Let’s face it. You’re tired of working for somebody else, the 9 to 5 grind, the commute, the boss, the annoying co-workers. You have a great idea — one that might even change the world or at least how people live in it. You’ve always dreamed of launching a business. You’ve read about other people doing it. Why not you?
Why not you?
“Right now is an amazing time to start a business,” says Josh Linkner, CEO and managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners, founder, chairman and former CEO of ePrize and NY Times bestselling author of Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity. “People tend to underestimate the opportunity in today’s economy, but remember, both Walmart and Microsoft were launched in a changing economic landscape.”
OK, it’s unlikely that you’ll be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. But being Jewish gives you a leg up, according to Linkner. Entrepreneurship is hard work. It takes grit, persistence, commitment, time, energy, blood, sweat and tears, and resiliency. “As Jews, we have a rich legacy of resiliency, a rich heritage of overcoming odds,” Linkner says. “We don’t make excuses.”
If you do plan to go for your dreams and launch your own business, no whining allowed. “Don’t underestimate the hard work,” Linkner says.
Your odds of success rest on your shoulders. More important than any idea or product to determining success is the passion of the person behind the product.
Entrepreneurship For You?
“Many are interested, but just don’t know what it takes,” says Amy Gill-Cronovich, training leader at Bizdom, an entrepreneurship accelerator in Downtown Detroit founded by Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans.
Gill-Cronovich says the first step is to sit down and take a long hard look at your lifestyle, your family and your financials.
“If you’re struggling with your finances or have a lot of credit card debt, then you need to get that under control before you think of starting a business,” she says.
What about your family? Do you have young children who depend on you and want you to go to their ballet recitals and soccer games?
“It’s not that you can’t start a business and be a good parent,” Gill-Cronovich says. “It’s just that there is only one you, and when you start a business, everything is on your shoulders. You have to be willing to say no to everything else. People underestimate the time involved. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘this just isn’t for me — at least not yet.’”
Launching a business is a tough thing to do. “It requires a diverse set of skills. You need to be a visionary, a people person, a numbers guy. It takes grit and scrappiness. A willingness to do anything — and everything,” Linkner adds.
It also takes knowledge, experience and background, says Gill-Cronovich, who cites the Bizdom company Savorfull, which provides allergen-free, nutritious meals straight to customers’ homes.
“That’s a great idea for anybody to have, but it worked only because founder Stacy Goldberg is a nutritionist. She had the knowledge necessary to make it work.”
The Big Idea
The next step in launching your business: the big idea. Linkner’s advice: “Make sure you’re solving a real customer need and that it’s differentiated from the competition. We don’t need any more Groupon copycats,” he says. “Do something original or not at all.”
Look at your idea. Can you make it or sell it? “If not, it’s not a good path,” says Gill-Cronovich.
Start by talking to potential customers that have the problem you’re trying to solve with your product or service.
“You have to validate that the market and the customers actually exist,” says Tom Anderson, senior director of Oakland County-based Automation Alley, which brings together businesses, educators and government to help entrepreneurs accelerate the commercialization of new technologies and services.
“You need to get out there and talk to customers. Having even one customer proves that somebody in the market really cares.”
Gill-Cronovich says to think it through carefully to find out what your minimal viable product is — the least you have to do to get up and running and in front of customers.
You can find plenty of templates on the Internet to help you draw out your business plan, but don’t expect to do it in a weekend.
According to Michael Graub and Michael Banks, co-chairs of the Danto Small Business Program at Hebrew Free Loan (HFL), it takes about 120 hours of solid, extensive work to create a business plan — and it’s not something you should tackle on your own. Instead, find a mentor. Find several of them.
Gill-Cronovich suggests that wantrepreneurs start by attending group and networking events, trade shows and conferences.
“Get to know people. Get to know the real story of what it’s like,” she says.
Bizdom has pitch events and business model brunches for aspiring entrepreneurs. “Find the right people to give you advice,” she adds. “Also remember that everybody has an opinion, and not every opinion matters. Focus on industry experts.”
There is a lot of support in the region. In addition to Automation Alley and Bizdom, there is Tech Town Detroit, Ann Arbor SPARK, the Small Business Administration and the OU INCubator, just to name a few. (See sidebar on next page.)
One option is the Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest, a competition with the mission to educate entrepreneurs on the creation, start up and early growth stages of high-growth Michigan businesses.
“Most important,” Anderson says, “is these kinds of programs get you assigned a coach or mentor who will ask you the right questions as you work on your plan.”
“Your business plan is not how your business will end up,” Linkner says. “A business plan is constantly evolving.” It includes everything from mapping out your business model, identifying customers, distribution channels, price points, value propositions, revenue generation, on and on and on.
