Category Archives: Business

Winning business plan pitch

After a business plan has been written, the next stage often involves pitching the plan to prospective investors. This very fact means that the plan authors and management team should be one and the same and that ‘outsourcing’ the business plan writing process should not be considered. It is not just the content of the business plan that is being scrutinized. The capabilities of the management team are also on show and hence their ability to deliver a presentation in a clear, concise and convincing manner are vital to the overall objective – that of convincing an investor to invest in the business. These prospective investors are not investing in a physical document but in an idea and in those proposing to deliver the idea. The following is a list of tips to maximise your chances of success when pitching to investors.

1. Know your audience

All presenters are taught about the importance of knowing their audience and engaging with them on a personal level where possible. The Internet has enabled us to research more effectively than we were able to in previous years, so it is important to use this resource to our advantage. Investors have a range of asset classes to choose from as they decide on the composition of their investment portfolio. Hence it is necessary to understand the backgrounds of the prospective investors and their motivations prior to presenting. Once you have done extensive research on the investors it is then possible to tailor the pitch accordingly.

2. Tell a story

One of the most effective ways to pitch is to place the investment opportunity in the context of a story. Ideally, the story will focus on a problem encountered and the fact that the new idea being pitched solves this particular problem. If the investors can relate to the problem, they are more likely to invest in your business. After that they will be assessing how many people are affected by ‘the problem’ and whether the proposed idea satisfactorily resolves the problem. Finally, if they believe that the idea can solve the problem profitably and it is defensible (via patents, trade marks, etc.) it is likely they will be interested in investing.

3. Prepare to win

Pitching to an investor is not a last-minute afterthought – it is the culmination of weeks, if not months, of planning. All too often, entrepreneurs do not plan accordingly and then find that the preparation of their business pitch suffers. Preparation for the pitch should commence as soon as the business plan process commences. For many investors, the executive summary of the business plan is what opens the door for a presentation, and the full business plan may only be read after a successful presentation has been delivered.

4. Pay strict attention to the detail

Your typical investor will have a good eye for detail and hence the plan and its pitch need to be mutually reinforcing and containing no inherent contradictions. From the outset, there should be one owner of the process who can oversee all preparations and is ultimately responsible for the content. This is particularly important if a number of disparate contributors have worked on the plan and where the pitch consists of numerous participants.

5. Avoid death by PowerPoint®

While the average plan is produced in Microsoft® Word and Excel, PowerPoint tends to be the tool of choice for presentations. While it undoubtedly has advantages in terms of aesthetics, it can be misused when utilised at the pitch stage. The number of slides should be kept to the bare minimum, the content must be rigorously analysed to ensure relevance and clarity and time must be managed carefully. It is recommended each investor receives a slide deck, which contains more detail than the presentation itself (with Appendices used extensively). Finally, it is important to manage the subsequent Q&A process carefully as this is the stage where the investor gets to request information about details that they require to convince them that the proposal is indeed worthy of their investment.

6. Get the numbers right

Investors tend to be very focused on numbers, so all facts must be accurate. The numbers should be realistic and defensible and at least one of those pitching the plan needs to be prepared for in-depth questions relating to the projected financials. While it is easy to couch ‘the opportunity’ in technical terms, future growth projections, supporting demographic trends, etc., investors will focus on hard evidence. So if you have been trading, they’ll want to know turnover/sales figures, break-even points, gross and net margins (profits), and so on. These are indisputable facts and evidence that enable them to accurately assess the risk. If performance has been poor, the presenter will need to articulate clearly why this has been the case and also elaborate on why investment will solve the performance gap. If on the other hand you have not been trading, the risk increases considerably and there is likely to be a significant focus on supporting evidence to justify demand predictions. Remember that investors have options – it is a competition, so you need to sell your idea as the best option for their investment.

7. Practise the presentation

It is clear that many entrepreneurs have not practised their pitches before impartial observers prior to pitching. This dry run should be arranged well in advance of the presentation date with a panel of critics who have a carte blanche to critique the plan and pitch. One attractive alternative to this is to submit an entry to the growing number of business plan competitions. These contests afford entrants a low-cost opportunity to “stress test” their plans in a very realistic role play. Such competitions test a wide range of skills that are often neglected in the day-to-day tasks of entrepreneurs, who are focused on bringing their idea to fruition. By producing a credible business plan and presenting your case persuasively, you will significantly enhance your ability to secure funding.

