Whether you're building gadgets, selling software or starting a nonprofit, your starting point is a vision, which gets turned into a plan of action. In business, your plan is the road map that will help you pinpoint the answers to some of the most important questions pertaining to your venture: What are you selling? How will you make money? Who will buy it? How will you reach those customers?
Writing a business plan may sound daunting, but it doesn't have to be. It can be fun! Throughout my career I have launched dozens of successful products -- and each one began with some level of business plan. Because I have a lot going on, I never want to invest too much time in the actual writing of these plans, preferring to spend my time instead on the actual strategy.
So, how do I pen my own business plans? I hack them, and so should you. Here are my five business plan hacks:
1. Start with a business model canvas.
I strongly recommend that you begin with a business model canvas (Steve Blank’s blog is a great resource), especially if this is your first time writing a plan. It’s a tool for designing, inventing and thinking strategically about your company -- all on one page. The exercises will help you identify the resources you're going to need and define the customers you need to approach. It's a cool and effective way to brainstorm all of the key considerations when starting a business.
2. Keep things simple, with bullet points.
Once you’ve completed your business model canvas, you’ll have a much clearer vision of what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and the people you’re going to serve. You then get to turn your canvas into the plan. Business plans are more thorough and detailed. You will need one to share with investors if you want to raise money.
There is a section for each major area of consideration: product description, target market, sales, marketing, operations, team, etc. You'll want to address the who and how of each component of your business. For example: Who’s handling our marketing activities? What channels will we use for getting the word out? What activities will be performed in each channel?
Thorough doesn’t need to be lengthy. Too often, entrepreneurs lose the forest for the trees, and get hung up trying to draft carefully worded prose. Start by just getting your ideas down on paper in raw form as bullet points in each area. You can worry about making them sound good and organize them into paragraphs later.
After you write your ideas down, solicit feedback from your advisors, using a bullet-point form. This is will save you time integrating suggestions before you lock in careful wording.
3. Focus on differentiation where it counts.
As you write your plan, think about what will make both your company and product or service distinct from your competitors'. You'll want to capture your unique offering, and your business plan should emphasize this.
The good news is that while your offering should be different from your competitors', many key elements of your business plan don’t have to be. You don't have to reinvent the wheel or try to be different in every area. For example: when it comes to your customer acquisition strategy or your logistics platform, you can do what everyone else is doing as long as there is no competitive advantage readily available.
4. Don’t overdo it on cash-flow projections.
It's easy to get caught in the weeds when you're trying to create accurate cash flow projections.The purpose of your cash flow and profitability projections isn't necessarily to show exactly what's going to happen; it's to show how, within reasonable circumstances and success, your business is positioned to make money and can afford to keep the lights on.
Your projections' purpose is to help you test your assumptions about profitability, not predict the future. So, you need to invest time in them, but you don't need to go crazy trying to be perfect. Make your assumptions, declare them and proceed.
5. Hire a writer.
There are parts of your business plan that cannot be outsourced. Only you can decide what you’re going to do and the people you wish to serve. Thankfully, writing your business plan text isn’t something you need to do yourself. Once you’ve completed your canvas and the high-level bullet points for the major sections of your plan, consider hiring a business writer if you’re short on time or hate writing.
Such people are relatively affordable and easy to find. I recommend checking out Upwork or Freelancer. You can then go back and forth with the one you hire, to get it just right. This can save a tremendous amount of effort.
The hacks I’ve detailed above are designed to help you save time and focus on what really matters, such as identifying your customer segments and understanding how your business will make money.
Once your business does start operations, things will likely shift anyway, so be efficient in spending your time on this task. If you treat the writing as a fun brainstorm on a living document rather than a daunting exercise, your effort will be inspiring!