This Saturday’s New York Times featured a front-page story about how the recession is prompting some people to start their own businesses  instead of looking for new jobs. It’s an encouraging story if you’ve ever considered the option of creating your own venture, large or small.
While some people decide to dive head first into entrepreneurship, others feel more comfortable dipping in a toe, then an ankle, then a knee before swimming solo. The choice is very personal and depends on your experience, finances and overall comfort with risk. But, if you’re thinking even just a little bit about starting your own business, it’s never too early to take actions that will set you up for taking the plunge when you’re ready. Here are some suggestions for first steps to take if you’re thinking about starting your own small business or becoming a full-time freelancer:
Find Real and Virtual Mentors. I guarantee you are not the first person to start a business in your industry. Use Facebook , LinkedIn , Twitter , DowntownWomensClub.com,  Make Mine a Million $ Business,  Yahoo groups and other networking organizations and websites to make connections with people who have started similar-sized businesses (though not potential direct competitors — as you can imagine, it makes me really cranky when someone asks me for advice on how to start a business exactly the same as mine!). Ask people how they got started and what advice and recommended resources they might offer. You can also use the web to research successful entrepreneurs. What do their websites look like? What experience is listed in their bios or LinkedIn profiles? What professional credentials do they maintain? Take notes!
Understand the Essentials. It’s not the most exciting part of starting a business, but it’s crucial to research any licenses, taxes and insurance you’ll need to go solo, and I recommend doing this sooner rather than later. Start a list or folder to keep track of everything, and don’t be afraid to ask experts for help, especially an accountant and a lawyer. You can look to freelancers unions , entrepreneurial websites (my faves are StartupNation.com , FastCompany.com , Inc.com  and Entrepreneur.com ) and the Small Business Administration  for free or low-cost help determining what “official” steps are required. Above all, be sure to find independent health insurance . Never take the risk of being uninsured.
Learn How to Market Yourself. One of the most important requirements of entrepreneurship is the ability to sell yourself and your ideas. Even before you launch your own venture, you can begin working on this aspect of self-employment: Join high-profile committees of industry organizations to make yourself visible to members (who may be future clients of your new business). Volunteer at a nonprofit organization related to the business you’d like to start. Take professional development classes online or at a community college to enhance your business skills and industry expertise. Start a blog on a topic related to your entrepreneurial interests. Start posting comments and articles on Twitter that establish your expertise in the area of your choice. Check out the Personal Branding Blog  for ongoing tips on marketing yourself.
Read up. Many, many, many people have written great books on how to start and run businesses of all shapes and sizes. Here are some of my personal favorites.
If you have more how-to-be-an-entrepreneur books you’ve liked, please share in the Comments section!
Each of the above activities will increase your leadership experience, expand your network and, perhaps most importantly, build your confidence that there is a world outside of full-time employment. The plunge into entrepreneurship could even take place sooner than you thought possible. Or, if you find yourself resisting these actions, it may be a sign that you’re not quite ready to leave the regular paycheck pool, even if it is hard to find a job right now. Either way, self-employment is an option that many people consider at some point in their careers, so it’s always worth a bit of exploration.