Bookstores and libraries are filled with more books of business advice than you'll ever have time to read. Our intrepid reporter, in 30 days and against all odds, finds the best ones for you

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I had recently been transferred to the start-up beat here at Inc., assigned to covering the marketplace of new and emerging ideas and companies. As I settled into my new job, I was amazed at the stream of "how to" books about starting a business that poured into our office week after week -- and I'm not easily amazed by such things. I had had no idea people were writing books like Sit and Grow Rich: Petsitting and Housesitting for Profit and -- odder yet -- presumably selling them. There were books about managing your high-tech venture, starting your business after age 50, starting your plumbing business, and starting the 101 best businesses. (And here I'd always thought one was more than enough for most people.) Gone were the days of a few basic how-to books straddling a diverse readership. Clearly, the market for books about start-ups was in the middle of some serious flux. As a reporter, I wanted to know more.

Little did I know that my friend Jennifer would give me the opportunity. Many things had been part of my friendship with Jennifer Bayley, but business wasn't one of them. I met Jennifer four years ago at our local Quaker meeting, at a fellowship group for young adults. We didn't exactly hit it off right away: I thought that she was kind of boring and, worse yet, that she flirted with my boyfriend. I don't know what she thought of me.

But I've never been any good at first impressions. Eighteen months later Jennifer and I were both in transition: I, out of a romantic relationship, and she into a new career -- organic farming. As we struggled to come to terms with a series of unexpected changes in our lives, we became friends, companions through some times of turbulence and waiting.

Today I scarcely recognize the woman I first met. When Jennifer jettisoned the office job that frustrated her, something changed. When she left Boston in 1992 to pursue her lifelong dream of working on a farm, she became more truly herself -- in a way I think most people never do. The bored, dissatisfied white-collar worker I first knew is gone. In her place is a woman of substance who loves her work and has found her own way in the world.

Now Jennifer, 32, wants to start a farm of her own. As I talked to her about her plans, I realized that while the organic-farming business is offbeat, her problems are typical. Like many people who start businesses for the first time, Jennifer has come to know her industry by working in it during the past two years. She knows the hardships involved in a small farm, and she knows that her business would probably support her for only part of the year. Jennifer has visited any number of organic farms, read books about farming, and contacted associations in her industry. But she has never, ever owned or managed a business. As a result, she is now trying to educate herself about small-business planning -- from scratch.

Why not, I figured, put our two questions together? If I set out to explore the strange new world of how-to books for start-ups, it would help to have a real neophyte businessperson with real questions to focus my search. (Otherwise, how could I possibly decide whether Financing Your Franchise or The Best Home Businesses for the 90s was more relevant?) Meanwhile, Jennifer could obviously benefit from having someone screen the best business books for beginners -- and could add an interesting perspective to my story. That's what I argued to my editors in late November, at any rate.

I soon got word that my story idea had been accepted. I had about 30 working days to screen every small-business book in the English language, read all the best, and write a cover story reviewing them. How I would do that was up to me.

* * *

This could be a long day. it's just me and six shelves of small-business books here at the largest Boston branch of Barnes & Noble, a discount bookstore chain. That means I'm spending the afternoon with text like this:

"TY HICKS HAS A BUSINESS FOR YOU! Now is the right time to free yourself from the fear of layoffs and mass firings, to acquire an independent source of income, to make more money than ever possible in a routine job, to have more free time to spend with your family, to build up a bigger retirement nest egg and to take your vacations where and when YOU want to....Start today and begin your new life as a home-based entrepreneur!"

Sorry, Ty, not today.

Because I have little time to conduct my book search, I have decided to proceed like any new entrepreneur, by checking out local bookstores and libraries. Admittedly, I'm carrying this process to extremes undreamed of by normal entrepreneurial types: here at Barnes & Noble, I plan to at least glance at each of the 200-plus small-business books on the shelves. Then it's on to another of Boston's finest bookstores to repeat the process. The ultimate aim: to narrow my search to about 40 books, which I will buy for closer examination. Also fair game for inclusion in this Top 40 is anything I can find in the main branch of the Boston Public Library or in Inc.'s offices.

