Year End Planning Opens the Gate to a Better New Year

This post marks the start of a new series for this blog. The goal of the series is to work through the planning process for small to mid-sized businesses and entrepreneurs, in the hope that I can help sort out some of the more beneficial ways to go about this planning process so it will actually show a return on the investment of time and effort.

I’m going to presume that if you were interested enough in the title of this post to read further, you’ve already heard at least one variation of the old saying that “some people get so busy working in the business, they forget to work on the business.” You’ve also likely heard another one: “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

In my mind, there is as much truth and importance for entrepreneurs in the above quotes, as in a fortune cookie insert I’ve kept under the glass on my desk for decades which says: “Some people spend their lives trying to climb the ladder of success, only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall.” (Variations attributed to Thomas Merton and Peter Drucker) 'Ladder goes up' photo (c) 2010, Jinx! - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ When I got that in my fortune cookie at dinner one night and later spent a little time reflecting on it, I actually decided to take a better look at the “wall” I’d been spending a lot of time and effort climbing. After doing some soul searching and research, I decided to take a different approach to my business, and to some extent, a different approach to my life.

If you read my earlier post, All I Want for Christmas is the Perfect Business Start-up Checklist, you know that I love to make and use business checklists. I find them particularly useful if you have ADD or are simply too busy working in the business to work on the business. Like Santa, (believe me when I tell you the only similarity between me and Santa is a beard) I try to check my checklists at least twice before I use them and, like a good carpenter, as the old saying goes, I also try to measure twice and cut once. I’ve learned that not all templates and checklists fit every situation, and like everything else, they can become out of date to the point of being misleading. Following them blindly can lead to disaster. Finding one you can use and tailor to your specific situation, however, can grease the path to achieving better results at a greater velocity.

There are lots of checklists available for those who want to do year-end or start-of-year planning. Many of these are wonderful and very useful for almost any type of business. What I’ve found with many of my clients over the last few decades is that some of them sit down with a checklist of some sort and give it an effort, but don’t realize their ultimate goal in doing so. This is particularly true with the rush most of us probably experience at the end of the calendar year.

When I organize a business for a client, whether the form is a corporation, limited liability company, or some other type of legal entity, I typically create a company record book for them. In that record book are annotated, tabbed dividers for documents such as articles of incorporation, corporate by-laws, or an operating agreement for a LLC, minutes of meetings, tax filings, contracts, and other significant company records. Additionally, however, I specifically include what I consider a wealth of basic strategic planning material, such as a customized SWOT analysis document, an opportunity assessment worksheet, life dashboard planner, and a variety of other tools I’ve developed for my clients over the years. 'Wood Shop Class Tool Box' photo (c) 2013, HeatSync Labs - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

One of my favorite tools relevant to the planning process is what I call my “360° Small Business Audit Checklist.” This is a pretty lengthy document I created years ago to help my clients with a single source to review, analyze, and improve their performance and achieve their goals. The document is divided up into sections, such as legal issues, accountings, competitive analysis, marketing, disaster planning and other areas of risk management, insurance, cost saving measures, and succession planning.

Each of the sections has numerous questions. The legal sections, for instance include determination and applicability of a dozen Federal laws as well as a separate subsection on intellectual property asset protection, legally required postings, contract formalities, and record keeping. Another section on employment issues, which seems to be constantly growing, includes non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, employee policy manuals, non-discrimination policy, social media policy, etc.

Learning to work in the business, as opposed to working on the business, is something that doesn’t come easily to every entrepreneur. It is usually helpful to either have prior experience or to find instructions before using any complex and powerful tool. Using a tool, such as my 360° Small Business Audit Checklist, is likewise something that can be done with minimal experience and results, or can be a game changer if used as designed.

I know very few new or experienced entrepreneurs who really understand how to best address all the needs of their business. Business and the vast multitude of laws, regulations, policies, procedures, required postings, reports, and other filings relating to it have just become too complicated for a single person to understand on the minute-to-minute basis in which they seem to be created. As a “pop quiz,” can you even write down all the government required postings relating to your business right now, without doing at least some research? Would you be willing to bet a thousand dollars that you would get the answer absolutely correct? Please let me know if you’d like to try it!

My point is that, in my humble opinion, every business owner can benefit from a group of “trusted advisors” to help them through the maze (some would call it an “obstacle course) of “stuff” effective entrepreneurs have to plow through every day, related to the various aspects of running a business, so they don’t either get in trouble or miss an opportunity. In my case, as a lawyer, I like to get my clients’ accountant, insurance agent, financial planner, marketing person, and others together in the same room (or at least via Skype), so we can help our mutual client with a multi-disciplinary review and strategy session. The cast of characters can certainly vary, such as for a service business vs. a manufacturing business, but a certain core group is pretty much universal. Others can and should be invited as needed. 'Difficult meeting' photo (c) 2008, Simon Blackley - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

These trusted advisor meetings should be held no less than once a year and preferably more often. I’ve never seen one fail to render a positive ROI for the client and many of them really are game changers. The give-and-take of these real time meetings is much more efficient than a series of individual meetings for several reasons. It saves time for everyone. Even more importantly, it also facilitates an exchange of ideas between the entrepreneurs and the “trained professionals,” who may have different perspectives and opinions, as well as fresh ideas. Even when these advisors confirm something, it can be helpful for the entrepreneur to know they do. If they don’t agree, the entrepreneur is left with options he or she might not have otherwise considered, and this facilitates an opportunity to work on the matter further until the best answer becomes more apparent.

