Business RX: Advice on improving or starting a business

Feb 19, 2013

Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, will take your questions.

What are your thoughts on getting involved in an existing franchise vs. starting my own company?

It certainly depends on your risk tolerance and the current opportunity. Franchising can be a rewarding route to start a business with a model that has been well tested.  Like any startup it has it challenges, but it gives an entrepreneur an opportunity to operate an established brand.  That being said, this is quite different than pursuing your own idea, dream and passion and seeing something grow (or fail). The latter may have higher risks because the idea and market is unproven, but more potential for upside.  

What is the Cupid's Cup competition? I saw the Web site but was wondering what it's all about?

Our core belief at the Dingman Center is that students who experiment with entrepreneurship in some way, big or small, are more likely to start a business or work at a startup either after graduation or later in life.  Cupid's Cup is a national business competition, sponsored by Kevin Plank, founder and CEO of Under Armour, for students who are currently running businesses.  5 finalists will compete for $50K and access to Kevin Plank's network on April 5th here at University of Maryland. 

Have you owned a business? How did you become an expert on startups?

I was an early employee at a startup, technology-focused investment banking boutique. Our team was growing our own business while also advising early stage companies on raising private capital and buy side/sell side acquisitions.  We worked with a variety of technology companies and often helped refine their growth strategy and business model to prepare them for venture financings or for exit.  In my current role I work closely with many student startups as well as regional entrepreneurs. 

I know that it takes time to build a business. What is a reasonable amount of time to give a business before knowing if it has been successful? I guess the real question is: How many months of expenses should a person have when getting started until the income becomes regular?

Ooohh, that is always a hard question because it really depends on the type of business. If you are starting a restaurant you may start generating cash flow sooner than if you are developing cancer drugs.  I'd say two things -- 1. Depending on your idea you want to put a plan in place to scorecard yourself to know if this is an idea worth pursuing or whether you should pivot or lick your wounds and admit "failure." 2. Always assume it will take twice as long and cost twice as much. 

I'm thinking of starting a tech company. Should I build it here in D.C. or move somewhere like Silicon Valley or N.Y.?

STAY HERE! There is a thriving ecosystem of technology entrepreneurs and mentors -- regardless of what you might otherwise hear .  The community is supportive and collaborative with a deep bench of seasoned executives.  The imminent decline in government spending should also free up tech talent who, after some soul searching, might find working at start-ups more rewarding than consulting firms. There is a funding issue, no question, but there is also a lot of expertise in grant funding and other non-dilutive financing. 

Is one age better than another for starting a business? I know that experience and age go together. I have known several people who reached their mid 50s or early 60s who decided to become consultants and cut back from their full-time jobs. I know college graduates who are used to living on a shoestring budget take the chance. But, I am somewhere in the middle and used to my current income level, but not my current job situation. I know that I could offer my services and have a better quality of life, but I am not sure if my finances would agree.

Entrepreneurs are like marathon runners (in many ways) - they come in every age, shape and size.  Young entrepreneurs are fresh with fewer financial burdens --and have the energy it takes to get ideas up and running.  BUT they are inexperienced in hiring and managing teams, developing customer and channel partnerships, and often impatient with the ups and downs and highs and lows of starting companies. Identify your skill set as an entrepreneur and look for co-founders that might have complementary skills.  There is no question your bank account will take a hit, but sounds like being your own boss might be worth the trade off. 

As you know, Europe is in the midst of economic crisis. What is the best business that could survive this economic turbulence? Even big companies have already collapsed.

The businesses that are most agile and proactive are more likely to survive.  There is no magic formula -  but if you are starting a business and expanding internationally, you need to think carefully about which markets to approach first. Those that are more unstable might be lower priority.  Other emerging economies with vibrant startup cultures, like Brazil, might be a viable option.  

In This Chat
Elana Fine
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. Elana earned an MBA in Finance and Accounting from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business in 2002, and earned a BS in Finance, from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1997.
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