So here I stand, every bookstore owner's nightmare come to life: the premeditated browser. I'm armed only with a credit card, a library card, and a four-subject notebook for keeping track of my reactions to everything from Ty Hicks to Importing from Singapore. (Somehow, neither of those makes the Top 40.) I now spend my days in fear of attracting the seemingly inevitable attention of some bookstore employee as I paw through the store's entire small-business inventory.

From this experience, I draw valuable lessons. They can be summarized as follows:

1. You can get an amazing amount of reading done in leanly staffed urban bookstores. Some even have nice chairs.

2. Part of the explosion in small-business titles is sad. There is no shortage of folks out there preying on the deep fearfulness in our contemporary American economy, promising poor silly souls like the ones Ty Hicks addresses that self-employment is somehow the answer to their job woes. One result is the many "fill-in-the-blank-with-a-number of best businesses to start from home/for $500 or less/while commuting" (yes, I'm making that last one up) books that end up on the shelves. Somehow lost in the breezy little descriptions of dozens of businesses is the fact that there are no businesses that are best for everyone, that starting a business is one of the most individual acts a person can make. Yes, you can start a successful business in an industry you don't know -- but you'll have to work like mad to compensate for your ignorance. Besides, too often those books include businesses because they're easy to enter, not because they're particularly promising. Count on it: the great fortunes made in parking-lot striping and organizing male beauty pageants will be few and far between.

3. On a more positive note, much of the apparent growth in the small-business-book arena simply reflects an expanding, maturing market that can support more-specialized titles. As fundamental changes in our economy are pushing, pulling, and dragging more people into self-employment, a market is developing out there for titles ranging from Marketing for the Home-Based Business to the Prentice Hall Small Business Model Letter Book. That's good news for experienced company builders as well as new ones; if you are stuck on that learning curve for importing from Singapore, these days there's a book that may help. While not all the new titles are good, the sheer quantity of material being published makes the market for small-business information more competitive. As a result, a savvy reader can likely find more good books than ever before.

4. Carpe diem, as a Roman author once suggested: seize the day. Or in this case, seize the book. Maybe it's just the dismal Massachusetts economy, which has laid-off engineers and middle managers desperately seeking start-ups, but I had no idea that my local bookstore was such a cutthroat shopping environment. I found that good small-business books -- particularly those about the start-up process -- don't stay on good bookstores' shelves long. Meanwhile, my friendly urban public library proved next to useless in this task: would-be entrepreneurs had long ago stolen -- or at least informally borrowed (kind of like those people who take 90 days to pay your company) -- many of the best and most recent titles in circulation. Almost all the rest were legitimately out.

At the library, that left me sifting through bad memoirs of high-flying 1980s entrepreneurs, things hopelessly outdated, and things with call numbers so obscure the thieves couldn't find them.

Jennifer sounds a little shaky on the phone tonight. She and her highly significant other, Cos, have headed down from Maine to the Philadelphia area to settle for the foreseeable future. Jennifer's apprenticeship on an organic farm has come to an end, and she and Cos have gone to a region where he has family. At first she wasn't so keen on the idea. (She claims there are, from a Maine farmer's perspective, awfully hot summers in southeastern Pennsylvania and too many ticks carrying Lyme disease.) But she warmed to it in part because she had heard, through one or another of her organic-farming networks, about someone in the area who had land to let to an organic farmer at a reasonable price. Jennifer was excited about the possibility, and it got her thinking she might even start farming by spring.

But nothing is ever that simple. When she visited, Jennifer discovered the land wasn't suitable for several reasons. The local health-food store was quite happy with its produce distributors, thank you. Worse yet, the farmers' market Jennifer had been told about as a possible venue of distribution was a whole different animal from those she had worked at in Maine: it was indoors and expensive to join. Now, she is quite clear, the land-finding and market-research process will be hard and lengthy. She will have to go back to her original plan: to spend the next year working while spending her spare time researching locations and financing, studying her market, and preparing a business plan. April 1994 is much too soon to start.

