Business Rx Entrepreneur Q&A with Elana Fine – Part 3

Elana Fine, Managing Director of the Dingman Center recently participated in a live chat on Wednesday September 19, 2012 with the Washington Post’s Capital Business magazine for their Business Rx column. Elana answered questions from regional entrepreneurs on improving or starting a business. This post features some of the questions from the live chat. Follow the Dingman Center’s Facebook Page and Twitter Page for information on the next live chat and other Dingman Center news and events.

Q. How important is it to write a business plan? If I am not looking for a loan or investment money, do I really need one?

Elana Fine: We’ve been encouraging entrepreneurs to use planning resources such as the Business Model Canvas or other simple tools before writing an entire business plan. This type of tool really helps you identify your value proposition, target customers, key partners, etc. before spending the time to write a full plan. This is where you can best determine the feasibility of an idea and how you will start.

Q. Do you have any recommendations for software or any other tools, apps or gadgets that could help entrepreneurs brainstorm or think through business models, financials etc.?

Elana Fine: I’m a big fan of the book “The Business Model Generation” which includes an interactive business planning canvas (actually a great iPad app). There are other tools and methodologies such as Lean Launchpad that help guide through the venture creation process. Best thing to do is also bounce your ideas off as many people andpotential customers you can to get feedback on whether they’d buy your product.

Q. Any specific advice for women looking to start a business? I have three young kids and am afraid I cannot do both.

Elana Fine: I know a lot of women who have initially started their businesses in their home so they can still be close to their kids. Identify a few successful local entrepreneurs and pick their brain about how they started and balanced their various obligations. I’d also say build a great support system of friends and family who can help pitch in while you get things started.

Q. I am noticing two trends lately: some businesses are closing their brick and mortar operations and moving online, and some online only businesses are opening brick and mortar stores (e.g. Buy Buy Baby). What would you recommend for a boutique stationery/paper goods store? Online only, brick and mortar, or both?

Elana Fine: If your business requires a lot of customer service and will rely on walk in traffic, you still might need a physical location. For a stationery or paper goods store I think it really depends how you will differentiate from your competition — if it is on price and variety — you may be able to build a business online, but if you are providing guidance/advice on invitations or other customized goods, you might be able to better serve your customers either from a home office or a brick and mortar store.

Q. How do you suggest cutting through the clutter of the digital ad world to promote my business? My sales are down and looking for ways to improve.

Elana Fine: Social media and digital advertising can often be inexpensive ways to attracts users and customers — but you need to think it through strategically versus just spraying and praying. You need to really identify your target demographic and where you can find them online. Building a social presence can take time. Experiment with social media and advertise on sites using small tests and see what is most effective.

Q. For the past two years since I was laid off, I have been doing freelance writing. With the rise of content mills and the “all information should be free” expectation, I’m pessimistic about my long-term ability to support myself. How do I go about trying to figure out what else I can do to make money? Should I try to reboot myself as a corporate good-grammar coach, or try something else entirely?

Elana Fine: Writing has become commoditized — however the use of the Web now requires organizations to create a lot of content and put a lot more information online. There may be opportunities to help organizations with their Web sites or taking internal information and repackaging in a more digestible online format.

Elana Fine was appointed Managing Director of the Dingman Center in July 2012, after joining the team in 2010 as Director of Venture Investments. As Managing Director, Elana’s primary focus is leading the Dingman Center in support of its mission and strategic plan. Key responsibilities include oversight of our student venture incubator, Dingman Center Angels investor network, business competitions, and technology commercialization efforts.

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