The Women's Small Business Start-Up Kit
Peri Pakroo, J.D.
April 2012, 2nd Edition
Approximately eight million U.S businesses are currently women-owned, and the number is growing at twice the national average for all businesses. As one of the millions of aspiring female small business owners, you know that there are specific issues and questions that need to be addressed when you’re setting up shop.
The Women’s Small Business Start-Up Kit, written by the author of the bestselling The Small Business Start-Up Kit, gives you the practical and legal information you need to kickstart a successful enterprise. In addition to a breakdown of the common issues and concerns facing women entrepreneurs of every stripe -- from independent consultants to Fortune 500-seekers -- you’ll find information and guidance on:
- choosing and developing the right business to live the life you want
- drafting an effective business plan
- programs that give government contracting preferences to women-owned businesses
- understanding and choosing a legal structure
- clearing the bureaucratic start-up hurdles
- taking your business online and developing an eBusiness
- financial management and tax basics for small businesses
- balancing work and family relationships
- hiring and managing employees
The Women’s Small Business Start-Up Kit retains its focus on women’s business-related issues without devolving into stereotypes and never loses sight of the legal rules and fundamentals of starting and running your business. Plus, you’ll find a partnership agreement, an application for your employer identification number, a cash flow projection worksheet, a billable rate calculator, and more.
“This no-nonsense guide is an essential road map for any woman considering entrepreneurship. It’s packed with how-to information and real-life examples that will help save significant time and money in getting a venture started. Highly recommended."
-Sara Gould, Former President and CEO, Ms. Foundation for Women
“What a great, practical and readable resource! This is not your typical ‘motivational’ business start-up book, but a detailed guide to all the steps of actually getting started, including specific tips and resources for women entrepreneurs. Peri’s book clearly details all the nuts and bolts of starting a business so often lacking in how-to books. A must-read before you launch.”
-Lindsey Johnson, Former National Director, SBA Office of Women's Business Ownership
“Don’t even think about starting a business without reading this book. Approachable, easy to understand and totally straightforward, Peri has done a service to all future entrepreneurs by giving solid advice to set you up for sustainable success.”
-Amy Swift Crosby, Founder, Smarty, A Resource for Entrepreneurial Women
- Partnership Agreement
- IRS Form SS-4 and Instructions (Application for Employer Identification Number).
- Cash Flow Projection Worksheet (and Instructions)
- Profit/Loss Forecast Worksheet (and Instructions)
- Break-Even Analysis Worksheet (and Instructions)
- Billable Rate Calculator (and Instructions)
Peri Pakroo is a business and communications consultant, specializing in legal and start-up issues for businesses and nonprofits. She has started, participated in, and consulted with start-up businesses for 20 years. She owns and runs P-Brain media (www.pbrainmedia.com), a strategic consulting and communications firm that develops information-rich media for web, print, video and other formats. Peri received her law degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1995. She is the author of The Women's Small Business Start-Up Kit, The Small Business Start-Up Kit (national and California editions) and Starting & Building a Nonprofit (all from Nolo) and has been featured in numerous national publications including Entrepreneur, Real Simple, Investors Business Daily, and BusinessWeek. Peri teaches adult education courses at WESST (www.wesst.org) in Albuquerque, a nonprofit whose mission is to facilitate entrepreneurship among women and minorities in the state of New Mexico. She is active in supporting local, independent businesses and is co-founder of the Albuquerque Independent Business Alliance. Visit Peri's blog at www.peripakroo.com.
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1. Crafting a Solid Business/Life Fit
- Grounding Your Vision in Reality
- Maintaining Work/Life Balance
- Mixing Business and Kids
- Developing Business Systems
- The Role of Business Owner
2. Targeting a Profitable Market With a Winning Idea
- Choose the Right Business Idea
- Target a Profitable Market
- Do Your Homework: Market Research
- Government Contracting Opportunities for Women
3. Making the Financial Transition to Self-Employment
- Business Start-Up Costs
- Personal Costs of Living
- Health Insurance
- Child Care
- Funding Sources
4. Drafting an Effective Business Plan
- Why Write a Business Plan?
- How Detailed Should a Business Plan Be?
- The Narrative Sections of a Business Plan: Describing Your Business and Yourself
- Financial Projections: Showing Your Business Will Profit
- Finalizing Your Business Plan
5. Understanding and Choosing a Legal Structure
- Overview of Business Types
- Sole Proprietorships
- Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)
- Choosing the Best Legal Structure for Your Business
6. Your Business Location: Working From Home or Renting Space
- Running Your Business From Home
- Sharing Outside Office Space
- Renting Your Own Office or Commercial Space
7. Dealing With Start-Up Requirements and Bureaucratic Hurdles
- Step 1: File Organizational Documents With Your State (Corporations, LLCs, and Limited Partnerships Only)
- Step 2: Obtain a Federal Employer Identification Number
- Step 3: Register Your Fictitious Business Name (FBN)
- Step 4: Obtain a Local Tax Registration Certificate
- Step 5: Obtain a State Seller’s Permit
- Step 6: Obtain Specialized Licenses or Permits
8. Getting the Word Out: Cost-Effective Marketing
- Start by Knowing Your Market
- Define Your Brand and Image
- Choosing Winning Names for Your Business, Products, and Services
- Establish Excellent Customer Service Policies and Practices
- Plan Marketing in Advance
- Engaging in Media Relations
- Holding Special Events
- Collaborating With Other Businesses
- Listing Your Business in Directories
- Joining a Professional or Trade Organization
- Sponsoring Events, Groups, and Public Media
- Sending Postcards and Other Direct Mail
- Giving Out Free Samples
- Establishing Customer Loyalty Programs
- Preparing Print Materials
- Publishing Articles and Newsletters
- Advertising Your Business
9. E-Business: Conducting and Marketing Your Business Online
- Start With Your Business Strategy
- Promotional Emails
- Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, and More
- Local Search Listings
- Traffic-Building and SEO
- Planning a Website Project
- Choosing and Working With a Web Developer
- Creating Your Website
- DIY Websites: Do or Don’t?
- Domain Names and Hosting
- Intellectual Property: Who Owns Your Website?