I try to be as reassuring as I can on the phone. I know this whole process is hard on Jennifer; she's a person who, left to her own devices, likes to have things pretty well planned and under control. (She's the kind of person who always seems to be making less money than I am yet somehow saving more. The kind whose long hair somehow always seems impeccably brushed. Don't ask me how; it's a mystery to me.)

Jennifer has had this lifelong dream -- ever since she was a little kid with a garden plot -- of spending her life working the soil, growing food. Not a very practical dream for a suburban child, so for years she just tried to ignore it. She went to a high-powered college and tried normal jobs, then traveling, and then normal jobs again -- but she never really felt satisfied. Now these last few years have found her happier than ever before -- "This work really gives me joy," she says -- but the price has been her much-loved plans and security. Her farm apprenticeships have been seasonal, meaning she's had to get other jobs in the winter to support herself. She keeps moving from place to place, from summer job to winter job, packing her small car with possessions, on to the next farm. Having enough money for health insurance -- without dipping into the savings she's jealously guarding for her future business -- is a constant struggle. Most of the time she has faith that things will work out, that a way will open. But sometimes her voice does quaver -- as it does tonight.

* * *

Meanwhile, I have started to sort books -- big time. I can read no more than 12 completely -- there's just not more time -- but I have to read enough of the 40 to pick the best. With the assistance of my trusty colleague Robina, who takes up reading start-up books on her daily train commute, I get to work, posthaste. First I discuss with Jennifer some of her key questions: Should she take on a partner? What is the best way to distribute her products? How should she research potential markets effectively? Then I add a few subjects -- such as an explanation of financial statements and cash flow -- that I think every book about start-ups should address. That way Robina and I can sample all the books in a fair way, giving them grades on each topic, which I can later compare.

Now the fun begins. Each day I grow more ruthless with my 40, easily separating the haves from the have-nots, the savvy from the inane. Books end up in piles on the floor, graded in my mind: A, B, C, D, F -- top-notch, solid, OK, bad, awful. There are few Fs -- most of the Fs never made it out of the stores -- and an awful lot of Bs. I can tell I've got a winner every time I find myself plastering the pages with Post-it notes to keep track of unusually good advice.

By the time Christmas draws near, I begin reading in earnest, breaking ground on the dozen or so books I think are best -- and which I need to finish by 1994. I also talk to Jennifer one last time: both to formulate questions we can use to explore alternative sources of start-up information (see "On-Line Resources for Start-ups," page 6) and to have, for once, a formal interview. She jokes that the interview will last only 10 minutes; after all, I already know her whole story.

The funny thing is, I don't. I should but I don't. Sure, I've heard her story, piece by piece -- from the time she found out you could learn about organic farming by becoming an apprentice, to her early days in the fields, to her first winter spent winging it with temporary jobs. But I never heard it as a story rich with accumulated meaning. I knew just the fragments, not how they fit together.

I didn't know how she felt the first time she started visiting organic farms, or that moment when she realized that her long-maligned dream was achievable -- by people like her. I didn't realize the extent of her learning, either: how she gradually compared different types of farm operations to develop a model for her own, for example. Like all good stories, Jennifer's is full of surprises. Who would have thought that a woman who as a child dreaded Girl Scout-cookie season would discover she truly enjoyed selling -- as long as the product was organic vegetables? I end the three-hour interview with that sheepish feeling you sometimes get when something familiar captures your eye from a whole new angle, full of unexpected beauty.