“The biggest problem is not having specificity,” Linkner says, equating it to the difference between telling someone looking to get to San Francisco to “go west” or handing him a Google map that shows how long to drive and where to turn.
Gill-Cronovich adds that you should be prepared for things not to work out the way you plan. “Be willing to work out a new path and be in it for the long haul.”
Funding Your Dream
If you think you’re going to take your big idea to a venture capitalist or angel investor who will jump at the chance to invest in your dream, think again.
Very, very few startups raise money from outside investors, only 2.7 percent of new businesses, according to a U.S. Census survey of business owners.
Even if you are one of the lucky few who might get outside funding, “that angel investor is going to want to see the founder put cash in the business and know that their family, friends and acquaintances are invested, too,” says Anderson. “They want to know you’ve got something to lose if you fail.”
Nothing replaces having “skin in the game,” according to Banks of HFL, which does provide some small business funding, including the Marvin I. Danto Small Business Loan Program, which goes toward giving interest-free loans — up to $100,000 — to young Jews in Southeast Michigan who want to start a business or build on an existing one.
Graub stresses that Hebrew Free Loan, which helped local businesses The Robot Garage and Wow Writing Workshop get their start, is probably not the first stop for young entrepreneurs.
“Most of our applicants have gone through Tech Town, Bizdom or the SBA before they come to us, so they’re a little farther down the road to starting a business,” he says. “We often help them find other funding sources and provide supplementing collateral for a standard loan, for example.”
What’s great about the program, however, is that applicants are assigned carefully matched mentors. “When we see shortcomings, we provide contacts that can help, and invite them back,” Banks adds. “We want our customers to prosper. We say yes more than we say no.”
Before taking out loans and seeking investors, take this advice from Anderson: “Get started by finding customers. It’s the cheapest funding you’ll ever find.”
The one requisite everyone looks for in an entrepreneur above all is passion. If you have passion for your business idea and a never-quit attitude, “there’s never a bad time to start a business, if you plan it right,” says Banks.
|Carra Stoller is an attorney who wanted to give back to the community and had a passion for health and beauty. She couldn’t find organic beauty products, and figured other women were looking for them, too. She opened Ecology, an organic beauty boutique in Birmingham, with business partner Marla Shapiro.|
“My background as an attorney probably smoothed the way,” she says of the process of opening her own business.
Ecology launched on “super speed.” She first had the idea in February, and the store launched in December. “Definitely not the norm.”
Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “Just do it. Start. Step one is to make a commitment. Come up with an idea that you are passionate about, an idea that ignites a spark inside of you,” she says.
“Also, count on everything taking longer than you anticipate.”
Her biggest assumption, she says, was that she would get support from the Jewish community. “I thought they would just flock to my store, but it’s still a struggle,” she says. “So I advise people not to count on one community or demographic for your support. Branch out.”
Marketing the business is hard work, she says. “It’s a full-time job. But I found the best marketing to be word-of-mouth advertising. Give customers a great experience and they’ll share with others.”
She got the funding she needed from a private bank that took the risk and invested in her dream. “But don’t turn away from your ideas because of money,” she says. “If you have the will, there will be a way.”
Stoller, 35, lives in West Bloomfield with husband, Andrew, and daughters Matilda, 4, and Ruby, 7. They belong to Temple Israel.
|Jason Teshuba, 36, of Royal Oak, launched Mango Languages, a developer of language learning products offered through online subscriptions and software packages, in 2007. This year the company made it to No. 275 on the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s fastest-growing firms.|
The Farmington Hills-based company sells to public libraries and is making in-roads into public universities, corporations, schools and the government.
Teshuba and his brother, Michael, actually began sowing the seeds of Mango back in 2004 with an earlier web development company where they were selling products from other language learning companies.
Both he and Michael were trained as software developers. “We thought we could create something better.”
Their biggest challenge was having no money. “We had to find free, cheap or alternate routes to get our product developed,” Teshuba says.
The goal was to launch with 10 language courses, and they couldn’t afford to pay language teachers to develop the product. “Instead, we asked them to do it free and pay them royalties from the sale of the product for a number of years,” he says. “They’ve made four times as much in royalties as they would have made in fees.”
Mango Languages has never taken any venture capital. “We’ve grown the business by making sales,” Teshuba says.
He has the “3 Ps” of advice for would-be entrepreneurs: Persistence. Passion. Partners.
