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Charting the Course – Business Plan Development & Research

As it is necessary to understand the direction and strength of the wind, before sailing, one must know the contrary winds in business. Charting a development strategy for a large or small business requires detail information about the competition. Too many entrepreneurs launch out with a dream, but never bring it down to the real world where men, women and children make the decisions “to buy or not to buy.” What are the qualities and flaws of the competitive products or services? Where and how are they sold? What are the prices and discounts? Who sells them? The provider’s reputation, financial strength, history and sales staff provide important clues to the nature of competition a product faces. The best ways to research include:

· Search the Internet for information, critiques, or evaluations of your competitors;
· Purchase the product or service for your personal evaluation;
· Find out what potential consumers think about it;

Getting this information requires a bit of work and research. Visit the competitor, interview their customers, sit in a place where you can observe the operation, and keep records. Who’s buying? What are they buying? At what price? Always look for any wrinkles in the competitor’s operation.

Once you have drawn a picture of the competitor, compare your own business plan to that. What advantage does your business strategy, location, products or services have over the competition? In particular, consider the pricing. Can you compete on price? If your goods are higher in price explain why. You may succeed with higher prices, but there will have to be reasons why people will pay more for your products. The aesthetics of the store, the nature of a guarantee, the skills of the sales staff and other features make be an attraction. How does your business compare to the competition? You want to compose your strategy based on the competition. All of this information will give you a clue to the potential you have of beating the competition. If you can beat the competition you have a better chance of being the business to survive.

Write a Bankable Business Plan – Ten Action Steps

Action Step # 1
Define Your Company: What will you accomplish for others?

Write down all the specific needs your company will satisfy. Potential investors need to know that your business will be meaningful and marketable to people who can use your product or service. So concentrate on the external needs your company will meet. What will your product or service enable people to do better, more cheaply, more safely, or more efficiently? Will your restaurant make people’s palates delirious with new taste sensations? Will your new mouse trap help people capture mice without feeling sick to their stomachs? Will your new bubble gum scented bubble bath revolutionize the way children agree to take nightly baths?

Think of all the positive benefits your company will provide. Write them down. Admire them. Absorb them into your consciousness. Believe in them. These are the primary motivators that readers of your business plan will respect and value.

Action Step # 2
Identify Your Company’s Initial Needs: What will you require to get started?

Whether you want to buy an existing company with 300 employees or you can start your business by only adding an extra phone line to your home office desk, you need to make a list of the materials you’ll need. Some may be tangible, such as five hundred file folders and a large cabinet in which to store them all. Other requirements may be intangible, such as time to create a product design or to do market research on potential customers. You may need to hire an assistant to develop a retrievable filing system for the five hundred folders, or hire a consultant to set up a computer system that’s beyond your technical skills.

If you’re going to build a better mousetrap, you may have constructed a prototype out of used toothpaste tubes and bent paperclips at home, but you’ll need a sturdier, more attractive model to show potential investors. What exactly will your mousetrap look like? What materials will you need? Do you require money for research and development to improve on your original toothpaste tube and paper clip construction? Do you need to hire an engineer to draw up accurate manufacturing designs? Should you patent your invention? Will you need to investigate federal safety standards for mousetraps?

Next, do your homework. Call a real estate broker and look at actual retail spaces in the neighborhood where you’d like to open your restaurant. Make a chart of the most expensive and least expensive sites by location and square footage. Then estimate how much space you require and how much money you’ll need to allow for rent.

Make a list of all the tangible and intangible resources you need to get your business going. The total estimated price of all of these items will become your start-up cost whether you’re buying highly sophisticated computers or simply installing a new telephone line on your desk. If there’s any item in your estimates that seems unreasonably high, research other alternatives. But keep in mind that it’s better to include every element you truly need along with a reasonable estimate of the cost of each item, so you don’t run out of money or default on your loans. Be honest and conservative in your estimates, but also be optimistic.

Action Step # 3
Choose A Winning Strategy: How will you distinguish your product or service from others?

Although there are millions of types of businesses, there are actually only a few basic strategies that can be applied to make any enterprise successful. The first step in selecting an effective strategy is to identify a competitive advantage for your product or service. How will you establish that your product or service is better, cheaper, more delicious, or more convenient? How can you make your company more noticeable than your competitors? What restraints in your business or its industry might determine which strategy you choose?