8. Excite them

Entrepreneurs pitch to investors to sell them an idea. There must be something unique about the idea, and it must be pitched with conviction, so as to grab the attention of investors who deal with hundreds of business plans every month. This was summed up by former Dragons’ Den investor Simon Woodroffe in a BBC2 show, when he said,

“You gotta make me feel like I’m going to miss out”.

Why would the investor be better off investing in your business rather than leaving money in a bank account, shares or investing in another business? If you are seeking investment in your business, it is important to clearly describe the investment opportunity – and also to sell it.

9. Learn the lessons

Do not get too downhearted if a pitch is unsuccessful. The investors are likely to give clear reasons for their lack of interest, and this feedback must be considered carefully as it may shape improvements in subsequent pitches. The presenter should segment the various feedback points into groups – is the issue or concern with the idea, the equity share on offer, the management team, etc. Most entrepreneurs need to pitch to a number of investors before securing an investment. If you can line up a number of pitches, remember not to organise the most attractive investor up front as there are likely to be significant improvements in the pitch after it has undergone a number of presentations.

10. Remember the purpose of the pitch

Finally, while the emphasis may well be on an idea, it is important to remember that the pitch has a very specific purpose. This must not get lost in all the details. If the purpose is to secure funding, the presenter needs to ask questions after the presentation to ensure the audience has gained sufficient information with which to make a decision. If an offer is made, the presenter must have a full grasp on whether it meets his requirements, and options if not. So as to maintain credibility, the presenter needs to consider all the various eventualities before undertaking the pitch so that the pitch does not go flat at the end when the issues of substance need to be agreed.

The numbers you need to know for master class business

Those familiar with the BBC2 show Dragons’ Den will be all too aware of the following scene. The entrepreneur is tasked with presenting his business plan to a panel of investors (i.e., the Dragons). The business plan pitch is going well, and then one of the dragons asks the simplest of questions,
”What was your turnover last year?” The camera pans in, the participant stutters, eventually he declares that he is ”not sure” and before you know it, he is sent packing. Why do entrepreneurs consistently fail to appreciate how important it is to have financials in hand when pitching an idea? Why do they consistently present a business plan without even a rudimentary knowledge of basic financial concepts, such as turnover or margin? This article highlights some of the financials that any aspiring entrepreneur needs to know before submitting or pitching a business plan to a ‘dragon’ of any hue.

Firstly, let’s consider the context. Investors have a range of investment options available to them. While depositing cash in a bank is low risk, it is not the most exciting option and associated returns are likely to be low. Angel Investors or Venture Capitalists are looking for investment growth opportunities that offer the potential of a greater return; which naturally come with a commensurate increase in the risk. The level of risk is dependent on a number of things; the market risk (whether there is a market opportunity and the extent of it) but also risk relating to the decisions made by the agent (i.e. the entrepreneur).

With debt funding such as a loan, the investment is typically secured on some assets and the repayment schedule will guarantee monthly income streams to repay same. When it comes to equity financing, the risk dynamic increases considerably. Why? Because decision-making is in the hands of the entrepreneur, not the investor. An investor must endeavour to ensure that the incentives of the agent (the entrepreneur) are aligned with his or her own. This ensures that investment is not spent on non-income-generating investments or perks. This is commonly referred to as the ‘principal agent problem’ by economists.

Potential equity investors will also be keen to assess whether the entrepreneur will be a competent business manager. To address these concerns, the investor will be looking to not only understand the product and market opportunity, but also to understand the abilities of the management team tasked with delivering the opportunity. Hence, the entrepreneur needs to be confident, knowledgeable, and trustworthy but also au fait with the underlying financials for the business.

