I accepted a challenge the other day: five steps to startup. Here are my answers:

1. Look in the mirror.
Get comfortable with who you are, what you know, where you’ve been, what you like to do and what you do well. That’s one of you if you’re a one-person startup, and the group of you if you’re a team. Starting a business is like marrying somebody; you hope to be together for a long time, and you’d better be compatible. Strategy is sometimes as simple as the famous SWOT–strengths, weaknesses, opportunities  and threats. Capitalize on strengths, work away from the weaknesses, position yourself to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats. What matters isn’t the type of business but rather its match with your reality.

2. Jump into your customer’s skin.
Jump inside your customer’s (or client’s or buyer’s) head and look through those eyes out at the world and the business you propose to start. Make sure you understand, from the customer’s view, what you’re selling, why people want it, what benefits they get and what makes them spend their money with you. Don’t kid yourself: Build a better mousetrap and the world will only make a path to your door if the world has a lot of mice, doesn’t like them, knows you’re there and cares how much better your mousetrap is. Way too many people think they can do something they like and sell it. But the buyers, not you, get to decide whether they want to buy it. What if nobody wants a wagon-wheel coffee table? You should be either sure there’s a “there” there, or do some market research; and be honest with yourself–if you’re not absolutely sure, do yourself a favor and make sure.

3. Plan.
Don’t shudder; I don’t necessarily mean a full, formal business plan, although I am in favor of that if you can do it. But even if you don’t need a full formal plan, give yourself a break: Do some planning–abbreviated or not–to help you think through the larger goals, steps and details. In my new book (info at http://planasyougo.com), I’m recommend that people get started quickly, using just the pieces they need. Don’t delay startup to complete a formal plan but definitely take the time to reduce uncertainty by developing that core strategy as the heart of the plan and then the key steps–dates, deadlines, budgets, tasks, responsibilities–as the flesh and bones of the plan. Add some basic numbers, a sales forecast, expense budget and startup costs, and you have most of a plan done. And don’t wait until it’s all done; get started anywhere you like, and get going.

4. Gather a team.
One of the mistakes I made along the way was trying to do too much alone. Even if you’re the lone ranger, don’t try to do all the legal, all the bookkeeping, all the administration, all the selling, all the marketing and . . . whew, I need to take a breath. Way too many people fail because they don’t recognize that nobody’s really good at everything. They play too close and too tight. Get help. Make sure you have an attorney you trust and an accountant you trust, at the very least. This is the real world; it takes a village to build a business.

5. Get the word out.
Target marketing is critical. Bear down on the key target customer, and figure out what that person will say about you, think about you, do about you. Everything comes at you all at once, so you have to stay focused on the important things. Don’t confuse urgent with important; make sure the important things get done. Think of the principle of displacement: Everything you do rules out something else you don’t do. Great exercise: Figure out who isn’t in your market. Carve your market into your mind as if you were carving a wood figure from a stick, removing pieces of it, one at a time.

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Tim BerryTim Berry
Tim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.