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Learn From Others' Foibles and Triumphs

A new small-biz book offers insight and advice for entrepreneurs at all stages.

Professors and teachers seemingly never tire of saying that while it's good to learn from your mistakes, it's better still to learn from the experience of others.

So when it comes to starting a business from scratch, who better for a budding entrepreneur to hear from than Hector Barreto, a serial entrepreneur and the one-time head of the Small Business Administration for five years?

Not only does Barreto have a background of diverse business experiences, but he also was part of the Bush regime, a fanatically pro-business administration by any standards. His newly published book

The Engine of America: The Keys to Small Business Success From Entrepreneurs Who Made It!

, then, makes compelling reading for anyone wanting to strike out on their own.

The volume is broadly cut into four sections: The first and slimmest gives a brief outline of Barreto's life growing up around an entrepreneurial father and quickly takes the reader through the son's business life to his role at the SBA. In essence, it establishes his bona fides as a genuine businessman and not solely a politically driven appointee.

The second section, titled The Principles of Success, is where the reader starts getting to the core. Although it's not radically different than what one would expect in any other book aimed at prepping would-be small business owners, part of the attraction is that Barreto hasn't just flatly stated what needs to get done to get a business off the ground. Rather, he goes to considerable effort to draw upon the experiences of some of the many business owners he's met over the years. Consequently, the wide variety of examples cited -- and the many different perspectives shared -- translates into an evocative message for most readers.

The Principles section kicks off with the importance of writing a business plan and moves through the predictable "need to hire smart people" and "learn from your mistakes" areas. It also adds useful content on the virtues of challenging conventional wisdom, bouncing back from after adversity and taking risks.

Observers of the Bush administration will no doubt chuckle at the "Know What You Don't Know" chapter title, as reminiscent of ousted defense chief Donald Rumsfeld's baffling "unknown unknowns," speech. However, unlike Rummy, the chapter does make sense: in short, readers should get help in specialties of which they know little (such as marketing or

law, for instance).

The third section, Tools for Success, gets down to the nitty-gritty for start-ups. Of particular note is how to get free business advice from

Score, an organization of retired volunteer business professionals, and a summary of how to obtain supply contracts from the government or mega businesses such as

Federal Express

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. Barreto says although getting these contracts can be a hassle, it's worth it as the opportunities are massive -- the federal government purchased $80 billion of goods and services in 2005, he says.

Importantly, he also tackles the perennial bugbear of start-up firms -- lack of capital -- and gives some useful tips on how to secure the necessary cash.

The final section, Summing Up, may read like something of a cheerleading effort, but it does offer the sort of encouragement needed when things get rough in the start-up process.

The only major qualm lies in the book's overall scope. Tackling any


of the topics in the four sections of Barreto's book would have been a laudable goal. But to try cramming the son-of-an-immigrant, working-class-boy-done-good story together with a road map for starting a new business and a quick-and-dirty guide to getting advice, capital and contracts with Uncle Sam -- not to mention a set of motivational techniques -- may have been a bit too ambitious.

Still, readers will likely find

The Engine of America

a useful addition to their small business libraries, rather than a lone tome to be religiously referenced.