Starting a business can be tough and bewildering. You know that you are great at what you do, but there is more to running a business than simply doing the job. You have to market the business, take care of the legalities involved as well as the finances. Is this something you can do? What if you have little actual business experience? Do you need to go back to school? Where do you turn for help?
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) is there to help. In addition to resources and information, they are offering free online courses to teach you what you need to know, at least enough to be able to ask the right questions to your attorney or loan officer. Often, that is enough to get you going.
The Small Business Primer
As the name implies, The Small Business Primer is a self-paced overview course of the processes and necessities associated with starting a small business. Along the way, the student has the opportunity to find helpful resources associated with each main topic. While it can take as long as you need it to take, with some concentrated effort you can get through it in a morning.
The course is divided up into six main sections including a readiness assessment, idea viability, planning for success, the legal side of starting a business, understanding the numbers (finance) and finding and retaining customers. Each of these broad topics is further divided into smaller, easy to understand sections.
The course begins, predictably enough, with an assessment of your readiness to take this step. For some, this may be the most important portion of the course because it is one thing to have a great business idea and quite another to put it into action. In some ways, it requires you to make radical alterations to your life. After all, business ownership is not a nine-to-five proposition where you can just leave the office behind when you go home. Are you ready for that? Do you possess the qualities and skills of a successful entrepreneur? By answering the questions honestly, you will have some indication as to whether you are ready to take this step in your life. The responses, based on your answers to the questions, will guide you in what you should do next.
Your business idea may look good on paper, but how will that translate into success in the real world? Here is another chance to evaluate what you are thinking about. The five questions offered in this section of the course focus on issues of audience, need, price and profit, competitive advantage and start-up capital. If you can answer “Yes” to each of the questions asked, then your idea stands a good chance of turning into a business. If not, then you know that you have a little more work to do.
It becomes clear that the process by which you arrive at these answers involves some basic market research. Here, the course introduces such market research concepts as formal vs. informal research, talking to industry insiders and shopping the competition. The information you will glean from these activities will help you answer idea viability questions as well as give you material for the next task: Your business plan.
Planning for Success
Every solid business has a business plan. Put simply, the business plan describes what the business does, why it exists, how it operates, why it will succeed and how it will make a profit. From the Executive Summary through the Market Analysis to the attachments at the end, the course teaches you everything you need to create a proper business plan. In addition, it offers resources to help you build one of your own.
The Legal Side
Business formation is probably the most complicated part of the whole endeavor. The legal structure you will use for your business is based on a number of different factors including size and nature of the business, the levels of control and structure you want, how exposed you expect to be to lawsuits, the expected profit or loss of your business, whether you will need to reinvest in your business or access cash, and the tax implications of the various types of ownership. By taking these factors as well as your personal circumstances into account, you can decide whether you should have a Sole Proprietorship, a General Partnership, a Joint Venture, a Limited Liability Corporation, a C Corporation and an S Corporation.
The course also goes into state licenses and permits ranging from business licenses, professional licensing and licenses based on the products sold; tax, name and employer registrations. On the Federal side, the course discusses which businesses need to have an Employer Identification Number as well as the licensing requirements regarding investment advising, drug manufacturing, meat product preparation, broadcasting, ground transportation and the sale of alcohol, tobacco and firearms.
Raising Capital: Understanding the Numbers
This section is all about the money. To help you, this section offers a start-up cost estimator with both fixed and monthly expenses to give you some idea of how much start-up capital you will need to make a go of this. The section then proceeds to discuss finding capital from personal savings, lenders, credit cards and venture capitalists. It can certainly help you zero-in on the capitalization methods likely to work well for your situation.
Attracting, Servicing and Retaining Customers
Where before, the course discussed marketing in the most basic terms, here we go into marketing in some depth. We learn that marketing is all about reaching the customer and achieving a profitable sales volume by understanding customer needs through market research, identifying competitive advantages and weaknesses and developing a marketing strategy that deal with both, selecting specific markets to serve through target marketing and determining how to satisfy customer needs by identifying the right marketing mix.
That is the Small Business Primer, a step-by-step walk through of starting a business. The material presented is useful and well done and the resources offered for additional help throughout the course are solid. There is nothing wasted or extraneous here. The interface easy to use and well designed, though one would want it to be a bit larger, and the registration page is anything but onerous. As a primer, the course lives up to its mandate to introduce the subject of small business to someone contemplating opening a business of their own and it leaves one feeling prepared to go on to the other, more specific courses offered by the SBA.
See this course and others at http://www.sba.gov/services/training/onlinecourses/index.html.