If you started a business within the past year, count yourself in good company—so did approximately 599,999 other people, and that's just in the United States alone. Even if your business is solidly established, think back to when you first began...as you decided what you wanted to do, where you would work, and how you would handle the day-to-day details of customers, record keeping, financials and the like. Did you take the time to construct a business plan? According to the Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov), a business plan is as important to a business as a blueprint is to a builder, a key component that is critical to the success of any business.
Inc.com says "a business plan sells your company to the world and gives you direction as the world answers back." A business plan is more than a simple to-do list. A clear, concise and complete business plan is actually a versatile tool that can help you:
- 1. Define/redefine your company's objectives
- 2. Define a new business market or segment
- 3. Support a loan application or secure funding
- 4. Aid in evaluating a company expansion or a new product line
- 5. Set goals, responsibilities and deadlines
- 6. Determine your roles and responsibilities, as well as those of others on the management team or in your employ (www.bplans.com|~www.bplans.com/ )
Your business plan has a purpose. Even if a "formal" business plan is not your intended result and you are the only one who ever reads it, the mere exercise of creating it will help you question and clarify the feasibility of your idea. By intersecting your services with your costs and your sales, "your plan will help you see how all the disparate elements of your business relate to one another," Peri Pakroo, J.D., writes in The Small Business Start-Up Kit. "The process of creating one often brings up issues and potential problems that you hadn't thought of before. And the discipline involved in developing financial projections...will help you decide whether your business is really worth starting."
"My business plan is fairly simple and helped me focus on what I liked to do and what I knew I could do best," says Debbie O'Kane, who owns Mouse Magic Travel and Beyond the Horizon Travel, based in Long Island, NY. "After working as a generalist, I realized how overwhelming it was to try and research the variety of destinations my clients were interested in. Choosing two niche markets was the first step in creating my plan."
Questions to Ask Yourself
If you have an idea for your business that's not yet been thoroughly formulated, consider these four questions, offered by the SBA, to help you get started. Then put pen to paper or fingers to your keyboard and get your ideas out of your head and into reality.
1. What service or product does your business provide and what needs does it fill?
2. Who are the potential customers for your product or service and why will they purchase it from you?
3. How will you reach your potential customers?
4. Where will you obtain the financial resources to start your business?
Before you start thinking that this business plan idea is starting to sound a lot like an essay test, take heart. A multitude of aids exist to help you every step of the way, including books, software, templates, outlines, sample plans, websites, workshops, podcasts, blogs, and online courses. In fact, one of the most popular free online courses offered by the SBA is the one entitled "Developing a Successful Business Plan." If writing is not your strong suit or you never had a knack for numbers, consider hiring a freelance writer with business savvy to help you draft your plan or hire an accountant to help you with your financials. There are no absolutes when it comes to drafting business plans, especially if you're writing it just for your own benefit. But if you're trying to obtain funding or determine the corporate structure of your business, certainly some key elements must be included.
In its most basic form, a business plan should be comprised of four sections: a description of the business, marketing approaches/goals, finances and management. If you want to make this exercise a bit more detailed, add a market analysis of your competition so you know how your business compares to similar ones in the industry, as well as a section on strategy and implementation, which is potentially the most critical component of your entire plan. This is why you want your business plan written in as much detail as you can manage. You can (and should) return to this section frequently to determine if your stated goals are being met with any success. If not, here is where you can redefine your approach for strategy, implementation, or both, helping your business change course to ensure you hit your target in the future.
For home-based agents, "Setting monthly and annual goals for increasing your number of clients, bookings and your income should all be part of your business plan," O'Kane states. "Developing a marketing strategy is essential. And tracking your success cannot be overemphasized." Reviewing numerous sample business plans is a helpful way to narrow the necessary components for your own plan. Your plan should ultimately be specific to you and your business, rather than adopting a generalized document that offers you no real guidelines.
"Make your plan match its purpose," advises Tim Berry, a popular author, speaker, entrepreneur and expert in business planning (www.timberry.com). "A business plan is any plan that works for a business to look ahead, allocate resources, focus on key points and to prepare for problems and opportunities." Craft your plan to support your business objectives, and design it so that its core purpose is to help guide you as you make each and every business decision, large or small. Those "problems and opportunities" might come when you least expect them, and your business plan can then be your business compass.
Joanie Ogg, president of both NACTA and TravelSellers, is a self-declared "firm believer" in the need for a well-developed business plan. "We need a plan to check our efforts against our successes as we move along in our business," she says. "A plan can always change, but if we do not have a starting place and a final goal, it is hard to stay focused and on track."
Let's assume you do take the time to craft a business plan—it still needs to be updated. In fact, Tim Berry recommends updating your plan yearly, monthly, weekly and daily—whenever things change, "and things always change," he says. Here are some questions to consider as you redefine and update this dynamic document, offered by www.quicken.com:
- 1. Have major changes occurred in your target market?
- 2. Have your underlying business assumptions changed?
- 3. Do you have new or increased competition?
- 4. Have there been major internal changes in your business?
- 5. What's going well, and how can you take advantage of that?
- 6. What's going wrong, and how can you fix it?
Other factors to keep in mind as you revise your business plan: whether your priorities are properly set, whether actual results matched/fell short/surpassed your projections and how your financial projections are working for you. "The purpose of maintaining your plan is to use business results to guide your future decisions," the Quicken article maintains. However, it's also important to keep in mind that frequent revision is as detrimental to your business as no revision is. "You don't want to change a strategy unless you are sure it isn't working or you see real changes in the underlying assumptions that formed the foundations of strategy."
"Business plans are not static documents," according to a growthink.com article. "Keeping your business plan up-to-date can be a critical factor in...your ability to execute on the opportunity at hand." Areas this business-planning website recommends updating periodically are:
- 1. Your milestones: What milestones has your business achieved since the last version of your plan was prepared?
- 2. Your competition: Are there any new players in your field?
- 3. Your financials: Replace your plan's assumptions with real figures. This can lead you to a real understanding of your cash flow needs, both in and out.
Take advantage of any and all opportunities for assistance in creating and maintaining your business plan. Home-based travel agents have a wealth of support from both OSSN, whose mission is to provide members with "every possible tool and unlimited travel agent training to help their business succeed," and NACTA, which, while representing the interests of independent travel entrepreneurs, also offers a Member's Only Web for invaluable communication among member agents. Utilize the tools available to you, and with any necessary course correction and adjustments, your business plan can be turned into a document that helps guide, support and inform your business. Create one if you haven't or update the one you have, and watch your business prosper.