I was asked this question in a comment under an earlier post:

I am starting a very small company and I am the only employee, and want to keep it that way until I know when and how to take my next step. Could you recommend where to start?

I didn’t publish the comment because it didn’t fit the post, but it’s a question I get a lot, so I’m posting an answer here instead:

  1. Sorry, everybody hates getting this reminder, but: starting a business isn’t a one-size-fits-all project. I’ll try to help, but recognize that there are many different recipes around. Look at this entrepreneur.com website, sba.gov, or bplans.com, for example: the problem is too much information, making it hard to choose which set of steps to follow.
  2. Make sure you’ve got the heart of a plan: that’s not a document, at least not if you don’t want it to be. It’s thinking: understanding who you are and how you’re different, what you’re selling, who wants it, how much they expect to pay, and what special focus makes you different and better. You don’t have to write it up. Maybe you put it on your computer, as simple bullet points. Talk to people you know and trust who might give useful advice and feedback. Is it just an idea, or is it a real business opportunity? The difference, in a nutshell, is that a real opportunity means it will make enough money to sustain itself. It means people want to buy what you’re selling. Is there a real business opportunity? Or is it just an idea?
  3. The details depend on your specifics, which is why you want to sketch out the flesh and bones of a plan. This is plan-as-you-go style, so plan the obvious parts quickly and then refine as you go. The core of a plan is the assumptions, specific tasks with dates and deadlines and budgets, sales forecast, expense budget, and cash flow.  That’s going to cover essentials like naming, legal establishment, local requirements, starting costs, tasks like the website and outfitting the office, and so on. It’s hard to generalize here, because so much depends on your business specifics.
  4. Plan, but don’t sweat the plan as document. Keep it on your computer if you don’t have to show it to anybody else. Keep it simple and practical. And don’t worry about getting all the details down and locked in; things are going to change, so keep it fluid and flexible.  The plan is valuable because it makes adjustments easier, and serves as a point of reference, not because it isn’t supposed to change.

And then get going.

(Image: istockphoto.com)

Tim BerryTim Berry

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