The way these meetings are conducted is obviously important, including agreement on written agenda, time allotted, and who is invited. Thousands of books have been written on business planning techniques. What is most important is that the entrepreneur be able to identify the issues and understand how to get help in dealing with them, whether those issues are emergencies, possible problems down the road, or potential opportunities.

'The Design Process * Analysis' photo (c) 2009, Jordanhill School D&T Dept - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ The process starts with setting a date for the first meeting, doing an initial scan of issues, and then coordinating those trusted advisors best qualified to contribute help to the entrepreneur to get the issues successfully and efficiently resolved. Although I prefer to have these meetings at my client’s place of business, so records are available and the “trusted advisor team” has an opportunity to look around, sometimes the meetings are more appropriately held away from the office for more privacy and fewer interruptions. There is no hard and fast rule about this. It is simply a matter of picking what best works for the entrepreneur and the circumstances he or she is facing at that stage of the entrepreneurial life cycle.

The second step is to accumulate the appropriate information about the business, and to make as much of it available in advance to the team of 'Gates, Pool Road, Melbourne, Derbyshire' photo (c) 2013, Eamon Curry - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/trusted advisors. This is a critical issue, and an opportunity to provide a segue to the next post in this series, because making the initial decision on what is important to review and work on, as well as what data pertains to it, is an opportunity for success or failure of both the process and the business itself. This process helps close the gate on what has been and provides the foundation as well as the starting map for what is to be.

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Establishing a Board of Advisors for Your Company

There is a painting on the wall of the main conference room in my law office. It comes from the cover of the October 1939 edition of Fortune magazine, and was painted by Antonio Petruccelli. The painting is square. Within the square, however, is a series of objects, arranged in a circular form, which, at first glance, would possibly seem to represent the image of a wheel. Upon closer examination, however, you soon realize the objects consist of, starting from the center, a large round conference table, at which are seated, each in a high-backed red leather chair, nine, similarly bald-headed men, each wearing a dark suit and white shirt. Each has, neatly placed in front of him, in uniform fashion, a white piece of paper, a coaster and a drink.

This probably doesn’t sound either too interesting or relevant to the topic at hand, but let me try to connect the dots. When you first look at the painting, your eye seems to see a consistent, geometric figure. The closer you look, the more you notice details with a difference. Some of the figures have slightly different colored suits and ties, but this subtlety is minor. The vision is of uniformity and conformity, and this is just what most of us expect from a board of directors.

What intrigued me about the work, is what the artist probably intended you to notice last. Each little bald-headed man is subtly leaning his right hand on the circular conference table, pointing his index finger accusingly at the board member to his left. You don’t know who is in charge, nor do you know who is first in rotation or last. The following quote, again from Fortune magazine, sets the mood:

'Planning Board' photo (c) 2010, Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/If you have five directorships it is total heaven, like having a permanent hot bath…. No effort of any kind is called for. You go to a meeting once a month in a car supplied by the company, you look grave and sage, on two occasions say, “I agree,” say “I don’t think so” once, and if all goes well you get 500 pounds a year”

Chamberlain, Why It’s harder and Harder to Get a Good Board, Fortune 109 (Nov. 1962)

There are all sorts of boards of directors. Historically, corporate law has deemed this board as a group of wise individuals, legally mandated to manage the business and affairs of a corporation. The board does not manage on a day-to-day basis, but meets periodically, having appointed officers to deal with daily operations. Classically, the stockholders elect the members of the board on an annual basis, although many corporations utilize a staggered board system to provide continuity. With a staggered board term, some directors go on and come off the board at intervals longer than one year, and a portion of the full board will remain in office as the next group comes in. In not-for-profit corporations, the members of the organization may select or elect the board of directors.

One of the best known cases in early American jurisprudence on the issue of liability of a member of a board of directors of a company, involved a man by the name of Andrews. He became a member of the board of directors of a company during its start-up phase and served for about eight months. His only attention to the business of the company seems to have been a few discussions with the president of the company, when they met from time-to-time.@

The business later went into receivership, due in no small part to the incompetence and extravagance of the officers of the corporation, and the receiver sued Andrews for mismanagement. There were two primary issues in the case, relevant to this subject. The first dealt with the issue of negligence of the director, in terms of attending meetings. Since there were only two meetings during this director’s term, having attended one and missed the other with valid excuse, no negligence was found. The issue of the importance of attending meetings, as a matter of a finding of negligence, however, was firmly established.

The second issue was the attention to detail required of a director. The following quote from Judge Learned Hand in this early, landmark case, should help to demonstrate that duty:

[He] did not press [the president] for details, as he should. It is not enough to content oneself with general answers that the business looks promising and that all seems prosperous. Andrews was bound…to inform himself of what was going on with some particularity, and if he had done so, he would have learned that there were delays in production which were putting the enterprise in most serious peril.

Barnes v. Andrews, 298 F. 614 (S.D. N.Y. 1924)

This case stands for the proposition that members of a board of directors have a substantial duty to look beyond the “herd” and personally investigate the affairs of the business. The depth of the investigation is beyond this piece, but it has repeatedly been found to exist. Members of a board of directors are typically held to a standard of care similar to that of others in a fiduciary relationship. This means they can be found to have a degree of personal liability.