In assessing these risk factors, historic data will play a crucial role in the investors’ decision-making processes. Investors will be trying to assess the existing cash generation capability of the company and also the free cash flows that remain once all other obligations have been met. Hence, someone claiming to not know turnover or net profit figures from past trading probably has something significant to hide. If figures are low, that is fine, provided you can explain why some of the figures were not as you would have wished. If you have not begun trading, the risk profile increases dramatically and as a result you should expect an increase in the equity stakes required by interested investors. The three headline figures to be particularly cognizant of are Turnover/Revenue, Gross Profit and Net Profit. The figures for these provide an indication to the investor as to the level of demand for the good or service and also whether this demand can be met profitably. If you have been trading, you need to have a firm grasp on the P&L figures and also a good explanation for the underlying performance to date.

Lessons for Entrepreneurs

I recently watched Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and found it compelling viewing. It is an excellent production and helped shine a powerful spotlight on climate change, the challenges we face and some steps we can take to reduce the effects we are causing[1]. It painted a very bleak picture for the future of the earth unless we all act to modify our behaviour immediately.

The documentary is produced in the form of a pitch and consists of a mix of PowerPoint-type visuals with Mr. Gore presenting (interspersed with video footage).

Aside from the powerful messages it successfully conveys, it also struck me that there were a number of very strong lessons in it for those of us interested in the field of business planning and specifically, the pitching of business plans.

Unlike most business plan pitches, the purpose of his presentation was not to secure investment. However, like those pitching business plans, Mr. Gore did seek to persuade, to gain mind share and to influence behaviour. In my view, in these he clearly succeeded. I left the film convinced of his assessment and keener to play my part in helping to reduce CO2 emissions.

Another difference between the documentary and pitching a business plan is, of course, the one-sided nature of film as a medium. In a pitch scenario, the observers have a role to play in challenging assumptions, interrogating data and scrutinising every single claim. They then make a decision based on what they’ve heard. Watching a film is a passive experience where the right of reply in real time does not exist. Not surprisingly, a number of commentators and critics have claimed some bias and scientific inaccuracies (which have then resulted in counterarguments)[2]. That limitation aside, it is a great documentary which contains some powerful lessons for entrepreneurs that I believe are worth pointing out.

As mentioned, Mr. Gore’s choice of medium to deliver his message was one that many of us are familiar with – a presentation. In this he excelled and the following represent some of the main techniques that I felt really supported his strong delivery:

  • Very clear structure
  • Strong focus on factual data to support arguments
  • Lack of bland slides such as bullet-point lists
  • Powerful use of graphs/ visuals
  • Passion and conviction with the subject matter
  • Effective use of props, i.e. his use of a lift to demonstrate scale.

In short, Mr. Gore has succeeded in producing a documentary that presents a very persuasive argument that is likely to galvanise people. In fact, in the UK, it has been made required viewing in schools (a copy was sent to every secondary school in England).[3] Alongside the powerful environmental message, he has produced a master class in articulating an argument and using graphs, props and images to support his argument convincingly. These are skills that every entrepreneur pitching for investment should learn. I suggest a viewing of An Inconvenient Truth before presenting any pitch would be valuable time spent!

The competitive strategy

Understanding the dynamics of competitors within an industry is critical for several reasons. First, it can help to assess the potential opportunities for your venture, particularly important if you are entering this industry as a new player. It can also be a critical step to better differentiate yourself from others that offer similar products and services. One of the most respected models to assist with this analysis is Porter’s Five Forces Model. This model, created by Michael E. Porter and described in the book “Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analysing Industries and Competitors”, has proven to be a useful tool for both business and marketing-based planning.

Background
The pure competition model does not present a viable tool to assess an industry. Porter’s Five Forces attempts to realistically assess potential levels of profitability, opportunity and risk based on five key factors within an industry. This model may be used as a tool to better develop a strategic advantage over competing firms within an industry in a competitive and healthy environment. It identifies five forces that determine the long-run profitability of a market or market segment.

