No matter how hard you try to prepare, unexpected problems will erupt in your new start-up. In this excerpt from How to Really Start Your Own Business, longtime entrepreneurs say to plan as best you can, offer the best service, and be open to whatever surprises happen along the way.

  • Be prepared for the unexpected. There's an old saying in business: "Whatever can go wrong will go wrong." Somehow, it seems to happen in the first few days of many new businesses. You open your restaurant, and at 7:30 p.m., just at the height of the dinner hour, there's a power failure. Or a customer has a heart attack. Or the health inspector arrives with complaints. Or any of a hundred other things go wrong.

    I know of people in the direct-mail business who have brought their first 20,000 or 50,000 promotional letters to the post office for mailing and discovered that the address area or indicia on the envelopes didn't conform to postal regulations. Everything had to be redone at an unbearable cost in money and time.

    As Mo Siegel, founder of Celestial Seasonings, puts it: "Things are going to happen to you that you never expected. You have to count on that and you have to be flexible enough to move around it, or you are going to run into a brick wall and not get past it."

    According to David Liederman, founder of David's Cookies, a chain of chocolate-chip cookie stores, "I deal with the bad news theory of business. I never ask what is right. I only ask what is wrong. Because you have to be able to fix what's wrong before you sit back and open up a bottle of champagne and say, 'I did something right today.' "

There are two lessons in this observation:

  1. Be detail oriented. Business success is in many respects a result of doing the little things right. The more details you can anticipate doing, the more potential problems you are likely to head off.
  2. Keep your cool. If things go wrong early on, remember that you aren't alone in having unfortunate things happen to you.
  • Plan your initial efforts carefully. Putting together a written business plan is very important. But beyond having a document that sets out plans and objectives looking ahead three to five years, it is important to know exactly what you want to accomplish during the first few weeks and months you are open for business. That critical time period can make or break your company.

    Says James Lowry, founder of James A. Lowry Associates, a Chicago-based consulting firm: "I recommend putting on a piece of paper what are the three to five things that you are going to try to accomplish -- today, this week, this quarter, this year -- and then work back from those objectives. You start building back in terms of allocation of your time and allocation of your people's time and in some cases allocation of the client's time to make sure you can accomplish all the things you set out to do in a given time. That is what I really stress with all my people. Set deadlines. Set tough deadlines. Be very realistic about what you can or cannot do within a period of time."

  • Focus on service. Even if you are not in what is categorized as a service business, you need to focus on providing your customers with a level of service that will make a favorable impression. That means doing what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it.

    But in today's supercompetitive world, it often means even more than what you might think would be acceptable. One successful entrepreneur in a service business described his company's challenge this way: "I don't want customers to simply be satisfied with the service we provide. I want them to be ecstatic."

    He was taking note of a subtle shift in customers' expectations. They want what you promise -- and then some. They want to be pleasantly surprised about your people's attitude, product performance, price, or some other unforeseen benefits. You need to think constantly about ways to pleasantly surprise them.

    You also need to inquire constantly about what customers like and don't like about what you provide. And you need to obtain the same feedback from prospects who don't buy.

This material was excerpted from Chapter 10 of How to Really Start Your Own Business, by David E. Gumpert.

Copyright © 1996 Goldhirsh Group Inc.