5 Steps to Jumpstart Your Startup

The Net can help you uncover new opportunities, offer solutions to a crisis, and save you money.

Starting a business means undertaking some fundamental tasks that no one can afford to skimp on. The Net can expedite the process. It can also help you uncover new opportunities, offer solutions to a crisis, and save you money. Use this checklist to start streamlining your startup.

1. Write a Business Plan

The first step in launching any startup is to write a top-flight business plan. If you're having trouble getting going, cruise to the MoneyHunter Web site and download a 40-page template for a generic, fill-in-the-blanks plan. The file can be converted to your word-processor format so you can manipulate the text to your liking.

The text itself is knucklehead simple: "Targeting our distributors is a crucial element of our marketing plan." You certainly wouldn't want to use this entry verbatim. But the template does lead you through all the essential questions that investors will likely ask. Browse through the Web site's Guide Book for additional advice from "mentors" — professional investors, attorneys, and other entrepreneurs — on how to craft each of the plan's 11 sections, including Company Overview, Risk/Opportunity, and Capital Requirements. When you're done, you might consider listing your venture in the Footprints section, where prospective investors troll for new deals.

Go to: (http://www.moneyhunter.com)

To help prepare that all-important section on financial operations, work through some calculations from the Virtual Consultant section of Inc. Online, a spinoff of Inc. magazine. A series of interactive worksheets helps you calculate telling ratios, such as a product's contribution margin. You can also plug in real numbers and get back instant answers to questions like, Is a product costing more than it's worth? What's hot in my inventory? Can I really afford my next big expenditure?

Go to: (http://www.inc.com)

2. Find Capital

You've crafted a brilliant business plan. Now who are you going to show it to? The Corporate Finance Network directory offers a good starting point for surveying financial services represented on the Web, with links to their sites. The list of venture capital firms, for example, allows searching by location, industry, and investment stage that each of some 50 firms will consider. Other categories of interest to startups include banks, leasing and finance companies, and small-business financing.

Go to: (http://www.corpfinet.com)

3. Set Up Operations

For solutions to all of those nitty-gritty operational questions, check out Entrepreneurial Edge Online, the Web offering of a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs. One of the most useful sections is Business Builders, a series of 46 training modules. Each one, broken down into step-by-step procedures, focuses on a single topic or task such as writing a budget, recruiting personnel, preparing a market analysis, or building good customer-service practices. Archives of Entrepreneurial Edge magazine often provide meaty primers on such topics as how to ensure payment by a foreign customer.

Go to: (http://www.edgeonline.com)

Idea Cafe's Business Directory, a well-organized guide to other Web sites aimed expressly at small businesses, classifies and rates the sites and also tells you where you can find other valuable information. One typical example: at a listing for Intuit's Quicken Financial Network, the business directory recommends "Tips for Business Owners" in the "Reduce Your Taxes" section. There you'll find a lengthy list of commonly overlooked deductible business expenses.

Go to: (http://www.ideacafe.com:80/)

4. Incorporate the Company

The process is less mysterious than most first-time entrepreneurs assume — and using the Web, it's also less expensive than hiring an attorney (as little as $85, including state filing fees, versus $500 to $3,000 in legal fees). Both The Company Corporation and Corporate Agents, Inc. Web sites answer most questions about registering a name and choosing the right type of business structure. They can also make the filing for you, help prepare articles of incorporation, serve as your registered agent, and obtain your federal tax ID number. How much simpler can you get?

Go to: (http://www.service.com/tcc) and (http://www.corporate.com)

5. Find Local Assistance

The National Technology Transfer Center is in the business of linking up federally funded research with private U.S. companies eager to commercialize it. Perhaps even more helpful is its nationwide network of Technical Assistance programs. This electronic network provides state-by-state listings of resources for production, research and development, even business training. At the address below, click on your state for a list of resources near you.

Go to: (http: //www.nttc.edu/technews/tap.html)

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