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Before the Business Plan

Purveyors of conventional wisdom would have you believe that the very first thing you ought to do when setting up a new business is to create a business plan.

It doesn't matter whether you are selling odds and ends on eBay from your living room or something larger and more complex,

Business plans are excellent and necessary. Far too few of us self-employed and freelance people use them.

They force us to spell out our objectives. We have to assign numbers to our expectations and assign a time-line to our goals. They become our roadmap keeping us on track.

But I suggest that you can't make a business plan that is worth anything until you've done your homework.

And that means knowing what you want to do and how you want to do it. And determining that there is sufficient demand for your product to generate enough income to cover your costs and allow a profit.

In other words, before the business plan comes research.

If a body of knowledge already exists, it makes sense to tap into it and save yourself some work. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics and other such sources, for example, publish a great deal of demographic information. Some of it is very useful.

But it is also likely that as a creative sole-proprietor, meaningful statistics don't exist about your specialty.

Many micro-businesses target a very specialized niche. And many owned by creative types exist to sell a product or service that don't follow well-worn prototypes.

It is particularly difficult for such people to find meaningful published data.

If you fall into these categories, you'll have to generate your own information.

There is more to your research than just the purely business information. You are building a life as well as a business.

Are the demands and conditions of your proposed business compatible with the life you want to create?

For example, illustrators often work on short deadlines - meaning that sometimes they have to work far into the night to complete a project on deadline. Plus, some clients are demanding and not all pay on a timely basis. After all of that, can you still "love it" enough?

Or, maybe your business is such that sales fluctuate during the year. How will you make it through the lean months? Can you handle the uncertainty?

So, how do you find information?

First, if other people provide services similar to yours, talk to them. You can gain a lot of information quickly. Their answers to your questions will save you a lot of legwork and open your eyes to factors you may not have considered.

You can find them through trade associations, schools, word-of-mouth. If the locals are reluctant to share information - perhaps because they see you as direct competition, consider finding similar people in a different locale.

Second, create the information you need.

Mimic and simplify what the 'big boys' do. Reduce their methods down to a level that is practical and affordable.

For example, perhaps you want to survey potential clients and customers to get feedback.

It will probably be neither affordable nor practical to commission a focus group. But you may be able to speak to potential targets informally or use direct mail to send a simple survey.

Eventually you'll have to 'put your toe in the water.' Try it out in a small way - so you won't lose much if it doesn't work - and observe the results. Then experiment and modify as needed. Once it works to your liking you can plunge right in.

This approach, known by the technical term "trial and error" can be applied to any facet of your business.

After all, even the largest producers test market new products before rolling them out.

Put some parameters around your efforts. Decide, in advance, how much time you want to allow and how much you want to budget.

Then test, test, test.

Use trial and error for every aspect of your business. Experiment with different ways of packaging your services, different rates and prices, different types of marketing, etc.

You'll soon find that certain approaches work better than others. Eventually your data will suggest your strategies.

And then you'll be ready to create your business plan.

Ellen Zucker's website http://www.selfemployment101.com is designed to help the creative sole-proprietor earn a living and have a life.

Have Ellen's articles delivered to your in-box. Subscribe to her ezine The Self-Employment Lady.

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