'Business Card 4' photo (c) 2009, Duane_Brown - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Directors typically are legally required to discharge their duties, at a minimum:

  • ∙ in good faith;
  • ∙ with the care an ordinarily prudent person in a like position would exercise under similar circumstances; and
  • ∙ in a manner the director reasonably believes to be in the best interest of the business.

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All I Want for Christmas is The Perfect Business Start-up Checklist

Checklist Pictures, Images and PhotosI love checklists. I create lots of them, but, even more, I love finding one that works. I create them for everything I can, although I sometimes have trouble following them.

When I find a good one, I like to share it. I just ran across a discussion in one of the 50+ LinkedIn groups I’ve joined (note to self: “cut back and focus”), where another member asked if anyone had a good start-up checklist. Several members did, but I found one to be of particular value, so I’ve provided a link to it below.

One of the problems with a checklist, of course, is that for it to have maximum value, it must fit exactly what you’re doing. In my law practice, for instance, I use all sorts of checklists for myself, staff, and for clients. I use them for myself and staff most frequently on repetitive tasks and transactions. I give them to my clients so they not only have a picture of the whole process, as well as where they are in it, but also so they can plan ahead and be ready for the next step.

Here’s a caveat. If a checklist doesn’t fit your precise situation, it can still be helpful, but it can also be misleading. Since I’m writing this post during the holiday season, consider the following example. You’re a parent (i.e. Santa’s little helper) and one of your kids really, really, really wants this “thing” for Christmas, which, unfortunately, indicates in very small print, “some assembly required.” You, of course, go to Amazon.com or some similar site and order the “thing.” It arrives late in the day before Christmas, and you don’t have time to put it together until the kids go to bed with visions of sugar-plumbs……, etc.

Once you’ve gotten a little peace and quiet, you sneak downstairs (feel free to insert garage, spare bedroom, trunk of your car, etc.) with your handy tool kit, and start to open the packing box of the “thing” for the “some assembly” part. You find a crumpled up assembly book stuck in the box, along with several plastic bags containing various parts needed to assemble the “thing.”

No problem, since you’re a veteran of many pre-Christmas episodes such as this, and you know how to use a screwdriver. After a couple of minutes (feel free to insert hours or some other measurement of time), you get the “thing” assembled, sort of, but you have a few “spare” parts left in the baggies, and it doesn’t quite seem to be as stable a “thing” as you anticipated when you saw it online. You go back and double check the instructions (remembering your high school shop teacher always preached “measure twice – cut once”) and realize the assembly instruction booklet has a couple of different model numbers on the cover. Nothing inside the manual seems to tell you the difference between one model and the other, but one is called the “Deluxe” and the other is the “Standard.”'Assemble Now Martin makes Ikea at Bryght 31Jan06 - 3.JPG' photo (c) 2006, Roland Tanglao - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Well, it is now 4 AM, and you’ve got to put the “thing” under the tree. You’d like to wrap it, but you’ve got to disappear before the kids get up, so you put a bow on it and stick it behind the other presents under the tree, ducking into bed just before the first of the kids rises for what may be a very long day. The “thing” is immediately spotted by _____ (insert name of intended recipient who couldn’t wait to see if Santa would really bring him or her what he or she really, really, really, really wanted most). The “thing” is pulled from where Santa’s little helper had partially hidden it just moments before and guess what, it tips over and you hear a GROAN, CRACK, SNAP, etc., as parts fly everywhere.

You rush over to take inventory, and see that a couple of key parts seem to have broken. Intended recipient is in tears asking why Santa would bring him or her something that is broken or doesn’t work. He or she now hates Santa and all of his reindeer, running into his or her room to sob. You sneak a peek at your spouse’s face, seeing immediately that it is the same color as the ashes in the fireplace, and potentially ready to put out a similar amount of heat in your direction.

What the heck? You followed the checklist. It looked pretty good but you didn’t have time to test it before putting it under the tree. What could have gone wrong? User error? Probably not.

OK, let’s cut to the chase and the moral of the story. There were multiple models of the “thing.” Each had the same basic framework and looked identical to the untrained eye. Each, however, had more or fewer parts, functions, and assembly requirements. Your model just happened to be the “Deluxe” and was, correspondingly, supposed to do a couple of different things than the “Standard” model. The reason it could do (or should have been able to do) those things, was because ….. (insert bad news here). Remember those extra parts you had when you “finished” putting it together?

Now, you go back to the instruction booklet, you go to the manufacturer’s Web site (which appears not to be written in any language in which you are fluent), you call “technical support” which puts you on hold and tells you the waiting time until your call is answered will be (insert a long time period here)…  While you’re waiting on hold, you pick up the assembly manual again. You discover, at step 58 of 94, that those little screws in baggie #15 were supposed to fit into Part #A-17, if for the Standard model, but the slightly larger screws from baggie #16 were to be used for Part #A-18, to connect it to Part #B-13 if assembling the Deluxe model.

