I owe this book to my friend Gus. Gus Rancatore is the founder, owner, and operator of Toscanini’s Ice Cream & Coffee, three stores in my hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that produce what is in my biased opinion the best ice cream in the world.

Gus is easy to spot. Most hours of the day or night you can find him behind the counter of his Main Street store, located across the street from a fire station and a couple of blocks from the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He’s the large, affable, slightly distracted fellow who’s juggling three things as we speak, whether preparing an egg cream for a customer, checking the ingredients in the new batch of mango sorbet, or bantering with the supplier delivering coffee beans. Within his element of the store, Gus is the center of the universe. He’s as comfortable talking politics with the local cops as he is managing his employees, many of whom are MIT students (some of them literally go on to become rocket scientists). At Toscanini’s Gus is the happy genius propelling the enterprise forward.

There’s a spirit to the stores and the company that extends beyond Gus, and this force has always fascinated me. Like every small business, Toscanini’s has a heart and soul beyond its owner’s individual personality. And I’ve found over the years that Gus has learned as much from Toscanini’s as he has put into the operation. And it is this link that has led me to write this book.

I met Gus while I was a local reporter for the Cambridge Chronicle more than fifteen years ago. Since then I have focused my work on the world of business, particularly small business. I chose to cover business for a simple reason. In Cambridge, I grew tired of reporting about what other people had to say, or what they thought; and I became much more passionate about what people did—the choices they made, the actions they took, and the consequences of those actions. The two best areas where these narratives take shape are crime and business. I chose to cover business.

And as I learned more about business, particularly as a writer and editor at Inc. Magazine, it became clear to me that the line between the founder of a small business and his or her enterprise is a thin if nonexistent one. And that this blurring of life and commerce is what makes them exciting. Start-ups are as different and exciting as individual people. Many large companies are dynamic and fascinating, and have great stories to tell—yet discovering the excitement often requires a journey through the heart of darkness. For me, the world of start-ups and the folks who launch them have always held the most allure. For at this stage the passions and quirks and dreams of the founder or team mesh with the narrative of their company to create individual stories of growth beyond imagination.

That’s why I have chosen The Start-up Garden as the title of this book. Not to imply that you should go out and found a seed-and-soil company, as some have suggested. But simply to highlight the critical and living link between the growth of your company and your own personal growth. I have learned that growing a company grows you as an individual, and that this vital link between the person and the business nourishes the whole enterprise. This book attempts to articulate how. Wherever you are in the process of starting a company, I can help you take the next steps, and gain more mastery in the process. The Start-up Garden is designed to help you learn the skills necessary to be in control of your enterprise. Let’s explore how.

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK

This book contains seven chapters. Each one identifies a particular skill that growing a business necessarily teaches you. First you identify what you are good at, what you care about, and what opportunities are available to you. Then you learn to match these qualities with the specific needs of others. From there you develop financial literacy that grows your particular enterprise. You then learn to bootstrap, to manage others with clarity, and to implement a managerial system so that your business can (in theory) run without you. Finally, you learn to use your business as a resource for your continued growth.

Let me draw from the garden metaphor: Chapter 1 teaches you to identify the seed you wish to grow; Chapter 2 helps determine whether it is fecund. Chapter 3 plots how it will grow, and Chapter 4 prepares you to nourish and feed the plant as it grows. Chapter 5 examines the human resources you’ll need as your venture sprouts, and Chapter 6 identifies how you make the transition from simply tending a plant to becoming a gardener. Chapter 7 teaches you how to step back and let your plant tell you what it needs—to understand what to prune, what to leave alone, and what to break off and plant as a new entity.

The Start-up Garden begins, and ends, with chapters that explore how you learn and grow as you grow your business. The first chapter describes simple steps that you can take to identify who you are, what you care about, and what you are good at; and then proposes how to analyze your available resources and opportunities, and then use these energies as an engine to fuel your nascent venture. The final chapter examines how you learn with more mastery as your business begins to operate at a more powerful level.