10. Keeping Your Books and Managing Your Finances
- Bookkeepers and Accountants: Which Do You Need?
- Financial Management: The Big Picture
- Cash vs. Accrual Accounting: Which Method’s Right for You?
- Step 1: Keeping and Organizing Income and Expense Records
- Step 2: Entering Receipts Into Bookkeeping Software
- Step 3: Generating Financial Reports
- Using Technology to Manage Money, Inventory, and Projects
11. Federal, State, and Local Tax Basics
- Tax Basics
- Minimizing Taxes Through Deductions
- Child Care Expenses: Deductible?
- Federal Income and Self-Employment Taxes
- Estimating and Paying Your Federal Taxes Quarterly
- State Income Taxes
- City and County Taxes
- Sales Taxes
12. Building Your Business and Hiring Employees and Other Workers
- Developing Systems to Run Your Business
- Hiring and Managing Staff
- Using Technology to Manage Staff
- Employees vs. Independent Contractors
- Required Rules, Paperwork, Filings, and Taxes for Employees
- Rules for Hiring Independent Contractors
- Hiring Your Kids and Other Family Members
13. Lawyers and Accountants: Building Your Family of Professionals
- Working With Lawyers
- Doing Your Own Legal Research
- Working With Accountants, Bookkeepers, and Tax Professionals
How to Use the Forms CD-ROM
- Installing the Files Onto Your Computer
- Using the Word Processing File to Create Documents
- Using Government Forms
- Using the Spreadsheets
- Opening a File
- Files on the CD-ROM
Crafting a Solid Business/Life Fit
Grounding Your Vision in Reality................................................... 10
Understand the Realities of Entrepreneurship........................... 11
Honestly Evaluate Your Small Business Skills.......................... 13
Consider Co-Owners Carefully................................................. 15
Use Caution When Working With Your Spouse or Relatives.... 17
Assess Your Tolerance for Risk................................................ 18
Stay Connected—And Network................................................ 19
Maintaining Work/Life Balance...................................................... 20
Define “Success” on Your Own Terms..................................... 23
Pick the Right Business Structure and Size.............................. 25
Develop Healthy Work Habits................................................... 28
Nurture Personal Relationships................................................. 30
Mixing Business and Kids.............................................................. 31
Developing Business Systems...................................................... 32
The Role of Business Owner......................................................... 35
Pop quiz: What life do you envision for yourself as a business owner? I’m not talking about the business you see yourself running, but the life you want to lead. If you haven’t thought much about this, now is the time. Assuming that you want your business to serve your life instead of the other way around, you need to include big-picture life goals in your planning process. Self-employment takes many different forms and supports a wide range of lifestyles; it’s up to you to decide what goals are most important to you and plan your business accordingly.
It’s all too easy for new entrepreneurs to be seduced by traditional notions of business success without thinking about the lifestyle implications or considering alternatives. The “success” stories we always hear about in business magazines and other mainstream media constantly focus on big dollars and rapid growth—and the classic depiction of the business owner who works 18 hours a day. If you leap into starting a business without taking the time to define your own vision for your life as a small business owner, you might find yourself among the many entrepreneurs who complain they’ve become slaves to their businesses—much like they felt like slaves to their jobs.
The truth is, business success can take many different forms, from major retail empires to microbusinesses with modest incomes. If you take care to explore your unique vision of success early in your business planning, you’ll be much more likely to build a business—big or small—that truly makes you happy.
This chapter looks at big-picture lifestyle questions new entrepreneurs should consider when in the early planning stages of a venture. I’ll focus on developing a realistic picture of what it’s like to run a small business and help you understand how to approach your planning efforts so that the business fits in well with your personality and lifestyle choices. We’ll cover:
the realities of working for yourself, including what personality traits and skills are important when you’re self-employed
practical tips for maintaining a healthy work/life balance, including choosing the right type of business and engaging in healthy work habits
the importance of implementing systems within your business to ensure that it runs smoothly, especially when you’re not around or if you have staff, and
what’s involved in the role of the business owner, separate from other roles you might play in the business such as providing services or handling tasks like bookkeeping.
By the end of this chapter, you’ll have a good idea of the personal considerations you should address in order to ensure the business you start fits well with your ideal life. You’ll then be in a good position to start the “business” side of your business planning as covered in upcoming chapters, when you’ll focus on developing a winning idea (Chapter 2) and fleshing it out in a solid business plan (Chapter 4).
What’s the best part of running a business?
“Getting to do exactly what I want, how I want to … and not working for someone else.”
— Kyle Zimmerman
“The fact that I work in the field of my choice doing what I love, with freedom to be creative. The ability to model the business philosophy exactly to my standards and beliefs is something I would never have working for someone else.”
— Sabrina Habib Williams
“Being self-employed is pretty ideal for becoming a parent. I can decide what kind of a schedule I need (within reason) and be more in control of my life than if I worked for someone else.”
— Rebecca Pearcy
“Getting to call the shots—nothing quite compares to having the autonomy to decide which projects you want to take on, and when and how you want to work. Even when things are rough, it’s reassuring to know that if you want things to change, it’s in your power to change them.”
— Lauren Bacon and Emira Mears
What’s the best part of running a business? (continued)
“The constant newness, change. There are always new issues and challenges, and this suits my personality. For example, just last week we decided to launch an entirely new brand/branch within Betty’s—Betty’s To Go, which will be off-site massage geared toward the film industry. Now we have this new focus to keep things fresh. It’s also true that I now cannot imagine working for someone else.”
— Elissa Breitbard
“The best part of running a business is the flexibility of my schedule. I realized how important this was when I was pregnant and after having my daughter.”
— Leila Johnson
“The challenge and the learning are the best parts of this business owner puzzle. After failing at other businesses, I have rejoiced in understanding that my failures have been my best lesson. I have no fear of thought-through risk, and have built a tremendous amount of confidence from this.”
— Nicola Freegard
“When you’re a consultant, people really are turning to you for advice. Having the intellectual freedom to speak my mind and being able to substantially influence the direction of a business entity are probably the benefits I appreciate most about the choice I’ve made.”