Oh no I didn’t!  Did I really follow instructions and steps for a different model without understanding the functions, structure, and foundation were different for a reason? Oh yes you did! The checklist had two paragraphs at step 58. Paragraph 58A was for one model and paragraph 58B was for the other. They looked the same from 2AM-3:45 AM, but you now realize not all checklists work for different models of what otherwise would be similar “things,” unless you really understand all of the workings of each one, including how and where they are similar and in what ways they are different.

If you are at the stage where you have an idea for a business, but perhaps have not gotten all the way through the process of refining the concept, checking out what the competition might be, etc., then you will have a different checklist to deal with than someone who is buying out the owner of the business where you work. In these two situations, for instance, the person at the concept stage has to try to “prove” the concept will work, while the person who is buying into a business they’ve been involved in should already have a good grasp of that, but perhaps be more concerned with sustainability and profitability during their tenure as owner. Likewise, someone creating a business from scratch, will have to deal with site location (including perhaps whether the business will require a bricks and mortar, virtual, or dual presence) while one buying into a bricks and mortar business may want to consider whether a conversion is necessary.

Buying an existing business, although it may be a startup for you, is a whole different game, and set of startup checklists. There are business evaluation checklists, opportunity comparison checklists, such as the one I have prepared for some of my clients, and what lawyers, accountants, and others call due diligence checklists. The checklists for general evaluation can help you compare what you might get out of buying one business as opposed to another one. The due diligence checklists are more often designed to keep you from assuming liabilities you didn’t know about or fully understand, as well as helping you assure yourself and investors that you will walk away with all the assets you think you’re bargaining for.

While one buying into a well established franchise will likely have all sorts of checklists already refined by the franchisor, and may even have fewer details to work on, since the franchisor has already set up the startup plan in a nearly self-executing fashion, there may still be many items which coincide with startup checklist items for someone at the concept stage. A successful franchisor already knows what is needed for a new franchisee, including training, site location assistance, financial viability, market, etc. Prior to allowing a budding entrepreneur to receive a franchise, the franchisor will do some level of due diligence to help ensure the franchisee has what it takes to make the franchise successful.

Franchises are yet another example of how startup checklists can diverge for different situations. One of my fellow SCORE mentors recently recounted a story about one of his clients who bought into a franchise. The franchise had been doing TV ads for the franchise, but suddenly stopped doing them, and this client’s franchise was suffering cash flow problems due to reduced customer traffic. Go figure!

The SCORE counselor started working with the client on ways to improve sales, as well as starting to review the franchise marketing plan and what could be done at the local level to improve it. In doing the triage, the counselor found that the franchisee client had never checked with other franchise owners to see if they were suffering a similar loss of customers after their franchisor dropped the TV ads, nor checked on what other franchisees were doing to improve sales and marketing efforts, nor even thinking about banding together with other franchisees to approach the franchisor about any of this. The client had simply been blindly following the franchise manual. Not good, because times change, as do markets, customers, and cash flow. One should always be keeping an eye on the competition, as well as where customers are coming from, what they are buying (or not), checking with vendors, researching relevant trends, and working on the business instead of just working in the business hoping for the best.

The SBA and SCORE have lots of forms and good checklists, such as Follow These Steps to Starting a Business and these are typically backed up with short articles and links to other resources.

The IRS even has a Checklist for Starting a Business, although, as you might imagine, it primarily concentrates on such matters as applying for an EIN, choosing your tax year, paying business taxes, etc. It does provide a handy link to state government sites, listed by state, although these links may not necessarily take you directly to state sources of information on the subject. In fairness to the IRS Web gurus, I’ve historically found these state links frequently change, at least as often as their administrations and programs change.

The new entrepreneur should also keep in mind that business licenses, permits, other regulations, and minimum requirements to operate a business can differ substantially from state-to-state, and even within different areas of a state. Since pretty much every governmental entity gets to take a shot a regulating and taxing a business operating within its jurisdiction, there are typically federal, state, and various degrees of local requirements. This, of course, is often a nightmare for the first time entrepreneur, who may not even know of such requirements. Following a checklist for starting a business in one state may help you ignore or fail to research regulations in another.

Some states have very nice “one stop shopping” Web sites and streamlined administrative processes so it is relatively easier to find what you need to start nearly any type of business in any part of the state, including giving good references for any federal and local overlay. Other states have essentially impenetrable and incomprehensible Web sites and regulations, where the various departments and agencies hardly seem to talk to or interface with each other, let alone making it easy for entrepreneurs to navigate around to get the information and forms they need to start a business.

Florida, for instance, has a Florida’s Business Start Checklist, with some pretty nice links to various agencies within the state, as well as to other sources of startup information, such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the IRS, sites with information on grants, Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, the “SBA Office of Technology SBIR/STTR Homepage” (which actually turns out to be the SBA’s home page) etc. I did think it interesting that the Florida Business Start Checklist’s first item was “Determine ‘Should I Start?’” The commentary after this question contained links to Florida’s “SBDC Network” (which required a password to access it when I tried it, but no place to register) and to a site labeled “ShouldiStart.com

At the risk of being assessed a penalty for “piling on,” keep in mind that if your business will have a Web site, blog, or other internet presence, it may very well be subject to the laws of other countries. The Province of Québec, Canada, for instance, has a long history of laws and court battles with small businesses over local requirements that certain signs, contracts, and other commercial publications “must be drawn up in French.”

