The great writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” This is true of life but it’s particularly true for business professionals who are drawing up a business plan. Our world is buffeted by fickle markets, the whims of consumers and hundreds of other variables. Entering those stormy business waters without a plan is like heading out to sea without a rudder.
If you’re here, though, you don’t need platitudes to be convinced of the importance of a business plan. So let’s skip the pitch and get right to the ways you can make your business plan ready for the real world.
Know Your Audience
Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were), you need to understand who your audience is. There are external and internal business plans; external business plans target lenders and investors while internal business plans give managers and employees a blueprint to the company’s values and goals. Knowing your audience lets you keep the content relevant to the reader, which will make it more effective. A venture capitalist might only be interested in user acquisition costs and growth rates but a lender will want to see things like balance sheets and statements.
Focus Your Vision
This can be the hardest part of any business plan or it can be the most fun. Make it the latter by using a strategy that works best for you. Some love to mind map, where the idea is to draw the core idea in the center, then drawing diverging ideas out of it to form a web. This visual element often helps the brain make connections between ideas and stimulate new ideas.
Others may benefit from the S.W.O.T. (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) method:
- Strengths: Will the vision line up with the things I do well?
- Weaknesses: What are some potential weaknesses and how can they be overcome?
- Opportunities: What opportunities can I take advantage of?
- Threats: What’s my contingency plan to deal with issues that might arise?
Whatever method you use, make sure it answers questions like who your market it, how you’ll scale and what consumer need you’ll be meeting.
Kill Your Darlings
This is one they might not have taught you while you were getting your business degree. There’s an age-old axiom in writing. “Kill your darlings” means to get rid of things that don’t serve the story, even if you love them. And it’s easy to fall in love with your business ideas when you’re building your business narrative. Unfortunately, loving your business idea won’t make your customers love it. That’s why it’s helpful to take a step back from your idea and look at it with fresh and critical eyes. It’s even more important to be honest with yourself. Consider the worst-case scenario. Take any claims you make to their breaking points. Make sure your goals are realistic. If something doesn’t feel right or hold up to scrutiny, don’t ignore it; address it or toss it. Our next tip might also help you do this.
Research, Research and More Research
It may be obvious but you need to do intensive research. Find hard data that could satisfy even the most hardened observer and address questions like these:
- Who are my competitors (they’re not always who you think)?
- What does my customer really want (it’s not always what you think)?
- Is there really a market for my idea/product?
- What need am I fulfilling that a consumer would realistically act on?
- What are the costs?
- What’s a realistic time frame?
- What are the best-case and worst-case sales predictions?
If you’re looking for funding, you will live or die by the answers these data provide. Make sure they’re unimpeachable.
Make it Compelling
Having rock-solid data, a clear vision, a critical eye and no small amount of passion will go a long way toward making your business plan compelling, but it’s not enough. Once you have all of these things, you need to find ways to make them pop for your reader. Here’s how:
- Be clear and concise. No one is going to want to read your business plan if it’s full of fluff. Decide what’s most important to your audience and make that info readily available with no extraneous content.
- Use visuals. Having visual representations of your numbers and ideas (graphs, charts, images) means your readers won’t have to slog through paragraphs and paragraphs of text. Visual info is exponentially faster to absorb and has been proven to stick around in the brain longer.
- Proofread. Nothing makes you look less professional than a sloppy, grammatically incorrect business plan. If you’re not proficient at this, find someone who can help you.
Whether you’re just starting your business career or you’ve been around a while, knowing how to design and maintain your business plan will be a critical part of your success, letting you adapt to changing climates or keep your company’s vision on track.