The book’s chapters are linked to one another naturally and necessarily. If you attempted to learn each of these practices in isolation you might find them particularly insurmountable. Yet in the course of building a business you will find yourself with no choice but to reach a point of mastery in each of these areas. By learning financial literacy, for example, or learning to set real boundaries in your relationships with employees, you will develop a toolbox of skills that enable you to grow your business in a meaningful way. You will learn these skills most powerfully when you do so from your own personal standpoint–when, that is, you understand them in terms of your own needs, desires, existing skills, and capacities.

There is no one right way to start a company. Successful ventures are as varied as individual people. Yet learning the skills in this book gives you more choices, and more control over the fate of your company. You can approach this daunting process with a greater sense of expectation and creativity, a better idea of the choices you have available to you. There will always be elements beyond your control with a business: acts of God, stubborn customers, natural catastrophes, the impunity of Alan Greenspan. I can’t promise smooth sailing. Yet by mastering these disciplines you will be better prepared to address challenges and design the path of your success.

I have tried to distinguish The Start-up Garden from the bulk of guides to entrepreneurs in one aspect above all. While others provide lists and recipes that all start-ups must follow, I believe the key dynamic in every business is the individual or team that founds the company. All businesses may play by similar rules, yet they are run by individuals, each with his or her own set of strengths and passions; and their corresponding closets of liabilities. To ignore this reality is to invite failure.

And so this book attempts to put all that necessary information within a personal framework—to help you learn such essential data as how to conduct market research, or how to keep the books, or how to even come up with the right idea for a business from your own perspective. As companies grow and adopt policies and procedures, they do become like one another. But small companies, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, are different from one another in their own way.

This book recognizes and celebrates that difference.

While there’s no one right way to start and grow a business, there are rules to doing business. From customers to employees, bankers to vendors, the various players in this game operate by a set of written and unwritten agreements. You must know these to participate. Moreover, there are principles for helping you navigate these rules. By learning a core set of principles and practices, I believe that all individuals can get in the game. I can’t guarantee that everyone will achieve riches beyond their wildest dreams. But I can promise that mastering these areas of practice will endow you with more control, and choice, in your enterprise–and by extension, in your life.

While many successful businesses start with a great idea, they become healthy, sustainable ventures only after the founder or president masters sufficient skills to operate and renew the business beyond one specific product or service. You must master the skills that are discussed in this book in order to be in control of your business. I can’t say how you will reach your destination nor can I guarantee that you’ll get there. But, hopefully, this book will help you navigate the way.

Becoming an entrepreneur involves a shift in one’s thinking. Working a job often means producing, being efficient, getting things done, accomplishing things. Acting entrepreneurially means creating value where it didn’t exist before. It means seeing opportunity and taking the necessary actions to create value as a result. There are deliberate steps and actions to help make this happen. And while the process may be intuitive to some, it can be learned by all, with the right approach. This book attempts to help people master this process.

I believe that in today’s economy the heart of success—and your most important source of competitive advantage—is how well you know yourself, and how well that understanding animates the mission of your business. The degree to which you distinguish yourself by manifesting yourself in your business will determine your venture’s success.

Here’s one key thought driving this whole book. Your business is the vehicle through which you realize your passion. I choose each of these words carefully. Vehicle, to imply that the enterprise exists to take you and your stakeholders to a destination. No successful company is an end in itself. As we will discuss later, your business has a mission and a purpose; and the profit your business makes is a dependent variable tied to how well it consistently achieves what it sets out to accomplish. Realize, not just as in to realize a profit, but in the sense of the entire process of bringing forth an idea into the world as a finished product. And passion? Well, any successful entrepreneur will experience passion from joy and delight to rage and despair during the life cycle of a business.

The fact that you are reading this book shows that you have started your business. You are thinking about a product or service that will satisfy your needs–and those of more than a handful of customers. Now we will move forward by mapping out how businesses—and their founders—grow.

There has been no greater time to launch a small business than in the past twenty years. Today there are anywhere from 7.5 million to nearly 25 million small businesses, depending on whose data you believe. (I’ll count the SBA definition, derived from tax returns, estimating roughly 5.3 million businesses with employees in this country.)

