Small-Business Leaders Offer Advice On How To Start A Company

By Katherine Peralta The Charlotte Observer.

Julie Haack, president of Donald Haack Diamonds & Fine Gems, had a simple message Saturday for aspiring entrepreneurs: "If you're afraid of failure," she said, "do not go into business."

Haack was the keynote speaker at the ShopTalk small business conference sponsored by the Observer and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. Haack, who took over the family business in 2007 after her father died, said starting a business comprises three parts: an idea (the "what"), a need for the business (the "why"), and the "how" -- which always involves being flexible.

She told the roughly 150 attendees at Central Piedmont Community College's Harris Conference Center that flexibility was essential for her business during the economic downturn. To avoid laying off staff, she closed on Mondays. She also created a board of advisers -- other businesses coping with the hard times.

Advisers are crucial, she said: You need not only "consultants" but also "insultants" -- people who aren't afraid to tell you painful truths.

Other insights from Saturday's speakers:

Know where to get answers Launching a new company is riddled with pitfalls -- for example, which ownership structure should you choose? One misstep, even unintentional, could devolve into an expensive legal mess that's easily avoidable with the right experts. For example, to navigate the complexities of insurance, Steve Hockfield, managing partner of law firm Erdman and Hockfield, said he recommends getting a broker who specializes in commercial clients. It's also not a bad idea, Hockfield said, to get the new firm's accountant and attorney in the same room together.

Be persistent and nimble It took Patrick Steptoe, who founded Vegan To-Go about three years ago, 18 months and four meetings before he persuadedHarris Teeter to carry his products, which include an assortment of microwaveable meatless foods. The key to winning new clients, he said, is being "persistently patient." Steptoe said it's up to aspiring business owners to decide how badly they want to be successful, and they should be flexible in getting there.

"This is chess, not checkers," Steptoe said. "If you weren't doing anything, there wouldn't be any obstacles in your way. You have to figure out if you're going around them, over them, under them or sometimes, through them."

Hilary Broadway, a broker-in-charge with Allen Tate Realtors, said it can take five "no's" to get one "yes."

Look out for people It pays to get to know a potential client's interests, Broadway said. If the person likes rock climbing, for example, set up a Google alert for rock climbing in North Carolina and then alert them about events, she said.

And the care applies to employees, too. Sam Batt, who owns 27 TCBY frozen yogurt shops in the Charlotte area, said he routinely surveys workers about what they'd like more of, from vacation time to more recognition.

"When I started my business, I thought compensation was just money. I think what's more important is finding out what motivates your staff. It's not always going to be just money," Batt said.

Know how to tell your story Nepherterra Estrada of Pride Public Relations said she asks clients to explain what they do in five words or less. "We encourage our clients to keep it simple," Estrada said. "A lot of folks try to be everything to everyone and we encourage them not to do that.

"Really focus on what you do well: What are your strengths? What are the core services you excel at?"

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