The boom in business start-ups has created a miniboom in books about starting businesses. Go to any big bookstore and you'll see them on the shelves: The Start-up Entrepreneur; So You've Got a Great Idea; and many others, all designed to have you working late into the night in your garage. Who doesn't think he or she has a great idea?
Some of the current crop repeat familiar, all-American themes: work hard, thumb your nose at the experts, never say die. That, says James R. Cook in The Start-up Entrepreneur, is how such famous company-builders as Henry Ford, J. C. Penney, and Ray Kroc managed to beat the odds. Ford, Penney, and Kroc, of course, also happened to have great ideas attuned to sea changes taking place in society. That may have been a little more important than the sweat of their brows -- though you wouldn't know it from reading this book.
Cook, the founder of a precious-metals business, does touch on some important issues, such as the need to see things from the customer's point of view. But his writing rambles, and a lot of his recommendations are simplistic. Example: "Avoid deals in areas of shrinking population." By that logic, we could rule out the entire northeastern section of the United States.
The liveliest and best-written new book in this area is Steve Fiffer's So You've Got a Great Idea. Fiffer, a lawyer turned writer, tells how more than a dozen businesses, most of them with pretty darn good ideas, got off the ground. Among those featured: Great Expectations, one of the first video dating services; Snugli, a maker of pouches for transporting infants; and Books on Tape, which took nearly 10 years to show a profit. In addition to the stories, Fiffer offers some worthwhile observations on the pitfalls of raising money from friends, the value of business planning, and other topics.
Another worthwhile book, particularly for women, will be Joanne Wilkens's Her Own Business: Success Secrets of Women Entrepreneurs, due out in April. Wilkens's inspirational stories run a little long, but her 52-page appendix includes some fascinating statistics on women business owners, along with a good bibliography and helpful lists of networks and professional associations.
If you can do without the entertainment value, try The Entrepreneur's Guide to Planning a Business, by James R. Ball. It may read as if it was written by an accountant, if only because Ball was formerly a partner with a Big Eight firm. But he provides solid checklists and exercises to help businesspeople evaluate their strengths and fine-tune their strategies. At $20, it's slightly expensive for a paperback (available only from Venture America Inc., Oakton, VA 22124), but it's a bargain if it saves you from heading off in the wrong direction.