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.”
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 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
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.”
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.”
Join the Applied Entrepreneurship group on LinkedIn. Membership is free. We have some great discussions going and if you are an entrepreneur, we hope you will join us.