Tag Archives: keep it simple

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

With business in mind

When people are motivated to set up a business because of something very personal to them, the impact on the development of that business can be good and bad. It’s about balancing head and heart issues – how to harness that lived experience to drive business success while remaining objective enough to make hard commercial decisions.

For Jon Manning, founder of Arthur Ellis Mental Health Support (AEMHS), the motivation behind his business start-up could not be more personal and powerful; diagnosis of bi-polar disorder two years ago, aged 27, after first being hospitalised when six years old. The creation of the business is, Jon admits, as much about his own route to better health as helping others with their mental ill-health.

I’d been through all the NHS services but couldn’t get a lot of support. Different diagnoses at different stages meant different places to go and new waiting lists to join – I was getting fed up.  After the bi-polar diagnosis, I went to talks to learn about my disorder, but it didn’t help and I felt others in the room wouldn’t be able to help me either. So I thought I’d come up with new training; sharing clinical techniques for ‘normal people’ to learn how to help their unwell colleagues quickly, without having to wait.”

Jon is clearly frustrated about the time it takes to get through the mental health system – up to two years from initial GP referral to diagnosis. Average diagnosis of bipolar disorder, due to its complexities, he says, is 13 years; one explanation of a rise in suicide rates.  Which is why Jon set up Arthur Ellis Mental Health Support – named after his two grandfathers one of whom, Ellis, had bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia, spending 30 years in hospital.

Luckily the development of Jon’s business has been spectacularly fast compared with the workings of the NHS. “Our first year’s income was achieved in the first four months, meaning I could bring in a team of ten clinicians – psychologists and health practitioners – to do the training.”

After the first year, 8 Award Nominations and 2 business awards followed bringing support from major companies and the ability to increase his professional fees from £200 a session to £1,000 a day. A new annual package for businesses means turnover is expected to be £300,000 in just the second year.

As if that isn’t likely to keep Jon busy enough, he has set up a schools service alongside the business – a not-for-profit arm to develop a programme of support for the 75% of children who are rejected for mental health support. Schools can refer students directly to AEMHS for a course of treatment (involving their parents) to try to keep them out of the health service system.

Keep it simple

Of course the development of the business has been nowhere near as smooth as the story this far may sound; like most entrepreneurs, Jon has to learn some hard lessons. Keep it simple is his top tip…

If you do just one thing but do it really well, you can profit from that. You don’t necessarily have to start with a huge range of products or services. Focus on one thing at a time, once you’ve aced one, you can add another. I started out with 16 services – all the things I wanted to do. I took advice and reduced the list to 11, but was then advised even that was too much. Now I’m focusing on two – training workshops and an online coaching platform.”

Getting started with the workshops wasn’t all plain sailing either. “No one wanted to do them at first” admits Jon. “I thought about what medical conditions had most impact on people – treatment for anxiety and depression are top of the list – so I developed exercises and imagery to simulate those conditions.”

Feedback – good and bad – on those re-focused workshops was important for adapting and improving the offer. Invitations to a free event won some paid business, which meant Jon could afford to recruit mental health practitioners to develop new workshops. The annual package of quarterly workshops – on anxiety, depression, trauma and enduring illnesses – was born, including clinicians proactively reporting on issues each month to help tackle anything before is has a business impact.

Know your purpose

Jon’s stresses the importance of understanding the purpose of any new business – not just what you’re doing but, why you want to do it. For him it’s about doing a good job and working on something that’s worthwhile. Communicating this is also important. “If your purpose is clear to everyone you work with, that will pay off. People need to buy into you – what you’re doing and why – that’s the way to get clients.”

Letting go

As well as balancing head and heart, another issue for people with a deeply personal motivation for starting a business is being able to let go – trusting others to help run the business when it becomes too much for one person. Jon agrees…

“It’s hard, but if you have specific strengths in one area, you need to see the specific strengths in other people. If you bring in people who are better than you [trained and with more relevant experience – for example, clinical staff] delegation is easier because they’ll do a much better job.”

Because ‘people buy people’ – which is certainly the case at the start-up stage – bringing in other staff can be an issue, but Jon believes this is about being open and managing client expectations. This relates to another of Jon’s guiding principles – honestly – particularly if things go wrong…

 “I’ve told clients exactly what’s happened when things didn’t go as planned. I’d rather put work back a month than rush it. I’m sometimes guilty of over-sharing, but I believe honesty can really help build your reputation, as can asking your clients for advice – they appreciate being consulted; they like to help.”

Thinking long term

“The big question is… do you want to do something for now, or create a business? For a business to succeed, you need a long term view – a vision – and you need long term agreements, long term clients, and long term goals. Solving a minor problem is probably not the basis for a sustainable business. If you’re tackling a bigger problem [like mental health and wellbeing at work] it’s about chipping away and coming up with long term solutions.”

Which brings us back to the ‘why’ of the business you’re starting. For Jon Manning, that purpose became increasingly clear through dissatisfaction with his previous employment. “I realised the work I was doing was good money and quite flexible, but it was menial and without purpose – I needed to help myself.” A year later, Jon is sure he made the right move. “I haven’t had a salary for the past 12 months so I’ve left all that life behind, but I feel a lot better now than I’ve ever been.”

Further information about Arthur Ellis Mental Health Servicehttps://arthurellismhs.com

Jon is based at the NatWest Accelerator Hub in Milton Keynes, https://www.business.natwest.com/business/business-banking/services/entrepreneur-accelerator.html#hubs