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Help Us Create the Ultimate Cheat Sheet: 10 Rules for Starting a Small Business

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How Do You Start A Small Business That Works?

We need your help to pick the 10 best rules for entrepreneurial success.

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Small business is big business. Over the past 15 years, small businesses have accounted for two-thirds of all new private-sector jobs. And they’ve grown only more important since the recession. America has always been a dynamic place to start a business, and by some measures the last few years have brought the highest rate of new startups in decades. They’ve also brought historic rates of business failure. Estimates vary, but most analysts agree that somewhere between one-fourth and one-half of all new businesses fail within their first year, and the majorityfail within five.

Starting a new business is the easy part. Starting a successful business is hard. That’s where you come in. We’re introducing a new feature on Slate, one that will tap our readers’ experience, wisdom, and creativity for the benefit of, well, our other readers. It’s called “10 Rules For ...” We’re collecting short, pithy tidbits of advice for how to succeed at a particular activity—in this case, starting a small business. We’re looking to create the ultimate cheat sheet on how to steer around the many pitfalls of entrepreneurship and join the happy minority of prosperous small-business owners.

There is, of course, no shortage of entrepreneurship advice already out there. Bookstore shelves are packed with tomes proffering surefire recipes for riches, ranging from the mundane to the philosophical. Business advice is a not-so-small business unto itself. One problem is that these how-to guides tend to reflect the irreproducible experiences of one or two individuals, whose own success might well have been the product of chance and circumstance. Another problem is that they’re long and boring, and they cost money. But the biggest problem is that they can’t seem to agree with one another. (If they did, that failure rate would be going down, not up—and the market for new business books wouldn’t still be growing.)

Way back in 1937, Dale Carnegie told us how to win friends and influence people, suggesting that professional success stems mostly from personal charisma. On at least one point, he was ahead of his time. His insistence that humans are not creatures of logic, but of emotion—“bristling with prejudice, and motivated by pride and vanity”—prefigured a wave of recent bestsellers, from Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational to David Brooks’ The Social Animal. But does it accurately reflect what makes good businesses tick today? Not if you read Jim Collins’ 1997 hit, Built to Last, which argues that the best companies are driven not by do-it-all dynamos but self-effacing managers who put aside their ego in pursuit of a singular guiding ideology. Then again, few would describe Steve Jobs as self-effacing, and his company seems to have gotten along OK.

At least we can all agree that every business begins with an idea, right? Not Michael Gerber, whose contrarian classic The E-Myth pointed out that the vast majority of small businesses are started by people who are sick of toiling for a boss and just want to do the thing they’re good at on their own terms, whether it’s carpentry, technical writing, or baking pies. Gerber’s message—that skill in pie-baking isn’t the same as skill in running a business—helps explain the persistence of small-business failure, at least. But his message of discipline and his embrace of the franchise model doesn’t leave much room for Jobs’ admonition to “stay foolish,” and it isn’t going to inspire the next Google, or even Instagram.

Our 10 Rules for Starting a Small Business won’t be definitive. There are almost as many different ways to succeed in business as there are to fail, and your own path will depend on your circumstances and goals. But ours will be better than all the other entrepreneurship cheat-sheets, because the ideas will come from you—and you’ll help decide which ones make the cut. The rules should be short—no more than three sentences apiece—clear, and specific. Don’t just tell us to “be agile” or “find the next big thing.” Tell us, as concisely as possible, something that we don’t already know. Is there a trick to launching a partnership with your life partner without ruining both of your lives? Will crowdfunding make possible a type of new venture that wasn’t possible before? Has the Internet rendered “location, location, location” irrelevant, or has location taken on some new meaning that’s essential for digital startups to understand? Three-fourths of all businesses have no employees: How do you know if yours needs them?

As your ideas roll in over the next few weeks, we’re asking you to comment on and vote for your favorites. We will supplement your ideas with suggestions from experts. We’ll also be running a series of stories around the theme of starting a small business, starting with Rachael Larimore on the lessons she learned growing up with a mom and pop who ran a mom-and-pop. And at the end of the month, we’ll pick the 10 most helpful, least obvious rules, and enshrine them on one page for future entrepreneurs to consult. We look forward to hearing from you.


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