It isn’t just starting a business that’s tough, it’s knowing what you’re doing in business once you get there. Often, entrepreneurs get into something only to realize they are not as focused as they should be.
For the new or established entrepreneur, the Princeton chapter of SCORE offers the five-session StartSMARTprogram (formerly known as QuickStart) as a way to get and keep small businesses on track with their plans and growth goals. Offered four times a year, StartSMART’s next session will begin on Thursday, July 26, at 5:45 p.m. at the East Brunswick Public Library.
StartSMART consists of five three-hour workshops that run every other Thursday at 5:45 p.m., beginning with a free class, “Start-up Basics.” The remaining sessions are $40 each, and they are: “Business Concepts” on August 9; “Marketing Plan” on August 23; “Financial Projections” on September 6; and “Funding Sources and Next Steps” on September 20. Visit princeton.score.org, or call 609-393-0505.
SCORE, which calls itself, “Counselors to America’s Small Business,” offers free and confidential advice to help small business owners build their companies from idea to start-up to success.
The SCORE Association, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is a non-profit association dedicated to entrepreneurial education and the formation, growth, and success of small businesses nationwide.
The organization makes use of a network of retired and working volunteers who are experienced entrepreneurs, corporate managers, and executives.
The volunteers provide free business counseling, coaching, and advice as a public service to all types of businesses, in all stages of development. For more information, go to www.scoreprinceton.org
Start SMART’s opening session will be led by Bill Litchman, a retired telecom executive who has been in charge of SCORE’s Princeton chapter since 2009.
Litchman grew up near Boston and earned his bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Tufts. He then moved to New York and spent most of his career as an engineer and management and sales executive with telecom giant ITT (now Qwest).
Rookie mistakes. “The most common mistake I see is having no business plan,” Litchman says. People often have a business concept and a general idea, but they have no actual strategy. Often, he says, entrepreneurs start out and do better than they think they will, only to find that they can’t sustain the flow of clients and money.
The trouble here usually starts with the fact that a businessperson wants to target everybody, rather than zeroing in on a real, manageable market. By targeting everyone, Litchman reminds, businesses are effectively serving and selling to no one.
This leads to another rookie mistake — resistance. “We get a fair amount of resistance in regards to the products and services people offer and their target market,” Litchman says. “They feel their concept is so fantastic that it will appeal to everyone.”
The target-everyone approach is fine for, say, Target or Amazon. And, Litchman says, if you have the kind of business that would appeal to a universal customer base, such as a purveyor of all things people buy, that’s great. You should strive for that.
But you can’t start out that way. “You need to start out focused,” he says. Build a solid customer base in a smaller, more manageable way — something that can be built by getting to know exactly who your ideal customer or clients is.
But some of StartSMART’s students (or those who have attended the program under the QuickStart name, which ran for nine sessions) balk at narrowing the focus. StartSMART breaks down an entrepreneur’s target market by asking attendees to answer some seemingly easy, but actually quite difficult questions — what is the sex of your target customer? Or the age range? The household income range? The education level.
If you have a product that targets women, does it mean you’re selling to anyone who is female, from newborn to 100 years old? If you are targeting sports fans, do you really mean fans of all sports, from ice hockey to competitive lumberjacking?
Entrepreneurs are often afraid to exclude anyone, Litchman says, but the truth is that the best way to build up to the customer base called “everyone” is to start out focused, build your business plan accordingly, and stay on track as you build your business.
Building the ideal. Despite the resistance, Litchman says that SCORE typically sees very open-minded entrepreneurs who know they need guidance.
“Most people come to us with a vague idea that a business plan is needed,” he says. They know the business concept (i.e., “I want to run a sandwich shop”) but are not so clear on their most fundamental products and services (i.e., will you be selling hoagies or gourmet sandwiches? Will there be an ethic component to your food? Will you specialize in healthier sandwiches or be known for belly-busting subs?)
Knowing your products and services to such a degree requires knowing your ideal customer. This is one of the areas in which StartSMART helps focus students, Litchman says.
Students are given homework assignments, starting with the writing of their company’s vision and mission statement after the first class. Subsequent assignments zero in on target market and audience and how to seek capital.
Each student has a mentor assigned from SCORE’s pool of 15-18. SCORE tries to align mentors with entrepreneurs who share a similar business concept (retail with retail, tech with tech, for example), Litchman says.
SCORE draws its pool of mentors from its own ranks and works with other entities, such as the South Brunswick library, which offers an excellent market analysis program for entrepreneurs.
The vitals. At least through QuickStart/StartSMART, Litchman says, SCORE does not see a lot of people who want to start businesses to which they have no existing connection.
In it’s free counseling sessions SCORE does occasionally meet someone who wants to leave corporate America and open a muffin shop, but by the time someone enrolls in StartSMART, Litchman says, there is a greater sense of grounding there.
Once in a while, someone gets into the program only to realize that they are not ready to go into business.
It isn’t that the idea is a bad one, Litchman says, just that the person realizes he is not cut out to be this other person just yet.
What it comes down to is that despite the plans and hopes and great ideas — despite even the money, in some ways — the two most basic keys to building and growing a business are passion and an appropriate skill set.
That corporate stooge who wants to start the muffin shop might be all about muffins, but if he has no experience baking, keeping books, scaling recipes, or whatever else comes along with running a muffin shop, trouble will show up sooner than later. And, just as dangerous, is someone who knows the ins and outs of a commercial kitchen might, really, have no interest in baking.
In short, Litchman says, a great idea is one thing, but certain aspects of business have to be in order first. It’s one thing to know what you want to do, but quite another to know how to actually do it.