Monthly Archives: April 2017

The business plan paradox

“If you don’t have a plan, you can’t change it”

In my work with young entrepreneurs, we set great store by them developing a business plan for each would-be enterprise. I describe it as the key that unlocks further support – including a start-up loan and a business mentor. And it can. That’s the carrot for young people hoping to start their own businesses and the stick is… well… it’s me giving them feedback on their various drafts at 1-2-1 meetings. It has to be  their business plan and after each encounter, I  hope they won’t give up; no one is going to force them to stay the course. Of course, many end up ‘doing their own thing’ and we lose touch.

But then I have mixed feelings about business plans. They are, at best, an informed estimate about how things might turn out. We know they’re out of date the minute the ink dries on the page and they can be knocked sideways, backwards, and forwards by unforeseen opportunities and obstacles in the weeks following. Business plans chart 12 months ahead in a linear, orderly fashion (with words and figures hopefully describing parallel journeys) but we know that real life – personal and professional twists and turns – mean that’s unlikely to happen. We say that the business plan should be a ‘living document’ – dynamic and being constantly updated – but I wonder how many really are…

Then there’s my guilty secret – in the three years I spent setting up The Repair Shed (a social enterprise in Hemel Hempstead) my business plan lay unopened,  unloved, and out-of-date on the shelf. In fairness, I did have a 12-month project plan for the funders and I spent a lot of time explaining why things didn’t turn out quite like I said they would.

And yet… and yet …

Young people starting a business plan, and progressing it from one draft to another, shows learning in action, and achievement – massive achievement is some cases – that is credit-worthy in itself. Transferring ideas from inside heads on to paper helps make thinking tangible and, can often clarify issues and gaps in knowledge. A written business plan can share understanding between strangers about the young entrepreneur and their new venture. Even if the business plan is abandoned, it can be retrieved at a later date – a lifeline if the business is floundering, a leg up if the business was never started. And there’s proof that the author of a well-worked business plan can become much more employable as a result of that planning exercise alone.

There’s a much-quoted saying “no business plan survives first contact with customers” but I’d be happy with that – it says our young entrepreneurs have actually started trading!

Coming soon – 10 questions your business plan should answer  

Risky business

They say that entrepreneurs are risk-takers and it’s fair to say that, like most things in life, it takes an element of personal and/or professional risk to make things happen. This is not to say you can only succeed in business by being reckless, but being willing to get outside your comfort zone is pretty much essential. So, what are the main risks for the entrepreneur starting a new business? Here are six ‘Cs’ to consider:

Can’t do – Much of the talk these days is about a ‘can-do’ attitude – as if positive thinking is enough to make things happen! In reality, self-awareness about what you can’t do is probably more important – so that you can work out how to overcome your shortcomings eg filling skills gaps by training or co-opting someone else.

Competition – With a new business one of the first considerations should be the competition (direct = others doing something similar, indirect = everything that’s going to stop your would-be customers buying your product or service). If there’s no competition, you might ask yourself why not, if there’s loads of competition you need to know why people should choose you. A serious assessment of the competition can reduce the risk of failure – try to learn from other people’s mistakes. That said, I’m a firm believer that you can gain more from cooperation/collaboration than competition.

Cash (flow) – The single biggest reason that businesses fail is running out of cash. There may be lots of money tied up in the business but none available in a liquid form – cash – to cover immediate costs such as salaries and daily expenses. Not for nothing do people like me repeat the quote Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity, but cash is reality.” Keeping a close eye on the money coming in and going out of your business bank account – your cashflow – will reduce the nasty surprises.

Capacity – So your start-up is doing well and you want/ need to grow; the biggest limiting factors at this stage are time and space. You only have so many hours in the day and, if your business involves face-to-face customer services, you’ll need to be looking for people to bring in to help out (in effect, to increase the hours in the day). You may also need more space to accommodate the extra people knocking at your door. If you’re selling products, you’ll likely need extra space for production, storing stock and materials, and maybe for increased packing and distribution.

Contingency – They say that the best business people are not so bright that they keep asking ‘what if?’ all the time. But, it would be bright to do at least some contingency planning around you and your business along the lines of … What if I’m off sick for 4 weeks?  What if my mobile phone or laptop was stolen? What if a massive order comes in next week?

Coordination – Business seems so easy when you see it in terms of ‘selling the right products/services to the right people at the right price’ (whatever we mean by ‘right’). But the problems arise because real life rarely provides an easy route from A to B. Coordination – having a realistic map of your route to a clearly defined destination, and systems for coping if/when things go wrong (breakdown recovery etc), will help make the ride less bumpy.

Ultimately, the best entrepreneurs manage risk rather than letting it stifle progress – they take risks when they can afford to fail. David Robinson, former Chief Officer of Community Links in East London, makes the case for risk-taking. “If we don’t fail it means we’re not taking risks. If we’re not taking risks it means we’re not trying to do things differently, and if we’re not trying to do things differently, why are we here?”

The power of networking

Many years ago I went to a talk in Cambridge by Hilton Catt, co-author of The Power of Networking. I don’t know whether the publicity was ambiguous or what but, it being Cambridge, there was a digital divide within the audience – one half thought it would be about virtual networks, the other half thought it would be about ‘real’ human networks.

I’m pleased to say it was about the power of the face-to-face – in Hilton Catt’s case, for job-hunting. I was unemployed at the time and, while the evening didn’t result in my immediate employment, it reinforced what I’d been told by other jobhunters and confirmed my belief in the benefit of seeking and nurturing contacts for both professional and personal progression.

To this day, I still think you can’t beat close encounters of the personal kind – even in our tech-rich, time-poor working lives – and more so in an age of faux online friends, false news, and reality TV shows that suggest that, in business, someone has to lose for you to win.

Call me old-fashioned, but my experience of working with small business start-ups for more than a decade is that they have far more to gain by sharing their ideas (rather than protecting them) and seeking partners for mutually beneficial relationships. I’m not starry-eyed about collaboration and co-operation (as opposed to competition) but I recommend it daily, and will do so until someone convinces me there’s a better way.

In my day-job I support young people in their efforts to turn business ideas into viable and hopefully sustainable enterprises. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely road to take, so I encourage then to seek out like-minded people – even the competition – for advice about mistakes made, lessons learnt, and what works well.

The young entrepreneurs are constantly astonished and delighted by the helpfulness of others (people who remember when they were starting out maybe) with no expectation of a payback. I also pull in my own personal and professional contacts when I can. In the last six months, I’ve fixed a fence erector up with a van, I’ve arranged a would-be photographer’s night at a music awards ceremony in London as professional snapper’s assistant, I’ve unearthed (pun intended) a garden designer to pass judgement on a newbie designer’s work, and I’ve steered others towards potential collaborators, including business networks.

The day that ‘who you know’ becomes less important than ‘what you know’ and online communications make face-to-face connections unnecessary, I think I’ll pack up and head for the hills (preferably somewhere there’s no broadband).