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Start Your Business Startup Basics

How to Know What Business to Start

How to Know What Business to Start

Some people know what kind of business they want to start long before they're ready to call themselves entrepreneurs. For others, the decision to open a small business comes before they've settled on exactly what they want to do. Determining which direction to take your entrepreneurial venture can be a difficult task, but some successful business owners have advice on figuring it out. Ask yourself the following questions to help choose a business idea that will work for you.

What do you love to do?

Every entrepreneur will tell you that in order for your business to succeed, you must first and foremost be passionate about what you're doing. A small business is going to take up a lot of your time and energy, and if you don't truly enjoy your work, your clients and customers are going to notice. It's like choosing a college major — it's better to go with something you're 100 percent dedicated to that might not pay off right away than something that will make you instant money but isn't what you really love.

Leora Kadisha started fashion social networking site StyledOn back in 2009 as a college senior. What started as a small photo-sharing site for the fashion-obsessed has become a thriving community where bloggers and fashionistas can interact and shop with their favorite big-name brands. The site's success has come as a direct result of its founder's unwavering commitment to connect people who love fashion as much as she does.

"[StyledOn] became my life. It took over, and four years later, I am still spending every waking minute building this business," Kadisha said.

It's easy to see that, despite long days, constant industry changes and a never-ending development process, the young entrepreneur really does love her work. In the past year, Kadisha has led StyledOn in a major site redesign that includes an easy-to-use e-commerce function so customers can directly shop more than 4,000 brands.

Some individuals are born with a passion for something. These people don't have to ask themselves what field they could see themselves working in for the rest of their careers, and know that starting a business in that field is the right decision. For others, passions are discovered later in life, perhaps only after years of working at unfulfilling jobs. No matter which type of person you are, it's a good idea to formally define your interests before deciding what type of business to start. You might even surprise yourself with what you feel drawn to do. The most important thing is to choose a path that you'll be excited about day after day, even when the going gets tough.

"If you are not passionate about what you are building, it is the first and most immediate step to failure," Kadisha said. "Everything else is secondary."

[10 Reasons to Do What You Love For a Living]

What do you know well?

If you know where your interests lie, the next step is to assess the specific things in that field you're familiar with. When entrepreneur Adam Rapp decided to start a travel-related business, he didn't have a concrete idea of what he would do. Like many entrepreneurs, he simply had a passion and a strong drive to succeed.

As a longtime adventure traveler, Rapp had an extensive knowledge of travel gear. Over the years, he had used a lot of different products and figured out how they worked. His business idea finally came to him when he discovered a way to combine his love of travel with a wealth of experience with travel products: Pick-Pocket Proof Pants.

Rapp developed his line of stylish but secure cargo pants to help travelers like himself guard their valuables against thieves. Having been to dangerous areas of the world where pickpocketing is a common practice, he knew exactly what tactics pickpockets use to prey on unsuspecting tourists. He was therefore able to design his pants with specific security features like cut-resistant fabric and covered zippers to block them at every turn.

Entrepreneurs who start a business based on something they already know a lot about have a big advantage in the marketplace. Rapp was well-versed in the difficulties that travelers often face, and used his knowledge to come up with a product to address a certain need. However, you don't have to be an expert to get a good idea off the ground: A solid understanding of the field you're going into and a clear vision of what you want is all you really need.

"You might not have all the tools initially, but you can go out and find the right partners," said Rapp, who worked with other companies to manufacture Pick-Pocket Proof Pants and bring his design to life.

Think about the things you know how to do well and make a list of businesses related to them. If you have a knack for Photoshop, consider launching a graphic design firm. A catering company might be a good fit for someone who's great at cooking and developing recipes, while a person that really understands fitness and workout routines could become a personal trainer.

Is there a particular problem you want to solve?

Many small business ideas grow out of a problem that needs solving. Entrepreneurs encounter or observe an issue that isn't being addressed by existing companies and work to find a solution. This is exactly how Polina Raygorodskaya arrived at the decision to start travel site Wanderu.

"I was a frequent bus traveler and I always found it very frustrating to have to go to 10 different websites to compare the different bus options, prices and schedules. So I set out to make finding and booking bus and train travel easier," she told BusinessNewsDaily.

Wanderu, currently available as a private beta for subscribers, is similar to other travel comparison sites in that it instantly pulls bus and train information from operators across the country and allows users to book the best priced tickets for their inter-city trip. But in order for Raygorodskaya to successfully launch a unique take on an existing model, she had to be sure that she had a viable market.

