To strengthen your focus and prospects for growth, commit your strategy to paper—and let it live off the page.
1. Introduction: Plan Because You Need To
Staff members at the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center (SBDC) receive frequent calls for help in creating a business plan. The trouble is, the entrepreneurs who seek this assistance often aren’t launching new companies. They’ve been running existing companies without a business plan and sit down to write one only when forced to by banks or other lenders who need that document to process a financing application.
That approach deprives the company of a resource that can play an important role in driving and guiding growth. “The plan is really a management tool for the business owner,” says Joyce Krech, the SBDC’s director. “It’s a great piece of the lending package, as well, but we would prefer that they be doing it for their own purposes and not because they’re being asked to do it.”
2. Stay On Course and On Target
Capturing your business planning process in writing gives you a solid analysis of the company’s mission, income, financial obligations, and paths to growth. Companies that operate without a written plan run the risk of getting distracted and thrown off course by opportunities that may seem interesting but aren’t really germane to their core business and function.
“They lose their focus, which just deters them from growth,” says Gwen Moran, founder of Biziversity, an online information resource for small businesses, and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Plans (second edition, Alpha). “A business plan acts as your touchstone to keep you on track, to make sure that your business is performing in the way that you expected it to perform. Without a business plan, it’s very difficult to gauge those metrics and to know exactly what your business needs are at any given time.”
Once the plan is written, how do you keep it in play and optimize its value to your business? Experts recommend that you revisit your plan each time you review the company’s performance—whether that means at annual or quarterly meetings or in regularly scheduled conferences with your financial advisor. That helps business owners to hold themselves accountable to their plans and look objectively at whether the company is on course in terms of liquidity, credit, human resources, pay scales, production capabilities, distribution and logistics systems, risk management, and marketing.
“A good accountant will be able to help you fine-tune your plan and see opportunities and pitfalls that you might not even see because you’re so in the day-to-day of your business,” Moran says. Other options include SBDCs, the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), or non-competing business owners who are interested in providing mutual support. “You’ll get insights from different industries and new ways of thinking about doing things.” Whichever option you choose, make sure you select advisors who are willing to stand up to you and make sure you engage in all the critical thinking necessary to maximize the company’s potential for success.
3. Know How to Answer, “What If?”
These reviews will help you to assess not only how well your company is performing, but how thorough the plan is in anticipating what could go wrong and how you’ll handle those scenarios. “It could be a resource issue. It could be a competitive issue. The law could change,” says management consultant and business planning specialist Jenifer Grant. “There should always be a risk section in the business plan. And then you can assess, what happens if a key person goes away? What happens if the costs of our main ingredients go up? What if I need to hire people, and I can’t find them? You need to assess all the different risks that could have an impact on your business.”
And those if-then analyses aren’t limited to worst-case scenarios. You should also consider what you’ll do if, for example, your product takes off so much faster than anticipated that you suddenly need to ramp up production and contend with cash flow issues and staffing shortages. “Fast growth can be as much of a stressor as slow growth, or even more so,” Moran says. “You have demands placed on your business, and if you can’t meet the demands of your customers, you’re ultimately going to disappoint them, and they’re going to turn elsewhere.”
Comparing what’s written in the plan with what’s happening day to day can even produce insights about entry into new markets or expansion of your customer base. “Then you start thinking, as one of my clients did, ‘I never thought about this particular type of customer for my product before, because I had one vision in mind, one road on my roadmap. I didn’t see this other parallel customer base that I can tap into at very little cost,’” Krech says. In that scenario, too, a business plan is an invaluable resource in helping the company to modify its course and take advantage of those additional opportunities.
4. Bring the Whole Team on Board
But the business plan is not just a resource for entrepreneurs and executives. It’s a big challenge, but to get the biggest return on your investment in the plan, you’ve got to look for ways to make it live throughout the organization and ensure that it is supported by every employee. “On a day- to-day basis, you come in, you do your job, whatever it is,” Grant says. “It has to resonate with what you do—you, the individual employee.”
As a business owner, part of your job is to communicate the plan’s importance through your actions and behavior. “As you begin to fulfill your plan, it’s your job to talk to your employees, to talk to your team members, to get them as excited about your business as you are,” Moran says. She advises business owners to make sure their employees understand the solution that the company offers in its market and also the strategy you’re pursuing to achieve your market share. In addition, all employees should know their roles in the business and how they are important to the overall corporate vision. “That’s how you get buy-in. You need to be excited about your plan. If you’re not, then you need to go back to the drawing board until you find what makes you excited about your business, something that you can communicate to the people in your organization to get them excited about the difference that they’ll make in this process.”
Moran offers the example of the CEO of a mid-sized manufacturing company who each month invites a small group of employees to his office for coffee, donuts, and conversation about the business. Giving employees that kind of access to a business owner who knows their names and asks after their families is a morale booster. It also gives staff members a chance to see how committed the boss is to the company. “When you see someone who’s truly excited or truly passionate about something, it’s hard not to care about that,” she says. “You get that great one-on-one face time. You get that opportunity to convey excitement, to convey enthusiasm, to let people know that they’re part of a winning team. And everybody wants to be part of a winning team.”
5. A Plan for Top Performance
Once you’ve integrated the plan into your company’s day-to-day operations, how often do you need to revisit and re-evaluate it? That depends on your business and its rate of growth. During periods of rapid growth or cash flow crisis, some entrepreneurs and venture capitalists find it necessary to review the business plan weekly to make sure the numbers are on track. And any time you pass a major milestone or hit a certain revenue target, it’s good practice to re-evaluate the plan and make sure that it’s still serving you well. At a minimum, experts say, you must review the plan annually, and a quarterly review is preferable.
“When you keep a microscope on those numbers, they’re going to tell the story of your business. And too many business owners don’t,” Moran says. “They let a few financial statement periods go by before they actually look at the numbers. Then they realize that their expenses are far too high and their incoming revenue is far too low, and they start getting into trouble. But when you start following the numbers monthly and then doing a very serious dive into what’s happening in your business according to the metrics on a quarterly basis, that’s when your business plan starts to become a living, breathing document.”
Ultimately, that shouldn’t come at the expense of a huge investment of your time. You can achieve these goals without creating a massive document; a few pages can suffice. The objective is to be equipped to compare current operations and numbers with a written projection or benchmark that points out any divide—positive or negative—between the company’s projected and actual performance. And over the long run, a resource that accomplishes that should save you time, keep your company on track, and help ensure that the business delivers on its potential for sustained profitability and growth.
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