9 Ways to Use Your Business Plan It's not just for financing--your business plan can help you spot future success or failure, attract suppliers and employees, and more.

Editor's note: This article was excerpted from Business Plans Made Easy, a guide to creating a high-impact business plan.

The process of writing a business plan helps you take a thorough, careful and comprehensive look at the most important facets of your business, including the contexts in which it operates. Just raising questions can sometimes lead to a solution, or at least ensure that if conditions change you won't be forced to make decisions hastily. The ongoing "what if this or that happens?" inherent in the planning process keeps you alert. In other words, the planning process itself makes you a far more capable manager than you would be without it. For many, this is a more valuable result than securing funding.

In many ways, writing a business plan is an end in itself. The process will teach you a lot about your business that you are unlikely to learn by any other process. You'll spot future trouble areas, identify opportunities, and help your organization run smoothly, simply through the act of writing a plan.

Evaluating a New Venture
Lisa Angowski Rogak is an entrepreneur who started several newsletters in much the same way. She devised a plan focusing on marketing strategy and cash flow projections to see if she could come up with a way to sell the newsletters while keeping her bills paid. She then prepared a sample issue to be used in a direct mail and publicity campaign. "Planning is the key to the success of your newsletter," says Rogak, whose latest venture is Williams Hill Publishing. "It's the single most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your newsletter."

That's the kind of encouragement that helps entrepreneurs persevere, whether they have an existing concern that's hitting a rough spot or a startup concept that nobody else seems to believe in. Numbers can lie, of course, and nobody can create a spreadsheet that really tells the future. But evaluating financial data is to entrepreneurship what evaluating lab results is to a medical doctor. If your vital signs are good, odds are your future will be as well

But what if the odds don't look so favorable? What if the first pass through your cash flow projection or income pro formas contains more red than a fire station paint locker? Sure, you can go back and look for an error or an overly pessimistic or conservative assumption. You can even try altering a few of the inevitable numbers that you really have no way of estimating accurately to see where the pressure points are, if nothing else.

But what if you do that, even pushing your alterations past the point of credibility, and your plan still doesn't make sense? Well, in that case, you've probably done yourself the really big favor of finding out something isn't going to work before you sink your money into it. Nobody knows exactly how often this happens, but it's safe to say that a lot of businesses are never attempted because the plan convincingly says that they shouldn't be.

Is that bad? Well, it may feel bad. But think how much worse you would feel if you went ahead with the venture, and things turned out as the plan forecast. Business planning is a powerful tool for evaluating the feasibility of business ventures. Use it.

It would be a shame to keep the benefits of a well-done plan to yourself. And you shouldn't. You can use your plan to find funding. But a good plan can also help sell your products, services, and your whole company to prospects and suppliers. Furthermore, a plan is a valuable tool for communicating your visions, goals and objectives to other managers and key employees in your firm.

Selling with Your Plan
As a rule, your business plan is only likely to be required in the later stages of being selected as a supplier. Let the customer's process decide when or if you'll present your plan. As an added benefit, working your way through the early stages of vendor selection will give you a chance to rework your plan, if necessary, to stress the areas you've learned are more important to your potential customer.

Informing Suppliers and Customers
Increasingly, companies large and small have been trying to trim the number of suppliers and customers they deal with and develop deeper and stronger relationships with the ones they keep. An essential part of this is getting to know more about existing and prospective vendors and clients. So don't be surprised if one day, when you're trying to set up a new supplier relationship or pitch a deal to a big company, the person you're negotiating with asks to see your business plan.

Why do suppliers care about business plans? Suppliers only want to sell to people who can pay, which is one important reason a new supplier is likely to want to see your business plan before taking a big order. Remember, if a supplier is selling to you on credit--letting you take delivery of goods and pay for them later--that supplier is, in effect, your creditor. Suppliers who sell for other than cash on delivery have the same legitimate interest in your business's strategy and soundness as does a banker.

Say a supplier's analysis of customer records shows it has a knack for developing long-term profitable relationships with moderate-sized companies that emphasize excellent service, price at a premium level, and provide only the best merchandise. Business plans provide all the information such a company will need to find and clone its best customers. So if a supplier asks to see your plan, be willing to share it. It could be the start of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

Customers are likely to be concerned about how well your respective strategies fit with theirs. For instance, say your mission statement says that you intend to produce the best-in-the-world example of your product no matter what the cost. Your customer, meanwhile, is a high-volume, low-price reseller of the type of products you make. Even if your offering fits the customer's need this time, odds are good that the relationship won't work out over the long haul. If, on the other hand, a look at your business plan reveals that your companies share the same kind of strategies and have similar objectives in type if not scope, it's an encouraging sign.

