Sorry for being this direct, but writing a business plan the traditional way simply sucks. I mean, you have to take care of all the boring elements like: the SWOT analysis (or should I say prediction), executive summary, business description, market strategies, competitive analysis, design and development plan (not only for online businesses), operations and management plan, financial factors, and so on.
This is a lot of work, and from my perspective it’s work that won’t bring you any reasonable insights.
For instance, the main problem with the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) is that you don’t even have the chance to accurately describe the reality you’re in, you’re just playing the guessing game.
Almost every SWOT analysis is just a prediction mechanism and a way of foretelling the future. You’re not listing your actual strengths, you’re listing what you think your strengths are. You’re not listing your actual weaknesses, you’re listing what you think your weaknesses are, and so on.
That’s why I want to present an alternative approach at writing a business plan. One that’s much simpler and easier to grasp.
Now, I need to set one thing straight. I’m no expert on the economy or business development. But I have my own experiences and those of my friends. And since the following advice has turned out to work for everybody so far, I’ve decided to share it with you too.
Element #1: What you’ve got
Simply start by listing what you’ve got.
What I mean here is everything you can offer to your customers. Things like: products, services, content, etc.
Be somewhat detail oriented when going through this step. If you’re listing a new product of yours, make sure to mention its main features and characteristics.
Depending on the nature of your business, you may just have a single item to offer, which is fine. We’re not going for quantity here.
Element #2: Who are you going to sell it to?
Aka your target audience.
Only don’t make it lame. Lame is where you try to define your average customer like this, for example: “it’s a woman in her 30s, mother of two, and working a 9-5 job as an accountant.” I mean, how can anyone come up with that? What research tools do they have? Surely not anything a small business owner can afford.
Besides, not every business has an audience that is so specific. For instance, if you’re selling socks and live in Austin then your target customer base is “people with feet living in Texas.” If that’s true then don’t try to make it narrower just for the sake of it.
Go with a general description that’s nothing more than a starting point – your starting audience. If it turns out that your main audience is actually someone entirely different then nothing bad will happen, but you need to be ready and accept such a situation.
Element #3: Why would they buy?
What makes your product better or just as good as your competitors’? Or what’s some other reason someone would want to work with you?
Just be honest and not overly promotional. This is about facts.
Also, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to be better than your competition to be a successful business owner. Is Pepsi better than Cola? I mean, scientifically better? No. It’s the same thing.
Element #4: How are you going to reach them?
As in, reaching your target customer base. Do you have anything fancy in plan? Or just standard marketing methods (which are completely fine, by the way)?
Actually, the exact methods are not important here. No matter what you’re going to end up doing, you need to have a plan for the initial couple of weeks. Treat it as your getting started approach.
Pick a handful of methods that have the most potential in your opinion and start executing them. Then, if something doesn’t work, you can adjust your business plan to reflect the new situation.
There’s no element #5. All you need in 90% of possible situations are the four elements above: you need to know what you’ve got, who you’re going to sell it to, why would they buy, and how you’re going to reach them. Of course, your mileage may vary … so feel free to disagree with me if your experience is different.
The real problem in corporate America? We’re all just bored.
More than a quarter century ago, at a high-powered gathering in Phoenix, Arizona, John W. Gardner delivered a speech that may be one of the most quietly influential speeches in the history of American business—a text that has been photocopied, passed along, underlined, and discussed by senior executives in some of the most important companies and organizations in the world. Gardner, who died in 2002 at the age of 89, was a legendary public intellectual and civic reformer—a celebrated Stanford University professor, an architect of the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson, the founder of Common Cause and Independent Sector.
Gardner’s speech on November 10, 1990 was delivered to a meeting of McKinsey & Co., the consulting firm whose advice has shaped the fortunes of the world’s richest and most powerful companies. But his focus that day was on neither money nor power. It was on what he called “Personal Renewal,” the urgent need for leaders who wish to stay effective in a fast-changing world to commit themselves to continue learning and growing. Gardner was so determined that the message would get through to the crowd, that he wrote the speech out in advance “because I want every sentence to hit its target.”
