Pitfalls await those opening a business

STEUBENVILLE – Joe Belinsky has a few words of advice for anyone thinking of jumping head-first into the entrepreneurial world: Don’t.

Belinsky, small business development adviser for the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, said would-be entrepreneurs can spare themselves a lot of headaches by doing their homework before they take the plunge.

Belinsky, in fact, says the biggest mistake a prospective business owner can make is to rush into it.

“There are two key elements you need to be successful,” he said. “You’ve got to have a plan, then you have to have money. Usually, you have to have the plan before you (can get) the money.”

Belinsky, a certified business adviser operating out of the Small Business Development Center at Kent State University-Tuscarawas in New Philadelphia, helps prospective entrepreneurs in a 10-county region get their business enterprises off on the right foot.

“Our purpose is to help people who have an idea about starting up a business to be able to take that idea and build it into a business plan, and then to take the business plan and actually start working it so they can become successful,” he said.

The process begins with a start-up class, offered monthly in each county in Belinsky’s service territory. The next start-up class here in Jefferson County is set for 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 24 in the chamber offices, 630 Market St.

“A lot of people who get started have never managed a business or even a part of a business, so we help to shepherd them along,” he said. “We tell them things to look out for, things to do, how to go about hiring people, things like that … They come in and we tell them all the good and bad about starting up their own business, then we also tell them about all the resources that are available.

“The big thing is, we let them know there’s lots and lots of help out there, it’s just a question of being able to organize their thoughts to be able to do it.”

At the end of the start-up class, he said the participants should have a pretty good idea of what to expect if they decide to push forward with their plans.

“Or if they have an idea but aren’t sure it’s workable, (the startup class) should help them,” he added. “If they have a sketch of an idea and don’t know where to go with it, I can help them develop the idea into something that’s viable.”

He said a lot of the things they cover in start-up class can help later on as they work on their business plan, a blueprint they can follow as their business evolves. Done properly, it’s a guide a small business owner can use to figure out where their (market) is, how to attract and retain business so they can grow their own.

“There’s so much stuff that can help them with their business plan that they’ll have to make up later on,” he said. “Plus, there’s the interaction with other people – that helps, too. Everybody has some questions they might be like to explore, some ideas they might want to try – hearing from someone else can help, there’s a lot of good interaction (that takes place).”

If they do decide to follow their entrepreneurial dream, Belinsky offers one-on-one counseling to help each of them develop that all-important business plan.

“(That) includes financial projections, which is usually one of the bigger parts of what I help them do,” he said. “I think maybe 1 percent or 2 percent of the people I’ve worked with over the years actually had a grasp on financial projections – most people have no idea, it’s really about education them as to what running a business is all about, all the financials and the cash flow.”

How long it takes to develop a workable plan depends on the individual. Some people can get through it in a day, others need more time. Belinsky said he had a handful of entrepreneurs complete their business plans in 2012 who actually started the process five years earlier.

“An awful lot do (chicken out),” he said. “But I actually guide everybody through it. The majority of people are scared to death at doing it, even if you give them a template. What I try to do is help them with the first couple pages, give them a feel for how to do it, then let them do more research and do more work on their plan. Then, when they’re done, they send it to me and I’ll review it and edit it.”

Belinksy said the template is easy to follow, and prospective business owners can do a lot of their research online.

“We use the template to spur them on,” he said. “We give them a number of documents and stuff like that, examples … that helps them out. Quite often, I even show them how to use the Internet, how to do the research on the Internet.

The one-on-one session is usually held at the chamber office, “but as they continue to develop their plan I have them send me stuff by e-mail or phone,” he said. “That way, they don’t always have to be making appointments to see me.”

And, Belinsky said business prospects need to have a viable business plan before they go looking for backers.

“People trying to do it on their own often find it time-consuming and frustrating,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll start a business up without any kind of plan and then suddenly their funds are gone because they don’t have one. A business plan provides a guide on how to be able to run their business. It will tell them what they need to do to prepare themselves.”

Belinsky said the process helps people figure out if being a small business owner is really for them.

“Some people think they’re not the right material for owning their own business, when they are. Others will think they’re ready to go but really shouldn’t be doing it. Part of the process is figuring out if you’re the type of person who should be doing it. If so, here are things that are important for you to know, like the hours you’ll work, the amount of money required for cash flow, how to do their market research.

“Sometimes we don’t see them again; it’s actually saving them a lot of time and money. On the other hand, those who are really interested in it will find it to be a much simpler, easier, more complete way of doing it. There are lots of different tools that we use to help them flesh it out.”

And while no two businesses are alike, Belinsky said a good rule of thumb is that, “the more you plan, the more you’re going to succeed.”

To register for Belinsky’s Jan. 24 start-up class call (330) 308-7434 to register. There is a $20 material fee.