* * *

Back to the -- sigh -- books. although I'm beginning to feel that my own life story contains far too many chapters about business plans, this last phase of reading does have its satisfactions. At this stage I encounter few disappointments and lots of good ideas. (See "The 25 Best Business Ideas from More Small-Business Books Than You'll Ever Want to Read," page 4.) I discover there is a common thread among many of the best start-up books: they are often written by people who have both small-business experience and some broader kind of knowledge, which has given them a bigger perspective. The accounts of authors who don't have experience in running a business seldom ring quite true; those authors never, you sense, know how to separate good from bad. Meanwhile, books written by entrepreneurs frequently lack perspective. These authors are apt to make the mistake of assuming that their states' policies are typical or that, fundamentally, all companies are like theirs.

The authors of the best three books (see "And the Winners Are...," page 7) are hybrids. They have experienced the phenomenon they write about -- whether it's founding a growth company or starting a one-person business -- and then either repeated the process many times or observed many others doing it. The result is an unbeatable combination of authenticity and broad vision.

Most authors have some pet area of specialization, even if they don't admit it. While many claim to write for entrepreneurs in general, in practice they emphasize one type of business or another -- typically, whatever type they have or once had. Handily, my three best books are each best suited for a separate common species of business: the traditional high-growth company; the classic small business with employees but no big growth plans, such as a small retailer; and the new generation of computer-powered sole proprietors described in our January issue. (See "Do-It-Yourself Job Creation," [Article link], by Anne Murphy.)

Now my job is done. It's time to send my list off to Jennifer and leave the rest up to her. I finish knowing far more about cash-flow projections, trademark law, and market research than ever before. I also have a sense of relief that among the scores of bad books out there, there are some good ones containing smart ideas for company owners at all stages. I hope all those legions of displaced-managers-turned-entrepreneurial-types find them -- and I hope my friend does well.

* * *

Research assistance for this article was provided by Robina A. Gangemi.


THE 25 BEST BUSINESS IDEAS FROM MORE SMALL-BUSINESS BOOKS THAN YOU'LL EVER WANT TO READ

A good business book is full of tips. Although most decent how-to books provide standard information -- how to structure a business plan, what a partnership agreement should include -- I found the better ones contained unusual tidbits that got me thinking. Here are some ideas from the start-up bookshelves that caught my attention:

1. If you meet someone you want to stay in touch with at a conference, later send that person a newspaper article on a subject of common interest. It's a good way to build on the relationship. (A)

2. When designing a credit application, ask for five credit references. Because most people ask for three, you will increase your chances of getting useful information by calling five references.(B)

3. If substantial growth is in your plans, consider designing an organizational chart that has empty slots -- above the titles of the people you are hiring now. By letting early hires know that someone may be brought in above them, you avoid awkwardness later on. (C)

4. Offer a business customer a discount if the customer will include your brochure in a mailing. (B)

5. There are some critical sales questions start-ups often forget during prebusiness planning. Before you start out, be sure you have an estimate of the following: your sales cycle (how long it will take a prospective purchaser to decide to buy -- and to pay you), the size of your average sale, and the expense involved in making a typical sale. (D)

6. Confused by your state's regulatory requirements? Many states offer a free or inexpensive booklet about license and permit requirements. It's often available through the state small-business office or department of commerce. (E)

7. Consider having a written agreement with employees that says you may switch their hours. Otherwise, if you switch employees' hours and they quit as a result, they may be eligible for unemployment benefits. That can lead to higher premiums for you. (F)

8. If you are an expert in your field, give talks to local organizations. They're excellent publicity. (G)

9. You can use a good business plan for many purposes besides securing funding. One example: a solidly prepared business plan gained one author merchant credit-card status -- which is often tough for start-ups to obtain. (A)

10. One good way to save time as a manager: develop a "problem flag" system. Pick key indicators for your business and ask employees to flag certain conditions. In other words, they should let you know immediately if a certain circumstance occurs -- such as a big order's falling behind schedule. Then back off and do other work. (D)

11. If you can't reach an agreement with a potential investor about the value of your company, consider accepting his or her valuation -- but build into the agreement an "earn-out" provision. With such a provision you earn back stock if the company actually hits the earnings milestones you think it will. (C)

