Let’s get one thing straight off the bat: a slogan is not a business plan. An elevator pitch made by a startup at a conference is not a business plan. The forms you might fill out to apply for a loan to start a company is not a business plan, either.
Small and medium-sized business (SMB) owners may only have the beginnings of a business plan when they come up with the original idea to launch their company. This is often part of the legend you hear about the early days of some of the world’s most successful brands. Entrepreneurs might have jotted down the basic premise that would differentiate their company on the back of a napkin, for example, which led them on a journey to create something that later became a household name.
A big part of that journey, however, involves fleshing out a spark of inspiration into a true business plan that both helps investors understand why they should have confidence in a new venture and helps turn the idea into a reality. This is an important point, actually. A business plan is not just something you write for other people. You also write it for yourself, because the clearer you are on your strategy from the beginning, the more likely you’ll be able to pull it off.
Business Plan Basics
There are many different schools of thought on what needs to be in a business plan, but these are probably some of the most common elements:
- Executive Summary: This is the TL;DR (“too long; didn’t read”) version of everything that will come later in the business plan so people can skip ahead if needed.
- Business Overview: This is where you explain the scope what your company will be doing, and perhaps even the value proposition of why it’s an idea whose time and come and why it makes sense financially.
- Products and services: What will you be selling? Even if you haven’t got so much as a prototype in place, help articulate your wares in a way that makes them easy to imagine.
- Industry Overview: If you’re going to be targeting a particular vertical market or sector, show you’ve done some research about your potential customers’ needs, the competitive landscape and anything else that could have a bearing on your success. Even if you’re appealing to the masses, speak to how and why they buy.
- Marketing Strategy: You don’t have to have your slogan yet, but demonstrate a solid understanding on the channels where your prospective customers tend to consume information and what you’ll do to get their attention.
- Operations Plan: Are you most likely to exist as an online-only business, or will you be operating physical locations? Can you start as a “solopreneur” or will you likely need a certain number of staff? Think about these factors as well as any equipment or other resources, and how you’ll manage them as you start to grow revenue.
- Financial Plan: This may be where some people want to start looking at the business plan — by knowing what kind of investment or other support you’ll need to get started, and when you’d mostly likely be profitable enough that they can expect a return.
More Than Words
A business plan is often produced in a traditional format where it can be printed out and handed to prospective investors and so on, but don’t limit yourself there.
Make use of “soft copies” or digital versions that incorporate links that back up your arguments online. Consider how you might incorporate a video that showcases your vision or perhaps explains more dynamically the industry problem your business will help solve. If you have any design capabilities or can use the many free templates available online, you might also want to try illustrating key aspects of your business plan as an infographic — maybe this could even form the basis of your Executive Summary section.
Bear in mind the quick, seamless way people tend to exchange complex ideas on social media. Can you write elements of the business plan in a way that’s as easy to digest as a Facebook post, for instance, or a tweet on Twitter? A lot of people don’t think about a business plan the way they might marketing content, but it needs to be just as compelling.
Finally, make sure everything included in the business plan represents something you could stand up and deliver in a live, presentation-style format. Remember, the business plan is the crux of what you’re going to do as an entrepreneur — you have to be able to live and breathe it as well as write it.
The Business Plan As KPI Tool
Launching and growing an SMB can be a somewhat lonely endeavor, at least at first. There may be times when you want to have a way to think about the progress you’re making and what you need to change along the way. This is where the business plan becomes a self-development tool as much as a way to secure financial investment.
Throughout the business plan, for example, you might want to list key performance indicators (KPIs) that will show you’re on the right path. The nature of the KPIs will be dependent on what kind of SMB you’re running, but some examples could include the number of customers, your “share of wallet” with those customers, market share versus your competitors and so on.
Once those KPIs are established, use the business plan as a living document and conduct periodic self-assessments of whether or not you’re on track to meeting them. Use a journal to reflect on the data you’re seeing and think about how the business plan might be fine-tuned to weave in what you’ve learned once you’ve actually been in operation for a period of time.
Writing a business plan might seem like a chore or necessary evil compared to the actual experience of running an SMB, but try to find the joy in it. After all, if you’re excited about your business idea, this is the perfect place to share that excitement with others — and to remind yourself during the challenging times about why you wanted to become an entrepreneur in the first place.