The central issue of his talk was “the puzzle of why some men and women go to seed while others remain vital all their lives.” His puzzle came with a warning: “We have to face the fact that most men and women out there in the world of work are more stale than they know, more bored than they would care to admit. Boredom is the secret ailment of large-scale organizations. Someone said to me the other day ‘How can I be so bored when I’m so busy?’ I said ‘Let me count the ways.’…Look around you. How many people whom you know well—people even younger than yourselves—are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits?”
So what is the opposite of boredom, the outlook and mindset that allows individuals to keep learning and growing, to escape fixed attitudes and habits? “Not anything as narrow as ambition,” Gardner told the ambitious strategists. “After all, ambition eventually wears out and probably should. But you can keep your zest until the day you die.” He then offered a maxim to guide the accomplished leaders in the room. “Be interested,” he urged them. “Everyone wants to be interesting, but the vitalizing thing is to be interested. Keep a sense of curiosity. Discover new things.”
I can’t think of a more compelling message for leaders today who want to stay relevant as the social and economic environment around them evolves faster than ever. In a world that is being remade before our eyes, leaders who make a difference are the ones who can reimagine what’s possible at their company and in their field. Put simply, the best leaders are not just the boldest thinkers; they are the most insatiable learners. They are determined to confront what innovation strategist Cynthia Barton Rabe has called the “paradox of expertise”—the idea that the more time you’ve spent in a field, the more successful you’ve been in a company or a profession, the harder it can be to see new patterns, prospects, and possibilities.
So how do you make sure that what you know doesn’t limit what you can imagine? By developing a real commitment to and plan for personal renewal. A few years back, Roy Spence, perhaps the most interested (and interesting) advertising executive I’ve ever met, published a book called The 10 Essential Hugs of Life, a funny and moving take on success. Among his wise and folksy pieces of advice (“Hug your failures,” “Hug your fears,” “Hug yourself”) is a call to “Hug your firsts”—to seek out new sources of inspiration, to visit a lab whose work you don’t really understand, to attend a conference you shouldn’t be at, to rub shoulders with folks from different walks of life. “When you’re a kid,” he says, “every day is full of firsts, full of new experiences. As you get older, your firsts become fewer and fewer. If you want to stay young, you have to work to keep trying new things.”
Spence cites as one of his inspirations management guru Jim Collins, who, as a young Stanford professor, sought advice and counsel from none other than his learned colleague John Gardner. What did Spence learn from Collins (and, indirectly, from Gardner)? “You’re only as young as the new things you do,” he writes, “the number of ‘firsts’ in your days and weeks.”
There’s no one right way to keep learning as fast as the world is changing, to increase the number of “firsts” in your days and weeks. But there is a right attitude and outlook that will fuel your desire to learn, to maintain your “zest” for trying new things and embracing new ideas. Here too the immortal John Gardner is the indispensable guide.
As I think about the most open-minded leaders I’ve met, innovators who are doing extraordinary things even in ordinary fields, I’m struck by the fierce sense of optimism that pervades them. Not wide-eyed optimism, an unthinking faith in the inevitability of success, but what Gardner, in that same speech to McKinsey, called “tough-minded optimism”—a blend of deep convictions, continuous learning, and resilience in the face of change.
“The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future,” Gardner said. Rather, “it is created by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much.” The best leaders have all sorts of skills and use all kinds of techniques, he observed, but there is no substitute “for the lift of spirit and heightened performance that comes from strong motivation.”
Here’s hoping you can find the motivation to overcome the paradox of expertise, to keep learning as fast as the world is changing.
William C. Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company magazine, is the author of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways, now on sale from Portfolio/Penguin Random House. Learn more at williamctaytlor.com