  • Suppliers
  • Buyers
  • Entry/Exit Barriers
  • Substitutes
  • Rivalry

Supplier power

  • Supplier concentration
  • Importance of volume to supplier
  • Differentiation of inputs
  • Impact of inputs on cost or differentiation
  • Switching costs of firms in the industry
  • Presence of substitute inputs
  • Threat of forward integration
  • Cost relative to total purchases in industry

Buyer power

  • Bargaining leverage
  • Buyer volume
  • Buyer information
  • Brand identity
  • Price sensitivity
  • Threat of backward integration
  • Product differentiation
  • Buyer concentration vs. industry
  • Substitutes available
  • Buyers’ incentives

Entry/Exit barriers

  • Absolute cost advantages
  • Proprietary learning curve
  • Access to inputs
  • Government or other binding policy
  • Economies of scale
  • Capital requirements
  • Brand identity
  • Switching costs
  • Access to distribution
  • Expected retaliation
  • Proprietary products

Substitutes

  • Switching costs
  • Buyer inclination to find alternatives
  • Price-performance
  • Trade-off of the available substitute products or services

Rivalry

  • Exit barriers
  • Industry concentration
  • Fixed costs
  • Perceived value add
  • Industry growth
  • Overcapacity status
  • Product differences
  • Switching costs
  • Brand identity
  • Diversity of rivals
  • Corporate stakes

Service

  • Level of service compared to others
  • Added value perceptions
  • Dynamics with other attributes

Power of suppliers
An industry that produces goods requires raw materials. This leads to buyer-supplier relationships between the industry and the firms that provide the raw materials. Depending on where the power lies, suppliers may be able to exert an influence on the producing industry. They may be able to dictate price and influence availability.

A segment is unattractive when an organization’s suppliers have the ability to:

  • Increase prices without suffering from a decrease in volume
  • Reduce the quantity supplied
  • Organise in a formal or informal manner
  • Compete in an environment with relatively few substitutes
  • Provide a product/material that is a critical part of the end product or service
  • Impose switching costs on their customers when they depart
  • Integrate downstream by purchasing or controlling the distribution channels.

One example of this is DeBeers ability to wield influence within the diamond industry. DeBeers’ high level of control over some of the most productive diamond mines in the world gives them extreme power within the industry. The best defense in mitigating the power of suppliers is to build win–win relationships with suppliers or arrange to use multiple suppliers.

Marketing Plan

A marketing plan is a core component of a business plan. It relates specifically to the marketing of a particular product or service and it describes:

  • An overall marketing objective
  • A broad marketing strategy
  • The tactical detail related to specific marketing activities
  • The various costs associated with these activities
  • Those tasked with delivering these activities by name

The starting point for any marketing plan is an analysis of the strategic context, as a typical objective for most plans is promoting a good or service as effectively as possible. An assessment of the company, its environment and its customers helps to ensure that the author of the plan obtains a holistic view of the wider context. In turn this helps them to focus their energies and resources accordingly. This is particularly important given that most marketing managers will be subject to that all-too-familiar constraint—limited resources (invariably financial). In effect, a marketing plan is produced to ensure that limited resources are allocated to activities that are likely to bring the maximum return.

An assessment of the context will include analysis of both internal and external factors. There are a number of frameworks and tools designed to assist you with this:

  • A SWOT analysis forces you to consider internal Strengths and Weaknesses alongside external Opportunities and Threats.
  • Porter’s Five Forces is a framework designed to assist you in considering the broader competitive and environmental context.

It is also vital that you have a thorough understanding of your customers; look to whether segments exist within your broad customer group that can be profitably served utilizing specific and targeted marketing activities.

Following an analysis of broader conditions, a marketing strategy can then be put in place. This strategy needs to include financials so that all activities can be assessed in the context of their cost as a portion of the overall marketing budget. Regardless of the product or service, the objectives tend to be similar for most managers; create awareness, stimulate interest in the offering, and ultimately (profitably) convert this awareness into sales. All these factors are intertwined and, hence, the importance of effective market planning.

Using a local restaurant as an example, their marketing activities are going to be predominantly concentrated within a two to three mile radius of their restaurant, as this area is where the vast majority of their customers are likely to come from. Tactically, there is no point in such a restaurant advertising on TV (even locally) as the cost would be prohibitive in the context of their business model. They are limited in terms of capacity (number of seats) and their average cost per head so that, even if they created huge awareness and interest via TV advertising, the resultant revenues would still be unlikely to cover the cost of the specific marketing activity. On the other hand, stuffing leaflets through local letterboxes is extremely targeted and comes at low relative cost, which explains the sheer volume of fast-food flyers most of us get on a daily basis.

