Steve Strauss

Your Business: Finding the right recipe

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There are a lot of moving parts that go into starting a successful new business — a good idea, sufficient capital, a quality team, and so on — but a vital, often overlooked factor is the need for a good business recipe.

Your Business: Getting started in e-commerce

Steve: I read your previous column where you suggest that if business is slow in my area (and it is) we should consider getting into e-commerce. I like that idea, but I’m not sure how to start, and I’m not sure what to sell. Thoughts? — Deanna

Deanna: You bet. In fact, I recently did a webinar at AT&T called E-Commerce Essentials that explains the process of creating an e-store and selling online.

Basically, it is a seven-step process.

Your Business: It's time to get schooled

The kids here in Portland go back to school today, and with my youngest starting high school, it occurred to me that some of the advice we routinely give our children could just as easily be given to each other.

Isn’t the following true for your small business? It is for mine.

Your Business: Show us the money

Where do you go if you need some money for your business? Home equity is no longer a solution and credit cards can be a poor one. SBA lending, though better, is still not great. So what do you do?

Given the current state of the credit markets, it was no surprise to read in the Oregonian that “dozens of small-business owners crowded into a downtown meeting room [last] Tuesday to tell U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader that federal efforts to stimulate the economy have skipped over them” and that something must be done to make more money available to responsible small business owners. (Schrader is the chairman of the House Small Business Committee's subcommittee on finance and tax.)

Indeed, a recent opinion piece in the Statesman Journal nailed it: “If Congress and the Obama administration want to get the economy going, they must get money flowing to small businesses. That hasn't happened.”

Your Business: the better business plan

People often want to know if they really need to draft a business plan. The answer is yes. Creating a business plan is an important exercise for new and established business alike.

And yes, I know you are not looking forward to it. I have written three business plans over the years and I know that writing one is time consuming, a lot of work, and a sometimes frustrating process.

The first two times I did it, I drafted the plans from scratch, using models that I had read in books. They were fine business plans, not great by any means, but serviceable. Certainly the process of writing the business plan was very valuable. Doing so lets you think through the venture carefully, helping you to avoid problems before you encounter them.

You don't have to go it alone

Out of work, out of benefits, wondering what to do? There are resources that can help you start your own business.

Not surprisingly Ben Jacklet’s blogs regarding which Oregon businesses are hiring have proven to be popular, and for good reason. People need jobs. Indeed, not a few folk who have been out of work for some time are starting to get antsy as the period they can receive unemployment benefits starts to dwindle.

So the time is now to start to think about starting your own small business. It need not be an expensive endeavor, nor a full-time one. Even starting a home-based, part-time venture that brings in a couple of hundred dollars a month can make a difference and is the sort of thing that can grow bigger.

Are we more ethical?

I was recently playing racquetball with my friend Rick (I won for once, yeah me!) After we were done Rick asked me if I thought that businesses here are more ethical than in other places.

It got me to thinking about an incident that happened to me a few years back.

I owned a hot tub and wanted to sell it. A buyer came over and asked me whether, if she bought it, she could continue to keep it in my back yard for a month until she had her deck finished. No problem.

More help on the way

Last week I reported that our own freshman senator Jeff Merkley was doing some good work in sponsoring a bill to help small business. Although there is a lot more Congress could do to help small business (we’ll tackle that one down the road) the good news is that another Oregon lawmaker is looking to pass legislation that will help small business.

Congressman David Wu is the co-sponsor of a bill sailing through Congress, the Enhancing Small Business Innovation and Research Act.

I am often asked if there really is “free money” available for small business startups. The short answer is, not surprisingly, no. But the longer answer is that there is some federal grant money available in very specific cases, due to this program, SBIR.

A jump start for small biz

If history is any guide, it will be small business that leads the country out of these difficult economic times, and given that, it is nice to see that our own newly elected freshman senator, Jeff Merkley, is trying to help us help you.