The author of the checklist, The Definitive Checklist for Startup Success, George Deeb (who identifies himself as “managing partner of Red Rocket Ventures; Chairman of MediaRecall; Founder of iExplore; Startup Mentor, Michigan BBA; Adventure Traveler”), says “it is is a checklist of the most important ‘must-haves’ for any successful startup.” I found the checklist on Alltopstartups.

There are certainly some other start-up checklists (including a couple of my own) that are worth looking at are:

Business Start-up Checklist (Part I) by Stuart Adams

Things to Consider When Planning to Start a New Business by Stuart Adams

The New Startup Founder’s Checklist, posted by Thomas Oppong

Homebased Business Startup Checklist posted by Entrepreneur Magazine

18 Rules For Web Startup Success by Thomas Oppong

Startup Health: Building Blocks for New Business Success by Susan A. Black

Tips For Building A Dotcom Business by Thomas Oppong

A Recipe for Building A Billion Dollar Business by Thomas Oppong

The DOs of Building A Startup Team by Margaret Keely

11 Strategies For Reinventing Your Startup by Thomas Oppong

12 of The Best Launch Strategies for Startups by Thomas Oppong

The Business Proposal/Plan Checklist by Thomas Oppong

How To Build a Web Startup – Lean LaunchPad Edition by Steve Blank

Business Startup Checklist from MyNewCompany.com

Business Start Up Checklist by Janet Attard

Start-up Check List this one is from Buzgate and is supposed to be for Kentucky. The site has a menu giving the impression these checklists are tailored on a state-by-state basis. The Commonwealth of Kentucky, however, has its own Business Start-up Checklist.

The legal checklist every startup should reference from VentureBeat

Restaurant Startup Checklist: Countdown to Opening – By Category

What To Do When Starting a New Business from the Iowa SBDC

The Ultimate Start-Up Reality Check Inc. Magazine: “Four young companies present their plans…and four veteran entrepreneurs pick them apart.”

'under the tree' photo (c) 2006, Kai Schreiber - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

There are many more of these sorts of checklist, and they can save you time, resources, and more. On the other hand, I suggest you find more than one, before deciding any of them is the ultimate guide on how to put your “thing” together. If a checklist doesn’t seem to feel quite right, don’t hesitate to rethink whether it has all the instructions and guidance you need. It is merely a tool, and not every screw is easily set with the same screw driver.

One further tip on checklists is that one should typically read the entire checklist before taking any of the actions listed there. When I took a speed reading course to get ready for college, the instructor was easily able to demonstrate that reading the table of contents before starting on a book gave you a speed and comprehension edge when you started. Reading all the way through the instruction manual has saved me from making a mistake a few times, when engaging in some last minute or late night assembly. Likewise, getting a firm grip on what assets, resources, needs, and goals you’re starting with, as well as scrutinizing each of the steps recommend to get from “Point A” to “Point B,” prior to starting, can save you time, resources, and a great deal of frustration.

I have, more than once, thought I understood how to put something together without really reading the instruction manual closely. This has occasionally reminded me of my advice in the last paragraph. Starting a business is complicated. Give yourself a little edge over the competition by taking your time to absorb any road maps, guides, and checklists, so you better understand as much of the whole journey as possible. That can make it a lot easier to avoid some of those potholes and wrong turns, and take you more directly to your goal.

If you have some favorite checklists for a business start-up, please comment and provide a link to them here. I’m hopeful this can be a repository for start-up checklists that work, and that someone looking for a little guidance, late some night, might find a helpful little present under this “tree.”

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Picking the Right Name for Your Company

'Name Tag.  Day 316.' photo (c) 2011, PV KS - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Picking a company name is both a science and an art form for several reasons. If you are going to register your new business entity in Kentucky, for instance, the name must conform with the Kentucky guidelines and not be in conflict with a previously registered name in Kentucky. The same is true for most states, but that only addresses registration at that level.

Before you even contact a lawyer to help set up your company legal structure, I strongly suggest using a Google or other extensive online search, for the word, word combination, and meta tag names you are interested in using for your company name.  I also strongly recommend doing at least your own trademark search to make sure another company has not registered a similar name in the same category of business. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has quite a bit of good information on trademarks, which are important to protect your name and to help ensure the name you choose does not infringe on one already registered by someone else. To take a look at some of the information there, start here: http://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/basics/index.jsp 

Since you will probably spend quite a bit of time, money, and effort marketing your company with the company name you pick, 'My Name Is' photo (c) 2005, Emily Walker - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/you may want to have a professional trademark search conducted for you. You may also want to engage one of the many consultants that creates names for companies and products. Many of those companies (ex. Brand Institute http://www.brandinstitute.com/services_namedevelopment.asp)  may also be able to help you with creating a unique logo and slogan, which can help establish your “brand.” 

There are many free, online resources. A good place to start may be a free online naming “engine,” such as namestationor the one posted by WriteExpress®: http://www.naming.net/. This tool should let you plug in a variety of factors and generate names for you. It also has naming advice and some examples of “coined” names, names with a “twist,” “deviant” spelling, etc. If you want something that rhymes, there’s even a Web site for that: http://www.rhymer.com/namilng.html 

'Belchford Village Sign, Lincolnshire' photo (c) 2007, Brian - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/In my opinion, and in general, here are some of the basic considerations, aside from how your company name might look on a business card.