Your competitive advantage may include designing special features not found in rival products. It may entail superior service characteristics such as speedier delivery, a lower price, or more attentive sales people. Perhaps you’re establishing an image or brand of exceptional quality or reputation. Does your product or service bestow a certain status on its users? Does it create more profits or other benefits for your customers’ own endeavors?

Perhaps you want to position your mousetrap for a primarily upscale market because the best design requires titanium and manufacturing costs will be so expensive only rich people will be able to afford your product. But maybe the mousetrap is so fantastically effective that wealthy people will want hundreds of them around their vast country homes and polo pony barns.

You must have a reason why your business will succeed. This is the competitive advantage your product or service will deliver. Once you’ve established the competitive advantage, you will be able to select the best strategy to reach your goal.

Action Step # 4
Analyze Your Potential Markets: Who will want your product or service?

To determine your targeted market, write down the demographics of the people who will use your product or service. How old are they? What do they do for a living? Will mostly women use your service? Is your product or service attractive to a particular ethnic or economic group of people? Will only wealthy people be able to afford it? Does your ideal customer live in a certain type of neighborhood, such as a suburb with grass lawns, in order to use your lawn mower? Answering these questions about the demographics of your prime market will help you establish the clear characteristics of the people you need to reach.

If you’re selling soap, you may believe that every dirty body needs your product, but you can’t start with the entire world as your initial market. Even if you’ve developed such a ubiquitous item as soap, you need to identify a smaller, more targeted customer group first, such as children under eight for the bubble gum scented bubble bath. If your soap only works with pumped well water without fluoride, you must acknowledge that your intended market has geographical limits as well.

Establishing the size of your potential market is important, too. This will be easier once you’ve completed the demographic analysis. Then you’ll be able to research the numbers: How many car mechanics, house painters or bathroom contractors are there in any given community? How many children in the United States are currently under the age of eight? How much soap will they use in a month or a year? How many other soap manufacturers already have a share of the market? How big are your potential competitors? And where do you find the answers to all of these questions?

Identifying your market is one of the great satisfactions of starting your own business. You’re thinking about the actual people who will use your product or service and how pleased they will be buying it as you are selling it.

Action Step # 5
Develop a Strong Marketing Campaign: How will you reach your customers and what will you say?

Entrepreneurs, especially inventors, often believe that their business concept is so spectacular that promoting their product or service won’t be necessary. Sort of a “build it and they will come” attitude, especially if what you’re building is the proverbial better mousetrap. One of the most common flaws I see in plans is the entrepreneur’s failure to describe exactly how customers will be reached and how products will be presented to them. Potential investors, staff, and partners won’t be convinced that your idea can succeed until you’ve established well-researched and effective methods of contacting your customers – and the assurance that once you’ve reached them, you can convince them to buy your product or service.

Marketing describes the way you will position your product or service within your target market and how you will let your potential customers know about your company. Positioning your company means concentrating on the competitive advantages you have identified: will your product or service distinguish itself by its superior quality, its revolutionary features or its ability to make your customers happier than they’ve ever been in their lives? Marketing helps you focus on identifying your competitive advantage so you can position your product or service. It also establishes the best ways to reach your potential customers and what to say to them.

When you have the right marketing campaign in place, you have an operating plan to gain market share, generate revenue, and bring your financial projections into reality.

Action Step # 6
Build A Dynamic Sales Effort: How will you attract customers?

The word “sales” covers all the issues related to making contact with your actual customers once you’ve established how to reach them through your marketing campaign. How will you train your sales staff to approach potential customers? Will you divide up your sales staff so some become experts in selling your bubble gum scented bubble bath to small, independent retail toy stores? Will other salespeople concentrate on developing relationships with major manufacturers so your product could be sold in tandem through their national distribution outlets? Will you have a sales force expert in buying television slots on Saturday morning cartoon shows or placing ads on the backs of kid-oriented cereal boxes?

What advertising and promotional efforts will you employ – two for the price of one specials or free coupons inside those same kid-oriented cereal boxes? Where can you locate lists of the greatest concentrations of children under the age of eight or whatever group constitutes your market?

In planning your sales activities, you will also need to answer questions such as: Is it ethical to contact your colleagues and clients from your former job as a door-to-door soap salesperson to tell them about your new business. Will you be the only salesperson in the beginning stages of your company? When will you know it’s time to hire more sales staff? How do you convince your clients that your sales staff will take care of them as well as you did? What will your basic sales philosophy be – building long-term relationships with a few major clients or developing a clientele of many short-term customers?

