Your Great Idea, Whose Time Has Come
Writing a business plan will force you to consider the what-ifs (what if you get sick, need a trademark, need worker's comp insurance) and the tiny costs that you might overlook: "Like the cost of a cup of coffee—the cup, the java jacket, the lid, the napkin, the stirrer, the sugar," says Liat Cohen, co-owner of Cocoa Bar in Brooklyn. "A business plan forced me to figure out exactly what I would have to charge to make money."
Get professional help: Two groups operating under the umbrella of the Small Business Administration can provide guidance. The Women's Business Center program (SBA.gov/content/womens-business-centers) provides training and counseling, usually at very low fees (or free). For example, the Central Alabama Women's Business Center offers a course, Writing Your Business Plan: Your Business Roadmap, for $15.
SCORE (SCORE.org) is a network of working and retired executives who freely share their expertise. They try to match their members' specialties with the needs of a new entrepreneur—like pairing an artist who wanted to open her own gallery with a finance executive. If you can't get to a SCORE chapter, one of their members will work with you via e-mail.
Review the plan: "A few months down the road, compare what actually happened to what you projected," says Pinson. Use this time to modify your forecasts and tweak your strategy.
STEP 4: Market Like a Genius
Tap into your networks: You want to get the word out, so start by sending a short e-mail about your new business to friends and family, encouraging them to forward it. Then turn to organizations you're already involved with, including the PTA, your over-30 soccer league, Neighborhood Watch, etc. "Most entrepreneurs tell us, 'That first client came in because I knew so-and-so,'" says Erin Fuller, executive director of the National Association of Women Business Owners.
Advertise without breaking the bank: You can put up flyers at the grocery store, have a friend post a review of your business on Yelp.com or CitySearch.com, or place a free online classified. "A woman in our program wanted to do event planning for dogs," says Adele Foster of the Plan Fund in Dallas, which develops entrepreneurs from low- and middle-income areas. "She posted an ad on Craigslist.org. Someone immediately responded, and that was her first client."
Hand out free samples: "Instead of spending money on fancy advertising, put the product in your trunk and get it out there," says Stephen Hall, author of From Kitchen to Market. You can rent a booth at a local greenmarket, attend an industry trade show, or host a special event in your community. Immaculate Baking, a small cookie company in Flat Rock, North Carolina, staged a free art workshop for local kids and served their baked goods. "The workshop got our name out there," says Ann Marshall, Immaculate Baking's director of marketing. Anyone trying to launch a food product, says Kathrine Gregory, owner of Mi Kitchen Es Su Kitchen, a food industry incubator in New York City, should bring samples to a local gourmet store. "Flatter the buyer by asking for their opinion," she says. "But call in advance to busy stores—they usually have specific times set aside to review new products."
Buy Google Adwords: You choose words—say, flowers and Cincinnati—and every time someone enters those search terms, your company may appear in sponsored links. The ads we researched ranged from 30 cents to $1 per click (though the cost per click can be as little as one cent). Google will also help you set up a webpage free of charge and can help local businesses zero in on clients by having ads appear strictly to people searching in a certain area. As your company grows, you might place ads on websites that are already attracting your customer base. For instance, if you make one-of-a-kind lingerie that's popular among honeymoon-bound brides, you might contact the advertising sales department of TheKnot.com.