 1.      Is the name available:

a.     in the state where you will organize your company

b.    for registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office

c.     for a domain name with minimal deviation from the exact company name

d.    on Twitter and other social media channels you will likely use to market your company?

2.      It should be easy to pronounce

3.      It should be as short as possible.

4.      It should have no negative connotations in other languages.

5.      It should come, alphabetically, as early in any listing where you would want it to be found.

6.      It should distinguish you from everyone else, and especially competitors in your market space.

7.      It should tell everyone who you are.

8.      It should tell everyone what you do.

9.      It should tell everyone how you do what you do and why that is better than the competition.

10.    It should be easy for customers and others to remember and spell correctly when typed into a search engine.

11.     It should be interesting.

12.    It should not be misleading in any way.

13.    It should not be subject to going out of style or become easily dated.

14.    It should be likely to turn up in search results of those who are searching for your product, service, or company.

Here are a couple of short articles I wrote:

Business Name Selection Considerations

Trademark Registration

Here’s a short video: How Can I Come Up With a Name for My Company? (although I don’t totally agree with everything said)

Here are a “gazillion” additional resources:

How to Name a Business Nice article by the SBA covering many aspects of this issue.

Register Your Fictitious or “Doing Business As” (DBA) Name Very nice SBA articles with links to state DBA Filing Requirements

Business Name & Tag Line Generator; “Use the 19 steps on this page to create a company name or tag line that sparkles with distinction” by Marcia Yudkin

Analyzing Your Business Name Search Results by Rich Stim

What to Do If the Domain Name You Want Is Taken

Is Your Domain Name Hurting Your Sales? Tips on Selecting a Domain Name by Stephanie Frank

Pick a Winning Name for Your Business; Choose a business name that will identify your company’s products and services. by Rich Stim

8 Steps to Create Your Business Identity; Create a Business Identity and Hang Out Your Shingle by Randy Duermyer

8 Mistakes to Avoid When Naming Your Business by Phil Davis

How to Get Your New Business Name Right; Part 1: The Six Essential Elements of a Business Name by Susan A. Friedmann

Put Your Business Name to the Test; Learn how to develop a “winning” business name by Laura Lake

How To Create a Great Business Name by Scott Allen

5 Rules for Choosing a Business Name; How to Create a Winning Business Name by Susan Ward,

Business Name Ideas; Tips for Brainstorming a Retail Business Name by Shari Waters,

Choosing a Domain Name for Your Website; Factors for Selecting a Domain Name for Your Home Business Website by Cliff Posey

The 10 Commandments of a Great Business Name by Darrell Zahorsky

Do’s and Don’ts: Business Names

Naming a Business

Pros and Cons: Business Name Choices

Should You Name Your Startup After a Meme? By Brenna Ehrich

How to Name Your Business; What’s in a business name? Plenty. Follow this guide to choose a memorable name that will best represent your brand.

The Name Game: Naming Your Business by Terri Lonier

10 Most Unfortunate Car Names

How To Name Your Company So You Don’t Get Sued by Mo Chanmugham

9 mutable suggestions of startup naming

8 More mutable suggestions of startup naming

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Preparing for a Transition in Your Business

'Butterfly and Chrysalises' photo (c) 2011, Julia Folsom - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Perhaps it is the economy, or perhaps it is the change in the weather, but I seem to be spending more of my time lately, counseling entrepreneurs on ways they can get through a transition in their existing business. Some want to add a product or service, which is a common issue. Some, however, realize they’ve grown, opportunities have emerged or been discovered, or their existing market has changed. Others simply want to be happier in what they do, or aspire to reach a new level.

Here are some basic tips I suggest in looking at such a potential transition in your business.

Determine where you want to go with your business, considering:

∙ what you’re good at

∙ what you want to spend the majority of your business time on (do what you love because you’ll be doing a lot of it and your long term enthusiasm is essential)

∙ what will be needed (ex. relieve customer pain or provide something they can easily understand is faster, cheaper, more convenient, longer lasting, etc.)

∙ what will provide an opportunity for you for the period of time you will be working on it (i.e. how long do you plan to be doing this?)

∙ what customers will pay for (a great product or service that customers won’t buy is not necessarily a “great product.”)

∙ something at which you can develop a sustainable competitive advantage and distinguish yourself from others (i.e. barrier to entry)

∙ a business you can sell when you’re done or use as a foundation for others, such as family, employees, etc.

Determine who your preferred client is and:

∙ who makes the decisions on spending money on businesses, products, or services like yours

∙ what the decision makers’ criteria are for spending money on a business like yours

∙ where and how the decision makers look for vendors of your product or service

∙ how they perceive the need for your service or product (i.e. what do they think they need)

∙ who they are currently using to fulfill this need

∙ how you can serve them better and justify the distinction between your product or service (or bundle) and what they are getting now

∙ how you can get to the decision makers and close the deal'Cocoon: Interactive Playground' photo (c) 2010, Casey West - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Make sure your product, service, or bundle meets the “sniff test,” in terms of quality, ability to scale to quantity, price, distribution, service, and any other criteria the customer will likely expect.

Make sure your marketing material will support your claims for the new business.

Market for what and where you want to be, as opposed to what and where you are, if you are attempting a transition, expansion, etc.