You will also need to consider how you will compensate your sales staff – with a base salary plus a commission? Will you hire full time staff with full benefits, or part time staff without benefits. How will you motivate your staff to do the best sales job possible?

Knowledge of your competitive advantage is just as important in designing a dynamic sales effort as it is in developing an effective marketing campaign. You’ll need to think about what product or service qualities will be the most compelling to your prospective customers. Then you’ll have to devise convincing language that clearly communicates this competitive advantage to your sales staff who will in turn use it when talking to your customers. In my experience, the most important element of an effective sales effort is having a sales staff that thoroughly understands your business and the needs or your potential customers. Therefore, your sales plan must address the issue of how you will create a sales staff that is as knowledgeable about your business as it is about your potential customers.

Action Step # 7
Design Your Company: How will you hire and organize your workforce?

By the time you’ve reached this stage of thinking about your potential business concept, you’ll probably have a good idea of the number of people you’ll need and the skills they’ll require to get your enterprise up and running. Keep in mind that your initial plans will undoubtedly change as your business grows. You may need to hire more managers to supervise your expanding staff or to set up new departments to meet new customer demands. Projected growth and expansion for your company should be mentioned in your business plan, but it’s not the primary focus. For now you want to secure help in getting started and convince your funding sources that you will become profitable.
Investors will want to know if you’re capable of running the business. Do you need to bring in experienced managers right away? Will you keep some of the existing employees or hire all new people? And where do you find these potential employees?

Funding sources will also want to know if any of your partners expect to work along side of you or if their obligations are only financial.

Your plan will need to specify the key management jobs and roles. Positions such as president, vice presidents, chief financial officer, and managers of departments will need to be defined along with stating who reports to whom. You may hope to run your company as one big happy family – and it may work out that way – but organizations require formal structure and investors will expect to see these issues addressed in your plan.

And as soon as you have employees, you need to consider how you will handle their salaries and wages, their insurance and retirement benefits, as well as analyzing the extent of your knowledge of tax related issues. As you think about hiring personnel and organizing your workforce, you must also confront your desire and ability to be a good boss. If you haven’t contemplated this aspect of your commitment to owning your own business, now is the time to give it serious consideration.

Action Step # 8
Target Your Funding Sources: Where will you find your financing?

As your business concept begins to take shape, you can begin to home in on the most likely financing sources. Issues such as the size of your business, the industry it is in, whether you are starting a new business or buying an existing one, and whether you can provide collateral to a lender are among the issues that must be considered in creating a target list of funding sources. Banks and other funding sources don’t lend money because people with interesting business ideas are nice. They follow specific guidelines, such as the RMA database, which are designed to insure that they will make money by investing in or lending to your business.

For the vast majority of entrepreneurs, the well-known, high profile means of raising money, such as through venture capital companies or by going public, are not viable options. Your own credit, credit rating, and business history are key factors in obtaining financing for your venture through Small Business Administration (SBA) guaranteed loans and other bank credit. Your ability to tap into your personal network of friends, family, and professional contacts is crucial to raising money beyond what your own personal funds or credit can provide. In all of these cases, there are important considerations such as the potential impact on relationships when family and friends become investors.

When you have completed this process of identifying the likely potential funding sources and writing a bankable business plan that addresses their needs and answers their questions (even before they ask them!), you will have greatly increased the likelihood of obtaining the financing you need.

Action Step # 9
Explain Your Financial Data: How will you convince others to invest in your endeavor?

The accuracy of your financial figures and projections is absolutely critical in convincing investors, loan sources and partners that your business concept is worthy of support. The data must also be scrupulously honest and extremely clear. Since banks and many other funding sources will compare your projections to industry averages in the Risk Management Association (RMA) data, I’ve stressed throughout my book how you can use the RMA figures to test your projections before the bank does. Your numbers will be more credible if they compare reasonably to the industry averages.

The actual number crunching portion of your business plan is the place to discuss how and why you need certain equipment, time or talent, how much these items will cost, when you expect to turn a profit, and how much return and other benefits your investors will receive.

More new businesses fail because they simply run out of cash reserves than for any other reason. Investors lose confidence in the entrepreneur and the business and become reluctant to invest more when projections are not met. Had the projections been less optimistic and the investors asked to invest more in the beginning, they probably would have done so. In most cases, proper planning and more accurate projections could have avoided this problem completely.

Your business plan should clearly state the amount of funds you need, how soon you require them, and how long before you start repaying investors. You should also explain what type of financing you hope to acquire, either equity (such as through the sale of ownership shares in your company) or debt (such as loans to the company).

