Are you sitting on the next great idea? You’re not alone. While the Great Recession has been a major downer for a lot of American businesses and workers, it has helped stoke the country’s entrepreneurial spirit. About 565,000 new businesses per month were started in 2010 alone, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. That’s consistent with 2009 and represents the highest level of entrepreneurship over the past decade and a half.
Now may be just the time to test your own entrepreneurial abilities. But it takes more than a good idea to succeed. We asked local experts for key advice and came up with 10 action items.
Determine if you’re cut out to be an entrepreneur.
Not everyone is. Take an assessment test (we have a good one on page 21) or talk with a business counselor. “Some of us need to work for other people, ” says Carolyn Griffin, director of the Small Business Development Center at State College of Florida. “You have to make sure that you’re self-motivated and that you know you could work for months with little or no pay.”
Do your market research.
You may have a killer idea for a product, but does anyone in this area truly need it? “Who’s going to buy your product, how much would they pay for it and how are you going to reach them?" says Griffin. And can you make money doing it? Sometimes you can’t answer those questions until you’ve done some research.”
Check out your competition.
Say you want to open a sandwich shop. Play “mystery shopper” at similar businesses. “I talk to an amazing number of people who are really hesitant to do that,” says Jeannette Watling-Mills, vice chair of the Manasota chapter of SCORE, which offers workshops, mentoring and other resources for entrepreneurs. “Go in and chat with them. Your direct competitors here in town aren’t going to give you detailed information, but if you pick a business a couple hundred miles away and call them, they may very well tell you a whole lot of stuff.”
Develop a business plan.
You can’t get financing without one, and you’ve got to have some parameters by which to measure your business’s success (or lack thereof). “Developing your idea in writing allows you to test that idea against reality and to give other people the opportunity to help you with formal feedback,” says Gregory Hoffmann, chair of the Manasota chapter of SCORE.
Assemble your team.
Even if you’re a sole proprietor, you need a good lawyer to assist you with determining what kind of enterprise your business should be and an accountant to handle everything from taxes to budgeting. “Very few people have a clear understanding of whether they’re making money or not,” says Hoffmann. “A good bookkeeper or accountant can assist you.”
Get creative with financing.
It’s difficult right now for start-up businesses to secure financing from traditional bank lenders. Understand that you may have to cobble together cash from a variety of sources. “Angel groups seem to have a great preference for high-tech start-ups,” says Watling-Mills. “Look to friends and family to invest in you. We see a lot of businesses get started with credit card financing, which is expensive but may be the only way some people can get the money they need.”
Spread the word.
“Most people figure 'if I open they will come,'” says Hoffmann. “You should estimate that at least 15 percent of your revenues get plowed back into marketing and public relations. Learning how to utilize the Internet and other inexpensive marketing tools is critically important today.”
Don’t let the off-season take you by surprise.
“Don’t open your doors in March as we’re heading into the slowest time of the year,” says Watling-Mills. “Open your doors in October when we’re heading into the busiest time. Plan your cash flow so that you have enough funding to carry you through the slow season. We see so many businesses here that shut down in September because they ran out of money.”
Make sure the people in your life are on board.
“You’ve got to make sure your family’s ready for it,” says Don Gugliuzza, CEO/COO of Bradenton-based Mileo Group, which offers business training and consulting services. “I haven’t had a vacation in three years. It’s all-consuming, which is a big price to pay, especially if your family hasn’t been used to making those sacrifices.”
Organizations like SCORE and the Small Business Development Center stand ready to advise entrepreneurs in need of some guidance. “There’s no reason for people to make inappropriate decisions, because there are so many of us out there who can help them,” says Griffin.
How We Did It
Every company starts out small. Here’s how award-winning Sarasota and Manatee businesses survived and thrived.
By Abby Weingarten
For J. Michael LaPensee, launching LaPensee Plumbing 26 years ago was a matter of survival. He had just been laid off by another company, and he and his wife, Karen, had an infant daughter, Shawn, and a four-year-old son, Greg.
Since then, the company—started out of the couple’s Manatee home—has grown to more than $2.2 million in revenues, employs 22 people and has 12,000 residential and commercial clients. Greg, now 30, is company president. Their success earned them the 2011 Manatee Chamber of Commerce Small Business Award for annual sales totaling more than $2 million.
The LaPensees attribute several business strategies to their success: J. Michael LaPensee’s enjoyment of customer service, which he made a priority as the company expanded; a menu of services from repair to complicated installations; consistent advertising; sponsoring Little League teams and charity events so the company’s name was always front and center; the 2008 expansion of its headquarters on Holmes Beach to include an upscale showroom of products for anyone building or remodeling; and, in 2010, earning a pool contractor’s license. They’re also devoted to staff training.
“We’re truly family run, which is wonderful,” says Karen LaPensee. “Our toughest challenge is always getting good, reliable people to work with us—people who truly care and show it to customers. It’s night-and-day different when you build a company from nothing, and suddenly, you turn around and have a huge customer base.”
• Provide educational opportunities for your staff. Help employees seek out certifications and give them the tools to do so.