12. Share your year's goals with a friend and fellow business owner. Then trade progress reports each month. (A)

13. If both you and your landlord have property insurance, include what's called a "mutual waiver of subrogation" in the lease. Without it, you could be sued by the landlord's insurer for damage you've caused. (E)

14. Looking for a good manufacturer's representative? Phone the buyers you want to sell to and ask for the names of reps they respect. (B)

15. Here are four possible routes for determining if an insurance company is in good financial health: Best's Insurance Reports, Moody's Bank and Financial Manual, Duff & Phelps (Insurance Company Claims-Paying Ability Rating Guide), and Standard & Poor's. A company called Weiss Research (800-289-9222) also offers ratings, for a fee. (E)

16. Don't hesitate to contact the authors of relevant research reports you read about in periodicals. They may be flattered by your interest and provide you with useful information. And even if a report is expensive, a free summary may be available. (A)

17. If you're planning to start a business targeting a local market, be sure to talk to people in similar businesses in other cities. Because you will not be a competitor, they will often be very helpful. (H)

18. When you need a legal document written, first locate a similar one and borrow as much as possible from it. When you've prepared a draft, give it to your lawyer for revisions. That will save your lawyer time -- and you money. (D)

19. If you're looking for financing, don't approach your best prospects first. You might as well work out rough spots in your presentation with financing sources that are more of a long shot. (C)

20. Trying to line up a key supplier for your new business? Call its salesperson for your area and try to set up a breakfast meeting. The salesperson has the most to gain if you sign on, and a breakfast meeting won't cut into his or her selling hours. (B)

21. Don't forget small-claims court as a resource for collecting unpaid debts. Even if a debt is slightly larger than the small-claims limit in your state, it may make sense to pursue just the portion of the debt that is under the limit. (E)

22. How do you keep a research-and-development project (or any new project, for that matter) from getting out of hand? Before you start, ask your manager (or yourself), "What results would signify that this project should be halted?" Work out an agreement in writing, in advance, and stick to it. (D)

23. On your monthly statement or invoice mailings, you can include advertisements for your other goods and services. (B)

24. Always find out why a financing source rejected you and if the source has any suggestions about other people or institutions you should try. (C)

25. Take commitments you've made to family members as seriously as you do business appointments. If you wouldn't dream of canceling a business appointment because something else came up, why not be as polite to your family? (D)

KEY
A = Working Solo

B = When Friday Isn't Payday

C = The Entrepreneur's Road Map to Business Success

D = The New Venture Handbook

E = The Legal Guide for Starting and Running a Small Business

F = Starting and Operating a Business in Pennsylvania

G = The Woman's Guide to Starting a Business

H = Numerous sources


WHEN PROFESSORS WRITE BUSINESS BOOKS

It was probably inevitable. The strength of the start-up- books market creates lots of opportunity for writers -- of all stripes. Next thing you know, they're all over the place: start-up how-to books written by college professors.

It's a scary concept. Admittedly, there are some good textbooks. For instance, several of my colleagues say great things about New Venture Creation: Entrepreneurship in the 1990s, a megatome by well-known entrepreneurship expert Jeffry A. Timmons. New Venture Creation does look like a good book -- but I couldn't get past the fact that it was nearly 700 pages and cost about $50.

How could I justify buying the book when so much fine information was available at less than half the price -- and length? Call me lazy, but I think there are certain questions a book should avoid raising in a reader's mind. One of them is, Should I read this -- or should I use it as a prop to help my small children see over the top of the dining-room table?

Timmons aside, I'd be wary of professor-written books. Starting a business is complicated enough. You don't need the added burden of trying to interpret baffling academic charts, such as [those in] How to Start Your Own Business...and Succeed, by Arthur H. Kuriloff, John M. Hemphill Jr., and Douglas Cloud.

Nor do you want to struggle with passages like the following, from The Entrepreneur and Small Business Problem Solver: An Encyclopedic Reference and Guide, by William A. Cohen:

"To calculate break-even, we start with profit. Profit is the number of units sold multiplied by the profit at which we are selling them less the number of units sold multiplied by the total variable cost minus the total fixed cost. Let's use an equation to make this a little easier to follow."