— Isabel Walcott Draves
Grounding Your Vision in Reality
While teaching business start-up courses for the past several years, I have met scores of would-be entrepreneurs with boundless energy, passion, and fabulous ideas for new businesses—including many with seriously misguided ideas about what it’s like to own and run a business. If the idea of being your own boss conjures images of sleeping late, enjoying fancy lunches with clients, or a swank corner office with panoramic views, think again. Starting a business is rarely so glamorous, especially in the early days when you may find yourself fantasizing about simple things like an afternoon off or a quiet homemade dinner.
Understand the Realities of Entrepreneurship
Even if you think you have a pretty realistic vision of starting a business, it’s worth stepping back in the early days of planning your business and examining your motivations and assumptions to make sure entrepreneurship is really right for you. Here’s a quick list of practical realities.
Business owners need to be comfortable making decisions on their own. From big strategy decisions, such as what type of business entity to form, to details such as how much to pay an administrative assistant, a business owner makes lots of decisions every day. Even if you hire a manager for your flower shop or restaurant, ultimately the buck stops with you. If decision making isn’t one of your strong suits or stresses you out, think twice about being your own boss.
Pessimists need not apply. Most entrepreneurs are eternal optimists who see opportunities instead of barriers. If you immediately think of ten or 100 reasons why an idea might fail, you’ll likely have a hard time making it far in business.
To nurture your inner optimist, read The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (Penguin). The book opens with a story about two marketing scouts from a shoe factory traveling to Africa to explore business opportunities. The first scout sends a telegram back to the factory, “Situation hopeless … no one wears shoes.” But the second sends the message, “Glorious business opportunity … no one wears shoes.” The more you can cultivate the latter attitude, the more attuned you’ll be to opportunities all around you.
You’ll need a thick skin. The most successful business owners are unafraid (or at least willing) to boldly promote themselves, their businesses, their products, and their services. You’ll need to be able to handle rejection or challenge from competitors, so if you are easily wounded or prone to giving up when faced with obstacles, entrepreneurship may not be the best route for you.
Running a business can be lonely. Many entrepreneurs are surprised to find how isolating it is to run a business. Working alone, late at night after the kids have gone to bed can really make you feel alienated from the world. It’s a common issue for solo operators, but even those with employees often bemoan their lack of peers. You may have to spend extra energy developing friendships and a social circle. Note that if you take the advice I offer throughout this book and regularly engage in networking, you’ll feel less isolated while simultaneously boosting your business’s chances of success.
A great business idea is no guarantee of success. I can’t count how many people I have met who say they have a fabulous business idea—in many cases, it actually is fabulous—but seem to think that this killer idea will just magically transform into a profitable business. The truth is, an idea is just the starting point. Even the best idea requires work and money to start the business, market the product or service, and guide the venture to success.
Being organized will help lower the stress of running your business. Below I discuss the importance of organizational skills such as keeping a schedule for yourself and developing methodical systems to run your business. In general, being organized helps save time and reduce stress, two major factors in how much you’re likely to enjoy your life as a business owner.
Without a boss, your motivation and discipline will need to come from within. For some people, it’s a struggle to find the motivation to put in long hours and do tasks they loathe (for many, this includes bookkeeping). If you need a boss to keep the fire under you, self-employment may not be a good fit.
You should love what you do—and remember to treat it like a business. I’ve never been a fan of choosing a business idea purely based on what’s hot and profitable at the moment. Going with what you know and love is always a better bet. But just because you pursue a passion doesn’t mean you should be any less businesslike. If your business is making jewelry, doing photography, freelance writing, or any other creative pursuit, it’s important to treat your work like a business, not a hobby. The many different aspects of doing this—business planning, conquering the bureaucracy, keeping your books, and more—are the prime subjects of this book.
Honestly Evaluate Your Small Business Skills
When deciding what business to start, it’s important to evaluate your ideas in terms of what skills may be particularly important. For a business to succeed, many skills come into play—not just the expertise at the heart of the business. In addition to that expertise (for instance, graphic design experience if you want to start a graphic design firm, or knowledge of pet products and services if you want to open a pet supply shop), a successful business relies on more general skills. For example, every business regardless of industry needs to manage its money, engage in marketing, and, if the business has staff, manage employees or subcontractors.
New entrepreneurs are often surprised to discover that the success of their venture may depend on skills they didn’t expect would be important—and that they may not possess. For example, some businesses may be heavily dependent on sales and negotiating skills, or may require sophisticated financial management. By evaluating the skills required for your business and your own strengths or weaknesses in those skills, you’ll develop a realistic picture of how well suited you are for running that business.
A common scenario is for an entrepreneur to have plenty of skills in the core aspect of the business but not in administrative or financial areas. This is especially true for creative entrepreneurs. For example, a master knitter who wants to start a business teaching knitting classes may have no trouble at all in defining how she’ll run the classes, what techniques she’ll cover, what supplies she’ll need, and the like. But when it comes to doing bookkeeping, managing finances, or marketing the business, she may feel clueless. I meet entrepreneurs like this all the time—caterers, craftspeople, photographers, and writers who are great at providing their products or services but who lack skills and confidence in the more “business-y” aspects of the business.
Example: Simone wants to start a wedding planning website that will offer information and local resources for brides (and to a lesser extent, grooms). She has been a buyer at a bridal store for nearly ten years and knows the industry well. Based upon other websites she’s evaluated, Simone believes her website can earn revenue through online advertising and affiliate agreements with local wedding-related businesses, such as florists. For example, Simone’s site could earn commissions when site visitors click through to and/or make purchases at florists listed at her site. In researching her idea, Simone talks with a couple of contacts of hers who have experience in online publishing. Both her contacts help Simone understand that the success of her business idea will heavily rely on how successfully she can negotiate affiliate agreements with other wedding-related businesses. Simone’s in-depth knowledge of bridal fashions and trends, while helpful, won’t be the key to the business succeeding. Simone is disheartened to hear this advice since she has little to no sales experience outside the realm of buying dresses for her shop—and she was never very comfortable with the negotiating aspect of her job. She reluctantly realizes that her idea may not be a good fit for her skills, and that she might be better off with a slightly different type of business, such as being a wedding consultant or planner.
