I am a 19-year-old marketing/entrepreneurship student. I have some really great business ideas, but it's hard to be taken seriously in terms of loans, venture capital, etc. I've pitched ideas under false pretenses such as age and status and have gotten very positive interest, but I obviously cannot continue that. My father told me he'd help me after college, but I cannot wait three more years and watch someone else take my ideas.

Tyler Fabschutz
Boulder, Colo.

"Be cool, stay in school" is indoctrinated into students from preschool to postgrad, but the entrepreneurial impulse is not always suited to college. Just ask such unmatriculated successes as Larry Ellison, Ron Popeil, or Shawn Fanning. Even lesser-known dropout CEOs, like Tim Handley of Advantage Credit International, a Pensacola, Fla., outfit that sells credit reports to the mortgage industry, preach the merits of leaping into the working world. "A degree is not critical by any stretch," says Handley, who started his company several years after dropping out of Cal State-Bakersfield and now boasts sales of $18 million a year.

Except for a few snobs, most investors don't care how many letters you string after your name. What they do care about is whether you have vetted your ideas and validated the market opportunities with professionals steeped in industry knowledge. And stop misrepresenting yourself immediately, says Molly Pieroni, a partner at JatoTech, an Austin VC firm. At JatoTech, it's a deal-breaker. Plain and simple, nobody wants to invest money with a liar, no matter how brilliant the idea.

Also, bear in mind that the best, cheapest resources for young entrepreneurs can be found on campus. You have access to a great library, and fellow students, professors, and alumni are readily available to critique and develop your plan to the point where it will stand up to investor scrutiny. Ultimately, it may be cool to stay in school. Besides, as Pieroni points out, "nobody says you have to be a straight-A student--especially if you were going to drop out anyway."

In presenting IT-related proposals to clients, the constant refrain is, "What should I expect my return on investment to be?" Where can I find quality ROI calculation tools? What's been the general success of IT projects that present an ROI as a rationale for an IT purchase?

James Hunt
Cap Gemini Technologies
Vienna, Va.

Considering how reluctant businesses are to part with cash, it's no surprise you're hearing the ROI refrain. Unfortunately, you can't just punch a few numbers into your calculator and come up with the savings. Technology solutions are as unique as the companies that implement them, which is why formulas for ROI can be formulas for disaster. "Rarely can you predict what the actual return will be," says Jon Derome, senior analyst for the Yankee Group.

Instead of talking about money saved, focus on value received. Walk potential customers through the qualitative benefits of your offerings, pointing out where you add lasting value. If past clients have produced metrics after running your stuff, try writing case studies. Potential clients should come away with an understanding of the technology's impact on how they work and an honest assessment of whether it's worth pursuing. "Honest" means, among other things, that often-hidden costs--such as training--are laid bare. "It's all about building credibility," says Rebecca Wettemann, a vice president at Boston-based Nucleus Research.

I own a small consulting firm. My partner and I both have technical backgrounds, and we struggle with the sales side. We are involved with a networking group, which has done little more than consume Monday mornings. How do I become more of a salesman when I must concentrate on the technical aspects of my company as well?

Phil Lachmann
Enterprise Mobility LLC
Florence, Ky.

Do you know your company better than anyone in the world? Do you possess a consuming passion for the business? Well, points out Inc. columnist Norm Brodsky, you really are your own best salesman. But there are ways of making things easier.

Identifying potential clients and cold-calling are the two most thankless parts of sales, comparable to shelling three pounds of pistachios to make an exotic torte. Fortunately, you can hire someone to do those parts for you. There are plenty of companies that will sell you qualified sales leads. Or you could bite the bullet and hire a salesperson, which you'll probably have to do eventually anyway. Mark Forst, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based A.M.E.'s Uniforms, says his best recruits are unhappy refugees from his competitors who come in knowing the terrain.

Find someone smart and outgoing, who is good at identifying prospects and talking to strangers. Let this person drum up leads and get 'em qualified; then you swoop in with all your passion and expertise to close the deal.

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS? Stumped by a thorny business problem? Let Inc. help. Send your questions to AskInc@inc.com. We'll consult with experienced entrepreneurs and savvy advisers, folks who've been where you are and figured out what works and what doesn't. If you don't like what we have to say--well, you can tell us that, too.

Published on: Oct 1, 2003