Adapted from the upcoming book THE WALL STREET JOURNAL COMPLETE SMALL BUSINESS GUIDEBOOK by Colleen DeBaise (Three Rivers Press, Dec. 29, 2009).
Starting a business is a lot like becoming a parent. Not only do you have to prepare for your start-up emotionally and financially, but you have to be committed to its constant needs until it’s mature enough to hum along on its own. And even then (much like a child) it will always need you in some capacity, no matter how old it gets.
Here are five questions to ask before you start your own business:
1. Am I passionate about my product or service? Let’s face it: the start-up phase is stressful. You will find yourself questioning whether you’ve made the right decision, especially when the hours are long and the initial profits (if any) are lean. As the business owner, you’re also chief salesperson for your company. Your enthusiasm for your product or service— whether it’s hand-knit sweaters or top-notch tax preparation— is often the difference that hooks customers, lands deals and attracts investors. It’s unwise to start down the path of entrepreneurship unless you’ve got a zeal that will get you through rough patches and keep you interested long after the initial enthusiasm has faded.
2. What is my tolerance for risk? Whether it’s quitting your day job or signing a lease on a new space, nothing about starting a business is for the faint of heart. Just ask Ina Garten, who bought a specialty-foods store called The Barefoot Contessa in East Hampton, New York, in 1978 and has since branched out into cookbooks, television and a line of products. Garten tells aspiring entrepreneurs that you have to “be willing to jump off the cliff and figure out how to fly on the way down.” Even with enough passion to launch a thousand ventures, you could find any number of circumstances hastening your failure: a location that turns out to be less than ideal, a problem with city or state zoning boards or a kink in the supply chain that can’t easily be ironed out. There’s no guarantee of success, or even a steady paycheck. If you’re risk-averse, entrepreneurship probably isn’t the right path for you.
3. Am I good at making decisions? No one else is going to make them for you when you own your own business. Consider how you might handle these early decisions: Do I work from home or do I lease office space? Do I hire employees? Do I pursue high-end clients or sell to the masses? Do I incorporate? Do I advertise? Do I borrow money from friends or family? Do I use my entire savings? Keep in mind that the decision-making process only gets more complicated as time goes on, once you have employees or clients depending on you. The choices you make can lead to success or downfall, so you must feel confident in your ability to make the right call.
4. Am I willing to take on numerous responsibilities? While a corporate employee focuses on a special skill or role within the larger corporation, a business owner must contribute everything to the business. Solo entrepreneurs in particular must be versatile and play a number of roles, from chief salesperson and bookkeeper to head marketer and bill collector. If juggling many roles doesn’t suit you, entrepreneurship probably won’t, either. The recent economic downturn has made it more important than ever for business owners to have a good working knowledge of their companies’ finances. While you will undoubtedly learn much on this topic from getting your hands dirty, the more knowledge you have in advance, the better prepared you’ll be.
5. Will I be able to avoid burnout? Working seven days a week, losing touch with friends, abandoning old hobbies and interests and not making time for loved ones can quickly lead to burnout in the midst of starting up— and ultimately to business failure. That’s what happened to James Zimbardi, an entrepreneur in Orlando, Florida, who says he didn’t know any better when he started his first company in 1997 and worked as hard as possible, for as long as possible, until his creativity, enthusiasm and energy were sapped. By 2002, he was a broken man— the business took a downturn, and so did his personal life. Now Zimbardi is at work on his second company, Allgen Financial Services, and sticking to better habits to maintain work/life balance, such as not working on Sundays, making time for hobbies such as sailing and salsa dancing, and building close ties with other business owners through a faith-based support network.
Take some time to mull over these questions, do some soul-searching, and then if you think you have what it takes, go for it.