The good news is that gaps in your skills and experience can be filled, either by hiring employees or contractors, or taking on co-owners. Most entrepreneurs aren’t experts in every aspect of running a business, and sometimes they may simply loathe certain tasks such as bookkeeping or marketing. The key is to recognize those gaps and fill them with other key people. Hiring staff is discussed in Chapter 12. We discuss taking on co-owners in the next section.
The many hats of entrepreneurship
“Even though I had already worked for someone else as an apprentice, I think I still had the naive notion that to be a photographer I’m going to be doing something that I love and something creative all the time, and that it’s going to be great and I’m going to have all this fun. I didn’t know I was going to have to learn to be a bookkeeper and take accounting classes; I didn’t know I was going to have to learn about all these laws related to taxes and how to write them off; I didn’t know I was going to have to learn to be a salesperson; I didn’t know I was going to have to learn marketing and branding and go home and rack my brain and think of the next marketing campaign that suits our business the best, or the most creative way to network that somebody hasn’t done yet, to keep myself innovative. I thought I was going to have to be innovative with my imagery, and my photography. I didn’t know I was going to have to be creative and innovative with branding and marketing. Branding and marketing were words that didn’t pertain to my life. So, being able to wear every hat and any hat—and many hats at any time and all times. Juggling 30 things at once. It’s basically getting over that overwhelming part of it. Now I feel that we can handle it and it just comes naturally to us.”
— Sabrina Habib Williams
Consider Co-Owners Carefully
Starting a business with other co-owners (either partners, LLC owners, or corporate shareholders) can be easier in many ways than going it alone. At the most basic level, it can be a huge relief to have other motivated owners to share the burdens of starting and running the business, instead of being responsible for everything yourself. This is true not only with regard to the hard work involved, but also the start-up money needed—co-owners can be an important source of funding. In addition, as discussed earlier, co-owners may bring important skills to the table that you may lack, such as experience with financial management or legal knowledge.
There are potential drawbacks to starting with co-owners, however. One is that there are more complexities involved in starting and running a business with multiple owners. You’ll need to hammer out important details such as ownership shares, work responsibilities, salaries and other compensation, and buyout provisions, among others, and execute an agreement outlining all key terms (for partners, a partnership agreement; for LLC owners, an operating agreement). Assuming the co-owners will actively work in the business (as opposed to being silent investors), you’ll need some level of management structure to ensure the co-owners work together efficiently, fulfill their job descriptions, and put in the hours they’ve committed to. In comparison, being the only owner is considerably simpler.
Besides complexity, the existence of multiple owners introduces the possibility of conflict. This can happen even when everyone is working hard and has the best intentions—even well-meaning, reasonable people can disagree (sometimes vehemently). All sorts of issues can be fodder for conflict: fundamental business strategy, hiring decisions, marketing and branding choices, and pricing are just a few examples. Conflict becomes even more likely when one or more owners don’t live up to their responsibilities or make poor choices. When a co-owner fails to keep the books up to date or makes a habit of missing important meetings, discord is sure to follow.
To avoid problems like these, the most basic advice is to be very careful in choosing your co-owners. As tempting as it may be to jump into business with your best friend, it’s critical to evaluate the situation and relationship first. Do you essentially trust the person’s judgment in general? Besides common sense, does your potential co-owner have good business instincts? On a personal level, do you have an easy rapport that facilitates getting things done and resolving conflict when it inevitably arises? And perhaps most important, do you trust this person is honest and ethical? If you have any serious doubts about any of these, co-ownership may not be wise. Trust your instincts and don’t dismiss any nagging unease. As many business consultants note, going into business with someone is much like getting married. Don’t make the mistake of finding yourself in bed with an unreliable or untrustworthy partner.
Partnerships, LLCs, and corporations are discussed in Chapter 5. That chapter offers details on the legal and tax characteristics of these business types and what differentiates them from one another. The bureaucratic steps involved in starting various business entities are covered in Chapter 7.
Use Caution When Working With Your Spouse or Relatives
If your vision includes your spouse or other relatives as part of the business (either as co-owners or employees), make sure you’ve thought through the details and potential pitfalls of this set-up. At a minimum, make sure that your family members are qualified for the jobs you’re planning for them. As Chapter 12 describes in more detail, approach the hiring process methodically, draft clear job descriptions, and pay wages regularly as you would with any hire.
Even if your spouse, brother, cousin, or other family member is perfect for the job, ask yourself: Are you really sure you want to mix business with family? Conflicts are common in day-to-day business, and the start-up period is particularly stressful. Be honest about whether you think your family relationships can handle the stress. This can be a particular concern when working with your spouse—obviously, this is a relationship you want to protect and nurture. Some spouses work really well together, even in stressful, grueling situations. Other relationships do better with more space. Evaluate your relationships carefully before bringing family members into the business.
Working with your spouse raises issues related to your business structure and taxes. Chapter 5 discusses the question of which legal entity is most beneficial and appropriate when working with your spouse, and the tax implications of which entity you use. Small business taxes are discussed in Chapter 11.
When your business partner is your spouse
Sabrina runs JS Photography with her husband, Jeff. Here’s what she has to say about the best and worst aspects of working with her spouse:
“Because we are married and are a couple, our communication is fantastic. I mean, we can talk through anything. And we work really well as a team. And we have a good time together. Because we often work long hours it’s nice to be able to spend that time together. You know, as opposed to working long hours away from each other. If I’m having a hard day I’m able to get a nice hug in the middle of the day if I need to. And we can have lunch together and all these things that are all perks. The hardest things are not to bring work home or into our relationship. If we have a baby-sitter and we have a movie-and-dinner date, we’re very likely to sit and talk about business through our whole dinner, which is supposed to be our time together. So there are no boundaries, we talk about business laying in bed before going to sleep, and that kind of stuff. That to me is the lowest, the worst drawback, and it’s really hard to separate.”
