Valdosta Daily Times

June 30, 2013

How to Start a Small Business

Stuart Taylor
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — There's a lot of hard work that goes into opening a business. Between the initial idea and the ribbon cutting lies a plethora of steps and decisions, some of which people aren't even aware of until they start the process of opening a business.

Any business venture is a risk, but before you open you doors, you want to minimize, to reduce that risk as much as possible. The more work and research you do before opening up and before you start spending money, the better off you'll be.

Just ask Gino Fina, owner of Valdosta Shared Office Space. Since he opened in 2006, he's seen about 44 businesses rent office space through him at the Wisenbaker Building downtown, many of which have had to move out from SOS because they simply got too large.

“All entrepreneurs believe their product is going to go,” said Fina. “But you have to do the market research. You have to understand your product and the culture.”

The exact research you do will likely differ depending on the type of business you envision—a jewelry store is different from a lawyer's office is different from a bakery—but there are some similarities.

The first thing you'll want to consider is the feasibility of the business. Is there a need for it in the market? Is there an interest? Is there room?

You'll want to look at the needs of the area you want to open in; if there's 10 pharmacies in a two-mile radius of each other, you might want to think twice about putting yours there as well.

As part of your research, talk to people who are in similar businesses, but are outside the area you want to operate. You'll also need to determine how much and what kind of supplies you need. It's easy to forget the little things — the staples, the ketchup, the glass for the display cases. If fact, there's so much that goes into opening a business, it's easy to forgot a good number of things.

Which brings us to the next thing you need to be aware of: You are not alone.

While there are no government grants for starting small businesses—no matter what the guy in the dollar sign suit tells you—there are a number of local agencies who want to help you get it off the ground.

The Small Business Development Center.

Part of the Georgia Small Business Development Center, the SBDC, located in Thaxton Hall at Valdosta State University, offers wide support for entrepreneurs, offering help with writing business plans, applying for loans, and doing marketing research.

“We listen to what it is they want to start and advise them from there,” said Ruby Riesinger, Area Director for the SBDC.

While the SBDC offers advice on many areas, a common area people need help in is marketing.

“Many of the people we see haven't thought about marketing. They've set aside money for it, but that's about it.”

Depending on your target audience, you might want to pursue different marketing avenues. If, for example, you're targeting younger generations, you'll want to establish and maintain an online presence.

“I tell all my tenants, you should have your social media pages up and running about a month before the doors open,” said Enid Santana, Speciality Leasing Manager with the Valdosta Mall. Santana has seen local businesses thrive at the mall in recent years, businesses like Klutch, All Heads Barbershop, and Envy.

“It's all about planning. If someone comes in with a good solid business plan and they know what their company is, the market they're trying to reach, their competitor's and what makes them different from them, they're the ones more likely to succeed...But we don't mind directing people in the right direction. We direct them to the SBDC, and the SEEDS center.”

 Started in 2004, the SEEDS Business Center, or Sowing Entrepreneurial and Economic Development Success, is a part of the Valdosta Chamber of Commerce, though membership in the Chamber is not required. Like Santana, Varian Brown, Director of Economic Development for the Chamber, has seen a lot of businesses in their early stages.

“Some businesses we see haven't taken the time to plan,” said Brown. “I've talked to people who've rented a building or rented out space and they haven't secured financing...We really want people to make an informed decision when opening a business. We don't want them to open up and close the next month.”

One of the services SEEDS offers is its First Steps Meetings. Held by appointment on Thursday mornings between 9:30 and 11:15, First Steps Meetings gathers together every department head involved in signing off on a business license into one place so prospective business owners can talk to them all at once.

“It helps that potential owner to determine all that's needed to occupy that business. They can talk to Inspections, Utilities, Public Works, Fire, Parking and Zoning, Landscaping.”

This greatly simplifies the process of fulfilling all of the city ordinances.

“They don't have to go at this alone. We have plenty of resources to help.”

Along with preparation, marketing, and market research, everyone agrees that making a six-month and five-year plan is essential.

The six-month plan needs to take into account all of the financial expenditures the business owner is going to have to make in those first six months.

“You have to stick with a budget,” said Santana. “You can easily, easily be in the red before you open your doors. One of the biggest things that most people don't think about is the hidden costs of getting a space business-ready. Most places you lease, you aren't going to walk in and it be perfect. You might need mannequins, clothing racks, ovens, display counters. Not to mention the cost of merchandising.”

Another thing you need to do in those first months is be realistic. If you want to open a 2,000 square foot retail store, but you can only realistically afford an 800 square foot store, you might have to scale back.

“When you're not prepared, it's going to be tough to survive. You have to plan for growth.”

“Ideally, you want to be financially prepared for that first six months to a year,” said Brown. “So you can endure that storm of gaining your clientele.”

And you have to know when to spend money.

“It's important  to give up a little bit of that day-to-day to focus on the business. Bookkeeping, for example, and payroll — things that would take up a large amount of your day. It might be worth paying an accountant for that. You can't be afraid to seek help.”

“We can talk with you about taxes, lawyers and financing,” said  Riesinger. “But we can't set it up. For that, we can point you to an accountant, a lawyer, a bank.

After all of that, after your ducks are in a row and the doors are open, there's still a lot to do. You want to ensure that you have cash flow for months to come. You want to plan for growth, but not overextend yourself, to monitor and reevaluate as you go along. You need a system that you understand, something that will keep you and your business on track.

It's generally the ones who have done the research, who have planned, who have consulted and asked for help, who have reached out, who succeed. It's a lot of hard work, before sunrise to after sunset.

But you're not alone.