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By Karen E. Klein

The Novice Entrepreneur: How to Get Enough Knowhow
If you do a lot of legwork, you won't need a degree to get going in business

Q: I recently returned from Indonesia and would like to start a business importing jewelry and other small items to sell in U.S. stores and on the Internet. However, I have no business-related experience or practical knowledge at all, having been in a particular service industry all my working life. Can I get general business information without having to go back to college? --A.D.S., Los Angeles

A: It's very fashionable to get an MBA in entrepreneurship. That doesn't mean you need one -- or any degree in business -- to get the basic skills you'll need. Small-business information and training is available for free or at low cost from many, many sources these days, and there's plenty of industry-specific material out there. Retired professionals do volunteer counseling with new business owners, and community colleges hold courses. The U.S. Small Business Administration [] operates Small Business Development Centers that offer workshops, discussions, and counseling. There are myriad books and workbooks on the topic, and for-profit consultants and business coaches abound. When it comes to import-export, government agencies and industry trade associations, both national and local, offer help with products, regulations, and even funding in some cases.

What no one can teach you is the drive to make your idea a success. Starting a business takes persistence and a willingness to go against the odds. Experts advise that you first spend many hours researching your niche: Find out everything you can about importing, about your products, about your customers, and about your competition. Is there really a viable market for the products you wish to import? How much money will you need to start the business, and how long will it take you to get it going? How are you going to price your products? Who will supply you? Where can you find help?

The Internet is an unparalleled research tool for the answers to those questions and others. The SBA's Web site has extensive information on starting a business, including a tutorial that walks you through setting up a business plan. Business Week frontier Online's Life Stages section also has thousands of pages of information on starting and running a business.

If you're not familiar with the nuances of an industry, it can be helpful to befriend someone who's already in it or even work for that person before you leap in. You may decide after three months that you do not like the import business at all. Or you may love it and have all kinds of enthusiasm for starting your own shop. If you can take a job working with an importer for a set period of time, you'll get a firsthand look at how the business handles shipping, clearing customs, currency risk, managing inventory, and order fulfillment. This kind of job experience will help you avoid many mistakes as you start up. Attending industry trade shows will also give you good, firsthand knowledge about your niche, your customers, and your competitors.

Not having a background in business doesn't preclude you from being a successful entrepreneur, says Alex Cole, vice-president for enterprise operations at the E-Myth Academy, an international small-business coaching firm based in Santa Rosa, Calif. "There are natural skills and people who naturally understand the elements of building a business, but they are in the minority. Everyone else must be committed to learning the necessary skills, which is possible. None of them is brain science," Cole says.

He compares the entrepreneur's role to that of a film producer or orchestra conductor. "It's almost better to start a business that you know nothing about, because that forces you to create systems that allow others to do the various pieces of the job better than you can," Cole says. Many people who are skilled at the technical aspects of a job mistakenly think that they can run a successful business around those skills. Cole says they tend to become consumed with the details of the operation and lose sight of the other elements needed to start and grow a business. In reality, a business owner must be willing to find other people to do the nuts and bolts of the job while he or she keeps the larger picture in focus.

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