— Sabrina Habib Williams
Assess Your Tolerance for Risk
While starting a business is generally a riskier life choice than being employed in a regular job, some businesses definitely involve more risk than others. In a nutshell, the more money you need to start a business, the more risk is involved. If you’re putting significant savings into the business, they might be lost. If you obtain a start-up loan and the business fails, you may need to take an unsavory job to pay off the loan. For many entrepreneurs, these risks are worth the potential to turn a profit.
But don’t buy into the myth that you need to be a high-rolling risk junkie to be an entrepreneur. If you’re not comfortable with putting lots of money on the line, there are plenty of businesses that cost very little to start or run. You may be able to start a service business like a color consulting, house painting, or gardening business with very little initial outlay, especially if you already own many of the tools you’ll need.
Often, but not always, increased risk corresponds with higher profit potential. Examine your own risk tolerance and how important money is to you in order to pick a business that fits with your comfort level.
Stay Connected—And Network
One of the biggest keys to success for any business venture is maintaining a network of useful contacts and associates. As described in more detail in Chapter 8, networking and cultivating key relationships is a critical ongoing activity for every business owner.
If you’re naturally gregarious and find yourself easily chatting with all sorts of people, you might do this without even thinking. If you’re more reserved, you may need to push yourself a little to flex your networking muscle. Without forging relationships within your local business community, your industry, your target customers, or whatever group is appropriate for your specific circumstances, you’re almost assured of missing out on opportunities that could mean the difference between success and failure.
Networking is also a great way to find key vendors, suppliers, collaborators, staff, professionals (lawyers, accountants, and Web developers), and others who can be major factors—sometimes, the major factor—in your business’s success.
Lots of folks new to the world of business fear that successful networking requires unsavory schmoozing or pandering. Not so. In fact, if you adopt a sleazy, wheeler-dealer approach, you risk alienating the very people whom you want to make your allies. Instead, successful networking is little more than sincere communication with others about what you do.
Elissa Breitbard, owner of Betty’s Bath and Day Spa, is a study in the power of networking. Not content merely to engage in networking opportunities, Elissa has made a point of creating them. Not long after she launched Betty’s Bath and Day Spa, she founded the New Mexico Spa Association. “Our view is that boosting the spa industry in general just helps us,” she explains. “In starting the New Mexico Spa Association I really reached out to all the spa owners and directors throughout the state, because I believe that to work together will better the entire industry. Plus I learn so much from others.” Networking also played a big role in getting her business off the ground. Lacking any experience in the spa industry, Elissa had a lot to learn. “Some information was really hard to get,” she says, “which is why I started networking with other spa owners at the I-Spa conferences, the big professional organization. I really recommend that to women: to get involved with networking in their professional organizations. Just networking in general is one of the golden keys of a successful business, and it has been for me.”
You can take this same networking approach on a smaller level—much like forming a book club, except that your group is focused on similar business issues, not literary tastes. For example, women who own a certain type of business—whether it involves health care services, retail clothing, Web development, or jewelry design—could form a networking group that meets once a month for lunch, happy hour, or dinner to talk shop.
Maintaining Work/Life Balance
One issue that comes up over and over again for women entrepreneurs is the challenge of balancing the duties of running a business with their personal lives. Consistently, women report this is one of the most stubborn challenges they face as business owners. For many women, a business that allows flexibility and freedom is essential so they can care for a family (this might include caring for children or for aging parents), and spend time with a spouse or partner. Other women may want to preserve time in their lives for pursuing other interests such as creative work, travel, sports, or any number of activities. Still other women may simply be committed to not being workaholics and want plenty of down time in their personal lives. The bottom line is that for all these reasons and more, flexibility and work/life balance are recurring themes in what women entrepreneurs report as important concerns.
So what’s the best way to go about pursuing this elusive state of balance? First, it’s worth stating the obvious, that balance is fluid and there’s no such thing as achieving it with any finality. Maintaining a healthy balance between running your business and enjoying your life is an ongoing pursuit—more of a habit than something to strike off your “to do” list—so the trick is to adopt strategies and practices that will tend to bring you back to a happy state of equilibrium when things inevitably get out of whack.
Another reality to keep in mind is that no small business runs itself, and it’s a mistake to underestimate the time commitment your venture will require. I’ve met plenty of prospective entrepreneurs who seem to think that their great business ideas will just blossom into success of their own volition. Unfortunately, this completely wrongheaded expectation is a dangerous set-up for the business owner to become quickly overwhelmed and burned out when she realizes that every business—even those based on brilliant ideas—requires a lot of work to get off the ground. Having realistic expectations from the get-go is critical in helping you maintain your energy and passion, and pacing yourself mentally and physically in your business’s crazy early days.
The good news is that it is possible to be a business owner and maintain flexibility and freedom in your life. First, clarify for yourself what “success” looks like. There’s no universal rule that you must strive to build a huge multimillion-dollar empire like the entrepreneurs you read about in business magazines (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Being clear about your own definition of success will help you choose the right type of business and aim for a scale and structure that don’t require more management than you want to provide. Also, be vigilant about developing healthy habits, such as taking certain days off or putting away your laptop after a certain hour, and taking time for personal, social, and family activities.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
How do you achieve work-life balance?
“Oi! I’m working on it all the time, ‘working’ on keeping a balance with massages, art, dreams, and friends. And I make myself not do anything that’s ‘work’ on Sunday, ever.”
— Kyle Zimmerman
“Our hours are set to optimize personal and family time. We also opened a storefront studio; before that we were working from home, which meant we never left work. Having to leave everything behind at the end of the day makes a huge difference in our lives.”
— Sabrina Habib Williams
“I spend as much time as I can with my family and my eight-year-old son, Eden, when I’m not at my studio. We paint, draw, read, write and tell stories. I have a close community of dear friends I’ve known for many years too. They keep me grounded and support me for who I am, not because of what I do. Keeping life simple has been the best balance.”
— Nicola Freegard
“Honestly, this is a perennial struggle. It’s made much easier when you’ve got a business partner, like we do—we encourage each other to take time off when we need it, make sure we take the vacation time we’re supposed to, and leave work at a decent hour as often as possible. Of course we don’t always achieve balance—but who does?”
