When you’re starting a business, every penny counts. Stretching your venture capital effectively can mean the difference between success and failure during those critical first years. It’s always wise to ask for advice, but when you’re starting out, you may not have the funds for a business coach. Luckily, you can find quality startup advice for free – if you know where to look.
Of course, sorting the good advice from the not-so-great can be a minefield. How do you know which advice to take and what to pass off as good-intentioned nonsense?
Look to Other Entrepreneurs
If you’re ready to take on the business world on your own, look to other successful entrepreneurs as a source for advice. Business owners are a wealth of useful information, and they’re usually willing to dole out little nuggets of wisdom to budding innovators for free. Of course, it’s ideal to ask someone from the same industry you’re trying to break into, but take what you can and follow a general formula:
- Ask consistently. If you get an opportunity to pick another business owner’s brain, seize it. Capitalize on every occasion. You may not get groundbreaking tips every time, but compile as much data as you can.
- Know your company. Think about the two biggest challenges your startup may face. How did others in similar positions tackle their issues? If you can only grab someone for a couple of minutes, this gives you a narrow field of questions to ask.
- Meet face-to-face. Emailing is excellent for a lot of things, but startup advice isn’t one of them. There’s something to be said for the nuance a personal meeting can provide. Of course, if you can only arrange for a virtual meeting, email is better than nothing.
- Know what to ignore. Though offered with good intentions, some advice won’t apply to your unique situation. Take advice for what it is: opinion, not fact.
Ask Smart People, Not Self-Proclaimed Gurus
There are a lot of people out there who claim to be business experts and startup McGyvers. More often than not, these individuals peddle nonsense. Look for experts exuding a quiet confidence and reserve. Smart people give good advice, not loud people. You don’t have to pay a bundle to pick a smart person’s brain, either; reading their memoirs, speech transcripts, or interviews can point you in the right direction. Think of it as a free advisory board for your startup.
If you’re looking to secure some advice straight from your home computer or mobile device, there’s an option for you. Skype has a workplace function that allows you to connect and chat with small business owners for free. These are ten to fifteen minute conversations that can range from how to grow your business with Pinterest to how to file articles of incorporation. Since they offer consultations at no cost to you, expect some advertising for additional services.
If you’re looking for a low cost option to a specific question, Just Answer may have what you’re looking for. This service allows you to ask a credentialed expert (doctor, lawyer, successful business owners, etc.) a question for somewhere in the neighborhood of $30. It’s not free, but considering a business coach can cost up to $200 an hour, it’s a relatively low-cost option.
For general business questions, the Small Business Administration’s Community and Discussion boards can provide a wealth of useful tidbits. Keep in mind that these are best used for broad topics and anyone can post on them. This may affect the quality of responses you receive, and there’s no way to determine if the experts you’re consulting are actually qualified. As a tried and true technique, look through LinkedIn for answers to common questions and to connect with other business owners.
Check Out Community Resources
People often underestimate the power of local community events, but they can be a boon for your cash-strapped startup. Small business development centers (SBDCs) provide free and low cost services to over one million budding entrepreneurs using tools like face-to-face consulting and workshops involving marketing and regulatory compliance. SBDCs can also point you to local networking events, allowing you to get the facetime you need with experts.
SCORE is another avenue worth pursuing if you’re in the market for free advice. With 13,000 volunteers spread out over 62 industries, SCORE can provide you with the tools you need to get your company started. It also offers online training seminars and other low-cost options through local chapter affiliations.
The Small Business Administration sponsors a percentage of these SCORE and SBDC offices, and it also boasts a network of over 50 offices nationwide. To connect with resources in your area, consider using one of these opportunities as a jumping off point. It’s important to note, however, that these organizations aren’t going to offer you an exhaustive set of business services; they’re just meant to help get your feet off ground.
Check Out Tailored Services
If you fit in a particular business niche, there may be a free service tailored specifically to you. Women’s Business Centers, for example, are a nationwide network of offices committed to furthering the pursuits of female business owners. You can find consulting, training, and loan servicing advice, all from your local office or online.
Similarly, if you’re a veteran, you can take advantage of free training and advice through the Veteran’s Business Outreach Center. Connect with mentors, and get free business planning assistance from other experts in the field. You can even get a Comprehensive Feasibility Analysis in which someone will assess the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats inherent in your business venture.
If you’re looking to start your own business, you’re going to need legal advice eventually. Legal services don’t come cheap, so look to Startup PerColator for free services. The website is targeting high growth industries like tech and life sciences, but anyone can take advantage of its amenities. Use the website to generate legal documents specific to your needs, saving you up to $25,000 in fees.
This website is intended to address simple legal matters, like filing papers to become a corporation. If your needs are more pressing, you should still consider enlisting the help of a live expert.
Keep an Open Mind
If you’re in the market for free advice, cast a wide net. Take advantage of several options, and be open to just about anything… an old cliché about begging and choosing comes to mind.
On the fundraising trail, view criticism as an opportunity to improve your game. William Wolfram, founder of DealDash, suggests taking negative feedback in stride: “It’s basically free advice. A founder should walk away from a meeting with what they need to work on and what they should do. You can get so much value and feedback from [Venture Capitalists], even if they don’t want to invest.”
On the other hand, only incorporate the advice that makes sense to you. Some will tell you that pay-per-click is the only way to approach advertising in your app, but it may not apply to your particular innovation. Use common sense to weed out guidance that’s not useful to you.
What did I miss? Where do you go for startup advice? Let us know in the comments.