“Persistence you’ll need because so many problems and issues will arise, and you have to keep going till something favorable happens. Passion. I LOVE what I do. I love languages, and I’m proud of what I’m doing. So should you,” he says. “Finally, partners. Pick the people you want to work with carefully. Make sure they share your ideals and values.”
|Emma Zerkel, 39, and her husband, Michael, were working in a family retail business when Michigan’s economy started to tank. “We realized we had to expand and not be limited by physical space,” she says.|
In 2006, they launched Sylvan Lake-based All USA Clothing, an online retailer of domestically manufactured clothing. The challenge was in understanding the online market. So they learned by trial and error. “We studied our competitors’ websites for what we liked and didn’t like and got our site up as soon as we could,” says Zerkel, who lives in West Bloomfield and has two children, Dan, 11, and Leah, 9.
Two months ago, All USA Clothing re-launched its website with a more glamorous look and more user-friendly features that have increased sales and cut down on customer phone calls for help. A Facebook store is on the way next.
“My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is don’t try to do everything at one time. We’ve had to grow our business in stages,” she says.
|Jake Sigal, 30, founded Livio Radio, a startup that makes Internet radio more widely accessible, in his Ferndale home four years ago with a $10,000 loan from his parents. Now his company is venture-backed and one of the leaders in the automotive Internet radio sector. This year he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Automation Alley.|
He has some advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs: “Ideas are worthless. It’s the execution of the idea that is valuable. So share your idea with as many people as possible,” he says. “Too many people focus on patents. Patents should come after your product is launched, not before.”
According to Sigal, many entrepreneurs focus on creating their business before their product. “Ninety percent of failures are on the product side.”
He also suggests finding partners. “I found partners in China and the U.S. who had the resources I needed,” he says. “The factory we used and the engineers we used were willing to work for free and take part of the profits.”
Sigal recommends looking to the Small Business Administration to get started; that’s what he did. He also suggests people attend trade shows in their fields and get a bit of experience at a startup before they launch their own.
“Be the expert in your product, get good advisers and surround yourself with people who know more than you do about other aspects of the business,” he says. “It’s only with great people that you can make a great company.”
He also adds that people “severely underestimate” the amount of effort it takes to get a business off the ground. “Ask yourself whether you’re ready to put in a half-day of work — and then pick which 12 hours you want to work. If that’s not you, you probably shouldn’t create a startup,” he says.
|Lynne Golodner, 41, had been working as a freelancer for 10 years when she decided she needed a bit more security in her life. Divorced with three kids at the time, the thought of launching her own business seemed inviting. “At first, I thought about opening a cafe,” she says. “Then I asked myself, ‘What skills do I have? What does the market need?’”|
She saw a need for companies to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and connect with customers.
“Social media was a new landscape, and I saw how I could use my communication skills to act as a matchmaker,” she says.
Her first step was to find mentors. “I found several who helped me expand my vision into public relations, events and marketing campaigns,” she says.
She launched Your People LLC, a communications and public relations firm, out of her house five years ago. “I kept my overhead low and used contract workers at first as I grew the business,” she says. In May, she opened an office in Southfield, and has one full-time and two part-time employees.
Her advice is to build your business by building relationships. “Listen to people. I ask a lot of people out to lunch, and I’ve never been turned down,” she says. “Learn your lessons in the trenches and learn from your clients.”
She, her husband and four kids live in Southfield.
“I tell people who want to start their own business to do it. Yes, it’s scary at first. But you’ll regret it if you don’t try.”
|Rabbi Jason Miller, 36, has always been an entrepreneur. He launched Miller Video Productions when he was 15, but he opened Kosher Michigan “almost reluctantly,” he says.|
Miller was working at Tamarack Camps in 2008, supervising the kosher kitchens there in place of the Vaad, the Orthodox rabbis‘ council that usually supervised.
“I began getting inquiries from local food businesses to certify their products as kosher,” he says. “I began to look at what was wrong in the kosher certification industry and realized I could provide a certification service with the same standards as the Vaad that was easier to deal with.”
Miller launched Kosher Michigan in 2008 with some cheerleaders — and some detractors. “My biggest assumption was that it wouldn’t work,” he says. “Not a good plan!
“At first it was a side project, but as it grew, I had to formalize it as a business, incorporate, hire a bookkeeper, business manager, etc.,” he says. “I got advice from other businesspeople.”
Miller became the first Conservative rabbi to successfully compete with the Orthodox in the kosher-compliance industry, and today he certifies 40 businesses and thousands of products as kosher.
Miller lives in Farmington Hills with his wife and three children. His advice to entrepreneurs is to think big. “Don’t let anything deter you,” he says. “Articulate a belief in your business and communicate it. Become a thought leader in your industry.”
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