— Lauren Bacon and Emira Mears
“When the kids and my husband are home and on weekends I close the computer much of the time and focus on family and home projects. I know what comes out of my business could correlate with how much time I put into it, but I did this to have quality time and I am finding a balance.”
— Lisa Kurtz
“I delegate most of the front end operations of Betty’s to our managers, so that I can work less, be with my family, and do other things that feed my soul. I work 18 to 20 hours a week, and am hands-on when I’m here, but then let others run the business when I’m away.”
— Elissa Breitbard
How do you achieve work-life balance? (continued)
“I have a great team of people that work with us on projects, which helps me to manage my time. I can remember the early years in our business where I felt like the evenings and weekends were just the second shift of our business. Now, I have true off-hours where I can just focus on my personal interests.”
— Leila Johnson
“Finding balance is especially hard when your business is such an extension of your creativity and expression in the world. It helped me to really begin treating Queen Bee as a proper business and to get some perspective about it. At the end of the day, what I do is not life or death—we make and sell bags. So, it can be helpful to keep that in mind!”
— Rebecca Pearcy
Define “Success” on Your Own Terms
Your personal goals and unique vision of success should guide you when choosing and developing a business idea. While some might define success as making millions of dollars and establishing an international empire, for you success might mean earning a comfortable income that allows you to save enough for your children’s education and have a month or two of vacation time every year. Or you might define success not in financial terms but in terms of personal or creative freedom—simply being able to cover business and personal expenses may be enough, as long as you are able to define your own schedule (being home with the kids after school or taking yoga classes a few mornings a week), pursue your passion (be it creative work or a personal cause), or travel freely (or all of the above).
When your planning process includes a conscious consideration of your own definition of success, it’s more likely that your business will help you meet those goals. For example, people often assume that a bigger business is better—but larger businesses generally require a heavier commitment to run and manage. While you may make more money with a larger operation (and even that isn’t guaranteed), you’ll also be putting in a lot more effort. If your vision of success doesn’t include working more than 40 hours per week, a big business with employees might not be the best solution for you. There’s nothing wrong with modest goals or planning a business that is truly small in order to maximize your personal freedom. Don’t let business consultants, other entrepreneurs, or misleading stereotypes convince you otherwise.
Of course, your ideas about success may change over time—just as your business might. For instance, maybe a couple years down the line you’ll find yourself wanting to devote more time to your business and grow it in size or income. Don’t worry—you can always adapt your business strategies as your goals evolve.
Business success is …
“It’s gone from in the past looking at the percentage of revenue growth annually, to the present, appreciating that we have low to no turnover of staff and a good reputation as being a community-minded business.”
— Elissa Breitbard
“At first, achieving amazing images and outdoing myself as a photographer was the only measure of success, but I quickly learned that the bottom line (finances) strongly dictate the measure for success. Without good finances there won’t be any opportunities to produce images.”
— Sabrina Habib Williams
“Success for me is having a business that provides enough money to take care of my basic needs and some of my wants, and allows me to have enough time for myself and with my family. I used to think it was all about having big-name clients, winning awards, and having lots of employees. I soon found that this definition did not match with my personal values and goals.”
— Leila Johnson
“The way we’ve always defined success is to do meaningful work for great clients; to make a good living doing it; and to have a happy and healthy work environment. What’s changed is that rather than just wanting that for ourselves, these days we’re very inspired to help that vision of success materialize for our entire staff.”
— Lauren Bacon and Emira Mears
Business success is … (continued)
“Before, I thought it was about offering a product that is unique. Now I think it’s all about consistency.”
— Kyle Zimmerman
“When I was young, I used to think success was defined by fame and fortune. Over the years, I have realized that true success is being able to do what I love every day, and support my husband and child in a way that gives us a positive and happy life. To live gratefully. This is true success for me.”
— Nicola Freegard
“Letting go of control is one of the hardest things to do when your business is your own creation. I always keep in mind something that my business counselor said: that it’s great when you let go of control of some aspect of the business, and the person taking on that role does it better than you did! That is success.”
— Rebecca Pearcy
Pick the Right Business Structure and Size
The type of business you start and its size can definitely affect how much work it will take for you to run it. If maximum freedom and flexibility are important to you, one good approach is to start a business that uses a freelancer or independent contractor model, in which you can do most of the work yourself with few or no employees or contract staff. (I often use the term “freelancer” and “independent contractor” interchangeably; there’s no meaningful difference between the two.) Of course doing all the work on your own often means you’ll be very busy, but the upside is that you’ll often be able to do the work on your own time, according to your own schedule (subject of course to your clients’ needs).
Freelancers often struggle with whether it makes sense to hire a few workers or assistants to help boost productivity and income. While doing so might help you be somewhat more productive, the burdens of managing these helpers often (though not always) outweighs any reduction in your workload. Some freelancers find a happy balance with one or two key assistants (usually contractors rather than employees), and find that hiring any more than that results in too many management commitments.
On the flip side, operating as a freelancer will limit your growth and ultimately prevent you from following the somewhat traditional arc of business development, in which an entrepreneur gradually shifts out of the day-to-day operations of the business. If you eventually want the business to run without you, you’ll of course need to hire other people who, through training and experience, will manage the business independently. This is quite a different scenario from being a freelancer, so it’s important that you clarify your long-term goals when developing your vision of your business.
Ask yourself, do you envision doing the hands-on work of the business for the long haul, or do you see yourself evolving to a more strategic position, overseeing the growth of your company that runs under your direction? For example, if you have graphic design skills, you could start a graphic design firm with a staff of ten, or you could take the route of working as a freelancer, taking on clients and projects only when they fit your schedule. Starting a firm will undoubtedly take more work (and start-up money) from the outset, but in a few short years you may get the payoff of having a well-oiled machine of a firm that allows you to take five months off. Starting as a freelancer is usually simpler but it doesn’t offer a structure that allows you to take time off while the business continues to run.
Bear in mind that you can always start as a freelancer and expand down the road. A few years later when the kids are in school, for example, you could take the leap and launch a fully staffed firm—with the advantage of having some crucial experience under your belt, not to mention loyal clientele.
