The New Basics of Business
With unemployment continuing to rise, home prices falling due to a surplus of inventory, and small business lending at a standstill, this recession doesn’t seem likely to end soon. The recovery will be slow and Americans will certainly not enjoy the prosperity of a few years ago for a long time to come. It’s not just economists who think this way. “Half the population in [a] new ABC News poll thinks both job security and retirement prospects in the years ahead will remain worse than their pre-recession levels.” (“Poll: Less Job Security is the ‘New Normal,’” ABC News The Polling Unit, June 15, 2009, analysis by Gary Langer) This confidence, or lack thereof, is an integral part of an economic cycle. The analysis goes on to say, “Those diminished expectations – plus the pain of the current downturn – are fueling retrenchments in consumer behavior that could fundamentally reshape the economy.”
Basically, consumers are hunkering down to limit spending, save money, conserve resources, and change the way they’ve been living. The major influence on the health of an economy is the psychological state of its consumers. When there exists a broad belief that spending beyond necessity is unwise, people will change their habits and as a result, some businesses will have to close their doors. The economy is molting into a new, leaner animal. Rather than react in desperation to avoid doom, firms should interact with the current situation with innovative and forward thinking actions.
No matter the economic slump, increasing profits is typically the number one goal of any business. To ensure profitability, a company must demonstrate a competitive advantage over others in its industry, either by cost leadership (same product as competitors, lower price), differentiation (same price, better services), or focusing on an exclusive segment of the market (niche). For long term maintenance of competitive advantage, a firm must ensure that its methods cannot be duplicated or imitated. This requires constant analysis and regular reinvention of competitive strategies.
A recession is the optimal time to reinvent competitive advantage because the pressure of a feeble economy will separate the strong businesses from the weak ones, with the weak falling out of the game entirely. Your business will be strong if you have a plan of action based upon a little industry research, an analysis of what you have and what you want, and continuous monitoring of the results of your plan. This kind of innovation is not only a necessity right now, but it is an opportunity to improve the quality and efficiency in the way you do business.
The three basic actions for growing a business in any economic climate are: improve efficiency (maintain output while reducing inputs, such as time and money); increase volume (produce more in order to spread fixed costs); reorganize the business (change goals, methods and/or philosophy). If you plan to implement one of these, you may as well plan to implement them all. By focusing on one of the above strategies, you will find a ripple effect that causes a need to address the others. This is a good thing.
Right now, growth may sound like an unattainable goal as businesses are grappling just to survive, but hey, “flat is the new up.” If a business can keep its doors open and lights on, then it’s doing better than many others. But lights and open doors don’t make sales, so making changes that attract business is in a sense, striving for growth. It won’t be this tough forever, but for now, putting some growth strategies into action may be what keeps your business alive, if not thriving.
Every Business Needs a Plan
Without a plan, there is little hope for growth, let alone survival. As my small business development counselor, Terry Chambers says, “If it’s not written, it’s not real.” That doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable, but it does show that you mean business. In order to accomplish your strategies of improving efficiency, increasing volume, and reorganizing your business, you’ve got to examine what you have, what you want, and how you plan to get there.
Sometimes it takes a significant event or change in existing conditions for a business to create a written plan. I think it’s safe to say that the state of the economy is a significant change that should prompt business owners to alter the way they’ve been doing things. If you already have a business plan, it’s time to get it out and revise it. Make sure your plan includes answers to these questions:
What do I want to accomplish?
What do I have to work with?
How have I done in the past?
What might I do in the future?
What will I do now?
How will I do it?
Is it working?
A business plan can be used as a vehicle for accurate communication among principals, managers, staff, and outside sources of capital. It will also help to identify, isolate, and solve problems in your structure, operations, and/or finances. Along with these advantages, a business plan captures a view of the big picture, which makes a company better prepared to take advantage of opportunities for improvement and/or handle crises.
Essentially, the three main elements of a business plan are strategies, actions, and financial projections. In order to cover all of the principle elements, you will engage in other types of planning:
Marketing plan: Includes analysis of your target market (your customers), as well as the competition within that market, and your marketing strategy. This plan is usually part of the strategic plan.
Strategic plan: Asses the impact of the business environment (STEER analysis: Socio-cultural, Technological, Economic, Ecological, and Regulatory factors). Includes company vision, mission, goals and objectives, in order to plan three to five years into the future.
Operational planning: With a focus on short-term actions, this type of planning usually results in a detailed annual work plan, of which the business plan contains only the highlights.
Financial planning: The numerical results of strategic and operational planning are shown in budgets and projected financial statements; these are always included in the business plan in their entirety.
Feasibility study: Before you decide to start a business or add something new to an existing business, you should perform an analysis of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT analysis), as well as its financial feasibility, then asses its potential sales volume.
The process of business planning does not end when the written plan is complete. Business planning is a cycle, which includes the following steps:
Put your plan of action in writing.
Make decisions and take action based upon the plan.
Gauge the results of those actions against your expectations.
Explore the differences, whether positive or negative, and write it all down.
Modify your business plan based upon what you learned.
President of Palo Alto Software, Inc. and business planning coach Tim Berry says, “Planning isn’t complete unless you’ve planned for review.” Review is the fundamental action that initiates putting your business plan into action. In his blog at Entrepreneur.com, Berry lists some insightful strategies to making good use of your plan review, a few of which include keeping the review meetings as brief as possible and an emphasis on metrics as key to effective review.
Write your business plan in sessions. Don’t think that you have to produce a business plan before go to bed tonight or you won’t be able to open your doors for business tomorrow. I like Tim Berry’s Plan-As-You-Go method of business planning. The practice of planning is an effective way to really get to know your business and you might end up discovering some important things about your company and about yourself.
There are various strategies and outlines available that will guide you in choosing the appropriate format for your business plan. Check out the collection of sample business plans for a variety of businesses at Bplans dot com. Every business is different, therefore every business plan will be structured differently, but for the purposes of this white paper, I will present the fundamental elements that make up strategic, operational, and financial planning. Here is a basic outline, thanks to NxLevel® for Entrepreneurs (2005, Fourth Edition):
General Business Plan Outline
Table of Contents
Mission, Goals and Objectives
General Description of the Business
Stage of Development
General Growth Plan Description
Goals and Objectives
Background Industry Information
Current/Future Industry Trends
The Business Fit in the Industry
Business Structure, Management and Personnel
Other Operational Controls
The Marketing Plan
Growth Description (Future Products/Services)
The Market Analysis
Current Trade Area Description
Market Size and Trends
Sales Volume Potential (Current and Growth)
The Financial Plan
Salaries/Wages & Benefits
Cost of Projected Product Units
Growth (or Start-Up) Expenses
Cash Flow Projections
Monthly Cash Flow Projections – First Year
Notes to Cash Flow Projections (Assumptions)
Annual Cash Flow Projections – Years Two and Three
Projected Income Statement
Statement of Owner’s Equity
Additional Financial Information
Summary of Financial Needs
Personal Financial Statement