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5 Easy Ways to Kick-start Your Business Planning

Don't know where to start with your plan? Here are some tips to get you going--today.

Have you been putting off the business planning? You know who you are. Do you mean to start managing better, but keep getting distracted by fires to put out? Here are five quick and easy ways to start planning today.

  1. Do a SWOT Analysis
    SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It's a great way to break out of that planning inertia. It's especially good when there's a team involved. Take an hour or two and jot down bullet points under each of these four categories. 

    Don't spend all day, much less all week. A couple of hours should work fine. 

    Don't argue about what goes where. Don't criticize contributions. It's brainstorming. Just jot down the points and record them. Strategy follows. You can't help it. You do a SWOT, and strategy follows. 

    And now you're planning. 
     
  2. Compare plans to actual sales.
    Think through what turned out differently and what didn't, and why. Soon, you'll be thinking about your marketing strategy, target markets, marketing messages, customers, channels, packaging, delivery, complaints and competitors. I'm amazed at how much of business, and the business planning process, pivots around the difference between planned and actual sales. 

    And now you're planning. 

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  3. Talk to 10 well-chosen people
    Funny how much time goes by for most business owners without really talking even to your customers, much less to a few people who aren't your customers but could be. I was shocked the first time I did it. I felt like I talked to customers often, but that's nothing to what you get when you dedicate time and have a real conversation. 

    First make a good list. Don't cheat yourself and talk only to the people you always talk to anyway. Stretch yourself further and find some people you don't know, so you get a fresh look. Ask them for their time, not as a survey taker but as the owner or manager of the business. A lot of people will turn you down (I probably would), but if the conversation is framed right, you'll find some people interested. 

    Start the conversation with interesting questions. The first couple of questions are critical to the success of the talk. Grab their interest. Wake their curiosity. 

    And now you're planning.
     
  4. Imagine a customer story
    That's right: I say "imagine," not find or tell a customer story. This isn't a testimonial for use by marketing. 

    Imagine your ideal customer. Give her a gender, occupation, family (or not), children (or not), route to work, favorite magazines, television shows, hobbies, websites, music, and movies. If she owns a car, what make, what model. Imagine favorite vacations. 

    Now imagine how she finds your business. What does he like about you, and what does she dislike? What prompts him to look for you. Where does she look? What does he tell other people about your business? 

    How do you want to be described by your customers to their friends? What do you want to make them set you apart, in their minds? 

    Think about that, imagine that, and now you're planning. 
     
  5. Visualize a better future
    Where your business might be three years from now if things go really well. What will your office or store or plant look like three years from now? What will you be selling? How different is it from what you're selling today? Who will you be selling too? How different will that be from who you sell to today? 

    Some would call this dreaming. But dreaming ahead, dreaming the future, is a vital part of business planning. Dream it, then focus, set the steps to make it happen. Then track and follow up, and manage. 

    And now you're planning. 

The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Tim Berry is the president of Palo Alto Software Inc., based in Eugene, Ore., which produces business planning software. He is also the author of 3 Weeks to Startup and The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan, published by Entrepreneur Press.
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