Managing With Your Plan

The spread of the open-book management theory means a lot more employees are seeing their companies' business plans than ever before. When employees get the key information managers are using to make decisions, they understand management better and make better decisions themselves, and efficiency and profitability often increase as a result.

Many companies hold annual meetings at which they present and discuss an edited version of their business plan to all employees. Others provide new hires with their business plan-type information as part of their indoctrination in company culture. Both are effective approaches. You can also use bulletin boards or company newsletters to publish smaller sections of your plan, such as your mission statement or some details of financial objectives and how you're progressing.

One drawback to using a plan to help inform and manage your employees is that many won't understand it. Some firms provide employees with rudimentary training in matters like how to read a financial report before they hand out the company's plans. Often this training is done by the CEO and can take considerable time. But don't be afraid to share details of your business plan with employees. They may turn out to understand it better than you.

Monitoring Your Business's Performance
Using a business plan to monitor your performance has many benefits. If your cash flow is running much shorter than projected at the moment, even though you're not currently in trouble, that information may help you to spot disaster before it occurs. By comparing plan projections with actual results, you gain a deeper understanding of your business's pressure points or the components of your operation that have the most effect on results.

  • Spotting trouble early. A teenager taking driver's education is told to look through the rear window of the car in front to try to see the brake lights on the vehicle ahead of that one. The idea is that if the novice driver waits until the car immediately ahead slams on the brakes, it may be too late to stop. Looking forward, past the immediate future, helps traffic move more smoothly and averts countless accidents.

The same principle applies in business planning. You don't have to be a wizard to get some solid hints about the future beyond tomorrow, especially when it comes to the operations of your own business. You can look at virtually any page of your business plan and find an important concept or number describing some expected future event that, if it turns out to be diverging from reality, may hint at future trouble.

Say your profit margins are shrinking slowly but steadily and seemingly irreversibly. If you can see that within a few months your declining margins will push your break-even point too high to live with, you can take action now to fix the problem. You may need to add a new, higher-margin product; get rid of an old one; or begin marketing to a more profitable clientele. All these moves, and many more you could take, have a good chance of working if your careful comparison of plan projections with actual results warns you of impending danger. Wait until the last minute, and you could be peeling yourself off the windshield.

  • Understanding pressure points. Not all tips that come from comparing plans with results have to do with avoiding danger. Some help you identify profit opportunities. Others may show how seemingly minor tweaks can produce outsized improvements in sales or profitability. For example, the plan for a one-person professional service business indicated that rising sales were not, in general, accompanied by rising costs. Fixed items such as office rent and insurance stayed the same, and even semivariable costs such as phone bills went up only slightly. The bulk of any extra business went straight to the bottom line, showing up as profit improvement. But one cost that didn't seem especially variable went up sharply as business volume climbed. That was the number of transactions.

Ordinarily this would be a given and not necessarily a matter of grave concern. A large enterprise could absorb these costs, but for this single professional, however, added paperwork came at a very high cost--her own time. As a part of checking her plan against results, she noticed this unexpected increase in transactions and calculated that she spent around an hour on paperwork for each transaction no matter how large or small. She realized that one of the most important pressure points in her business was related to the size of a transaction. By refusing small engagements and seeking clients who could offer big jobs, she would reduce the amount of time spent on otherwise unproductive paperwork and increase the time she could spend completing client requirements.

Ultimately, she was able to trim what had been 100 annual transactions down to 75, while increasing the amount of her dollar revenue. The result was a free 25 hours to spend working on more business or just vacationing. If you can see and relieve a pressure point like that, you can really keep your business from boiling over.

There are few things to equal the sensation of filling in all the numbers on a cash flow projection, hitting the recalculate button, and scrolling to the bottom of your spreadsheet to see what the future holds. If the news is good and you see a steady string of positive cash balances across the bottom row, you know that, assuming your data is good and your assumptions reasonable, your business has a good chance of making it.

Do the Numbers Add Up?

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.

Plan for the Possibility of Failure

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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