It can be hard for someone with a small business idea to find the resources to build it to its full potential.

So when you’re thinking of your great Internet breakthrough, it makes sense to try to find a model that can be built in stages, one step at a time.

Here’s a small business suggestion for someone who wants to start small, build slowly and end up fat and greedy. (The Net does tend to make us a teeny bit greedy, don’t you think?)

First the need.

I need a way to figure out where I should do my shopping online. There are so many places to buy stuff. And most of these places I’ve never heard of. For instance, for CDs, I’d go to — because it’s the first place that comes to mind. But there may be CD sites out there that would suit me much better. I like listening to the blues. Perhaps there’s a great site that just sells the blues. I have no idea.

It’s the same with all kinds of stuff I could buy. I really don’t know where to go.

You wouldn’t be the first to address this need, but there’s still space in this market for your small start-up. So let’s invent

Stage One

Here’s the first stage in building the site. Inexpensive and easy to do from your basement at home.

Build a site that features links to every single site you can find that sells stuff — and also has an affiliate program. Sign up as an affiliate and then start to organize the links into categories.

These categories could include area like: Sports Fans. All about Books. Gourmet Heaven. Foreign Stuff. All Music. Computers & Software. Other Stuff.

Pretty simple so far. Easy to build. It’s just a way to collect and categorize links so that the customer can find stuff by coming to a single place. And you’ll make a few bucks on your affiliate fees. There’s probably a ton of sites out there doing this already. But that’s okay.

Stage Two

To really deliver on the promise of ‘Stuff Like Mine,’ we need to take this to the next level. We’ll make this site a little more sophisticated.

The first thing we’ll do is create a feedback mechanism. So everyone who uses the site can grade or comment on the experiences they have had with our various affiliate partners.

If I want to buy some CDs, I’ll be able to go into a Members’ area and find out what other people think of the various CD vendors.

We’re building a bit of that ‘community’ thing here. Giving a bit more power to our users. Our users will not only start creating our most valuable content, but will also start talking about our site with their own friends and colleagues.

And I’m beginning to meet people who have similar tastes to my own –who like ‘Stuff Like Mine.’

Stage Three

As a customer, I’m starting to like this site better. But I still want a faster way to get to the stuff that is of real interest to me.

No problem. Now we’ll invite our users to build a personal profile on the site. Armed with those profiles, we can now begin to categorize our customers into groups that have similar tastes.

In fact, with our customer feedback and our customer profiles combined, we can begin to deliver information on vendors that offer ‘Stuff Like Mine.’

Pretty soon, the site will know that I like to listen to the Blues, prefer a Canadian vendor because that reduces my shipping costs, and don’t want to buy from because I’m hearing that their delivery times suck.

By now you could have a nice little business happening here. You’re offering your customers a useful service and making between 5 percent and 10 percent or so on every purchase they make through your site. You may not be a zillionaire, but you’re doing well.

Stage Four

This is for when you can start to get greedy.

Once you have a few hundred thousand profiles that are built on purchasing history and customer feedback, you’ll be sitting on a goldmine.

Now you can start delivering very highly targeted ads and sponsorships to specific member areas within your site.

Then count to three, hold your breath and you’ll probably find someone knocking on your door and wanting to buy your company.

Well, what they really want to buy is your unique database of customer profiles. This is information that others will pay big bucks to get their hands on.

The moral of the story?

Two morals really:

One. You don’t need to have a completely new and original idea to get started. There’s room for you too. Just execute a little differently.

Two. If you don’t have the big bucks to start out sprinting, build your business plan in a way that it can be developed in stages — with each stage generating the cash necessary to develop the next one.

Or as close to that as you can manage.

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