We’ve heard plenty of pontificating about how small businesses are the growth engine of the nation—and it’s true—but small business start-ups are down.

According to The Kauffman Foundation, the percentage of adults owning a business has been declining since the 1990s, when the foundation first began tracking. And the Brookings Institution reveals the start-up rate has fallen by nearly half since 1978.

Starting a small business starts with a dream, but needs to be followed quickly with a business plan. Before you ever incorporate a name, buy equipment, look for real estate, or try to secure funding, a small business plan gives you the foundation you need to see your dreams come true.

“A business plan is a road map for your business,” says Ed Knox, a lender relations specialist in the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Maryland office. “It's a road map for your business. It tells people who you are, what your background is, what your business idea is, and how you're going to make your business grow.”

Knox doesn’t recommend hiring someone to develop your business plan because you need to know what it takes to run the business, including financing and marketing. However, the SBA does offer assistants through SCORE and the Small Business & Technology Development Center if you need help getting started.

Access to capital is usually the greatest challenge to starting a new business. Angel investors, family loans, micro loans and crowdsourcing are always options to pursuing your dreams.

When it comes to getting a small business loan, "credit" is the critical word. Understanding the five "Cs" of credit—character, cash flow, collateral, capital and conditions—is the key to unlocking the bank vault. First and foremost, experts say, lenders look at the borrower’s character. That typically means a thorough examination of the borrower's personal credit history.

While a good credit report is critical to getting your foot in the door, banks also are interested in your new venture’s cash flow. How will the loan be repaid? A business plan, which includes a balance sheet and income statement, is essential in helping the bank determine whether or not your company has the cash flow to repay the loan.

Securing the loan is a top priority for lenders. Collateral, then, can be an important factor in getting a bank loan because it reduces the risk for the lender. Some small business owners take out a second home mortgage.

Capital is always more attractive than collateral, experts say, and it also can be the most difficult for entrepreneurs to provide. But the bank requires that the loan be guaranteed and, like collateral requirements, capital requirements can be stiff for the first three years of a new business. Economic and market conditions in your industry can play a role in the lender’s decision-making process.

Beyond the fundamentals of starting a small business, believing in your dream and believing in yourself is vital. There are many stories of entrepreneurs who succeeded against all the odds in the worst economies with a single bright idea.