Form alliances with those who are already selling to your preferred future customers, proving to them that they can benefit from selling your business with theirs.

Be in front of your decision makers in any way that will demonstrate you are knowledgeable, capable, and a “player’ in the space where their needs are fulfilled.

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Eliminating the Pain with a Lean Business Model

DSC07289xArt3I’ve long been a student, as well as an occasional mentor, on the subject of innovative business models. As part of my continuing self-education efforts on the subject, I recently picked up a copy of Business Model Generation, written by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. As the promo for the book says, it is “a handbook for visionaries, game changers and challengers.

If you’re interested in business models, I strongly suggest picking up a copy of the book, but of equal interest to me was the fact that I picked it up largely because I was trying to use up my remaining gift cards at Borders, during their going out of business sale. I’d been a customer of Borders for many years, and typically found it had a better selection of the sorts of books I wanted than most competitors.

The story of the rise and fall of Borders is a sad one, with management having decided to close almost 400 stores and lay off over 10,000 employees. Many seem to think that the company was simply overcome by the dawn of the digital age and the decline of paper media. In fact, like many business failures, it seems to be a story of death by a thousand cuts, rather than by the sudden and unforeseen emergence of a paradigm shift that could not be avoided. If you’re interested, there are some nice articles on the subject, including one by Annie Lowrey in Slate. In many ways, her article could be as valuable a lesson as any in the book I bought at a discount.

Obviously, creating a “big box” business involves a huge amount of startup and ongoing expense. In essence, you are committing to building a Titanic, which typically will not be Impactable to maneuver around the icebergs that every business will face, sooner or later. Unfortunately, not everyone is a Sam Walton, who can build a big box business and keep it running, through and over most obstacles.

For several years, my favorite model has been Threadless, which is the antithesis of the big box business. You know Threadless, don’t you? It is, as an article in Inc. Magazine described it, the company that “succeeds by asking more than any modern retail company has ever asked of its customers — to design the products, to serve as the sales force, to become the employees.”

Two college dropouts, Jake Nickell and Jeffrey Kalmikoff, started the T-shirt company by running Web 2.0 type design competitions via social networking sites. When members of the networks responded with their designs, other members of the network got to vote on their favorites, thus providing free artists, proven demand for the product, and a pretty fair amount of “buzz” to buy the products, “right out of the box” (pun intended). Having created the product, essentially for free, and established the market, all Threadless had to do was turn up the pressure to “buy now.” It did this easily by making the designs a limited edition that would expire within a fixed period of time, thus increasing pressure to consummate the sale sooner rather than later.

Threadless, when it emerged, was one of the very few companies I had seen that, essentially, just had to be successful. It had very little fixed overhead, since it didn’t have to pay the artists to create the designs, nor manufacturing costs until the customers made it known (without the cost of market research) that they were ready to buy. This looked like, and still appears to be, a sustainable business model, unless somebody tweaks it in the wrong direction.

Ring-A-Ding-DingWhile I’ve not lost interest in the progress of Threadless, I’ve now got a couple of new interests. One is Exboyfriend Jewelry, a Web business where you can sell off those things left behind when a relationship ends. Their slogan is “You don’t want it. He can’t have it back.” There are several rules, including a limit of five listings at a time, items must be from an “ex.,” and you must share the story (without personal information) as to why you’re selling.

A similar concept seems to have been developed by Josh Opperman, who founded IDoNowIDont.com, when, after being engaged for three months, he came home to find that his fiancé had vacated and taken almost all of her belongings with her. The single exception was “that beautiful diamond engagement ring was sitting on the coffee table looking up at me as if to say ‘so what’s next?’” What was next for him was using this as a way to lure “motivated sellers” to his site, where buyers looking for a deal could take the “unpleasant reminder” off the hands of the jilted sellers, for a price, and a commission to Opperman’s company.

The concept of making money off a heartbroken member of a broken up couple is not totally new in the business world. My first experience with it came as a law clerk. I was discussing different law firm strategies for dealing with clients who needed a lawyer but didn’t feel they had funds available to hire one. My mentor told me about a local divorce lawyer in Louisville, where I was getting ready to hang my shingle, who had mastered this issue years earlier. He simply took the wedding ring of the prospective clients as his retainer, explaining that the soon-to-be client: (1) certainly wouldn’t be wanting it anymore; and (2) giving it to her lawyer would be one more way to get revenge on “the cad.” The strategy apparently worked quite well, because the lawyer had a safe in his office with cigar boxes full of wedding rings and file drawers full of the files of ladies who had hired him to handle their divorce.

Innovation is an interesting thing. Most of the really good innovation seems so obvious, but that is the “genius.” Not all of it is good, however, and perhaps it just seems good when you see it, because end users are spared from seeing the innovation that fails to reach the market.

Looking at “obvious” lean business models, one has to wonder why a budding entrepreneur would pursue a business model that called for large sums of money, long term obligations, including enormous fixed expenses, when there are other business models out there. For a very nice spin on this issue, check out the interview on Techcrunch.com with Eric Ries, who came up with the term “The Lean Startup.” Some of the many great points he makes are determining which elements of your innovation breakthrough are value creating – sustainable, which are creating real value vs. waste, and determining how you can create your minimum viable product, rather than the maximum final version. Lean is good.

