---- P.R., Atlantic City, N.J.
A: You can almost guarantee that you'll make mistakes during the startup process -- every entrepreneur makes a few, and, oftentimes, they are the best ways to learn important business lessons. That said, wanting to do your homework and avoid the worst ones is a very good impulse.
Probably the most important thing you have to do to create a successful business is bring in customers, says David Alan Gibb, a management-and-marketing consultant who works with legal and accounting clients. "If you keep focused on finding clients and getting them into your office in the early stages, it will simplify your planning process," Gibb says. You can get help with the technical details of starting and financing a business by visiting your local Small Business Development Center. You can find a listing of the centers, including the one nearest you, at www.sba.gov/sbdc.
IDENTIFYING A MARKET. Before you tackle those steps, however, there are some key questions that you'll need to answer: Is there truly a need for your services? Are there potential customers in your area who need your advice badly enough to pay for it? These days, just about everybody knows a lawyer, is related to one, or can find one online, so accessing an attorney is not a tough prospect. In fact, you may consider offering your services to attorneys who need extra paralegal help. You'll need to decide whether you are going to provide services to a broad consumer base, or a specific market segment -- perhaps an industry group like dentists, new residents in town, recently divorced couples, or Gen-Xers.
Perhaps your niche will be based on the kinds of services you can
provide. Can you reach the people who need simple legal help but don't want, or need, to pay an attorney $200 an hour? Have you matched your basic services with what those customers want and need? Do your potential customers understand what paralegals do, and how they differ from attorneys? If not, can you educate them through your marketing materials, so they will choose your service? Do some market research to make sure that potential clients arte out there waiting for your office to open.
REACHING OUT. Next, you'll have to figure out how you can reach those customers cost-effectively. Will you do print or broadcast advertising? Put up a Web site? Attend industry conferences? Speak at community events? Do direct mailers? Promote your services through word of mouth?
Once you figure out which marketing tools to use, you'll need to create a series of messages that will explain your services and persuade potential customers that you can solve their problems. "Many people starting a business want to do, not plan to do," stresses Gibb. "Time and money spent up front in strategic planning help avoid false steps and dissatisfied customers down the line." Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.