What do success stories like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have in common? They all made their mark (and their millions) by coming up with a better idea and running with it. Starting a business is a proven path to wealth, and the best way to get there is to start small and scale up—which usually means being bought out by a larger company, selling franchises or licensing your product.
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High risk: Start a business from scratch.
In 2008, Yuen Yung launched How Do You Roll, a chain of fast-casual sushi restaurants based in Austin, Tex., to fill a niche between expensive, sit-down sushi dining and the often low-quality sushi sold in supermarkets. He started franchising his restaurants in 2010. So far, there are ten franchises and two corporate restaurants in cities throughout the Southwest, including Houston, Phoenix and Marina del Rey, Cal. He charges a $30,000 franchising fee and a 7% royalty fee based on the franchisee’s sales.
Yung’s goal is to have 20 franchises by the end of the year and to add 20 a year for the next five years. The company generated $1.25 million in sales and royalties last year. Yung estimates the company’s value is about $8 million. His target? $100 million. “We always thought we wanted to scale it up to a national brand,” he says.
An ambitious goal is critical if you want to expand your business, says Barbara Findlay Schenck, a small-business strategist and author of Selling Your Business for Dummies. But persuading lenders that your small business has the potential to succeed isn’t easy. Given the high rate of failure among business start-ups, banks are often reluctant to lend to first-time entrepreneurs.
Amy Nichols, who started Dogtopia, a day-care and boarding center for dogs, says obtaining financing was one of the biggest hurdles she encountered early on. Even though Nichols had $80,000 of her own money and pristine credit, she says, “I couldn’t get a bank loan to save my life.” She eventually got a $70,000 Small Business Administration loan (read more about how Nichols was able to earn millions with her small business).
Before you apply for loans or sign up investors, polish your business plan. And don’t overlook sources of free help. For example, you could tap your alma mater’s alumni network for potential mentors. You can also get advice from more than 13,000 small-business volunteers through Score, a nonprofit organization supported by the Small Business Administration.
To make your business attractive to potential buyers, you should make it transferable from Day One. That means maintaining standard financial statements (no shoe boxes full of receipts), an operations manual and a diverse group of customers. No single client should account for more than 25% of your business, Schenck says.
You also need to develop a brand that someone will want to buy, which means maintaining a strong online presence. When people look up your business online, says Schenck, “you want them to see wonderful things.”
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Web sites such as BizBuySell and BizQuest will give you an idea of the sale price for different types of businesses. Some are more lucrative than others. The median sale price for a software company was $380,000 in 2012, reports BizBuySell, and the median sale price for a florist was $76,500.
Lower risk: Create a product.
Nancy Tedeschi came up with the idea for SnapIt, an eyeglass-repair device, after her mother used an earring to jerry rig her broken glasses. Convinced that she could improve on the tiny tools contained in most eyeglass-repair kits, Tedeschi invented a small screw with a snap-off extension.
Her product seemed like a no-brainer, but getting it on retailers’ radar was anything but easy. Tedeschi paid $10,000 to a company that claimed it could help her crack the retail market, but it didn’t happen. What she learned from that experience: “You’re the only person who is going to be passionate about what you do.”
Sidnee Peck, who teaches classes in entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, says one of the biggest mistakes that aspiring inventors make is to create a product before they’ve determined whether there’s a demand for it. She encourages her students to talk to potential customers in person before they develop their products. Online surveys and social media provide an easy way to reach a lot of people, Peck says, “but you don’t get to see people’s eyes light up.”
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Tedeschi got the attention of Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, by entering its “Get on the Shelf” contest, an American Idol–like competition for aspiring entrepreneurs. To attract voters, Tedeschi dressed up her assistant like a SnapIt screw and handed out samples to the people gathered outside during broadcasts of Good Morning America and Today. Although she didn’t win the grand prize, she was one of two runners-up, and her product is now available on Walmart.com. Tedeschi also attended housewares and hardware trade shows, where she introduced her product to representatives of other big retailers. Those contacts helped her get SnapIt on the shelves at Walgreens and Ace Hardware.
Tedeschi recently signed an agreement with a large global lens company to license her product in the U.S. She says she’s earned “over seven figures” and never has to work again. “Anything you do in life that really pays off takes a lot of work,” she says.