Tag Archives: busines plans

How to fail at writing a business plan

Don’t start it: Like many activities when we can’t see the point, or the end point, getting started can be the most difficult part of writing a first business plan. Technically a plan is never finished – it should be a dynamic document – tweaked, edited or even rewritten as reality kicks in – particularly at the start-up stage. So, don’t be afraid to just get something down on paper knowing it won’t be right first, second or third time. The secret of getting started is to draft a section or two of the plan that you’re relatively comfortable writing about (which may not be the early sections) to share with, and get feedback from, someone you trust, probably not a family member or friend.

Start at the beginning: Traditionally, the first part of a complete business plan in called the ‘Executive Summary’ but it should be written last – it’s a short summary of everything else in the plan. It’s important to get it right, because it’s the first (and may be the only?) thing a busy reader may consider to assess the business portrayed in the rest of the plan. But you can only summarise the rest of the plan in words and figures when it’s been written!

Try to get it right first time: The business plan for a start-up is particularly prone to change because, if it’s a new venture there’s no hard information on which to base your expectations. A first-year plan is at best an informed hope not a prediction – expect to regularly change what you’ve said will happen. To get your first complete draft finished you need to accept that ‘good enough’ will be ‘good enough’. Ultimately your objective is to make it good enough to ‘do the job’ – to get that all-important first investment, to get your mate to join you on the journey, to recruit an assistant… whatever.

Read other business plans for inspiration: There’s no right or wrong way to write a business plan, no fixed format. You can find lots of business plan templates on the internet and any number of examples of ‘what a good plan looks like.’ These examples are best avoided – it can easily bias your thinking (there’s a temptation to copy…) and your business plan has to be just that – yours. If you have to copy someone else’s work it suggests you haven’t fully understood the ‘why, how and what’ of your own business idea. Or, if you have difficulty writing clearly, talk your ideas through with someone else who can help you put your ideas down on paper.

Keep it to yourself: Note – a business plan is not a public document; you decide who sees it. That said, it’s best shared in draft form with a ‘trusted adviser’ – not necessarily a ‘professional’ but someone detached enough to give you unbiased feedback. It’s then up to you to decide which comments to take on board and which to ignore – remember, this is your plan. Once completed, you can issue different versions if you don’t want all readers to see all your business ideas and intentions. You may have a two-pager that covers the broad principles and only share more detail on a ‘need to know’ basis.

You may also be tempted to keep your business idea (and plan) close to your chest for fear someone will steal your idea. This is understandable but, in reality, you’re go further faster by telling as many people as possible. This does not apply if you have an idea which should realistically be protected – in which case you need to find out about Intellectual Property Protection.

Think of it as a publicity brochure: Bearing in mind that a business plan is circulated to a limited readership, it should not be conceived as a publicity document. It should be written clearly and concisely, free of jargon and bullshit. A business plan is all about communication – showing why you and your business idea are a perfect match – but you are selling that pairing in a special way that’s positive, but honest and persuasive.

Make it complicated: Apply the KISS principle – Keep It Simple [Stupid]! A business plan is great for downloading all the muddled ideas that are probably buzzing around in your head, but it should also untangle those ideas. When you’re very close to your business idea (and if you’re really passionate, you may even be obsessed by it!) you could find it difficult to think clearly. This is another reason it’s good to get someone sympathetic to act as editor – or at least someone with whom you’re comfortable talking through your ideas.

Make it sound very tentative: While a business plan is only a plan not a promise, it’s good to make it sound more definite that it probably is. It’s natural [and honest!] to use phrases like ‘may do this’ ‘could do that’ ‘if this happens then…’ when talking about ideas that might be quite vague at the planning stage. In reality, you need to present your plan in a more positive way to persuade the reader you’re likely to put the plan into action and make it work.

Use long words and lots of abbreviations: As with most good writing, avoid any words and phrases that are going to cause the reader to stumble. People sometimes think that using complicated phrases and loaded words like ‘new’ ‘exciting’ and ‘unique’ will impress the reader – it doesn’t!  If you must use technical terms, include a glossary at the front in your business plan (or at the bottom of the relevant page) to explain them. It’s OK to use abbreviations to save space and make it easier to read, but you need to explain them when first used (and include them in that glossary).

Make it long: A good business plan is about quality not quantity. You may be proud of your 30 pages, but the reader is unlikely to be (particularly if they have to read lost of plans). Only use as many words and figures as you need to ‘do the job’ (and know what that is – getting an investment, communicating your thinking with a would-be mentor, whatever). And if you can’t describe your business in less than 20 pages, maybe you need to re-think it?

A last tip – if you can use illustrative material – photos, graphics, interesting diagrams – to communicate your idea effectively, don’t be afraid to use them in moderation. It can also make your plan stand out from the rest.

See also:

The business plan paradox https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/04/28/the-business-plan-paradox

What makes a great business plan? https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/07/08/what-makes-a-great-business-plan

For a sample business plan template, go to  https://www.princes-trust.org.uk/help-for-young-people/tools-resources/business-tools/business-plans

Are experts overrated?

In my work with young people who are thinking about setting up their own business, I constantly stress the importance of honesty. I mean honesty with themselves as much as with anything else. Being self-aware and having the confidence to share personal weaknesses, as well as strengths, can be very powerful in our famous-for-15-minutes-for-doing-nothing society.

Of course, we’re taught to ‘present our best side’ at job interviews and on CVs and a certain amount of ‘embellishment of the facts’ is almost expected. But I tell young entrepreneurs when it comes to business plans, it’s best to be realistic but positive. Business pitches with sky-high sales expectations and false claims about relevant skills (‘extensive experience in market gardening’ was how one young man described his two-week work placement) will be found out and can ruin reputations.

Which is not to say we have to spend all our time telling others why we’re a liability rather than an asset – that’s not the way to make friends and influence people.

In a previous advisory role I worked with charities and social enterprises and, at a first meeting, I’d say “tell me a bit about your organisation”. I still remember the Chief Officer who said “we’re good at this, this and this, we need to get better at this, this and this”. Here was someone I could work with – he knew what he didn’t know (if that doesn’t sound too Donald Rumsfeld). Not surprisingly I’ve forgotten those who, at that first meeting, denied they had any areas for improvement (in which case, why was I being brought in to support them?)

Readers of earlier blogs will know of my love of language and my loathing of carelessly used abbreviations, jargon, and red-rag words such as ‘deliver’ and ‘engage’ which are so vague as to be meaningless. It’s a lexicon for self-styled experts, so insecure in their knowledge and status that they feel the need to dispense wheelbarrow loads of bullshit.

Whenever I doubt my own knowledge (more often than not!) I tell myself that a real expert is prepared to admit their ignorance. Many years ago I was at a public meeting with the then Chairman of the Forestry Commission. He was asked an apparently very straight forward questions by a lad in his early teens. Lord Taylor (the ‘tree expert’) paused for a moment then said, “you won’t believe this, but I don’t know the answer to that… but I’ll find out and let you know.

And even if you are an expert – with certificates, letters after your name, and all the associated bells and whistles to prove it – don’t think you can sit back and bask in the glory. There’s something else to keep you awake at night – the ‘impostor syndrome’. Also known as the fraud syndrome, the term was coined as recently as 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. It afflicts high-achieving individuals who are unable to acknowledge and accept their accomplishments and, as a result, they have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud’.

So maybe bullshitting has its appeal after all…