In short, working as a freelancer provides short-term flexibility and freedom, but will limit how much you’ll be able to get away from the business in the long-term. Starting a slightly larger firm with staff will tether you to the business more in the short term, but the long-term payoff (if you manage things well) is that you’ll be able to reap the benefits of owning the business (as in, profits) with fewer day-to-day duties. The choice is up to you—and now is the time to think about your long-term vision.
Blurring Lines Between Freelancing and Running a Firm
A short generation or so ago, starting even a small business involved significant cost barriers. Today, it’s a different story. Armed with relatively affordable computer and software systems, legions of enterprising souls have taken the leap into self-employment. Home-based businesses, Internet businesses, professional consultants, and freelancers of all stripes have never been so plentiful.
Along with this boom in small, micro-type businesses, the line between freelancer and firm has become blurred. Freelancers and independent contractors are now able to operate much more like small firms, thanks in large part to technological innovations such as the ability to collaborate remotely via the Internet. You may become one of the growing number of freelancers to hire freelancers on a project-by-project basis in order to take on bigger, more complex, and more profitable projects without committing to overhead such as employees or physical office space. You might call this new model of business a freelancer-firm, reflecting the fact that you might essentially be a freelancer, but operate like a firm in that you hire other freelancers to get the jobs done.
But with the opportunities to reap greater profits afforded by this trend, there are challenges too. You may feel pressure to grow into an actual firm with permanent employees and office space. Is growth always the right way to go, or is it possible to aim for a longer-term existence in the space between being a high-performing freelancer or a small firm?
The answer depends on your goals and circumstances. If flexibility is a priority, it might make sense to pursue the delicate balancing act of the freelancer-firm model. But if you’re open to a greater commitment, hiring employees will give you more control over projects, both in terms of costs and the services you can offer. If in doubt, start with the more flexible model and don’t commit to lots of overhead. If and when you have the fortunate problem of having too much work than you can handle with this approach, you can reevaluate whether you’re ready for a bigger commitment and more of a true firm.
Develop Healthy Work Habits
Amidst the many, many details you need to take care of when starting and running a business, don’t neglect to take care of yourself. Stress and burnout are real dangers for entrepreneurs, especially in the start-up days. Virtually everyone who has started a business has gone through a period of just constant work—and when not working, of thinking about (and often stressing over) work. This may be inevitable in limited stretches, but when it becomes chronic it can have a serious negative impact on your health, life, and business.
One of the best ways to prevent the business from consuming your personal life is to be organized. Create a schedule and stick to it as best you can. Specify which days and times you’ll work on specific aspects of the business—and, importantly, which days you’ll take off. Don’t flirt with burnout by becoming a work zombie. Take the time to recharge mentally and physically by taking well-deserved time off.
Example: Patrice, who is starting a one-woman advertising agency, drafts a schedule for herself. She plans to work from Tuesday to Saturday; she’ll answer emails from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., do billable client work from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (with an hour for lunch), do another hour of email between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., and organize bills, contracts, and other paperwork at the end of the day, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Patrice establishes Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for running errands when necessary (like getting office supplies or going to the post office); Sundays for catching up when necessary, and Mondays as her day off. Of course in reality she’ll likely deviate from this schedule somewhat—for example, she may have to work some nights when under a tight deadline for a client’s ad campaign. But having the schedule in place will help Patrice keep her life much more organized than having no schedule at all and winging it each day.
Besides implementing a schedule, try to establish consistent, methodical practices—in other words, systems—for the things your business does over and over again, such as client intake, doing the morning open and set-up for a retail store, bookkeeping entry, or doing inventory. As described in more detail in the next section, the more that you can create and use systems in your business, the more it will run consistently and efficiently. Systems are essential for businesses with more than a couple employees; without them chaos will reign, and it becomes very difficult to take time off since employees will need you around to manage things. But systems are also incredibly helpful for businesses as small as one person; they’ll save you valuable time and mental energy—two resources no entrepreneur wants to waste.
Here are some more tips for maintaining balance in your life:
Live a healthy lifestyle, including eating well and exercising regularly. This can be hard to do when you’re chronically pressed for time—but don’t succumb to the evils of fast food and inactivity. Personal wellness will pay off big time in terms of more physical energy and mental clarity, which in turn will benefit your business. And you’ll likely be less prone to illness that can rob you of precious work days—getting sick can be a real nightmare for the self-employed. For all these reasons, a healthy lifestyle can truly and positively impact your business and your life.
Watch out for substance abuse issues that can creep up on the self-employed. If you’re prone to drinking too much, smoking a lot of marijuana, or even abusing harder drugs, self-employment can open the door to these problems gaining real traction in your life. Since self-employed people often have flexible hours and aren’t subject to a boss’s supervision, they can more easily slip into alcohol and drug abuse and addiction. If this is a concern for you, take it seriously and consider getting professional help even before you have a full-fledged problem. Proactive counseling (in other words, before you have a problem) can help you develop strategies to stay healthy and sober in your newly unstructured life of self-employment.
Create boundaries and rules to protect your private life. For example, don’t take work calls or check work-related email around the clock. While it’s important to be responsive and professional, don’t set up unrealistic expectations with your business contacts that you’ll available 24/7 by phone and email.
Schedule dates with yourself. If you’re inclined not to take your personal time seriously, it’s a great idea to put your leisure activities into your calendar just as if they were any other obligation or appointment. Doing this helps change your mindset and increase the chances you’ll actually follow through. For example, if you’ve been dying to catch up on your pleasure reading, put “Reading” in your calendar for a specified day and time—and don’t stand yourself up! It may seem strange to do this, but until you’ve developed a good habit of taking time for yourself, it’s a very helpful trick.
Nurture Personal Relationships
It may go without saying, but when you start a business it’s important to find time for your family and friends. Launching a start-up can be pretty brutal on family and social life, which can be especially hard to swallow if you were drawn to self-employment by the desire to spend more time with your family or friends. When you feel like you’re up to your eyeballs in the business, you’ll need to make a conscious effort to create space for quality time with your loved ones.