The reader of the plan should clearly be able to relate to the marketing initiatives in terms of the message, the target audience and the means to accessing this audience. A good marketing plan will detail specifics, i.e., a number of marketing activities, their respective costs, and the expected return on investment. Measuring return on marketing has historically been one of the greatest challenges the industry has faced. The advent of PPC (pay-per-click) advertising via the Internet has finally resulted in managers being able to track sales resulting from specific campaigns and adverts. However, this is just one means of advertising, and calculating effective ROI (return on investment) figures for other forms, such as billboards and TV, remains as elusive as ever.

Do You Need a Business Plan

For me this scene encapsulates perfectly the problems of not having an over-arching goal and plan for your business. Without a plan, or using a cookie cutter business plan template a business is essentially rudderless, and day-to-day activities are likely to be haphazard and reactive, in stark contrast to those businesses implementing a well thought out business plan.

The following represents a list of my top five reasons a firm needs a business plan.

1. To map the future

A business plan is not just required to secure funding at the start-up phase, but is a vital aid to help you manage your business more effectively. By committing your thoughts to paper, you can understand your business better and also chart specific courses of action that need to be taken to improve your business. A plan can detail alternative future scenarios and set specific objectives and goals along with the resources required to achieve these goals.

By understanding your business and the market a little better and planning how best to operate within this environment, you will be well placed to ensure your long-term success.

2. To support growth and secure funding

Most businesses face investment decisions during the course of their lifetime. Often, these opportunities cannot be funded by free cash flows alone, and the business must seek external funding. However, despite the fact that the market for funding is highly competitive, all prospective lenders will require access to the company’s recent Income Statements/Profit and Loss Statements, along with an up-to-date business plan. In essence the former helps investors understand the past, whereas the business plan helps give them a window on the future.

When seeking investment in your business, it is important to clearly describe the opportunity, as investors will want to know:

  • Why they would be better off investing in your business, rather than leaving money in a bank account or investing in another business?
  • What the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) for the business arising from the opportunity is?
  • Why people will part with their cash to buy from your business?

A well-written business plan can help you convey these points to prospective investors, helping them feel confident in you and in the thoroughness with which you have considered future scenarios. The most crucial component for them will be clear evidence of the company’s future ability to generate sufficient cash flows to meet debt obligations, while enabling the business to operate effectively.

3. To develop and communicate a course of action

A business plan helps a company assess future opportunities and commit to a particular course of action. By committing the plan to paper, all other options are effectively marginalized and the company is aligned to focus on key activities. The plan can assign milestones to specific individuals and ultimately help management to monitor progress. Once written, a plan can be disseminated quickly and will also prompt further questions and feedback by the readers helping to ensure a more collaborative plan is produced.

4. To help manage cash flow

Careful management of cash flow is a fundamental requirement for all businesses. The reason is quite simple–many businesses fail, not because they are unprofitable, but because they ultimately become insolvent (i.e., are unable to pay their debts as they fall due). While the break-even point–where total revenue equals total costs–is a highly important figure for start-ups, once a business is up and running profitably, it becomes less important.

Cash flow management then becomes more vital when businesses pursue investment opportunities where there are significant cash out flows, in advance of the cash flows coming in. These opportunities need to be assessed against any seasonal variations in the business and the timing of the flows. If you are a “cash-only” business, you can bank the income immediately; however, if you sell on credit, you receive the cash in the future and hence may need to pay some of your own expenses before that income hits your account. This will put a further strain on the company’s solvency and hence a well structured business plan will help you manage funding requirements in advance.

5. To support a strategic exit

Finally, at some point, the owners of the firm will decide it is time to exit. Considering the likely exit strategy in advance can help inform and direct present day decisions. The aim is to liquidate the investment, so the owner/current investors have the option of cashing out when they want.

