Note: We have updated our business plan thanks to Tamara Monosoff, author of Secrets of Millionaire Moms. She swears by the One Page Business Plan model designed by Jim Horan.
Get the one-page business plans for...
A small consulting business
A boutique clothing company
A nonprofit organization
STEP 1: Find Your Inspiration
Create your own service department: You don't need a billion-dollar idea—like sneakers with wheels—to start a company. The Small Business Administration (SBA) reports that 55 percent of women business owners are in a service profession, like interior decorator, personal chef, or art buyer. These industries are appealing, says Linda Pinson, co-author of Steps to Small Business Start-Up, "because you don't need a lot of start-up cash and your customers pay right away."
Test-drive your idea: If you want to open a jewelry store, says Victoria Colligan, a founder of Ladies Who Launch, "make a necklace. It costs very little to do that." One choker may be fun, but tying 500 knots by hand at 3 a.m. would require a Zoloft prescription. "It's okay to hate your idea," says Beth Schoenfeldt, co-founder of Ladies Who Launch. "It means you've ruled something out."
Apprentice yourself: For dreams that can't be tried out on a small scale, you might investigate a VocationVacation, which matches you with someone who's happy to help you determine if you, too, are meant to be an alpaca farmer or coffeehouse owner (starting at $549). Volunteering is another option—and free. If you think you want to be an event planner, for instance, help organize your local March of Dimes Walk. (VolunteerMatch.org lists opportunities by zip code.)
Find a mentor: Log on to networking sites like LadiesWhoLaunch.com, MomInventors.com or MakeMineaMillion.org, where you'll find profiles of women entrepreneurs. If a story strikes a chord, send the owner an e-mail. "I've found that people are happy to tell you how they did whatever they did," says Nell Merlino, founder of Make Mine a Million $ Business.
STEP 2: Identify the Next Steps
Do your homework: "With the Web, no one has an excuse for not doing research," says Mary Cantando, author of The Woman's Advantage. "If you're starting a service, like a doggy daycare, do an Internet search in your zip code. If there's competition, leave your dog at one of the places and see what it's not offering."
Develop a prototype: ShapeLock.com sells 10- and 20-ounce jars of plastic pellets that you can heat in the microwave and form into the shape of a gadget. If your first try doesn't pan out, put it back in the microwave. For more complicated designs, look for a machinist in the Yellow Pages, says Tamara Monosoff, author of Secrets of Millionaire Moms, who's sold thousands of her invention, TP Saver, which holds toilet paper in place so toddlers can't pull the roll off the rack. She also suggests logging on to ThomasNet.com, where you enter the materials you need for your product and it provides a list of factories that work with those components.
Find a workspace: Incubators let you rent space and equipment, from fax machines to industrial mixers, at a low cost. They usually require tenants to attend mentoring sessions, says Dinah Adkins, president of the National Business Incubation Association, "so, if you don't like to take advice, then an incubator is not a place for you." (To find one, go to NBIA.org.)