• Advertise locally, sponsor children’s sports teams and get involved in charity events to keep your company’s name on everyone’s mind.
• If you can’t find staff that wholeheartedly enjoys serving customers, identify the bad seeds and search again.
Polo Grill and Bar/Fête Catering and Ballroom
Tommy and Jaymie Klauber opened Pattigeorge’s Fine Coastal Cuisine on Longboat Key in 1997. After regulars kept requesting their gourmet food at events, they started a side catering business out of the restaurant in 2004.
Customer demand and an inadequate kitchen eventually made that impossible, so the Klaubers took over a vacant building on Main Street Lakewood Ranch in 2007 and opened Polo Grill and Bar/Fête Catering and Ballroom. At 24,000 square feet, with a 400-seat ballroom, a 225-seat restaurant and two kitchens, the space is far bigger than they initially required. “So we decided we’d better hustle and get it filled,” says Jaymie. The Klaubers now employ 50 full-time staff members and won The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s Young Business of the Year Award last year.
“When we got started, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew I liked quality and I’m organized. I can find anything in five seconds. Tommy, of course, is the kitchen genius,” Jaymie Klauber says. (The couple still runs Pattigeorge’s on Longboat Key.)
Emphasizing quality (“It helps when the owner’s the chef,” says Jaymie) and customized catering were a big part of their success. “We have a 28-page single-spaced menu,” says Jaymie. “Everything’s made by hand.” They also focused on using local, organic ingredients from suppliers such as Mitchell’s Natural Produce, and from nearby Rosas, King and Hunsader farms.
Nonstop networking at business gatherings and catering nonprofit events helped spread the word, as did Jaymie’s passion for polo and horses. She caters the polo crowd’s events during the season, and the polo crowd also patronizes the restaurant.
Today, the Klaubers often host 40 catered events a week, from weddings to birthday parties to corporate gatherings. Seven hundred guests ate at the restaurant on Christmas, a Klauber family record. “Since we’ve come out here, the business has tripled in revenue,” Jaymie says.
• Take advantage of networking opportunities and every type of media.
• Make customer relations a priority. “We’re all about getting that letter of thanks afterward,” Jaymie says.
• Build a good team. “We look for people who are smart go-getters who have charm, aren’t afraid of work and can relate to the client,” Jaymie says.
Rock Solid Construction Group Inc.
Marjorie Broughton started Rock Solid Construction Group in 2005 to provide new construction, renovation and build-out services to residential and commercial clients from Hillsborough to Lee counties. Prior to launching the venture, she owned and published niche magazines about real estate and new homes.
Then the real estate market crashed, and Broughton had to get creative. She applied for and was certified as a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) by the state of Florida, a designation that allowed Rock Solid to stand out and take on public work projects such as the 13-acre Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in Sarasota. Now she’s seeing a shift back to luxury condo residential and custom homes but continues to keep her staff lean, relying on a crew of per-project employees.
Anticipating new trends in aging, Broughton expects to have CAP (Certified Aging in Place) construction accreditation in 2012 for home modifications and improvements for senior citizen residences and for living areas for disabled citizens. For all these efforts, The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce named Broughton Woman Entrepreneur of the Year.
In 2010, her daughter, Nikki Taylor, became a partner. Taylor spends 14 hours a week making personal connections and coordinating social media. “I see a huge return from that,” Taylor says. “If I’m away from it, I can see a lull in the week. You have to tell people things a million times so they remember what we do. I love Google Analytics, finding out how many people are coming to our pages.”
Taylor also keeps the Rock Solid brand visible by serving on nonprofit boards and committees, and she is active in BNI International, a global business networking organization. “A huge component of our business is community involvement,” says Taylor. “We can donate time to help on a project, fill tables at events and provide sponsorships. Doors open that way.”
To Broughton, business success boils down to relationships. “Business leaders share common traits such as drive, tenacity and vision. But what sets women business leaders apart from their male counterparts is how they connect to forge business partnerships,” Broughton says. “Nikki and I both practice active listening, which ultimately helps us find business. Building relationships builds business.”
Adds Taylor, “Before we had this company, Mom and I both had bad personal remodeling experiences, and we thought, ‘There has to be a better way to do this better.’ We wrote down all the things we didn’t want out of an experience and how we could improve our methods. We are constantly re-evaluating what we do to improve it.”
• Never underestimate the power of online marketing; learn how to make your business pop up first in Google searches.
• Join networking groups and sponsor local events to keep your brand top of mind.
• Don’t skimp on quality. Regardless of the budget, there is always a way to help clients achieve the most “bang for their buck.”
Small Business Readiness Assessment Tool
Are you ready to start a business?*
yes or NO
1. Do you think you are ready to start a business?
2. Have you ever worked in a business similar to what you are planning to start?
3. Would people who know you say you are well suited to be self-employed?
4. Do you have support for your business from family and friends?
5. Have you ever taken a course designed to teach you how to start and manage a business?
6. Have you discussed your business idea with a business coach or counselor?
7. Do you have a family member or relative who owns a business?
8. Do you consider yourself a leader and self-starter?
9. Would other people consider you a leader?
10. Are you willing to invest a significant portion of your savings to get your business started?
11. Do you have enough confidence in yourself and your abilities to sustain yourself in business, if or when things get tough?
