The Top 10 Most Important Business Questions
What is your value proposition?
This is the single most important question of the bunch. If you can't explain--in three, jargon-free sentences or less--why customers need your product, you do not have a value proposition. Without a need, there is no incentive for customers to pay. And without sales, you have no business. Period.
Does your product address a viable market?
Entrepreneurs are passionate to a fault. Many fall in love with an idea before confirming that there's any viable market for it, let alone one large enough to attract investment capital. If a market doesn't yet exist--the toxic term of art here is "white space"--they assume they can create one. (Hint: There may be a reason for all that white space.)
What differentiates your product from competitors'?
Few companies can rely on--let alone afford--clever marketing schemes to separate themselves from the competition. Yes, Starbucks made people believe they wanted $4 caffeinated concoctions, and Louis Vuitton lulled people into shelling out $1,500 for denim handbags, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. If you want to win in business, you need to offer something tangibly valuable that the competition doesn't. Examples: rock-bottom prices (Wal-Mart); ingenious product design (Apple); extreme convenience (Fed Ex).
How big is the threat of new entrants?
If you're smart enough to spy a profitable business opportunity, you can bet competition isn't far behind. Some barriers to entry--patented technology, a storied brand--are more fortified than others, but eventually someone will find a way to do what you do faster, cheaper and maybe even better. If not a direct competitor, then a substitute technology might take a chunk out of your hide. (Think what digital film did to Kodak.) The trick: building a loyal following before that happens.
How much start-up capital do you need?
Any early stage investor or small business consultant will tell you that most businesses fail because they were undercapitalized. The lesson: Figure out how much you think you need, and then add plenty of extra cushion.
How much cash do you need to survive the early years?
In case you didn't pay attention to the previous question, take this one to heart. It doesn't matter how much money your business might make down the road if you can't get out of your garage. Plenty of business plans boast hockey-stick-style financial projections but run out of cash before the good times kick in. (Remember all those busted dot-com companies from the tech boom?) Three words: Mind the
How will you finance the business?
You have a few choices: Aunt Sally, credit cards (dangerous), angel investors, and if you're really onto something, venture capital. Forget bank loans (at least until the cash is flowing in a positive direction). As for selling shares to the public, what with all the regulatory hurdles, you might find the price of that exposure a tad steep. If you can bootstrap your business, do it; raising money is difficult and distracting. If you plan on stumping for capital, consider how much equity and control you're willing to give up. (The more you need the money, the stiffer the terms will get, so ask for it sooner than later.) Finally, always remember to match the timing of cash inflows from your assets and the outflows to cover liabilities. A mismatch
What are your strengths?
Google writes powerful search algorithms; Steinway works wonders with wood; Cisco sniffs out promising new technologies and buys them. Figure out what you're good at and stick to it. An obvious notion, perhaps, but plenty of zealous entrepreneurs lose their way--especially when the world seems so full of possibilities.
What are your weaknesses?
You may know how to design a widget, but not know a thing about running an efficient manufacturing plant. Apple designs and markets its nifty iPods and iPhones, but lets someone else slap them together. Countless Webpreneurs farm out the design of their sites and back-office payment systems. Wasting resources just to be mediocre is suicide. Stick to core competencies and find trusted partners to handle the rest.
How much power do your suppliers have?
Convincing customers to buy your products is tough enough without suppliers giving you a hard time. Basic rule of thumb: The fewer the number of suppliers, the more sway they have. Take the steel industry, which relies on a handful of companies for its iron feedstock. If two of those big guys should get together--as BHP Billton and Rio Tinto have been discussing--they would have significant pricing power, potentially crimping steel producers' margins. On the flipside, beware getting hooked on low-cost providers who don't keep an eye on quality. ("Lead-laced" Barbie, anyone?)
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