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Beautiful Strategy; Deadly Execution

Terminator, Self-Portraitphoto © 2009 Matt Hendrick | more info (via: Wylio)

One of my clients recently contacted me about yet another e-mail he had received, which he considered to be SPAM. We are all getting more and more annoyed with SPAM, regardless of the effectiveness of our filters. SPAM forces us into a huge waste of otherwise productive time, to deal with the nuances of those who would inflict their unsolicited marketing efforts and avarice upon us.

My client had received an unwanted e-mail “offer” for something from a company which produces software he uses in his business. He complained to the company. They responded, apologizing (something I find exceedingly rare these days), and said they would remove him from their e-mail list. End of story, right? Of course not!

He got more e-mail and even a phone call. As it turns out, the company, somewhat amazingly, felt it had to continue to apologize because they had turned their e-mail marketing efforts over to a “respectable third party” which, as they said, had created what they considered a “fail-safe mechanism.” This mechanism was designed so that when the “respectable third party” company received an “unsubscribe” message, the primary company was “blocked” and could no longer communicate with the “customer” by e-mail.

Bottom line seemed to be that my client continued to get hassled, possibly because multiple e-mail lists had been generated at some time after his initial subscription to an online professional publication he used in his business. Neither the primary nor the “respectable third party” e-mail marketing guru company seemed to be able to find where the continuing stream of e-mail was coming from, and so the SPAM continued.

My client finally got a total refund for his subscription, but during the process, felt, as many of us do, that, like the thermostat in a hotel room, the unsubscribe button seemed to be for show. I’ve actually read a few articles which caution against clicking on the unsubscribe button because some marketing companies use it to verify that they have actually hit a “live” e-mail address, and thus ramp up their marketing efforts on this newly verified e-mail account.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, effectively. (With apologies to Cool Hand Luke and Paul Newman)

It looked to me like this company did make a much better than average attempt to do what they could to “make things right” for my client, including the personal phone call, apparently thoughtful letter and e-mail, and presumably full refund. Key words, however, are “average” and “what they could.”

This point coincides with a growing frustration I have with big and small companies. That includes a recent attempt to redirect a birthday present I had tried to get shipped to a relative. I was presented with a logistics system from one of our major package “facilitators,” that apparently does not include humans, and a previously well rated vendor who, no doubt, intentionally conceals any ability to investigate the status of shipments or contact a human, once your credit card payment is accepted.

I likewise recently tried to get my hands on a software shipment that was mistakenly delivered to the wrong address. Being at least a semi-nerd, I went to the package “facilitator’s” Web site to redirect or attempt to pick the package up, since it seemed to be floating around town faster than I was. The shipping agent’s notice on my office door indicated the package was accompanied by a “don’t turn it over unless you get his signature” caveat. From the facilitator’s Web site, I happily changed the pick-up location to indicate I would drive 20 minutes away and pick it up from the local distribution hub, rather than chasing the drivers around town.

When I got to the hub the next day, however, I was actually told by the facilitator’s employee that the package had been delivered to my office’s next door neighbor, who had apparently been kind enough to sign for it, and that the Web site deal pretty much never seemed to work. It took several days, e-mails and phone calls with my office neighbor to coordinate with her part-time schedule to finally get the software, at no small inconvenience to her or me. 

Back to key words: “average” and “what they could.” I’m pretty well fed up with companies who cannot control their technology, and particularly those who tout the strength and efficiency of their logistical technology assets. Your experiences and mine, although different in many respects, may be similar in that more and more of these companies seem to have made a deal with the “devil” in order to leverage their business.

We all face this issue from time-to-time, but I’m afraid some aspects of the technology some companies use seem to be taking on a life of their own, not unlike the “Terminators” and “Cylons” of science fiction fame. I’m actually now starting to worry about whether I should unplug my iRobot vac in the basement when go to sleep at night or am away from home.

The efforts of my client’s vendor did appear sincere and beyond what most companies seem to be willing or capable of doing in such situations. I understand economies of scale and that a vendor can probably ship something more cost effectively through a company which focuses only on logistics. I also realize there may be a further economy of scale for the vendor if it turns over other functions, such as e-mail marketing, to other companies that concentrate only on that.

The problem seems to be developing and monitoring an effective way for the primary company to retain control of the whole process. In the 1984 science fiction film The Terminator, by James Cameron (more recently of Avatar fame) the premise was that mankind had developed an artificial intelligence system, including a network called Skynet. That AI network was so sophisticated that it became self-aware and then set about to eradicate the pesky and less efficient humans who built it. The humans fought back and were on the verge of winning back their planet. Skynet, according to the story, then used emotionless cyborgs they had created called Terminators, to try to kill off the survivors.

These Terminators were very effective because they had no emotion. They were totally focused upon the goals they were programmed to achieve. Does this start to sound, even remotely, like a company with good intentions, turning various core functions over to “respectable third parties” who, in turn, create a fail-safe system to prevent errors? When the next step is turning your customers into the “resistance,” is it possible it might be time to rethink your strategy?

I believe it was Winston Churchill who said: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Some companies may be creating their own Terminators, as part of their effort to improve efficiency and their own bottom line. The bottom line, however, could be terminating their customer base, and in turn, themselves.

 

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