Small businesses should not be launched lightly

I like working for a large company but I understand the many others who dream of owning their own businesses.

Lately, however, I've noticed quite a number of folks who have started their own travel agencies. Several friends and family members have approached me asking that I use their Web sites to make my airline, hotel or car rental reservations. Mind you most of them have never previously expressed the slightest interest in helping people travel.

Yet they have signed up with an online company that markets home-based travel agencies. In this business venture, you pay a monthly fee for a personalized Web site with back office support. You then direct people to your Web site to book travel on which you receive a commission. In this network-building business, you can also make money by getting others to establish their own Web sites.

It's not this specific business model that troubles me. My concern is that too often people are so eager to earn extra money or are looking for a quick way to wealth via entrepreneurship that they are enticed to start a business in a field they have little knowledge about. They get sold on a certain small business venture because of an inspiring hotel presentation.

Small business ownership certainly has been a popular path to prosperity in this country. Authors Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, in their wonderfully researched book "The Millionaire Next Door," found that two-thirds of millionaires are self-employed.

But even in a country of more than 25 million small businesses, it is important to note that many fail. While two-thirds of new employer firms survive at least two years, only 44 percent last four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This holds true pretty much across all industry sectors.

To make sure your small business isn't a failure and financial drain on your family, consider the following advice from the Small Business Administration ( and SCORE, formerly the Service Corps of Retired Executives (, a nonprofit made up of working or retired business owners, executives and corporate leaders who volunteer to help budding business owners:

- Know what you love and love what you do. If you want to own a successful business, start with figuring out what you do best. Don't fall for a cookie-cutter business franchise just because the presentation was impressive. Start a business that has meaning to you. If it's all about the money, there's a good chance you will fail.

- Plan to succeed. Yes, that means creating a detailed business plan. It doesn't matter what business you go into, you need to have a business plan. You've heard it before: If you fail to plan, you're essentially planning to fail. A good business plan will, among other things, include an executive summary, market analysis, company description, how the business is to be organized and information about products or services. For details on what should be in your business plan, go to the SBA's Web site. Click on the link for "Small Business Planner."

- Do a budget. A business budget is as important as a personal budget. Many people are so eager to become their own bosses that they completely ignore the essential element of a successful business - making a profit. Notice I said profit, not revenue. Your goal should be to earn a profit. You also might consider keeping your job with a larger employer until you're confident you can earn a living being self-employed.

Before you jump into an entrepreneurial venture, try it on the side for a while. I know you're excited about being our own boss, but your personal household bills still have to be paid.

- Know the competition. Spend some time researching. Spend a few months looking through magazines that cover your business area. Most important, talk to business owners who already are successful in the field that interests you. They've been there and probably made a lot of mistakes they can help you avoid.

- Pay your taxes. It's so tempting to spend your revenues and not set aside money for taxes, especially when times get tough for your business. Don't do it. It's a huge and costly mistake. For information on what's required of a small business, go to Click on the link for "Businesses."

- Get help. You don't have to do this alone. There are so many resources, many of them free. Take advantage of the vast knowledge of the volunteers who work with SCORE. If you go to SCORE's Web site, you can enter your ZIP code and find an office nearest to you.

Write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is