9 Ways to Use Your Business Plan

Many businesses fail because of events that are impossible to foresee. If you'd begun a car dealership specializing in yacht-sized gas guzzlers right before the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, you would be in the same position as a driver heading at 100 miles per hour into a brick wall--through no fault of your own. The same might go for a software startup that comes out with a new program just before Microsoft unveils a top-secret, long-term development effort to create something that does the same job for a lot less money.

It's probably not a bad idea, as part of your business planning process, to try to include some information in your business plan about the activities or intentions of the potential embargos and Microsofts. If nothing else, crafting a scenario in which the unthinkably awful occurs may help you to deal with it if it does. But some things are just wild cards and can't be predicted. For these you just have to trust the luck of the draw.

So what numbers have to add up? Certainly you have to be selling your products and services at a profit that will let you sustain the business long term. You'll also have to have a financial structure, including payables and receivables systems and financing, that will keep you from running out of cash even once. If you have investors who want to sell the company someday, you may need a plan with a big number in the field for shareholders' equity on the projected balance sheet.

When you're asking yourself whether the numbers add up, keep the needs of your business and your business partners, if you have any, in mind. Even if it looks like it'll take an air strike to keep your business from getting started, you don't want to do it if the numbers say that long-term it's headed nowhere.

Attracting Good People
It takes money to make money, sure, but it also takes people to make a company, that is, unless you're a one-person company. Sometimes even then a plan can be an important part of your effort to attract the best partners, employees, suppliers and customers to you.

  • Prospective partners. Partners are like any other investors, and it would be a rare one who would come on board without some kind of plan. Partners want to know your basic business concept, the market and your strategy for attacking it; who else is on your team; what your financial performance, strengths and needs are; and what's in it for them. Luckily, these are exactly the same questions a business plan is designed to address, so you're likely to please even a demanding prospective partner by simply showing him or her a well-prepared plan. The one difference is a plan probably won't contain the details of a partnership agreement. And you'll need one of these to spell out the conditions of your partnership, no matter how well you and your prospective partner know, understand and trust one another.
  • Prospective employees. Although employees may not be making cash contributions to your business, they're making an investment of something equally important--their own irreplaceable time. The kinds of employees you probably want are careful, thorough, good at assessing problems and risks, and unwilling to leap into hazardous waters. As it happens, these are just the kind of people who are going to want to see a written plan of your business before they come on board.

Now, it's not going to be necessary, if you're running a restaurant, to show your full business plan to every waitperson or assistant dishwasher who fills out a job application. It's the most desirable employees--the talented technologists, the well-connected salespeople, the inspired creative types, and the grizzled, seen-it-all managers--who are most likely to feel they can and should demand to see details of your plan before they cast their lot with you.

So even if you don't show your plan to more than a few prospective employees, when you need it, you may really need it bad. Make sure you're ready when a promising but inquisitive job candidate shows up at your doorstep. Another thing, as we've pointed out, not all businesses have plans. So by having one, you'll be making yourself a more desirable employer.

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