12. Are you prepared, if needed, to temporarily lower your standard of living until your business is firmly established?
13. Do others turn to you for help in making decisions?
14. Are you willing to commit long hours to make your business work?
Skills, Experience & Training
15. Do you have a business plan for the business you are planning to start?
16. Do you know what form of legal ownership (sole proprietor, partnership or corporation) is best for your business?
17. Do you know if your business will require a special license or permit and how to obtain it?
18. Do you know where to find demographic data and information about your customers?
19. Do you know how to compute the start-up costs for your business?
20. Do you know about loan programs that are available from banks in your area and the SBA?
21. Do you understand how a business loan can impact your credit?
22. Do you understand balance sheets, income statements and cash flow statements?
23. Do you know how to learn about your competitors?
24. Do you feel comfortable using a computer to improve business operations?
*SCORE advises that you should answer yes to at least 17 questions if you want to start a business.
The offices, people and places that can help you start and grow your (941) business.
City of Bradenton
(941) 932-9400, bradenton.govoffice.com
The Business & Development section offers information on starting a business, building permits and the Enterprise Zone Program, which provides technical and financial incentives to a variety of businesses operating in the city’s Enterprise Zone.
City of Sarasota’s Neighborhood and Development Services
(941) 365-2200, sarasotagov.com/NDS/Planning_and_Dev.htm
Find out about topics like building permits and local business tax receipts.
City of North Port
(941) 429-7000, cityofnorthport.com
Information on topics like business registration and permitting, and on programs like the North Port Entrepreneurial Academy, a basic training program for fledgling entrepreneurs.
City of Venice
(941) 486-2626, venicegov.com
Information on permitting, licensing and local business tax receipts.
Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County
(941) 309-1200, edcsarasotacounty.com
Resources for entrepreneurs, including a guide to doing business in Sarasota, and links to local and statewide assistance programs.
(407) 956-5600, eflorida.com
Offers a whole section on starting a business in Florida with information on assistance programs and obtaining financing.
Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation
(850) 487-1395, myfloridalicense.com/dbpr
Information about licensing requirements and how to apply for a business license.
Florida Department of Revenue
(800) 352-3671, dor.myflorida.com/dor/businesses
Information for start-up businesses about the taxes they may be required to collect and pay.
Florida Division of Corporations´ Sunbiz
Offers a section on starting a business in Florida with information on registering your business with the state and local government, and land use and permitting.
Florida Gulf Coast Regional Business Resource Center
A collaborative project of area business organizations, educational institutions and public entities that features links to helpful local, state and national organizations along with a social-networking component for member businesses.
Florida Virtual Entrepreneur Center
A free web portal connecting entrepreneurs with business support organizations, programs and service providers.
The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce
(941) 955-8187, sarasotachamber.com
Counseling, reference tools, meeting space and other resources for small businesses.
Gulf Coast Venture Forum
(239) 262-6300, gcvf.com
A Naples-based nonprofit with a chapter in Sarasota that works to promote the success of new and emerging Southwest Florida businesses by educating and bringing together entrepreneurs and angel investors.
A creative and collaborative space in Sarasota where digital business entrepreneurs can develop their ideas and launch their ventures.
Manasota Chapter of SCORE
(941) 955-1029, manasota.score.org
Free business mentoring, workshops and classes for start-up businesses, along with all kinds of online templates and tools covering everything from business plans to social media to financing.
Manatee Chamber of Commerce
(941) 748-3411, manateechamber.com
Information on the steps business must follow to become legally established in Manatee County and advice for home-based business start-ups.
Manatee County Information for Businesses
(941) 748-4501, mymanatee.org/home/businesses
Information on economic development incentives, permitting and the county’s code of ordinances.
Manatee Economic Development Council
(941) 748-3411, manateeedc.com
Information on financing, available business real estate, incentives and demographics.
Sarasota County Assistance for Small Businesses
(941) 861-5000, scgov.net/business/assistance.asp
Detailed information on doing business in Sarasota County, from certificates of occupancy to signage and licensing.
Small Business Development Center, State College of Florida
(941) 363-7000 (Lakewood Ranch location), (941) 408-1412 (Venice location), scf.edu/CorporateCommunityDevelopment/SmallBusinessDevelopmentCenter.
Counseling services, classes, workshops and other resources for start-ups and small businesses.
Suncoast Community Capital
(941) 744-2666, suncoastcc.com
A nonprofit that trains microentrepreneurs (businesses with five people or less that typically have capital needs of $50,000 or less) on how to start or expand their businesses and helps provide access to microloans through its lending partner, Manatee Community Federal Credit Union. Currently only available to people who live or work in Manatee County but will likely be expanding to Sarasota County soon.
Town of Longboat Key
Information on business tax receipts, permitting, code compliance and zoning.
U.S. Small Business Administration
Provides access to a host of local and national resources concerning everything from financing to marketing to exporting.