outstanding customer service: Your products and services are one thing, but stellar customer service sets businesses apart from the pack. Invest time and though into your customer service approach, and prioritize those inquiries. Establishing loyal customers and a memorable customer experience will help sustain your business in the long run.
Small businesses are often a team of one and can be lonely at times. Establish a support system that keeps you motivated throughout challenges and helps you reach your goals.
- Find a mentor: This is easier said than done, but having a mentor is an underrated asset for small business owners. An unbiased third-party can offer an objective lens when you’re wrestling with tough decisions. Look to someone who has business experience, is trustworthy, and whose opinion you value. If you’re drawing a blank within your own network, SCORE is a program dedicated to connecting entrepreneurs with mentors. They can match you based on industry and other factors to find the best fit.
- Take advantage of free resources: Small business budgets are generally small, so taking advantage of free resources available is key. Social media is a great way to market your business without spending a dime. Many social platforms offer free analytics and insights, so you can better evaluate your ROI and narrow your target audience. Dropbox offers a cloud-based storage system for your business, so you can work from any location. Reading small business-focused news aggregators, such as Business 2 Community and Social Media Today, also offer invaluable information all for free.
- Ask for help: Just because you’re the sole proprietor, doesn’t mean that your network can’t help you. If an old colleague has expertise in a certain area, reach out to her and ask for advice. Is your best friend a strategic planning genius? Employ his skills to create your business plan. Your close network is more than willing to help when asked. Think about how you can leverage the talent around you, so you get the best results for your business without burning out.
- Remind yourself why you’re doing this: You can easily lose sight of your dream when launching a business. Dedicate a few minutes each day to why you chose to pursue your passion. It will ground you in your motivation and give you a sense of purpose during tough moments. Enjoy the process! It’s the ultimate reward when your business becomes a success, however you choose to define it.
Starting a small business takes organization and perseverance. Use this checklist to keep your business on task and on its way to rapid growth. Have you launched a small business recently? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.
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