Merkley recently introduced into Congress the Small Business Jump Start Act, designed to support small business owners by cutting taxes for the start-up costs of small businesses.

Presently, new businesses are eligible for a $5,000 tax deduction if they spend $50,000 or more on start-up costs. The new legislation proposed by Merkley and co-sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) would not only boost the deduction to $10,000, it would also expand eligibility to companies that spend up to $60,000 on getting started.

Insurance bills don't help business

All of the chatter about healthcare reform is nice, but it sure does remind one of that old Mark Twain line: “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

So we have to give at least a few props to the Oregon legislature for tackling the issue. They recently passed House Bills 2009 and 2116. Do they make health insurance more affordable? A small business owner might be heartened by the fact that a group called the Oregon Small Business Healthcare Initiative supported the passage the bills and consider them “important steps in controlling rising health care costs and improving the quality of health care for Oregonians.”

But in reality, what these twin bills have to do with small business is beyond me. According to Oregon Senate Democrats, “Together, the two bills will cover 95% of Oregon’s uninsured children and extend coverage to an additional 35,000 low-income adults while instituting a reformed model of health care delivery for Oregonians.”

Get a piece of stimulus pie

Can Oregon small businesses get some of the almost $1 trillion in stimulus money soon coming down the pike? It is not a little question, that's for sure. A recent report from the Center for American Progress shows that Oregon businesses can expect to receive more than $6.5 billion in federal stimulus funds.

Yet despite this enormous opportunity, many small business owners may be unclear about how to capitalize on the allocation. Here is where to start:

On Tuesday, June 23, Oregon will host an American Express OPEN/ SCORE “Small Business Speed Coaching” event. This interactive half-day program that pairs small business owners with experienced business coaches for 30-minute one-on-one counseling sessions to help develop strategies to weather the current economic environment and learn how to access federal stimulus funds.

State is clueless on taxes

News that the Oregon Senate passed two bills to raise almost $1 billion in revenue simply reinforces the conclusion that when it comes to taxes, especially business taxes, this state is clueless.

The new tax increase is the proverbial good news/bad news. The good news for small business especially, is that the tax is designed to effect individuals making more than $250,000 a year, and large corporations. Indeed, Senate majority leader Richard Devlin specifically stated that “This legislation protects the middle class by ensuring that households making less than $250,000 a year will not pay any additional taxes and it protects small businesses by focusing the increase on large corporations.”

Look, no one likes paying taxes, but it is equally true that 1) we are in a bad economy and revenue is drying up faster than ink at a newspaper, and 2) in a civilized society, we all have to pony up and pay our joint bills — for schools, roads, etc.

Small biz sweet spots

Want to make your small business greener, but, like so many of us, have neither the time nor the bandwidth to focus on it? Then check out Portlander Scott Ankeny’s great site, www.GoingGreenToday.com.

Tara's working hands

Last week, when I was in D.C. covering the Small Business Administration's annual Small Business Week for my USA TODAY column, I was fortunate enough to meet Oregon's Small Business Person of the Year - Tara O'Keeffe.

Tara runs, and is the creative power behind, O'Keeffe's Company, a line of fantasic, all-natural skin therapy products invented by Tara herself.

While Tara was recognized in D.C. as one of 50 state winners, it was Thursday night in Portland where she received her local honor when the Oregon SCORE chapter and the Portland SBA honored her at an award gala at the convention center.

Is it time for cheap tricks?

So, what’s working for your business? It’s not an insignificant question, that’s for sure. With Oregon unemployment the second highest in the nation, finding and keeping customers is harder than ever.

Go to any retail area around Portland, or a main street in any rural community in Eastern Oregon and all of the “for rent” signs are potent reminders of those small businesses that never did figure out the answer to the question posed above.

For many businesses the answer is discounting. I know that's true for mine. I am in the business of selling content, and whether it is an article, a webinar, a speech or whatever, we are not commanding, nor are we asking for the sorts of prices we got even a year ago. And it’s working.