Common exit strategies include;

  • Initial Public Offering of stock (IPO’s)
  • Acquisition by competitors
  • Mergers
  • Family succession
  • Management buy-outs

Perform SWOT Analysis Business

The SWOT analysis begins by conducting a review of internal strengths and weaknesses in your organisation. You will then note the external opportunities and threats that may affect the organisation based on your market and the overall environment. Don’t be concerned about elaborating on these topics at this stage; bullet points may be the best way to begin. Capture the factors you believe are relevant in each of the four areas. You will want to review what you have noted here as you work through your marketing plan.

The primary purpose of the SWOT analysis is to identify and assign each significant factor, positive and negative, to one of the four categories, allowing you to take an objective look at your business. The SWOT analysis will be a useful tool in developing and confirming your goals and your marketing strategy.

Some experts suggest that you first consider outlining the external opportunities and threats before the strengths and weaknesses. Marketing Plan Pro‘s EasyPlan Wizard will allow you to complete your SWOT analysis in whatever order works best for you. In either situation, you will want to review all four areas in detail.

Strengths

Strengths describe the positive attributes,tangible and intangible attributes, internal to your organisation. They are within your control. What do you do well? What resources do you have? What advantages do you have over your competition?

You may want to evaluate your strengths by area, such as marketing, finance, manufacturing, and organisational structure. Strengths include the positive attributes of the people involved in the business, including their knowledge, backgrounds, education, credentials, contacts, reputations, or the skills they bring. Strengths also include tangible assets such as available capital, equipment, credit, established customers, existing channels of distribution, copyrighted materials, patents, information and processing systems, and other valuable resources within the business.

Strengths capture the positive aspects internal to your business that add value or offer you a competitive advantage. This is your opportunity to remind yourself of the value existing within your business.

Weaknesses

Note the weaknesses within your business. Weaknesses are factors that are within your control that detract from your ability to obtain or maintain a competitive edge. Which areas might you improve?

Weaknesses might include lack of expertise, limited resources, lack of access to skills or technology, inferior service offerings, or the poor location of your business. These are factors that are under your control, but for a variety of reasons, are in need of improvement to effectively accomplish your marketing objectives.

Weaknesses capture the negative aspects internal to your business that detract from the value you offer, or place you at a competitive disadvantage. These are areas you need to enhance in order to compete with your best competitor. The more accurately you identify your weaknesses, the more valuable the SWOT will be for your assessment.

Opportunities

Opportunities assess the external attractive factors that represent the reason for your business to exist and prosper. These are external to your business. What opportunities exist in your market, or in the environment, from which you hope to benefit?

These opportunities reflect the potential you can realise through implementing your marketing strategies. Opportunities may be the result of market growth, lifestyle changes, resolution of problems associated with current situations, positive market perceptions about your business, or the ability to offer greater value that will create a demand for your services. If it is relevant, place timeframes around the opportunities. Does it represent an ongoing opportunity, or is it a window of opportunity? How critical is your timing?

Opportunities are external to your business. If you have identified “opportunities” that are internal to the organisation and within your control, you will want to classify them as strengths.

Threats

What factors are potential threats to your business? Threats include factors beyond your control that could place your marketing strategy, or the business itself, at risk. These are also external –you have no control over them, but you may benefit by having contingency plans to address them if they should occur.

A threat is a challenge created by an unfavourable trend or development that may lead to deteriorating revenues or profits. Competition – existing or potential – is always a threat. Other threats may include intolerable price increases by suppliers, governmental regulation, economic downturns, devastating media or press coverage, a shift in consumer behaviour that reduces your sales, or the introduction of a “leap-frog” technology that may make your products, equipment, or services obsolete. What situations might threaten your marketing efforts? Get your worst fears on the table. Part of this list may be speculative in nature, and still add value to your SWOT analysis.

It may be valuable to classify your threats according to their “seriousness” and “probability of occurrence.”

The better you are at identifying potential threats, the more likely you can position yourself to proactively plan for and respond to them. You will be looking back at these threats when you consider your contingency plans.

The implications

The internal strengths and weaknesses, compared to the external opportunities and threats, can offer additional insight into the condition and potential of the business. How can you use the strengths to better take advantage of the opportunities ahead and minimize the harm that threats may introduce if they become a reality? How can weaknesses be minimised or eliminated? The true value of the SWOT analysis is in bringing this information together, to assess the most promising opportunities, and the most crucial issues.