Let's.

Sometimes even the equations didn't help. For instance, take Cohen's suggestion that an entrepreneur with a new product in 2,000 stores might want to check a few randomly chosen stores to gauge sales. A good idea -- until we got to the five-step process accompanying it:

" The first step is to look at a few samples of the stores and calculate an average [number of products sold]....The second step is to decide how much accuracy we want....The third step is to calculate an acceptable limit based on an accuracy that we calculated in the previous step....The fourth step is to estimate the standard deviation of our sample....For the fifth step, we calculate the required sample size using the following formula, which will provide the answer at a 95% confidence level:

n = ( S)2 + 1

I/1.96

where: n = Sample size

S = Standard deviation of sample I = Acceptable limits"

And the sixth step is...turn the page -- quickly. Or buy a new business book.


ON-LINE RESOURCES FOR START-UPS

To: Martha Mangelsdorf

From: Phaedra Hise, reporter

Just reporting back after about four hours of exploring on-line resources for start-ups. Thinking a neophyte entrepreneur would probably start with basic reading material, I first headed for America Online's Microsoft Small Business Center. Under topics like Finance, Starting a Business, and Women in Business are files of stories -- from magazines, videotape transcripts, and organizations' literature. Under Finance, I found "Alternative Ways to Find Capital," defining techniques like factoring and barter. Under Women in Business, I found an "Alternative Financing" article, which included lists of possible funding sources for woman-owned businesses.

Next, I browsed the bulletin boards, where members post messages to one another. The one titled Partnerships was mostly messages about business opportunities -- if your friend Jennifer decides to take on a partner, it would be a good place to advertise. A few days ago, posing as Jennifer, I posted a message here asking for general information on partners. It provoked a few responses, mostly warning me to get a good lawyer to structure partnership deals.

On the Venture Capitalists bulletin board, I had posted another message asking where to search for investors for Jennifer's idea. One response advised checking with the U.S. Department of Agriculture for grant and investor information. Still no response to the message I had posted in the Classifieds section, seeking land in Pennsylvania.

Thinking a direct conversation with some company owners might turn up some good information, I headed for the Entrepreneur's Forum meeting, at which members chat on-line with one another. About 15 attendees were all typing in comments -- in "real time" -- about using newsletters. I asked how a newsletter could help a farm stand at the start-up stage and was immediately overwhelmed with questions and suggestions: start handing newsletters out to area residents and health-food stores to build interest for the farm stand; send one to ecologically conscious groups to prospect for investors; keep it short; and include recipes. Several people typed in addresses of organizations that provide mailing lists.

After the meeting, I left America Online and logged on to Compu-Serve's Entrepreneurial/Small Business area. In the Working from Home forum, there were lists and lists of files on topics such as getting new business. Using the forum's "listing" option turned up titles such as "PLNO_S.EXE/BIN," giving no hint of the content. But "browsing" the section revealed business plans that can be downloaded free of charge and articles on varied topics.

After leaving CompuServe, I dialed up the SBA bulletin board. There I found detailed, easy-to-read material explaining what a business plan is and how to write each section. After printing that out for later, I moved over to financing. The information was primarily on loans, including a section on very small "microloans" in Pennsylvania. Jennifer might want to explore that kind of funding.

For your information, the cost of the search was less than $20.


THE BOOKS

Listed below are the 40 books yielded by my shopping and book-borrowing spree. This is not a recommended reading list. I tried to purchase any general guide to start-ups that wasn't obviously awful or out-of-date, but some losers did slip in. To keep things manageable, I generally excluded industry-specific books and books strictly on specialized topics, such as developing a marketing program. (I made exceptions for areas that are specialized yet still cover much of the start-up process. For example, I included some books on writing business plans or starting a home-based business; however, I held such books to a higher standard, since they are relevant to fewer people.)

Abrams, Rhonda M. The Successful Business Plan: Secrets and Strategies.