Estimate Startup Costs - 5 Tips


By Joseph Anthony

One of the toughest things in starting a business is, well, figuring out what it's going to cost you to start. It's tough because startup costs are a moving target, easy to underestimate and almost always subject to change.

I like the one-sentence startup guide that I was given by Tom Emerson, director of the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "Start out with nothing and sell half of it for several million dollars and you'll be on your way," he tells me in a phone interview. I imagine he had a big grin on his face as he spoke.

Unfortunately, except for perhaps a brief moment at the height of Internet mania, we all know that model doesn't fly. The model that does fly involves calculating and recalculating, and being aware of some of the most common early errors.

Here are five rules that can help you start figuring the cost of starting.

1. Have a solid plan—then change it. Most business startup stories say that you have to have a business plan. And you do. But that's not the beginning and end of figuring out your startup costs. Jeff Shuman, professor of management and director of entrepreneurial studies at Bentley College, says, "The conventional wisdom is that an entrepreneur sees an opportunity, comes up with a business plan to capitalize on it, determines the capital that needs to be raised, raises the capital and then applies it to building the business described in the business plan."There's one major problem with that model, says Shuman: It all hinges on getting the business right the first time, and that doesn't often happen. "In reality it's likely that some of your initial assumptions are pretty good and others aren't going to be worth the paper they're written on," he says. Shuman and others say that figuring out your startup costs means regularly reviewing your assumptions and changing your initial business model.

Writing a business plan is good because it forces you to write down literally everything you are going to need to start your business: legal help, tax help, office supplies, equipment, postage, office space, employee salaries, insurance, and so on. But that initial plan is likely to change repeatedly as you learn new things and incorporate them into the plan.

2. Be willing to pull back. It's tempting to add up everything you need for the full-fledged business you imagine, and decide that that's what you need to start out.

But pulling back and looking for a smaller model can give you a way to get started while also preserving capital. Shuman uses the example of someone who calculates that the total cost of starting a retail business in a local mall is going to work out to $150 a square foot. "You could start that way and write a business plan based on that amount," he says. "But maybe you'd be better off putting a pushcart in the mall and testing what the demand is for your products at that location."This consumer testing reduces your initial startup costs. The result is that the initial cycle of your business is dedicated not so much to generating profits as to generating information. "With this, you can fund your business on a cycle-by-cycle basis," Shuman says. "When you go for the second cycle and for expanding your business, the numbers are now based not on focus groups or surveys but on real-world experience."

3. Calculate prices, time correctly. Calculating your initial cash flow is part of figuring out your startup costs. It's an area where businesses are sometimes less optimistic than they should be. "Small-business owners may under-price their product or service, thinking they have to come in at as low a price point as possible to compete," says Barbara Bird, chair of the management department at Kogad School of Business at American University. "They don't necessarily need to do that."

4. Correctly estimate your startup time. Yes, when beginning a business, time can literally be money. Let's say you're going to have fixed costs such as a monthly lease. If you have to make improvements to a space before you can actually open for business, those fixed costs are going to be additional startup costs until you can actually open for business. I've watched many entrepreneurs draw up a timeline for their ventures and get tripped up on the zoning, safety and inspection requirements imposed by local agencies. For that reason, I think one of the first places a prospective new business owner should go (even before approaching a lender or leasing agent) is to the local government planning or license department. Construction permits and inspections can push a startup's prospective opening date back by months. If you fail to figure in the cost of this additional time, you could be short of working capital right out of the gate.

5. Be realistic about the cost of money. Many small-business owners self-finance their ventures by running up big balances on their personal credit cards. Others tap the equity in their homes. But self-financing isn't a practical option for larger ventures. Carnegie Mellon's Emerson says that startups should figure in the cost of capital when determining initial expenses and cash flow. "The cost is usually based on what the interest would be that similar cash invested in something with similar risk would command on the market," Emerson says. "It's usually a figure that is a few percentage points or more above the prime rate."

 
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