I hate business plans. I’ve written at least four, and of those four, I’ve rewritten each one at least two or three times. That’s about twelve business plans.
I love it when some expert tells me that business plans are useless. I get a huge sense of relief. Because that means I won’t have to write another one.
‘Your business always changes over time. So why write a plan? It’s just going to be obsolete in six months.’ someone usually asks rhetorically, to which I would nod in hopeful agreement.
Then I met with Alan Webber, former managing editor of the Harvard Business Review, and co-founder of the way cool business magazine Fast Company.
“We wrote and rewrote the Fast Company business plan hundreds of times,” he told me over a breakfast of huevos rancheros.
In 2000, investors sold the magazine for $360 million, which was at the time the second highest price ever paid for a U.S. magazine. That’s enough to make me rethink my attitude about business plans. So I asked Alan if he would help me and my business partners with our rewrite of our latest plan.
Without skipping a beat he said yes. And he did.
I thought that rather than keep all of his words of wisdom to myself, I would share them with you. Then you too can write your one hundredth version of your business plan for your way cool company.
Here’s what Alan says (excerpted from conversation and emails):
Much of my thinking is the same stuff we talked about at breakfast—which I characterize as not much more than common sense, a few basic principles and a sense of perspective: Try to see your business through the eyes of the reader, the client, the potential investor.
Ask yourself: What do any of these folks really need to know? What are the questions they’d want me to answer? How can I best serve their interests and curiosity?
While there isn’t any absolutely agreed upon template for a business plan (and there are lots of samples and examples that you can download from Inc and business schools and web sites for accelerators and incubators) in general, I believe in using simple questions to guide the writing of a business plan—matched by short, simple answers.
Imagine that Ernest Hemingway were writing your business plan: short, simple sentences, straight to the point, easy to understand, packing a punch.
What are some of the questions? Try these:
- What’s Our Big Idea?
- What Business Are We Really In—What Are We Selling and What Are People Buying?
- Who Is the Competition?
- What Makes Us Faster, Cheaper, Better Than the Competition? (Or Just Different?)
- Who is Our Target Audience/Client?
- How Big Is the Market/Where And How Will We Find Them?
- Who Are We and What Have We Done?
- What Are Our Ancillary Products and Services?
- What Is Our Growth Strategy?
You get one page per question (more or less) to answer these. The longer you write, the more it feels like you don’t actually have the answer figured out.
You can fiddle and diddle with these questions, but you get the idea. A business plan is mostly your chance to push your brain through the eye of a needle and have what comes out on the other side be clear, smart, direct, easy to understand and compelling.
It’s your chance to lay out your theory of the case: Why does the world need what you’re selling—and why does it need it now?
How do you know that the world is waiting to buy something it doesn’t even know exists—but won’t be able to resist once it see it?
How much work have you done to refine your thinking so you know exactly what you’re selling and exactly who you’re selling it to and exactly how you’re going to find them and get them to buy it?
And why are you the only people on the whole planet who can pull this off?
A few last tidbits:
- Simplify, simplify, simplify! Channel your inner Ernest Hemingway. Faulkner is your enemy!
- Banish jargon. Speak English.
- Push toward being definitive.