Similar to my advice above about scheduling dates with yourself, I recommend making specific plans with your friends and family and putting them in the calendar. This may sound obvious, but in the pitch and sway of running a business you may find yourself backing off from committing to social plans or family activities. The next time you find yourself wanting to say “Hey, let’s get together soon,” instead make a point to pick a date and make a plan. And treat your commitments seriously—including ones you make to your family. For some reason, maybe because we assume our families will be understanding, it seems that people are more cavalier about changing or cancelling family activities than plans with friends. Your family relationships will surely suffer if this becomes a habit. When you make a hiking date with friends, a brunch date with your spouse, or an afternoon at the zoo with your kids, commit to it just like your other business commitments.
If making time for personal relationships doesn’t come naturally to you, following these tips will help you develop a habit of enjoying your time off and doing the things you love to do outside of work.
Mixing Business and Kids
While you might think it’s impossible or just plain nuts to start a small business when you’re pregnant or with small children in the house, it can be done—and without necessarily being Super Mom. And I’m talking about legitimate business ventures here, not the ubiquitous “work from home” schemes often targeted at women by sleazy scam artists. (Chapter 2 includes advice on identifying and avoiding these shady fake opportunities.)
If you have kids or are planning to have them, evaluate your priorities and choose a type and size of business accordingly. For many mom entrepreneurs, top priority is flexibility to spend time with the kids. If this is true for you, choose a business that has flexible hours, allows you to work from home, and can be scaled down easily if necessary. For example, a small freelance business is often a good option since you can work whenever and wherever you want, and you can downsize the business simply by choosing to take on fewer clients. (This is exactly how I handled having my first child: as soon as I got pregnant I started thinning my client list to the minimum that was financially feasible. I scaled back up starting when my daughter was about three months old.) Web-based businesses can also work because you won’t necessarily need to be available during regular business hours. (But be sure that you have at least a minimum (and reliable) level of phone and/or email customer support.)
But just because there are kids in your picture doesn’t mean you need to start small. Perhaps your spouse is the primary caregiver, or you have a full-time nanny, and you want to make a real go of it with your business idea. It’s definitely possible to launch a larger business even if you’re pregnant or have young kids, particularly if you collaborate with co-owners or with high-level managers who can be trusted to get things up and running without you. This route requires a heavier commitment than the options described above, and usually more start-up money since multiple people will need either to be paid or to share profits. If you need to take time off to have a baby or care for your toddlers (if, for example, your spouse or nanny becomes sick), your collaborators will likely expect you to be back in action as soon as you can to be an active participant in guiding the business to success.
Most parents—moms and dads alike—hate being away from their little ones, so there’s definitely a downside to taking this approach. But unlike a freelance business, a larger business may more or less run by itself in a couple years or so. The payoff of running a larger business is that in time, if the business succeeds, you can reap the rewards of the business without having to do very much hands-on work. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the possible rewards are worth sacrificing precious time with your little kids, especially considering there’s no guarantee the venture will succeed.
Whatever type or size of business you choose, it’s very likely that you’ll need at least occasional child care help. See Chapter 3 for tips on finding affordable child care, Chapter 6 on handling child care when you work at home, and Chapter 11 on the tax implications of money you spend on child care.
Developing Business Systems
A common element among successful businesses is the implementation and use of systems. It’s useful to view any business as a set of interrelated systems that together, make the business work. Understanding and embracing this early on is a major step in building a business that fits within your personal goals and doesn’t stealthily overtake your life.
A system is essentially a well-defined process to get things done. The more that you can organize your business’s essential tasks into systems, the smoother your business will run. Even microbusinesses benefit greatly from having some basic systems in place, like well-organized bookkeeping records and procedures for entering financial information. For larger businesses, especially those with employees, systems are essential. (Chapter 12 offers more detailed information on implementing systems within businesses that have staff.)
Though there are many different ways to break a business down into systems (business schools and consultants theorize on this topic incessantly), typical systems include:
Operations: The specific activities and logistics involved in actually providing the product or service.
Supply chain management: The system of managing relationships between a company and its vendors and suppliers, aiming to streamline the process of creating products for sale to end users.
Finances: The system of tracking income and expenses, and generating reports to manage the company’s finances.
Marketing: The activities related to promoting the business, its brand, and its products and services among target customers.
Customer relationship management: The systems involved in tracking and managing relationships with existing customers and prospects.
Human resources management: The tasks related to finding qualified candidates, hiring, reviewing, and terminating staff, plus managing benefits if they are offered.
When you break down a business into systems, it’s easier to see in a concrete way how certain skills contribute to the business. For example, bookkeeping or accounting skills obviously relate to financial systems, communication skills (say, writing or public speaking) would be part of marketing systems, negotiating skills would relate to supply chain systems as well as sales, and so on.
When in the early planning stages of your business, consider how it breaks down into systems and whether the participants in your vision (either partners, employees, or subcontractors) are equipped to handle them. If you are planning to start the business with a number of partners, ideally they will have well-dispersed and complementary skills to cover most of the critical areas. If you’re planning to start on your own, you may well have to enlist the help of other key players, either as employees or subcontractors (or, you may find that you need to offer a partnership to someone who offers particularly critical skills).
In Chapter 12 we talk more about hiring staff, including the importance of defining tasks and drafting job descriptions. For now, just focus on a higher-level view of your business and assess whether your broad-strokes idea fits well with the skills you and any collaborators have to offer.
Achieving balance through business systems
“For me, systems are completely interconnected with the question of how running a business has changed since having children. For mom entrepreneurs, to keep a balance between work life and other life, the way is through systems. And hiring amazing people. And you also need to be someone who’s willing to let go. Which I’m blessed with being able to do. I’m not a workaholic. I worked really hard for three years, but I work part-time now. I’m really here half-time. And that means 20 hours or less. This is over a million-dollar company run successfully with me being here 20 hours or less, and that is because of the systems in place and the staff we’ve hired. I have one operations manager who has been with us nine years. And two or three other managers, and they know what they’re doing. They know it’s not just lip service—they know that I trust them to run the business.”
— Elissa Breitbard
“When I mentor other younger freelancers I tell them that they absolutely, positively have to run their business like a business—they have