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Sobering Success Stories

At a recent seminar, entrepreneurs give the real story behind the business card.

Editor's note: Since 1964, business-management counselors at nonprofit organization Score have given free advice to small-business clients spanning every industry. They currently serve nearly 400,000 entrepreneurs nationwide each year -- check in every week for their prudent advice.

Though I don't own a business, I found myself hanging on every word of the small-business owners who got up to speak at

Score NYC's monthly meeting last week. The triumphant atmosphere of shared success stories was sobered by words of caution punctuated by empathetic nods from seasoned members of the audience.

Through tales of soul-searching, struggles and hard-won triumph, I received the uncut version of the small-business world, and not all of it was pretty. No matter what their specialty, every speaker had learned from a blunder (or several). They hope other entrepreneurs will read, remember and don't repeat!

Eking Out a Space Isn't Easy

Lori Mason and Daniel Angerer, owners of

Klee Brasserie in Manhattan, made sure to rent an existing restaurant to avoid spending money on the installation and licensing of new items. Their engineers and contractors assured them that certain features, like the kitchen floor, were solid. But as the work progressed, surprises popped up -- "every time you turned around," says Mason. Slowly but surely, their expenses crept up.

Score stepped in and helped them build a flexible budget, which their loaning bank wouldn't question when they needed to increase it. It included reservoir categories and various safety outlets.

To avoid a skyrocketing construction budget from the start, talk to a business owner in the neighborhood with a similar business to yours and use their contactor or engineer, advises Mason. And save every receipt and written estimate to avoid subcontractor payment disputes, she adds.

And get creative to avoid high rent costs in the first place. Monika Werner, business director of

Joschi Body Bodega in Manhattan, rents out space on the fifth floor as opposed to the pricey first floor storefront.

It was difficult to find a landlord willing to take a start-up in the fitness industry with no credit history, she says. So be prepared: Expect your prospective landlord to ask for proof you can pay several times the monthly rent (40 times, in her case), and have a solid business plan on hand.

Confidence Can Blind

With a history in the fashion industry, Lisa Clunie had worked at trade shows for established designers, so she expected a sizeable response when she brought her own line,

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Rhombus, to its first trade show.

When only two people stopped by, she quickly learned there's such a thing as too much confidence. While Clunie had plenty of ability as a designer, her marketing skills needed tailoring. "I learned that you really have to work for your attention," she says.

After the show, Clunie worked on her personal relationship to buyers, went from store to store with samples and created better marketing materials. She also created a MySpace page to gain access to stores that use the service as a primary vehicle. The increased interest at her next two shows reflected her hard work and justified the $7,000 she paid to have them.

Ignore the Net and It Will Ignore You

"Nobody knew us," says Werner, even though she took out ads in print magazines, handed out 20,000 flyers in New York City and even hired a company that for a large monthly fee, worked on keyword-search optimization.

In response to a survey on the Body Bodega's Web site, Werner discovered that most customers found the company through a more general online search, so to cut costs she ditched the outside company, advertised on

Google

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at 75 cents a click and received three times the page views she had with the hired company.

Janet Valenza, owner of

Closet Revolution, a floor-based closet design company, learned to take Internet marketing just as seriously.

A critical element of any Web campaign is keyword-search marketing, in which businesses bid for key words to increase their search visibility -- but it doesn't have to break your budget. "We live in a world where the yellow pages were taken over by Google ... and changed the whole arena of direct response marketing." Now, she says, people find you. The idea is to make sure they find you first.

Of course, says Valenza, there's no better way to market yourself than happy clients spreading the word on your behalf.

Satisfy your clients, develop a growth plan and "be tenacious and creative in how you deal with hurdles," Valenza continues, if you want to expand your business. The knowing smiles on the faces of her fellow successful entrepreneurs prove her words ring true.