Every year, thousands of Americans start their own businesses.
But most fail. In fact, fewer than half of small businesses survive past the five-year mark, according to the Small Business Administration.
Are you thinking about taking the leap? First, do some soul-searching.
Ken Ude, director of the USC Marshall Family Business program, recommends that you consider these five key points:
- Personality: Small business owners must be emotionally stable and resilient. Can you take “no” for an answer? Will you survive if family and friends lend you money and you lose it because your business goes under?
“Can you put on your Teflon suit and not let criticism stick?” Ude asked.
Small business owners must fundamentally like people. They need to work successfully with every client who walks through the door. A CEO’s personality defines company culture, for good or bad.
As Michael E. Gerber writes in his classic business book, “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It,” “If your thinking is sloppy, your business will be sloppy. If you are disorganized, your business will be disorganized.”
Ude makes his clients take an in-depth personality assessment from Lighthouse Consulting. The U.S. Small Business Administration also has a comprehensive readiness test. He finds that good entrepreneurs share common characteristics.
“They tend to be risk-takers and incredibly focused and passionate about what they do,” he said.
- Financial maturity: Business owners must spend 15 to 20 percent of their time working on the business. Are you fluent in the world of taxes, labor laws, shipping standards? Are you eager to accept help from people who know more than you?
In 1993, Joyce Aysta founded Live Your Dreams Design, an origami architecture greeting card company based in Los Angeles. Her clients include Skywalker Vineyards, many Frank Lloyd Wright sites (including Falling Water), the Smithsonian Institute and University of Pittsburgh.
Aysta had worked for 25 years in costume and set production in the entertainment business before she started her company, so she knew how to keep to a budget.
“But I had never done a financial plan,’’ she said. Aysta attached herself to various SBA mentorship programs that she credits to the long-term success of her one-of-a-kind business.
- Character: Ude puts character “very high on the list” when he counsels family business owners. Small businesses are built one customer referral at a time. Reputation is crucial, whether you’re a plumber, building contractor, hairdresser or attorney.
For instance, if you’re a gardener working in a client’s yard and you break a sprinkler head, would you tell the client and quickly replace it – or blame the family dog? If you make appointments with clients, will you show up every time, and on time?
- Experience: If you don’t have any, you’ll need some. Beyond the obvious question of “Do you know your business?” ask yourself, “Do you know how to work?” and “Do you know how to work nights and weekends?”
Have you ever negotiated with vendors? Can you hire, fire and manage employees?
If not, “go work for someone else for three years,’’ Ude said. “Prove to yourself that you can earn a promotion. Prove that you can work late.’’
- Stamina: Successful entrepreneurs have the stamina to withstand adversity. Stamina can be defined as physical health or emotional wherewithal.
“They have to understand the commitment and possible disruption on their life and lifestyle,” Ude said.
You may have the stamina to take on business ownership, but how about your family? Are they ready to withstand financial risk and losing you to late-night emergencies?
Most people understand that young parenthood may not be the best time to start an all-consuming business. But teen-agers who need your attention - and four years of college tuition - may also be a showstopper.
Once you’ve done all this soul-searching, cardmaker Aysta offers one final suggestion: “If there is anything else that you think you might want to do, you should try that first.’’