Yet these numbers only tell part of the story. There are not just more people starting their own businesses; the culture of entrepreneurship has become ever more embedded in our culture. Business school students now rank entrepreneurship among their top career choices, while the number of courses on the subject has exploded in the past decade. More capital, in the form of venture money, angel investors, and commercial loans, is available for start-ups. And more resources—including everything from magazines to books to Web sites to peer groups—are now available for people with a desire to start their own company.

These macro changes have changed the rules of the game for would-be entrepreneurs. On the one hand, it’s never been easier for an individual to launch a business. Start-ups are more culturally accepted, resources are increasingly available, while technology, such as the Internet, and software such as Quicken, give individuals the ability to gather information and take control of functions (such as accounting) that large enterprises could handle more effectively just a decade ago.

Yet all these changes have had one ironic effect. Although it is easier than ever to launch a business, these same changes make it harder for individual start-ups to thrive. Big businesses can now use technology to target smaller niches, whether products or geographic areas. The growth of massive retailers has laid siege on traditional mom-and-pop stores. And the general skill set of entrepreneurs today, many of them trained in business school or tackling their own companies after years of big company experience, is forcing everyone to become more proficient in the rules of the game.

Several years ago Inc. Editor George Gendron noted that it’s becoming harder for small companies to thrive based on one single proprietary idea. Today all small companies must become professional sooner than ever. As he puts it, the age of entrepreneurial novelty has given way to entrepreneurial execution. That’s the bad news. Now, here’s the good news: You can do it. The same changes that are making it easier for big companies to act small are enabling small companies to play big. And those small companies that have mastered the skills necessary to compete with larger players can use their size, speed, and self-awareness to greater advantage.

Here are a few final thoughts. I don’t promise to cover every last bit of data you will need to know. If you are looking for a compendium of tricks and tips and info on every last detail of starting your business, then I can, and do, recommend several all-purpose guides in the Resources section at the end of each chapter. Details like what type of office equipment to buy or how to market to one particular client are important and, in fact, are often the most pressing items on entrepreneurs’ to-do lists. Yet all these details only matter in context. They become powerful actions when performed for a greater purpose, within a mission. This book is meant to help you create that vehicle. Sometimes the simplest decisions are the hardest to make. That’s what we’re grappling with here.

I started writing The Start-up Garden during the explosion of the Internet and the brief bubble of wealth that seemed to promise fortunes to anyone launching an Internet company in recent years. Yet this book isn’t about hitting the jackpot of huge IPO riches, nor is it about building a high-growth, venture-backed, high-technology company. There’s a fundamental distinction between companies that use the Web in the context of launching a viable business, and those technology-based, venture capital––backed vehicles that are great ideas for companies but may offer little in the way of real customers or actual products. This book is meant for the former.

The time when one great idea alone made for a great company is over. Now, even in the world of the Internet, all start-ups are being forced to focus on the enduring rules of business success. So I will certainly talk about the impact of the Web, especially as it affects how start-ups leverage technology and communicate with customers and conduct myriad relationships and manage information. But I think that competence on the Web, like any number of managerial necessities, is becoming just one of a number of skills that all entrepreneurs must master to be in control of their future.

The explosion of the Internet economy has left behind one great, and often overlooked, entrepreneurial legacy. Regardless of those companies that have tanked, or failed to live up to their promises, I believe that the excitement surrounding new businesses in the past five years has exposed more individuals to start-ups, and start-up culture, than ever before. As a result, more people not only merely believe they can launch a business but they are taking steps to do so. That’s a good thing.

One final word. I have spent the past five years running my own one-man show as a writer and editor. I’ve learned how to practice many of the lessons that I preach in this book. And before that I spent more than a decade absorbing the lessons of entrepreneurs who have launched their own successful companies. Many of these masters have taught me much about start-ups, and to a large extent I am sharing their wisdom in this book.

Ultimately, however, I can’t teach you how to grow your particular business. You are going to learn on your own. I can help you ask the right questions and find the right resources. And then the practice of running your business will teach you the most important lessons. To quote my friend Gus, “Running a business is an existential process—you learn what you need to know only by doing it.” But don’t trust me too much. Go out and do it.

Let’s get started.