An example

AMT is a computer store in a medium-sized market. Lately it has suffered through a steady business decline, caused mainly by increasing competition from larger office products stores with national brand names. The following is the SWOT analysis included in its marketing plan.

Resolutions for Entrepreneurs

The New Year is synonymous with resolutions and promises of making changes. If you are an entrepreneur, this time of year offers you a perfect opportunity to take stock of your business, as emails are probably at an all-time low over the holiday period. Here is my checklist of priority resolutions for all entrepreneurs for the New Year:

1. Review your business plan
One of the most important requirements for any entrepreneur is a business plan; not one that lives in their head or one that is consigned to an office cupboard- but a living business plan. If you have never written one, now is the perfect time to do so. If your business plan is in a drawer, take it out, read it and update it accordingly. Without a business plan, your business is essentially rudderless and you run the risk of not focusing on the key activities that need to be undertaken to bring you success.

2. Run through the numbers
For many people, numbers are not necessarily their strong suit and in small companies without dedicated in-house accounting departments this can result in serious problems. There is an old saying that what gets measured gets managed. So if you are starting a business, it is worth revisiting some of the fundamentals that are vital to your business. If you do not have any metrics in place, now is a perfect time to set them. These can include key financial ratios as well as customer and Web based metrics, e.g. £ value per customer, conversion rates, etc.

Topics to brush up on include:

  • Break-even Point
  • Profit Margins (Gross and Net)
  • Cash Flow Forecasts
  • Profit and Loss
  • Sales Forecasts
  • Cost of Sales
  • Creditor and Debtor Days

It is tempting to delegate the maths to others. However, you need to understand these concepts so you can manage your business effectively. For example Insolvency is one of the biggest threats to companies in the UK, yet cash flow management is an area which many entrepreneurs neglect. By understanding the numbers that are relevant to your business you can ensure that you are giving yourself every opportunity to grow and prosper.

3. Optimise your website
Most businesses set up a website when they start, but many entrepreneurs then ignore it. It is essential that websites are maintained and are mined for information. Where are your customers coming from? What are they looking at? What is the conversion level for visitors? All of these questions, and more, are easily answered using free tools such as Google Analytics. If you have not done anything with your website for some time, you should implement Google Analytics so you can understand more about your customers. Armed with this knowledge you can then tailor your website for the audience you attract and help achieve the objectives that the website was designed for in the first place.

Use text to explain the forecast

Although the charts and tables are great, you still need to explain them. A complete business plan should normally include some detailed text discussion of your sales forecast, sales strategy, sales programs, and related information. Ideally, you use the text, tables, and charts in your plan to provide some visual variety and ease of use. Put the tables and charts near the text covering the related topics.

In my standard business plan text outline, the discussion of sales goes into Chapter 5.0, Strategy and Implementation. You can change that to fit whichever logic and structure you use. In practical terms, you’ll probably prepare these text topics as separate items, to be gathered into the plan as it is finished.

Sales strategy
Somewhere near the sales forecast you should describe your sales strategy. Sales strategies deal with how and when to close sales prospects, how to compensate sales people, how to optimise order processing and database management, how to manoeuvre price, delivery, and conditions.

How do you sell? Do you sell through retail, wholesale, discount, mail order, phone order? Do you maintain a sales force? How are sales people trained, and how are they compensated? Don’t confuse sales strategy with your marketing strategy, which goes elsewhere. Sales should close the deals that marketing opens.

To help differentiate between marketing strategy and sales strategy, think of marketing as the broader effort of generating sales leads on a large scale, and sales as the efforts to bring those sales leads into the system as individual sales transactions. Marketing might affect image and awareness and propensity to buy, while sales involves getting the order.

Forecast details
Your business plan text should summarise and highlight the numbers you have entered in the Sales Forecast table. Make sure you discuss important assumptions in enough detail, and that you explain the background sufficiently. Try to anticipate the questions your readers will ask. Include whatever information you think will be relevant, that your readers will need.

