How to Hire the Right Business Plan Consultant While they will cost you time and money, some experts believe strongly in the utility and value of hiring outside help to craft your business plan.
This is part 8 / 8 of Write Your Business Plan: Section 6: Getting Your Business Plan to Investors series.
Businesspeople tend to fall into two camps when it comes to consultants. Some believe strongly in the utility and value of hiring outside experts to bring new perspectives and broad knowledge to challenging tasks. Others feel consultants are overpaid yes-men brought in only to endorse plans already decided upon or to take the heat for unpopular but necessary decisions.
Who's right? Both are, depending on the consultant you hire and your purpose for hiring one. Most consultants are legitimate experts in specific or general business areas. And most consultants can be hired to help with all or part of the process of writing a business plan.
The downside is you have to spend a lot of time on communication before and during the process of working with a consultant. Be sure you have fully explained, and the consultant fully understands, the nature of your business, your concept and strategy, your financial needs, and other matters such as control, future plans, and so on. Refer to these important issues throughout the process—you don't want to pay for a beautifully done plan that fits somebody else's business, not yours. And when the work is done, debrief the consultant to find out if there's anything you can learn that wasn't included in the plan.
If you decide to hire a consultant to help you prepare your plan, take care that you select the right person. Here are the guidelines:
- Get referrals. Ask colleagues, acquaintances, and professionals such as bankers, accountants, and lawyers for the names of business plan consultants they recommend. A good referral goes a long way to easing concerns you may have. Few consultants advertise anyway, so referrals may be your only choice.
- Look for a fit. Find a consultant who is an expert in helping businesses like yours. Ideally, the consultant should have lots of experience with companies of similar size and age in similar industries. Avoid general business experts or those who lack experience in your field.
- Check references. Get the names of at least three clients the consultant has helped to write plans. Call the former clients and ask about the consultant's performance. Was the consultant's final fee in line with the original estimate? Was the plan completed on time? Did it serve the intended purpose?
- Get it in writing. Have a legal contract for the consultant's services. It should discuss in detail the fee, when it will be paid, and under what circumstances. And make sure you get a detailed, written description of what the consultant must do to earn the fee. Whether it's an hourly rate or a flat fee isn't as important as each party knowing exactly what's expected.
The Lowdown on Consultants
A good consultant should provide the following:
- They should lay out expectations. In any working relationship, you need to know exactly what is expected of whom you are hiring.
- The consultant should only make promises they can keep. Hold them to their word. Business is about making and keeping promises.
- All plans should be made in advance and make promises that were inherently discussed beforehand. Without a concrete plan a consultant can "wing it," leaving you without any way to look at milestones and keep tabs on her progress.
- A consultant should provide regular, specific updates. You need to set up a schedule and a means of regular communication. You want to know—specifically— what she is doing, and this means regular ongoing communication, which is an integral part of a healthy business relationship.
- They should not have a personal agenda. If the consultant is not acting in the best interest of your company, then they are not doing the job ethically. Make sure anyone you're hiring is working for your needs, not theirs.
Related: 12 Reasons You Need a Business Plan
What Does It All Mean?
In the end, consultants can only help you know what it is you're looking to accomplish with your business. Business plan competitions can give you a leg up on the competition, but you will then need to use that edge wisely by putting your award-winning plan into the right hands. SCORE and other organizations can benefit you in the business planning process, if you are ready to listen, learn, and ask questions.
Remember, though, there is no magic formula for success. Your business plan should lay down the foundation from which you will do everything you can to build and sustain a successful business. It should tell the story of your business going forward and help you think hard about every aspect of your business. It should help you make the key decisions as you proceed. It should also keep you thinking about all of the possibilities.
Related: How to Write a Business Plan
Writing a business plan is not easy, but neither is starting and running a successful business. Many new businesses (as well as older ones) fail every year. Some have no concrete plan, others have drifted from the plan, and many have lost the motivation to grow and change to keep pace with the changing marketplace. Complacency stops many businesses from taking the next steps.
A business plan means what you want it to mean. It can be a way of guiding you through the process, a means of getting investors, a way of finding advisors, a document to help lure new talent, or all of the above. It is not something that you finish and forget to look at, but instead something you can go back to, just as you would do with a blueprint of a house or a building as you plan to add on a new room or rewire the facility.
Of course, the business plan is worthwhile only if you are honest in what you put on paper, meaning being honest to yourself. If you are writing down an idealized version of what you'd like to see without including well-researched facts and forecasts that are based on due diligence, then your business plan will simply lead you to disappointment. Therefore, as you write the plan, stop and look at it periodically to make sure you are being realistic and have other people you know and trust read it to confirm that you are being forthright and not overly optimistic.
The real optimism of a business plan is creating something that you can accomplish and make successful over time. It's fine to use the business plan to shoot for the stars—but start with one star at a time.