Nervous About Writing Your Business Plan?
I recently received this message in an e-mail. I've edited it to hide the writer's personal details, but here's some of what it says:
I'm currently in the process of starting my own business. I have extensive knowledge of and experience in.
I have the necessary resources for my startup and all of the necessary partners for the business to start.
Unfortunately, I'm not a writer. This is my Achilles' heel. I have this great business concept I'd like to put on paper and have been challenged every step of the way. My startup began two weeks ago, and I've consulted with several CPAs, but to no avail. They either don't have the time, charge too much or aren't interested in assisting me with my business plan. I just couldn't believe how neglected this area of business planning is when their profession deals with financial management and, to a greater extent, consulting.
My response starts with an emphatic "No, please, no!" You're missing the point of business planning--getting caught in the trap of the plan as a document--and making your life and your planning process far more difficult than they should be.
Notice how this e-mail puts the problem into perspective. The guy's starting his business, feels quite confident in the business concept and has "extensive knowledge and experience" in the specific type of business, but can't go further because he's "not a writer." That's crazy, right?
What's wrong with this picture? Why do people assume a business plan is about quality of writing? Hey, I was a literature major years ago in college; I was a journalist before I was an MBA and a planner; and I love good writing as much as the next person. But being a writer has nothing to do with writing a business plan.
This is really important: A business plan is about content, not writing, formatting or pictures. I've listed some of the things your business plan needs to do below. Notice how none of them have anything to do with quality of writing.
- Define your strategy. Strategy requires focus. Figure out what you're really selling, who wants it, why they want it and how your business provides something different from the competition.
- Control your destiny. Determine where you want to go and break that down into specific, concrete steps with dates, deadlines and budgets. Don't merely react to events; be proactive and set a roadmap to follow and revise it as things change--and they will change.
- Plan your cash. You've got to make a good, educated guess, then manage your planned cash flow vs. actual cash flow very carefully. Growth costs money, and profits don't necessarily mean cash, so lay this out in detail. The math isn't hard, but getting your financials organized takes some time and effort (see " The Numbers in Your Business Plan " for more information).
- Allocate resources realistically. This doesn't just have to do with cash, but also with know-how and responsibility. Who's in charge?
- Communicate your plan. The business plan is the standard tool for communicating the main points of a business to a spouse, partner, boss, banker, investor, manager or other interested person. This is where we get confused, I think, about the plan as a document.
First, we have to recognize that not all business plans are about communicating to outsiders. In planning, form follows function, so if you aren't communicating to outsiders, then lighten up! Make the plan useful to you in as simple a format as possible. Maybe it's a cash plan and a presentation, or a cash plan and notes, but nobody's saying your success depends on the document itself.
Furthermore, if you're in a situation in which you have to communicate to bankers or investors, stay calm--and stay focused on business. If investors want a presentation more than a plan document, focus on the presentation. If bankers want financial projections more than an extensive look into your company's mission, focus on that.
We're afraid our plan has to be well written because it represents us and stands for our intelligence, experience or ability to run a business. Get over it. It isn't a writing contest; it's a business. Tell your story. Keep it simple. Bullet points are fine.
Also, don't confuse your plan for the kind a business student would turn in. In business school, the plan is a teaching tool. When I give students a grade for a business plan, I look at writing. I judge the quality of the document in part based on spelling and grammar and, more important, completeness. That's a special case, though, that shouldn't apply to you out there in the real world.
The bottom line is, well, the bottom line--not the editor's pencil. A good business plan is about results, not writing. Don't wait an extra minute for that "writer." Get working on your plan. And never forget, the real value is in implementation. Prepare to track results, compare those results to your plan, revise, correct course and manage your business better because of your plan.