I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m not much of a business plan person. Sure, I had to write them for classes. I even assign some of my clients to write business plans. But my usual m.o. is just a.s.a.p. — helping people see how they can get into business quickly.
I never wrote a business plan for my candle business. I didn’t write one for the non-profit organization that I started either. We wrote and ran with a two-page proposal (after we had already completed two events), and it’s still in operation five+ years later. There is a time and a place for the business plan, and I’ll get to that later, but for now, let me explain why business plans usually are stallers not starters.
When people who want to start a business instead start to the task of writing a business plan, they get confounded and find themselves asking these questions:
- “What is the correct format?”
- “How do I start writing this?”
- “Did that sentence just make sense?”
And let’s be honest: aren’t those questions almost entirely irrelevant to starting a business? (If you’re not sure, the answer is: “yes, those questions are irrelevant.”)
You see, it is hard to stare down a blank page, and it is hard to know what to start writing. It is also very difficult to plan for three years ahead and for all the goals you would like to accomplish in the future when you don’t even have any money to start the business now and when no one is going to lend you some.
So when the people who want to start businesses start by writing a business plan, they stop and start frequently as they struggle with the task of writing. This is stalling the process. Not kick-starting it.
The 3 questions that matter when you’re starting a business
Instead, when people come to me with a grandiose idea of what they would like to do, I ask them:
- What is your experience in this field or industry?
- How much time do you have to work on this new venture?
- How much money do you have to invest in this new venture?
Based upon their responses to these three questions, we brainstorm a list of ways to get into business in the quickest way possible — and often, this means in the smallest way possible. This process, as opposed to a business plan, helps them to: 1) Kick-start their business instead of stalling it with a business plan 2) Start generating money right away to grow into their eventual “big idea” and 3) Figure out who wants what they’ve got instead of trying to guess and spend tons of marketing dollars pursuing people they were guessing at in the first place
A young woman came to me who wanted to start an online, designer consignment boutique. This would have required lots of money for website development and lots of money for inventory and lots of money to acquire customers through marketing. When I asked her the three questions: she had some experience; she had lots of time; but she didn’t have any money. So she couldn’t really implement her idea without investors, and she couldn’t get investors without a business plan.
We had two options: 1) Write a business plan for this “big idea” and pursue investors in hopes of getting some to bite. This would take time, stall her excitement and may or may not work. 2) Figure out a smaller idea than the “big idea” that she could start on right away. She could systematically grow her customer base, put away some of the profit to re-invest, and prove her concept.
We chose option #2. If she was going to sell items online, people would have to know about her first. So we agreed that she would start with gaining a social media following. We assessed different social media platforms, and to ensure her daylight hours didn’t get sucked into the social media abyss, we agreed she would just Instagram for now. She also didn’t have to wait to sell items until later. She could curate one item at a time and push her unique, designer finds through her Instagram. This helped her to build her brand, gain followers, immediately generate revenue and prove that people want what she’s got.
When a business plan matters
Now, to the flip side (and to all the business plan advocates who have just been waiting to tell me how incredibly important a business plan is). There are times when I assign a business plan. These are typically when:
- A person is obviously very unsure about what he/she wants to do.
- A person is obviously very unsure about what running a business will require.
- A person is committed exclusively to the “big idea” which will require complex processes and big money from the start.
- A business has proven its concept and is ready to grow.