Be Your Own Boss: A Step-by-Step Guide

From writing a business plan to securing funds, how to launch a successful start-up.

By SHARE

As a child, Belinda Stubblefield loved playing the banker in Monopoly. She resold the gum her mother bought for her to classmates for a nickel a piece. Then she stashed the cash in her "rainy day" piggy bank, which was shaped like a little girl with an umbrella over her head. "I made a good profit," Stubblefield says with a laugh.

It's little wonder that today Stubblefield, 46, is satisfying her entrepreneurial drive after decades of working for large corporations. Three years ago, Stubblefield left the relative safety of her job at Delta Air Lines with a generous buyout package in hand. Six months later, she opened a wine shop. "I wanted to be an entrepreneur for a long time," she says. "My biggest question was what I wanted to do."

She's not alone. In this strained economy, more and more workers are exiting the once secure realm of corporate jobs—many because of layoffs—and starting their own businesses. Last year, more than 600,000 small firms were started in the United States, according to the Small Business Administration. Trouble is, only half will survive beyond five years.

It takes far more than a brilliant idea to succeed. Here are some steps to help you land among the winners:

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1. Find a mentor. Connect with someone in the field you're entering for guidance. Check out StartupNation.com, a site dedicated to small-business groups, or SCORE (www.score.org), a nonprofit that provides education to entrepreneurs. At SCORE, working and retired executives and business owners donate their time and expertise free of charge in person or online. The Association of Small Business Development Centers, a joint effort of the Small Business Administration, universities, colleges, and local governments, provides no-cost consulting and low-cost training at about 1,000 locations.

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2. Do the prep work. You may have to study marketing, finance, and employment law. Sign up for a community college or certification program to get the necessary skills. You can begin by contacting your town's or county's Small Business Development Center. A three-hour course in the essentials of starting a business or E-mail marketing might cost as little as $15 to $30.

Stubblefield's move into the wine trade was a combination of inspiration and market research. "I love fine wines, although I'm not a connoisseur, but there wasn't an upscale wine shop near where I live—an upscale, predominantly ­African-American section of Atlanta," she says. With an M.B.A. from Harvard and executive marketing jobs at Procter & Gamble and Nestlé under her belt, Stubblefield had the chops to enter the consumer retail trade. After painstaking research, she went the franchise route with WineStyles, a national wine retail boutique with more than 100 independently owned locations. Her total cost: $250,000.

3. Write a business plan. There's no strict model to follow, but in general, a simple plan—which you'll have to submit to get a loan or other financing—should be about 20 pages. Here's what you'll need:

•An executive summary that explains what your company will do, who the customers will be, why you are qualified to run it, how you'll sell your goods and services, and your financial outlook.

•A detailed description of the business, its location, who your management team is, and what your staffing requirements are. You'll also need to include information about your industry and competition.

•A market analysis that targets your customers more specifically, including age, gender, and where they live. The analysis also will describe your sales and promotional strategy to reach them.

•A realistic forecast of start-up outlays—cost of raw materials, equipment, employee salaries, marketing materials, insurance, utilities, and fees for attorneys and accountants—and how much you expect to sell and to earn.

4. Line up sources of funding. Here are some ways to find the money to get started:

Savings: Most start-ups are funded with personal savings. (This is where a severance package comes in handy.) It's advisable to set aside at least six months of fixed living expenses. Try not to dip into your retirement savings: You'll be subject to withdrawal penalties and income taxes and lose the tax-deferred compounding that could serve you well in retirement.