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A Simpler Plan for Startups

Business advisors, experienced entrepreneurs, bankers, and investors generally agree that you should develop a business plan before you start a business. A plan can help you move forward, make decisions, and make your business successful. However, not all business plans are the same, not every business needs the same level of detail. You might develop a fairly simple business plan first as you start a small business, and that might be enough for you. You can also start simple and then elaborate as you prepare to approach bankers or investors.

For a simple example, imagine a woman making jewelry at home and selling it at a local flea market on the weekend. A business plan could give her a chance to step back from the normal flow and look at ways to develop and improve the business. The planning process should help her understand her business. It should help her define what she wants from the business, understand what her customers want, and decide how to optimize her business on her own terms. She might benefit from developing a simple sales and expense forecast, maybe even a profit and loss, so she can plan how to use and develop her resources. She might not need to create detailed cash flow, balance sheet, and business ratios. A simple plan may be just what she needs to get going.

This first stage of a plan, that we call the Concept Kick-Start, focuses only on a few starter elements. The Mission Statement, Keys to Success, Market Analysis, and Break-Even Analysisgive you a critical head start toward understanding your business.

Ultimately, the choice of plan isn’t based as much on the stage of business as it is on the type of business, financing requirements, and business objective. Here are some important indicators of the level of plan you’ll need, even as a startup:

  • Some of the simpler businesses keep a plan in the head of the owner, but every business has a plan. Even a one-person business can benefit from creating a plan document with ideas written down, because the process of producing a plan is useful and valuable.
  • As soon as a second person is involved, the need for planning multiplies. The plan is critical for communicating values, goals, strategies, and detailed implementation.
  • As soon as anybody outside the company is involved, then you have to provide more information. When a plan is for internal use only, you may not need to describe company history and product features, for example. Stick to the topics that add value, that make you think, that help support decisions. When you involve people outside the company, then you need to provide more background information as part of the plan.
  • For discussion purposes, text is enough to get a plan started. Try describing your mission, objective, keys to success, target market, competitive advantage, and basic strategies. How well does this cover your business idea?
  • Can you live without a sales and expense forecast? Sometimes the one-person business keeps numbers in its (the owner’s) head. However, it’s much easier to use some tools that can put the numbers in front of you, and add and subtract them automatically. That’s where a plan helps.
  • Do you really know your market? A good market analysis can help you see opportunities that might not otherwise be obvious. Understand why people buy from you. What are the needs being served? How many people are out there, as potential customers?
  • Do you manage significant amounts of inventory? That makes your cash management more complicated, and usually requires a more sophisticated plan. You need to buy inventory before you sell it.
  • Do you sell on credit? If you are a business selling to businesses, then you probably do have to sell on credit, and that normally means you have to manage money owed to you by your customers, called accounts receivable. Making the sale is no longer the same thing as getting the money. That usually requires a more sophisticated plan.
  • Do you do your taxes on a cash basis, or accrual basis? If you don’t know, and you are a very small (one person, maybe 2-3 people) business, then you’re likely to be on a cash basis. That makes your planning easier. However, most businesses big enough to work with an accountant and have separate tax statements use accrual accounting because they want to deduct expenses as they are incurred, even if they aren’t fully paid for. By the time you are using accrual accounting, you’ll probably need more sophisticated cash flow tools, and a more extensive business plan.