Often people begin to think about starting a business long before they actually start one. And they only think about it and don’t take any concrete steps to move in that direction. When they are finally ready to actually start the business, they are slowed down by the many requirements necessary to get going. I’m writing here to suggest that there are a number of things you can do well in advance of starting a coaching practice to set yourself up so you can start a business, but don’t require you to. The question is really, “what can I do now that will permit me to go into business later, but don’t require me to?” The following suggestions definitely don’t have a “use by” date.
WHERE TO LOOK FIRST
The first resource I’d like to offer to you is called a Small Business Development Center. You can find one at most larger universities. When I started my first business, which was a training and consulting business, I visited the SBDC at George Mason University. Like most SBDCs, the one at Mason offers a number of one day courses on subjects of interest to people starting new businesses. The price is nominal (in the $25-50 range), and most of the courses are a day in length. As I began planning my escape from work in large organizations to start my own business, I would take a day’s vacation from work and go and spend the day in a workshop at the SBDC.
Topics range from how to create a business plan, how to read financial statements, to marketing your idea. I found them to be very useful and practical, and in fact one of the more interesting ones was a day long class on brochures. The instructor who taught it had a business called The Brochure Doctor so he actually made his living doing what he was teaching us. We spent a whole day learning about the design elements of brochures and other collateral material. He even brought in boxes full of brochures and pamphlets for us to look at. We were able to see what worked and what didn’t work and why is tri-fold better than a bi-fold. The concepts he described in the class became real to us as we looked at literally dozens of examples. Another aspect of that particular class that was especially useful was if you had a brochure already, you could give it to him and he, and your classmates, would give you feedback on it to help you see ways to improve it. So my bottom line for you is to encourage you to find a nearby SBDC and sign up for some of their workshops. They provide an excellent way to learn about business basics without having to commit a lot of time or a lot of money to get smart on the business side of a coaching business.
IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD
A second resource you might look for is a trip to your local public library. In the reference section of most, you are likely to find a three-ring binder called something like “How to Open a Business in such-and-such county.” What you might find especially helpful is that they have the addresses and the phone numbers of the offices you need to visit as you start a business and the steps you need to take to get started in that particular jurisdiction.
ONE MORE OPTION
Another resource you might consider is the Small Business Administration’s SCORE (Service Core of Retired Executives) Program. As the name suggests, SCORE volunteers offer their time and talent to people who want to start businesses in their local area. They often work in a coordinated way with local Chambers of Commerce to provide free mentoring for people who start businesses. Personally, I have not found their experiences to be very relevant to the kind of micro-enterprise most individual coaching practices are. They are much better equipped to assist people set up businesses with physical assets, products, inventories, employees, etc. than small professional services firms. And I could be totally wrong about their suitability for new coaching practices, and I encourage you to check them out and decide for yourself.
WHO ARE YOU?
One of the earliest decisions you need to make is to figure out is what you want to call your business. In my view, choosing the name for your business is a very big decision and warrants its own article. So for our purposes here in this article, we will assume you already have a name for your business, and you’ve decided you are ready to commit to going into business using that name.
In that case your interactions with the government to officially go into business look pretty much like this: If you are going to call your business anything other than your name, you will need to get permission from the local government to use that name. Depending on your jurisdiction, you will likely find one of the following characterizations of your business: One is called “trading as,” sometimes with just the letters TA. You’ll sometimes see a check that says, “William F. Ball trading as Frank Ball and Associates.” Or it might say “William F. Ball T/A Frank Ball and Associates.” Or sometimes you’ll see, “doing business as” or DBA. It might appear, “William F. Ball doing business as Frank Ball and Associates.” Or “William F. Ball DBA Frank Ball and Associates.”
WHO ARE YOU?
The process by which you get to call your business something other than your name is called, “filing a fictitious name.” What that looks like in practice is you go to your local courthouse to do a name search, or more commonly today, you can conduct a name search online. You merely plug in the name you want. For example in 1995 I went to the Prince William County courthouse and plugged in “Frank Ball and Associates” and they were able to look and confirm that nobody in that county had claimed that name. I was able to claim that name for $10. I had that name forever after writing them a check for $10. I took the receipt from the fictitious name people, and I next went to the business license people who happened to be in another building, and there I applied for a business license. Again, this is a process increasingly available online. If you are going into business as an entity such as an LLC, the application process to form the entity with the State you wish to operate in automatically includes a check to see if that name is available. You don’t have to go to the local courthouse to register the name. Creating the LLC or similar entity accomplishes that.
In the two jurisdictions in Virginia where I have gotten business licenses, the business license fee is based on your previous year’s revenue, that is the money you made the year before. Well, if you were not in business the year before, that number is zero which means your first year’s business license is free. In fact, in both of those jurisdictions, you don’t really get a business license the first year, not even a free one. Your application for a business license is your business license and then in your second year, they will bill you based on how much money you made that year.
About the time you get through the business license application with your fictitious name a heart stopper will happen when they will say, “Oh, excuse me, sir, I see you plan to work out of your house which is in a residential neighborhood. It’s not zoned for business. You will need a zoning variance.” Do not have a heart attack at this point. You should know that this thing called a zoning variance is not that big a deal. In most cases, in most jurisdictions, if you have a business with no employees and no deliveries and no customer parking, your application for a zoning variance is going to be approved. It’s just another cost of going into business. To give a sense of scale in Prince William County, Virginia in 1995 it was $33. In Fauquier County, Virginia in 2005 it was $50. Unlike the business license which will cost you at its first renewal and thereafter so long as you stay in business, the zoning variance is a one-time thing. You simply walk down the hall to yet another county government office with your business license application, with your fictitious name and you say, “I’d like a zoning variance.” You answer a bunch of questions about your planned business so they can make a determination about how compatible your business will be with the character of a residential neighborhood. For most of us who will have no employees, few if any customers visiting your home office, etc., the impact of our businesses on our neighborhood is negligible.
YOU’RE NOW OKAY TO BE IN BUSINESS, BUT NOT REQUIRED TO BE
Through this point, you’ve got an official business name, a license to operate, and permission to do so out of your home. You are completely legal to conduct business, and at the same time you aren’t required to. Your business name lives on whether you conduct business or not. Your zoning variance continues in effect. Your license to conduct business can be renewed in subsequent years even if you do no business this year. So when you finally decide to “go live” with your coaching practice and begin to work with clients as an independent, the necessary permissions are already taken care of. You are free to declare yourself open for business and begin recruiting clients right away.