Question: When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to be my own boss. So together with a few of my sorority sisters, we started a catering business. Like the majority of small businesses, it failed. We filed for bankruptcy protection and we split up. I went back to business school and am getting ready to graduate. I still can't stand the thought of working for someone else, but having failed once has made me a bit gun-shy about trying again. Any ideas?

Answer: You should be scared to death! Whether your business dwindles away or crashes in bankruptcy, it has an emotional impact on its owners. You should worry more if you weren't afraid to start over.

Some of the greatest business people in history started with failure. Henry Ford produced his first car in 1896 and organized his automobile company a few years later. It failed, as did a second attempt in 1901. But the third firm, which he formed around 1903, succeeded and within a decade, he had introduced the Model T and the assembly line.

Tom Peters believes you learn more from your failures than your successes. How true. But most important, don't lose your self-confidence. Remember, it was your business that failed, not you. It happens. A lot of factors could have occurred, outside of your control, that caused the failure.

So here are some ideas on starting over:

? Stay focused on the core business. If you're like most entrepreneurs, you've got lots of ideas with short attention spans. Lack of discipline can be a killer. Jot down your "big ideas" and save them for later. You must set a goal and follow your plan. Remember, building a business (or a career for that matter) is like following a road map; if you veer off, you may get sidetracked indefinitely.

? Analyze your strengths and weaknesses. Are you a good or bad manager? If you don't like working for someone else, how do your employees feel about working for you? Sometimes it's better to be a one-man management team and outsource jobs to other independent contractors than having a staff of people that is a negative cost in more ways than one. And vice versa. If you were a sole operator, maybe next time you should consider finding partners to complement your abilities.

? Change your mind. What other attitude should you have this time around that would make a difference? You need to start a process, not just a business. Starting a business is evolutionary it takes many different forms. There are four critical steps in this process: planning, preparing, interacting with customers, and analyzing and adjusting your business based on those interactions. A constant adjustment may be in order to meet the needs of your customers. But you must first have the right frame of mind to be able to go with the flow.

? Check and balance. Identify a group of professionals you respect and set up an advisory board, even if it's an informal one. Recognize the fact that you don't know everything (as hard as that may be to take). Use your accountant wisely. Let her give you the facts and suggestions on how best to make the most out of what you have.

What is the moral of this story? If you don't succeed, try, try again!

Q: I run my business out of my home with myself and three employees. I have reason to believe that one of them is stealing. What can I do to protect myself without causing a lawsuit?

A: You must protect yourself first. And you must act quickly. Document everything you can by writing a memo to file or sending a copy to your lawyer. If you cannot prove that your employee is stealing, there's no way you can accuse him or her without opening yourself up to a lawsuit.

You may need to find an indirect reason to let this individual go, i.e. downsizing, changing business strategy, etc. If you cannot figure out a way to do this, you should contact an attorney to go over the laws in your jurisdiction in order to establish guilt. This should be done prior to any direct confrontation with the accused employee.

Depending on how much money you want to spend, you could also hire a private investigator.

(P.S.: I have known companies that have had experience with this type of situation. Even with the help of the District Attorney, there was not a satisfactory resolution regarding the lost money or company files taken.)

Q: My family runs a mid-sized advertising and marketing firm. Competition has always been a problem, but lately with all of the large companies doing telemarketing, consumers have gotten annoyed with telephone surveys of any kind. Our business depends upon doing market-based research. How can we break through the noise?

A: I read recently that consumers rank telephone surveyors slightly below being called by a collection agency. So it's no surprise you're having a tough time. But here's what others in your field are doing: using the Internet.

By e-mailing to a group of potential customers on a secure Web site, you can ask them to review your ads and marketing materials. Include a questionnaire and return e-mail address, and it has been estimated that you'll get a 50 percent response rate within a 48-hour period. Not bad.

Though most companies are still trying to find ways of making money online, the fact is that the Web is not only a good way to advertise, it's a good way to test ad campaigns and new products.

Lorraine Spurge is a personal finance advisor, author and business news commentator. She can be reached at (818) 705-3740 or by e-mail at

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