"When I started doing research, I realized there are over 750 million people traveling by bus each year in the U.S., more than are flying domestically. I began speaking with these travelers and found that most of them had the same frustrations that I did," she said.

The realization that other people are experiencing the same problem you are can be a good starting point for developing a business idea . Almost all products and services are designed to make life easier for the user, so think of specific tasks or needs for which you can create a streamlined, efficient solution. If there's a gap in the market, you can fill it. If another company is already doing it, find a way to improve upon it. You don't need to reinvent the wheel when you're solving a consumer problem; you just need to do it better.

If you do start a business to solve a specific problem, know that it may not be as easy as you think. You might have a great concept, but unless you have all the necessary technological or manufacturing skills to make it happen, you'll probably need to enlist the help of professionals in the field. But as long as you truly believe in your idea and know that others will benefit from it, you're bound to find the support you need.

[Got a Good Busines idea? Here's How You'll Know]

Can you market to and through your existing connections?

One of the costliest mistakes a small business owner can make is immediately shelling out money for advertising. When you're deciding what kind of company to start, take a look at your social circles, professional contacts and industry connections. Would any of these people be interested in doing business with you? If you believe your friends would want to try your product or service, or that someone you already know in the field would recommend it to their clients, then you can start your business with virtually no advertising budget.

When Skylor Powell first launched her dietary mediating business, Sprout Health, she learned the hard way that you shouldn't pay for promotion right off the bat.

"A lot of my startup money went toward advertising that was ultimately unsuccessful," Powell said.

These disappointing results led her to take a new approach to marketing her business. She became more active in her local community and in the online health community to make genuine connections that would promote her on their own volition, and it cost her nothing but her time. Powell found that this advertising approach was much more fruitful, and she recommends that all entrepreneurs speak with other similar companies and bloggers in their chosen field about their new business.

[5 Steps to Quitting the Job You Hate and Starting the Business You Love]

"People who already know and love what you do have an easier time naturally spreading the word," she told BusinessNewsDaily.

You might feel a little funny about self-promotion at first, but one truth that advertising agencies never like to admit is that potential customers believe people over ads. When you're looking to buy a new television, are you more likely to trust a Samsung ad or a tech blogger who raved about the latest Samsung TV? Real people will promote products and services that they have used and are truly happy with. Unlike advertisements, they'll give their honest opinions and can tell others what a pleasure it was to work with you, the business owner. Powell found that she gets more referrals from friends of friends than from costly advertisements.

Think about the people you know and come up with some products or services that they might want to try. You may even want to talk with some friends and ask if they would be interested in buying from you if you were to start that business. If you can build up a solid word-of-mouth "advertising network" before you even open your business, you'll be that much farther ahead when you do.

Do you want to try something new?

Sometimes the motivation for starting a business is simply a desire to take on a new personal challenge. A small business can be an opportunity to explore different ways of doing things. Michelle Ivankovic and Adrienne McNicholas had both worked in industrial and product design prior to starting their own venture, Food Huggers. The business partners worked together on creating their produce preservation device, then turned to the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter to get it off the ground.

"Developing the product was a great experience, but the Kickstarter campaign was uncharted territory for us. We really enjoyed designing the campaign and planning our project," McNicholas told BusinessNewsDaily. 

"A big motivation for Food Huggers as a crowdfunding campaign was embarking on the adventure of trying something new to see how it would change the way we have previously done design and business," Ivankovic added.

Crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter and Quirky are particularly good ways for product-based business ideas to raise startup money. A decade ago, this method of fundraising was almost unheard of; now it's a veritable goldmine for entrepreneurs such as McNicholas and Ivankovic, who have a product that people are genuinely interested in using. Instead of pitching to investors in the hopes of securing large sums of money, the women behind Food Huggers simply asked Kickstarter users to pledge as little as $1 to help raise the $26,000 they needed to manufacture their product, with varying rewards based on the pledge amount. By the halfway point in their 30-day campaign, they had more than tripled their goal and received more than $88,000 in pledges.

[See: How To Start a Business With Kickstarter]

While your potential business ideas may not require crowdfunding, the success of Food Huggers is a lesson to entrepreneurs to think outside the box and consider alternative models. If one of your goals in starting your own company is to challenge yourself and go into "uncharted territory," think of what you already know you can do and come up with ways to do it differently. You might find that you're more successful than you'd ever imagined.

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Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon

Nicole Fallon received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.

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