Building a successful, profitable business - one that not only supports you, but makes you want to spring out of bed early every morning to work on - is hard. There’re so many things you need to keep track of, it’s easy to get overwhelmed before you even begin.
A real plan - not a hand-wavey, “I’ll figure it out as I go along” kind of plan. You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, and you wouldn’t fly an airplane without a flight map - so why would you take that chance with your business?
Unfortunately, when you’re just starting out, most of the business planning advice out there on the web is worse than useless, because it’s written for businesses a whole lot bigger than yours. Conventional wisdom would have you believe that a business plan needs to be 37 pages long, full of executive summaries and bar graphs and five-year projections.
One alternative is to give your idea the once-over, before diving in and assuring yourself that everything will fall into place on its own. This option is great, if you aren’t in a hurry to bring in any real revenue. But for those of you that are juggling day jobs and family commitments alongside your side projects, you need to bring in revenue as quickly as possible.
The more time you spend planning, the less time you have for doing.
There is a way, though, to bypass some of the hand-wavey trial and error without getting buried in pivot tables. A simple business plan that focuses on helping you take action, instead of getting stuck forever in planning purgatory. A business plan that adapts along with your business.
There's a funny thing about plans - they have a tendency to change. When you start out, you're essentially making guesses about your customers and your products and services. As you move forward with your business, you'll learn more about who your customers and clients are, what they're struggling with, and the ways you can help. Your business changes and evolves constantly, so your plan needs to be dynamic as well.
The goal of your plan, then, isn't to come up with a detailed blueprint for what's going to happen when. It's to help you quickly identify your riskiest guesses, and find ways to reduce that risk.
Here's how it works.
The boxes are broken up into a few critical sections. Boxes 1 through 4 have you focusing on your audience and their problems: Who is your ideal customer? How are you going to find them and communicate with them? What are the most frustrating things that they face every day? Are there any competitors that are already solving these problems for them?
In boxes 5 through 8, you'll start thinking about how you can actually solve these problems for your target audience. What would a perfect solution look like (regardless of whether it's something you can actually achieve)? How can you provide a solution to their problems? How will their life and business be improved by your solution? What will you charge for your solution? What will it cost you to build and sell your solution? Do you have any existing advantages over the competition you can leverage?
Finally, boxes 9 through 11 focus on you - how you present yourself and your business, and whether it's a good fit overall for you. What's your 5-second elevator pitch? What makes your solution better than everyone else's? Do you get energized thinking about it? Is this the kind of lifestyle and responsibility you want to take on?
So how exactly can you use this to help keep you focused?
All the different boxes may make it look complicated at first, but I've included a handy color-coded and numbered version showing the order in which you should fill each box out, and some example questions you should be aiming to answer in each box. I've also included a couple of examples that I've already started to fill out - one for a store selling physical products on Etsy, and one for a web design services business.
Get your phone out and set a timer for 15 minutes, then grab a pen and fill in as much information as you can. There's no right or wrong answers here - the point is to help you identify what you know and what you don't know about your business idea. Don't be afraid to be brutally honest, and feel free to leave some sections blank if you don't have a good answer.
As you fill it out, you'll start to identify the riskiest parts of your business. At this point, you can start to come up with experiments to test your assumptions.
Let's say you've identified social media asone of the best places to find your potential customers. You can test this out pretty quickly, by spending a few weeks consistently posting to social media to build an audience. After a few weeks of testing, though, you might learn that your audience isn't quite as active on social media as you thought. Considering this was your main plan of action for reaching your customer base, you'll need to return to your business plan and re-assess what to try next.
At the end of every month, sit down with your plan from the previous month, and look at which parts of it are working and which parts aren't. Fill out a new plan, swapping out the parts that aren't working for new ideas, and keeping the parts that are working well.
If you're like most businesses, your first, second, or probably even your third attempts may not pan out. The point isn't to get it right on your first try - it's to iterate towards a sustainable plan that not only works for your customers, but also for you.
Building a sustainable business is really just one big experiment. You try things - some will work, some will fail miserably. You learn, adapt, and repeat. It isn't magic - but it does take consistent effort, and it does require a simple plan, one that doesn't burn all your time creating bar graphs.
So grab my simple business plan template, get started, and remember it doesn't need to be perfect. If you don't have all the answers, or you're feeling a little overwhelmed, that's a sure sign you're on the right track - at least, the same track the rest of us are on.
The good news is, now you've got the tools to manage it.
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