What's the Story?
Some of the most important parts of a business plan are the sections in which you simply tell your story to outsiders. These parts don't require as much research or analysis as many of the other sections--just an explanation of who you are and what you do--although they do take a lot of thought. So work on these easier parts first, particularly if you're having trouble getting started on your plan: They can be a cure for writer's block, and the thinking involved can be vital to producing a top-notch plan.
Use starter topics to get going--these can help you break the inertia. Starter topics are shorter bits of text that will help you generate thoughts. When you get started with these shorter sections, you'll begin to put your plan into words.
Three of these starter topics are part of what I call the "kick start" concept and will end up being included in the executive summary section of your plan:
- Keys to Success. Like an artist squinting to see the landscape, take a look at your business from a distance and name the three or four most important elements. Most people would say location is a key to success for retail, for example, and my experience shows that repeat business is vital for consulting. One restaurant lives or dies on easy parking; another needs top-quality food. What are the keys to your success?
- Objectives. Objectives must be concrete and measurable, never vague. Use bullet points and write down a few important objectives, such as sales targets for the first year, margins you need to make, when the next version of your product will be released, or how many customers per day you need. If you can't measure later whether or not you've achieved an objective, then it shouldn't be there. Objectives are a good place to get started, even though you're likely to refine them towards the end of the process.
- Mission Statement. Every company should develop a mission statement in the startup phase and then review and refine that mission statement at least once a year. The mission statement defines what a business does for each of its three target groups: customers, employees and owners. The mission for customers is an early chance to look at your business in terms of your customer benefits, why they bother to purchase and why they don't go elsewhere. Although most mission statements end with that one thought, a good mission statement also describes the company's benefits to its employees and owners. Profit, for example, is a legitimate purpose for a business, and owners should recognize they need profit to survive.
Although not part of the kick-start concept, your company chapter is equally important. Normally the second chapter of your plan, the company chapter also involves using simple text that tells your story. How did you start your company? What's happened since then? How and why did the management team get together? Where are you located, and why did you choose that location? For a brand-new, startup business plan, the company chapter will take some research on legal forms and a great deal of thought on ownership shares. The text itself, however, is fairly simple.
Before you go into detail on your products or services, take the time to describe the benefits behind the purchase. This important topic can be too easily lost in the shuffle--we get lost in our product or service because we're so close to it. So we need to step back and see what people get. People buy drills to get holes, not drills. Why do they buy from you? What do you give them for their money? Purchasing a product or service is often a matter of status, security, assurance, health, luxury and many other factors. This topic can start the discussion on what you sell, which is normally the third chapter of the plan.
Tell about your competitive advantage, too. What sets you apart from the your competitors, what are your core strengths and how do these affect the market? Maybe you have a product business with great new technology. Maybe you have Web traffic that sets you apart. Maybe you have a great location with a lot of real traffic. What do you have that makes it hard for a competitor to take your business away from you? What do you have that they can't get? That's competitive advantage, and it belongs in the Strategy and Implementation chapter, usually the fifth chapter of a plan.
What all these topics have in common is that they all involve telling your story. They're easy to draft, they generate thought, and you can use them to get started on your plan and then revise them with details later.