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Small Business Owners Share Their Secrets for Surviving the Ups & Downs of the Marketplace

Starting, owning and running a small business can be one of life's most difficult, challenging, time-consuming and overwhelming experiences… and also one of its most productive, fulfilling and enjoyable. Though every small business starts with a dream, dreaming alone is not enough. Successful entrepreneurs must have a plan and learn what will help them survive the ups and downs of the marketplace.

Two years ago, New York artist Susie Mendive opened a small graphic design company… and never looked back. "Starting my own business puts me in control of what I'm doing," she says. "It allows me to make all the key decisions. It allows me to dictate the structure of my day, the schedule of my workweek. It's fantastic. I wouldn't trade it for the world."

That liberating feeling is what inspires thousands of Americans, every year, to go into business for themselves.

"99 percent of all businesses in the United States is small business. As the Small Business Administration defines it, that's anything from one person to 500 people," Steven Strauss,small business expert, says.

"75 percent of all new jobs in this country are created in the small business sector," he says. "So we are a critical part of the American economy. The most interesting thing, I think, is that this is a trend throughout the world. Small businesses are emerging, of course, in China. The same thing is happening in India and in fact, all over the world."

In his book, The Small Business Bible: Everything You Need To Know To Succeed In Your Small Business, Strauss says finding the right business is the first step toward succeeding as a small business owner.

"The important thing is to find an area of business, an area of life that you think is really neat, that's exciting and fun for you, and create a business around that," he says. "If you do that, the chances for success will be much higher... as long as you learn the other parts of your business because I always say there are two parts to any business - there's the passionate, fun and exciting part you love to do, then there's everything else - the law, the taxes, the payroll and all that stuff."

Businesswoman Maxine Clark agrees. And, she says, before starting your own company, it's always useful to get experience in a related business. "If you are a great cook and you want to open up a cooking school," she says, "understand as much as you can about what the equipment costs, visit other cooking schools, see how other people do it and decide what you want to do for yourself."

In 1997, Clark opened a store she called Build-A-Bear Workshop, in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her customers came in to create their own stuffed animals. Today, her company operates more than 200 stores worldwide. She shares her secrets for success in a new book, The Bear Necessities of Business: Building a Company with Heart. To start a lucrative business, she says, you have to plan your venture, set goals, create strong partnerships and attract investors. In addition, she recommends sharing business ideas with others before turning them into reality.

"Sharing ideas with other people can help you make that idea into something even bigger," she says. "I'm not a lawyer, I'm not an accountant, I'm not a real estate expert. I didn't know about a lot of those things. I had to reach out to other people to help me make the business bigger."

She notes that modern technology has made it possible for people to run their business literally from anywhere.

"Nobody knows in today's world where are you operating from," she says. "You could be on a cell phone in your car. You could be sending an e-mail from your Blackberry. The forms of communications today allow us to really operate a business from just about anywhere, depending on what that business is you're creating."

Over the last decade, a wide variety of on-line programs has been developed to help entrepreneurs run their businesses more effectively, according to business expert, Steven Strauss.

"I'll give you one example, Bank of America has a new program called 'Business 24/7,'" he says. "You can go on line, do your payroll in a matter of minutes rather than in a matter of hours and you are going to save a bunch of money in the process. So it's very easy and there are all sorts of tools enabling you to learn more and be more successful and have more fun in your business."

As more and more new businesses compete for customers, he says, marketing has become ever more critical. "Starting a small business is like being alone in a dark room," he says. "You know you're there, but not everybody else does. The only way you're going to turn that light on and let people know you're out there so they can come buy from you is to do some marketing and advertising. You can use everything from overnight radio ads, you can do direct mail, you can do primetime TV or cable TV. You need to know what your customers read, watch and listen to. Then you can market right in front of their eyes in those specific areas.

Maxine Clark says she believes in the power of personal recommendations.

"I think what you really need to get customers is to run a great business and have other people - your customers - help you get more customers," she says. "Turn your customers into evangelists for your own business. The more successful you are at that, the better your business will be, because nothing is better than a personal recommendation."

Clark says successful entrepreneurs learn from their customers. They also give back to their customers, and to their communities. In addition to helping their neighbors, sharing good fortune can help small businesses thrive and become an integral part of everyday life in their communities