A few key rules to start a business

Experts agree: For those who want to launch, preparation, building team critical to success

Following a period of holiday bliss, the New Year is a time when reality sinks in. One begins to ask what resolutions will be most attainable in the coming months. Is it losing that extra five pounds? Maybe it’s sleeping a full eight hours every night? Or perhaps just reading more, instead of spending so much time in front of the television.

For business owners, the New Year is a time to set new goals. Paint the storefront for some added curb appeal. Keep better records of business spending. Freshen up the advertising campaign in an effort to draw in new customers.

But what about those who are looking to get into business for themselves? There’s quite a bit that goes into becoming a small business owner. It takes more than a solid idea and a little extra pocket change.

If you are looking to get into the the small business game this year, here are some essentials to keep in mind for a successful start, straight from local experts.

START WITH A BUSINESS PLAN

A business plan is a road map to a business’s future success. Not only is a business plan almost always necessary for dealing with lending institutions and organizations like the Small Business Development Center or the Small Business Administration, but it is the first step in the process that allows a new business owner to become familiar with their prospective business.

“I always recommend that my clients start at a Small Business Development Center, but quickly develop a relationship with a banker if they are seeking funding,” said Deborah H. McAtee, vice president of business and professional lending at M&T Bank in Watertown. “It’s OK to start a discussion early, and we can work closely with the prospective business owner and their SBDC adviser throughout the process.”

Mrs. McAtee stresses that a business plan is a necessity, but it doesn’t need to be concrete from the very beginning. She advises her clients to get all of their initial ideas on paper, but realize that things will change and grow throughout the process. Some ideas may work, some ideas might not, she said.

“Something we really look for in a business plan is the owner’s background,” she said. “It’s difficult for someone as a start-up business owner to have no history in the industry. It’s a hard sell to finance a startup with no industry background. If they had no background, I would expect them to do a lot of research in their business plan.”

Business advisers will stress one point in creating a business plan: be honest. It’s always better to be truthful and admit when problems arise in the early stages of building a business rather than when real money, and time, is invested.

MAKE THE PERSONAL INVESTMENT

“I don’t think people are always prepared for the amount of work and hours owning their own business requires,” Michelle Collins, a certified business adviser at the New York State Small Business Development Center at SUNY Canton, said.

Ms. Collins reminds her clients how important it is to take a look at their personal life and realize how much time and effort a business operation will take away from other commitments.

To become better acquainted and comfortable with routine business practices like payroll, accounting and inventory, Mrs. McAtee recommends taking educational courses geared toward entrepreneurs. She has taught segments of the Entrepreneurial Training Course at Jefferson Community College and commercial real estate sales classes to Realtors in the past. Taking classes that explain all facets of owning a business will better prepare a prospective entrepreneur for the commitment they’re headed for.

ESTABLISH A TEAM

Mrs. McAtee has an acronym for the team that should be behind every business owner: B.A.I.L, which stands for banker, accountant, insurance agent and lawyer.

“Each one of those people should be there to bail you out. You should have each one of those people as part of your team to offer advice and guidance no matter what stage you’re at in a business’s life,” she said.

She stresses the importance of finding a team that works well together that can be trusted.

“If when you’re first meeting a banker and they don’t seem to be that partner, it’s just not going to work going forward,” Mrs. McAtee said. “You need your B.A.I.L. team to be good resources in the early stages and into the future.”

LOOK TOWARD THE FUTURE

Any new small business owner should look to where the business climate in the region is headed. How will outside factors in 2013 help or hurt your efforts to establish a viable business? What is coming down the pipeline that could be an area of growth or a threat to your business?

“I think in the coming year, a lot of businesses in our area are going to start seeing potential in government contracting,” Ms. Collins said. “There’s a big push from government agencies looking to expand the list of service providers they work with and more assistance is out there than ever before.”

While government contracting isn’t for everyone, there are two things that Ms. Collins said a lot of business owners are looking out for: energy efficiency and health care.

“A lot of new and existing businesses are looking for ways to cut costs, and energy efficiency and being greener is one way to do that,” she said. “I think in the coming year business owners should certainly want to look into that.”

As for health care, “it will be an issue in the future, but there are a lot of questions that are unanswered at this point,” she continued.

KNOW THAT TIMES HAVE CHANGED

Whether you’re starting a business with your own seed money, or looking to obtain financing through a bank or government program, the business climate is nothing like it was five or 10 years ago.

“Before the economic downturn, banks made decisions much differently than they do now,” Mrs. McAtee said. “Before, we might use a year-old tax return as basis for a new loan. Today, that’s not the case.”

The best thing any business owner, new or existing, can do for themselves is keep good records and know what each number and line item means, Mrs. McAtee said.

“You have to be able to understand and produce a profit and loss sheet and a balance sheet,” she said. “Some people who have been in business 20 years will come in and we’ll ask what numbers on their profit and loss analysis means and they’ll say their accountant handles all that. If you don’t know what your numbers mean, I’m concerned.”

As for the current lending environment, Mrs. McAtee is hopeful that small business financing will grow in 2013. M&T is a Small Business Administration preferred lender, which means it has in-house representatives who handle all facets of small business backing with the SBA.

“In 2012 we had a lot of new business, and particularly because we do so much SBA-backed lending,” Mrs. McAtee said.

That trend, she said, is likely to continue heading into the new year.

“I see the number of small business loans in 2013 growing because people are finding themselves unemployed or underemployed. People are taking that opportunity to explore other ventures.”

Helpful resources

Small Business Development Center
www.nyssbdc.org

U.S. Small Business Administration
www.sba.gov

SCORE Counselors to America’s Small Business
www.score.org

OPAL: Online permit assistance and licensing
www.nys-permits.org

New York State Division of Small Business
www.nylovessmallbiz.com

IRS Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center
www.irs.gov/Businesses

Kyle R. Hayes is associate magazine editor for NNY Business. Contact him at khayes@wdt.net or 661-2381.