9 Ways to Use Your Business Plan

There's no point in planning for failure, but there is a point in writing a business plan that's willing to admit the possibility of failure. It's only natural to create a plan that will describe a roaring success, but you have to be careful not to present an overly optimistic view, especially of such elements as sales, costs and profit margins.

It's tempting to noodle around with the numbers until you come up with the desired result. And if you only make small changes here and there, it may seem all right. What difference does it make? Say you increase your projected market share by 1 percent here, reduce expected costs by 2 percent there, and lower your estimate of required startup capital by a few percentage points as well.

A number of similarly small changes, in sum, can make a big difference in the bottom line of your plan and turn what otherwise looks like a loser into a projected winner. But don't be seduced. You may be asking for investments from friends and family you care about as well as putting your own life savings into the enterprise. Arm's-length investors' feelings may not be so important, but if you mislead them in your plan, you may open yourself up to accusation of misrepresentation.

Looking at things in your plan through rose-colored glasses may even doom your business to failure if it causes you to seek insufficient startup capital, underprice your product or service or expect unrealistically rapid growth. Temper your enthusiasm. If your plan indicates that the business idea isn't sound, by all means look for errors. But don't make the mistake of skewing your plan to fit an idea that isn't sound.

Update Your Plan
Writing a business plan is one of those skills that improves with practice. The first one or two times you create one, you may feel a little unsure of yourself and even less certain that what you're doing has value.

If you go on to start several ventures during your career, you'll naturally write several business plans, and each one will be better than the last. It's likely as well that with better planning skills will come improved business skills, boosting the odds that each successive company you start will do better than the one before.

But there's no reason that only serial entrepreneurs should get the benefit of regular business planning sessions. If you start just one company or even if you never start a company at all, you can and should be constantly honing your business planning skills by updating and rewriting your business plan.

Updating a plan is normally easier than starting from scratch. Instead of trying to figure out what your basic business concept is, you only have to decide whether it's changing. Instead of wondering where you'll find the current market research you need, you just have to go back to the original source for updated figures. You'll usually be able to reuse the financial formulas, spreadsheets, management biographies and other more or less evergreen contents of your plan.

It's important, however, that a plan update not be a mechanical task, limited to plugging in the most recent sales figures. Take the time to challenge some of the core assumptions of your prior plan to see if they still hold up. Have profit margins been higher than you expected? Then start planning how to make the most of any extra cash you generate. Is your new retail store unit not performing as well as others or you expected? Then now's the time to figure out why. Has competition for your new product arisen sooner than you guessed? Take a look at other products with an eye to seeing if they are also more vulnerable than you think.

In large corporations with strict planning routines requiring annual, semiannual and quarterly plans and plan updates, managers spend at least part of their time working on or thinking about a new plan or plan update. All that information flowing up to senior managers in the form of plans helps keep the brass informed. It helps those in the trenches, too. It's a fact that everybody is judged by past performance. And the best way to ensure that a year from now you'll be looking back on your performance with satisfaction and pride is to plan now and often.

Here are eight reasons to think about updating your plan. If one applies to you, it's time for an update.

  1. A new financial period is about to begin. You may update your plan annually, quarterly or even monthly if your industry is fast changing.
  2. You need financing, or additional financing. Lenders and other financiers need an updated plan to make financing decisions.
  3. Significant markets change. Shifting client tastes, consolidation trends among customers and altered regulatory climates can trigger a need for plan updates.
  4. New or stronger competitors are looking to your customers for their growth.
  5. Your firm develops or is about to develop a new product, technology, service or skill. If your business has changed a lot since you wrote your plan, it's time for an update.
  6. You have had a change in management. New managers should get fresh information.
  7. Your company has crossed a threshold, such as moving out of your home office, reaching $1 million in sales or employing 100 people.
  8. Your old plan doesn't seem to reflect reality anymore. Maybe you did a poor job last time; maybe things have just changed faster than you expected. But if your plan seems irrelevant, redo it.

David H. Bangs has been working with small-business owners for more than 20 years and is the author of 11 small-business books.

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