Q: In last week’s column, you gave advice about starting a business, and you kept preaching about writing a business plan. I own a business, I don’t have a plan, and I’m doing just fine. What’s the big deal?
A: How do you know your business is doing “fine” if you do not have a business plan? This is like a runner stating that he is “fast” when asked his running pace. Quality and success cannot be measured without having benchmarks and goals. A business plan provides both, allowing you to compare your outcomes to your goals. Without a plan, it is all too easy to keep moving the bar for yourself.
In the words of Alan Lakein, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Business owners may neglect planning for a variety of reasons. They may dislike making decisions, or they may worry about how the plan will reflect their success. An owner may feel anxious about documenting (and making “official”) job descriptions, lines of authority, budgets, and marketing plans. An entrepreneur may dread such control measures, feeling that a business plan is just like having a boss! If you build a house without a plan, however, you may find yourself living in what looks like a child’s play fort. Every stage is based on a sudden inspiration, and your new home becomes “curiosity run wild.” A quality architect begins with his or her final product in mind. To build a secure business, you must plan. According to the Small Business Center at Bradley University, 70 to 80 percent of new businesses fail in their first year, and of those that continue past a year, only half survive to five years. Similarly, statistics from Dun & Bradstreet reflect that only 37 percent of businesses with fewer than 20 employees will survive four years, and only 9 percent will survive ten years. In light of such daunting statistics, it seems foolish to take unnecessary risks – like failing to plan.
You may still be thinking, “I can’t make a plan, because things change too quickly.” Although constant change is inevitable in any business, a good plan can be your key to dealing with change. As a sailor, I view a business plan as similar to a centerboard on a small sailboat. Thanks to its centerboard, the boat can continue moving forward, as the winds shift direction; without its centerboard, the boat would flail around and eventually crash. A good plan keeps you consistently moving forward – sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, but without crashing!
While writing your business plan, you may feel frustrated. After all, you will be writing your goals, without taking immediate action to reach them. You must understand where you are and where you are going, before going anywhere. Writing a plan can be exhausting, too. I guarantee, however, your listless feelings will disappear, as your business transforms from “doing just fine” to “doing very well.”
I hope my response to your question is sufficient and gives you an understanding of why I believe a business plan is critical. Below are some questions to consider while developing your plan:
• Why do I want to start my own business?
• Have I found the right business for me?
• Who are my customers?
• What do these customers need that the market is not currently providing?
• How will I reach them?
• What will it take to reach them?
• How much will it cost to provide for their unmet needs?
• How much are they willing to pay to meet these need?
• Can I make money at this business?