If you’re planning to buy an existing business or already own a business you would like to improve or expand, you will also need to provide a detailed historical financial summary of how well – or poorly – the business has done in the past. This analysis should also include a comparison of this venture’s financial performance compared to the industry standards.

Action Step # 10
Present Yourself in the Best Light: What are your qualifications for bringing your plan to fruition?

The talents, experience and enthusiasm you bring to your enterprise are unique. They provide some of the most compelling reasons for others to finance your concept. Keep in mind that investors invest in people more than ideas. Even if your potential business has many competitors or is not on the cutting edge of an industry, the qualifications and commitment you demonstrate in your plan can convince others to proffer their support.

Your resume will be included in the separate appendix of exhibits at the end of the plan, so this is not the place to list every job you’ve ever had or the fact that you were an art history major in college, especially if these experiences have no direct bearing on your ability to start your own business. But it is the place to emphasize qualifying skills that may not be readily apparent from your resume.

But don’t overlook the impact being some part of your background that might even seem unrelated to your new venture. For example, having been a pilot may demonstrate that you know how to supervise a crew of people working together to make a group experience if not comfortable, at least safe. You have undoubtedly handled dissatisfied or enraged customers. Even that BA degree in art history may enable you to make your products or store more appealing to the eye.

Your unique qualifications will separate you from all the other people who have sought venture capital for similar ideas. Boasting about these skills is not hubris; it indicates that you have a highly honed business savvy.

Think You Don’t Need A Business Plan? Think Again

Most people only write business plans during their business school courses or when they’re trying to raise venture capital for a start-up. However, the business planning process is critical at all stages of business growth.

Here are 10 of the best reasons why your business needs a business plan.

1. To establish meaningful business milestones. Your plan must outline the most important long-term milestones that will determine the success or failure of your business. You must differentiate the important milestones, such as when your business will hit $5 Million in annual revenues, versus the short-term tasks of redesigning your company website.

2. To force you to analyze your competition. Many business owners regard their competitors with scorn. It’s easy to dismiss your competitors as unsophisticated and to insist that “they don’t know what they’re doing.” But you ignore your competition at your own peril. It’s important to realize that all companies have competition in the form of either direct or indirect competitors. Understanding your competition is the first step in articulating your company’s competitive advantages to your target customers.

3. To state previously unstated assumptions. The process of actually sitting down and composing the plan helps to unearth previously unstated assumptions. After writing all of your assumptions down and vigorously assessing them, you will then be poised to test them. The most successful businesses base their decisions on cold, hard data. And the first process in this step is to state and then state your assumptions.

4. To explain your revenue model. How exactly does your business make money? Where does most of it come from? Do your revenue streams follow the 80/20 Rule? These are critical questions to answer – in writing. Documenting the revenue model helps to address any and all challenges associated with the model.

5. To force you to become THE expert on your market. What are the most important challenges facing your industry? Is the market growing or decreasing in size? What is the size of the target market for your product/service? To become the leader in your market, you must know these answers like the back of your hand. Drafting – and updating – your business plan will force you to gain this expertise.

6. To uncover fresh opportunities. The process of business planning forces you to stop focusing on the immediate operations of the business and view your business from a new, more distanced perspective. As a result, you will likely find new ideas for operating and marketing your business.

7. To strategically focus your resources. Your business plan provides a useful roadmap. Without a business plan, you will likely modify short-term strategies without a perspective on your long-term milestones. It is essential that you stay focused on the long-term milestones that are most important to the success of your business. Your business plan clarifies where you should marshal your resources, time, and money in order to achieve those milestones.

8. To expertly position your brand. Drafting your business plan forces you to define and re-define the role of your business in your marketplace. The business planning process allows you to succinctly describe the business and position the brand to your target market, as well as to new and existing employees, partners, and investors.

9. To attract and retain employees. An excellent business plan is necessary to attract and retain world-class talent. Your business plan must inspire employees and management staff that your business is poised to become a market leader and achieve phenomenal success.

10. To accurately forecast your company’s future needs. Your business plan must provide guidance from a short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term perspective. An excellent business plan provides a roadmap for all of your staffing and financial needs, and thus helps to ensure that you grow rapidly but without major bottlenecks and hiccups. To ensure smooth expansion, it is important to continually update your business plan to account for your company’s growth and the evolving competitive challenges in your marketplace.