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Who make the best consultants for start-ups? Customers.

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Fred Prouser / Reuters / File

(Read caption) A crew member (l.) talks with a customer at an Apple store in Glendale, Calif., on Dec. 8. Talking with customers gives businesses, large or small, an invaluable insight into their needs, wants, and how best to meet them.

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A common myth about launching a new business is that you can sit at your computer and develop a comprehensive marketing plan that will guide the growth of your venture.

The truth is that until you get out from behind your computer and engage real customers, you probably won't know what it really takes to successfully launch a business.

Attracting early customers to a new business should be thought of as a courtship. The first phase of the courtship addresses two questions. Exactly who are your target customers? And, what do they really want from you?

No amount of Internet research or talking to experts can give you this information; only real customers have the answers you need.

Sam Dryden and John Price, former students in entrepreneurship at Belmont University, learned a great deal from their customers during the initial start-up of their company, My Outdoor Calendar (http://www.myoutdoorcalendar.com).

"We were pushing our software to individual fishing and hunting guides," said Sam Dryden. "It seemed like the right thing to do. We could help them get organized and manage their schedules. After a few months we realized that these individual guides didn't have trouble with their schedules. They had trouble getting exposure.

"As a result we now give away our booking tool for free to small individual guides. We can then take our growing list of individual guides to large outdoor-related websites that specialize in marketing activities that see value in our list of guides."

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