Sales programs
Details are critical to implementation. Use this topic to list the specific information related to sales programs in your milestones table, with the specific persons responsible, deadlines, and budgets. How is this strategy to be implemented? Do you have concrete and specific plans? How will implementation be measured?

Business plans are about results, and generating results depends in part on how specific you are in the plan. For anything related to sales that is supposed to happen, include it here and list the person responsible, dates required, and budgets. All of that will make your business plan more real.

How many years?
I believe a business plan should normally project sales by month for the next 12 months, and annual sales for the following three years. This doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t plan for a longer term than just three years, not by any means. It does mean, however, that the detail of monthly forecasts doesn’t pay off beyond a year, except in special cases. It also means that the detail in the yearly forecasts probably doesn’t make sense beyond three years. It does mean, of course, that you still plan your business for five, 10, and even 15-year time frames; just don’t do it within the detailed context of business plan financials.

Wha do You Know about Business Planning

1. Write from the audience’s perspective

The starting point for any business plan should be the perspective of the audience. What is the purpose of the plan? Is it to secure funding? Is it to communicate the future plans for the company? The writer should tailor the plan for different audiences, as they will each have very specific requirements. For example, a potential investor will seek clear explanations detailing the proposed return on their investment and time frames for getting their money back.

2. Research the market thoroughly

The recent Dragons’ Den series on BBC 2 reiterated the importance prospective investors place on knowledge of the market and the need for entrepreneurs to thoroughly research their market. The entrepreneur should undertake market research and ensure that the plan includes reference to the market size, its predicted growth path and how they will gain access to this market. A plan for an Internet café will consider the local population, Internet penetration rates, predictions about whether it is likely to grow or decline, etc., concluding with a review of the competitive environment.

3. Understand the competition

An integral component to understanding any business environment is understanding the competition, both its nature and the bases for competition within the industry. Is it a particularly competitive environment, or one that lacks competition? How are the incumbents competing—is there a price leader evident? Finally, including a thorough understanding of the bases on which you intend to compete is vital; can you compete effectively with the existing players?

4. Attention to detail

Make the plan concise, but include enough detail to ensure the reader has sufficient information to make informed decisions. Given that the plan’s writer usually has a significant role to play in the running of the business, the plan should reflect a sense of professionalism, with no spelling mistakes, realistic assumptions, credible projections and accurate content. The writer should also consider the format of the plan, e.g., if a business plan presentation is required, a back-up PowerPoint presentation should be created.

5. Focus on the opportunity

If you are seeking investment in your business, it is important to clearly describe the investment opportunity. Why would the investor be better off investing in your business rather than leaving money in a bank account, shares, or investing in another business? What is the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) for the business? Why will people part with their cash to buy from you?

6. Ensure all key areas are covered in the plan

Undertake research on what a business plan should contain; one good place to find this is at Bplans . Include sections on the Company, Product/Service, Market, Competition, Management Team, Marketing, Operations and Financials. The plan should also take on board the readers’ various preferences for viewing data. While many plans are predominantly textual, the plan should include some simple colour charts and spreadsheets.

7. Do the sums

The numbers will be subject to particular scrutiny. Costs should be documented in full and sales predictions should be both conservative and realistic. While costs are more certain and predictable, a crucial factor in the success or failure of the business will be the level of sales. If you are not particularly comfortable with maths, have someone assist you in preparing a simple cash flow and break-even chart. This will help the reader understand how many sales you must make to cover your costs, and also how much financing you must raise to start up successfully. Remember, at the beginning, there are a lot of start-up expenses in a period of uncertain sales volumes. If sales are on credit (including via credit card) it may take up to four weeks for you to receive the cash.

8. Executive Summary

Arguably the most important component of the plan is the Executive Summary. This is a summary of the entire plan and is usually contained at the start of the plan. It also tends to act as a key qualifier for time-pressed investors—if they like it, they will read on, if not they will go no further. It should be completed at the very end of the business planning process and should have a “wow factor” that entices them to read further. In tandem with this, the writer should also prepare a short “elevator pitch,” a five-minute overview of the key benefits of the new product/service.