How to start a business

If you’ve been thinking about starting your own business, but some lingering doubt has been holding you back, remember what Shakespeare tells us: ‘To business that we love, we rise betime and go to’t with delight.’ I developed my own delight in business when I was still at school. One day, I went into a wholesale office-supplies shop to buy a slide rule (readers too young to know what this instrument of torture was should see me after) only to be told that the minimum quantity they would sell was a box of two dozen. I remember the assistant sniggering as he said it. More with a view to wiping the smirk off his face than from any thought of what the Inland Revenue calls ‘an adventure in the nature of trade’, I bought a box.

Slide-rule sales to my fellow pupils were sufficiently profitable for me to branch out into other items of stationery. Indeed, it might have been the beginnings of a great retail empire had I not introduced a highly popular but controversial line (a pen with a picture of a girl whose naked body was revealed when you started to write), and been threatened with suspension if I did not desist.

Coming up with an idea, refining it and then seeing it succeed is hugely fulfilling. No less fulfilling is the knowledge that if your business is profitable, it must be meeting its customers’ needs. There is also a great satisfaction in being answerable to no one but yourself. Plus, of course, if things go well, you’ll be generating employment.

I launched my most recent venture, ethically produced dog food (, not merely to make money, but because I wanted to promote my ideas about canine health and farm-animal welfare. This is the first socially responsible enterprise I have ever started and, if you can give your own business an ethical slant, I strongly recommend it. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it attracts awfully nice, loyal consumers. Indeed, last year, my dog-food business doubled in size entirely through word of mouth. If you have an idea for a business, you’re already well on the way to getting it started. If we return to the Bard for further inspiration, we find that: ‘An enterprise, when fairly once begun, should not be left till all that ought is won.’

Do write a business plan
This should describe every aspect of the business in plain English (the concept, market, production, distribution, pricing, promotion and so forth), and set out all the figures. ‘If you don’t know where you are going,’ said management theorist Laurence J. Peter, ‘you will probably end up somewhere else.’ The process of planning is important because it focuses the mind on the obstacles ahead. Business plans rarely bear much of a relationship to what actually happens-that isn’t their purpose!

Don’t rush to take in partners
A business partnership is even more complicated than a marriage, because it involves customers, staff and suppliers. Ask yourself what your putative partner is bringing to the relationship and whether he or she would make a better employee.

Do ‘bootstrap’ your business
Hurrah for the recession and all the bargains it brings. Try and buy everything second-hand, get lots of quotes and negotiate the price of everything. One thing not to skimp on, however, is obtaining a trademark for your business name. The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) offers lots of useful information, and it also runs various helpful events for small businesses.

Do something you love
‘A business that makes nothing but money,’ pointed out Henry Ford, ‘is a poor business.’ Work on a vision of how you see the business in one, five and 10 years’ time. You should be so excited by your concept that you can barely sleep.

Do your research
Look online and in business libraries for reports describing your industry, and investigate your competitors. When my son was thinking of opening an organic cafe, he pretended to be a student working on a project and went around his competitors asking the managers what their turnover was, the average order size and the rent. They told him, too.

Don’t worry about risk
You can reduce your chances of failure by employing something called ‘dry testing’, whereby you try out your concept before it’s launched. I have frequently advertised (and even sold) products and services that don’t yet exist to test the waters. Of course, I return any money.

Don’t prevaricate
‘Tell me,’ wrote the poet, Mary Oliver, ‘what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ Virgil put it more bluntly: ‘Death twitches my ear. “Live,” he says, “I am coming.”‘

Don’t undervalue the role of marketing
You can come up with a fantastic product or service offering real value for money, but if you can’t sell it, what’s the point? Don’t launch your business until you have a good marketing plan in place. Work out why people will buy your product (convenience, price, quality or scarcity value). This is your unique selling proposition (USP) and should be a great help with your marketing.

Do know your bottom line
Have a firm grasp of your overheads, and a clear idea of how and when you’re going to make a profit. No matter how much you enjoy running your business, it’s not a charity.

Your contacts book

Business Link (government support and grants)
Intellectual Property Office
(trademark your name)
Enterprise Agencies (free advice and services)
j4b Grants (UK and EU business grants)
British Chambers of Commerce (for networking)
Prince’s Trust (funding for the under-thirties)
Women in Rural Enterprise (free support)

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