Nell Merlino is the founder and president of Count Me In, a New York City nonprofit group that helps women launch and expand businesses. He recently answered questions from Kiplinger.
Question: What’s the first step you should take if you want to start a small business?
Answer: If you are planning to go into something that already exists, such as a bakery, hair salon or restaurant, you have to figure out how you are going to stand out. How are you going to be new, better or different? What are you going to do to make sure that people will line up around the block to get what you’re selling?
How do you do that?
Research. Google is your best friend. You have to search what is out there, what people are doing and how well they’re doing at it. There are also all sorts of places you can walk into and get information. Go to a local bank that does business lending and ask. Those bankers are going to know if there are 25 dry cleaners in the area, who is doing well and who isn’t. If you have a product, see what’s selling on QVC and eBay. Try out your product at a place like Sam’s Club, where they’ll let you set up a display. There’s also a great book, called “How Hot Is Your Product?” by Tamara Monosoff and Brad Kofoed, that lists all sorts of searing questions you should be asking. What makes me crazy is people who spend their kids’ college-education money making a prototype or opening a retail space without thinking it through.
There is no excuse for not sitting down with a person, a book or a program that helps you figure it out.
Are there qualities that are required to be a successful entrepreneur?
Focus and discipline. You can’t treat a business like a bad boyfriend, meaning you are there just until something better comes along. Put a stake in the ground. And the more work you do before you start, the better. If you decide to pitch your product to a place like Walmart, you’re going to have 15 minutes. If you want to be successful, you’ll spend 100 hours preparing for those 15 minutes.
Why are you focused on women?
There are 8.5 million women-owned businesses. Most of them are very small. We need to break through that size barrier. Women need to focus on revenue and scale, and it’s sometimes better to do that with another woman. Women need to see, hear and meet women who decided to take their business across the nation and, maybe, around the world.
Kathy Kristof is a contributing editor to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to email@example.com. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit Kiplinger.com.