The notion of planning, and adjusting our plan, is a fundamental part of all of our lives. We do it daily, sometimes without even realizing it, on things both big and small. Planning for retirement? Planning a vacation? Planning for next month’s grocery bill?
We plan, we live the plan a bit, then we adjust based on our progress. We live some more, adjust again, and on and on. It makes sense—we want to be sure to get the most in life, and our plan helps us get there.
This simple method for managing our lives works the same in managing a business, and it’s fundamental to strategic advising services.
Business planning—small business versus big
Public and mid-size companies plan too. Each quarter they must report to shareholders and their board. They are continuously in a cycle of planning, measuring, and adjusting.
Why then does this very straightforward idea seem to vex many small and micro-business owners?
Having worked in this business for 25 years, I believe it’s simply because micro and small business owners are busy! They are usually understaffed, over-tired, and leveraged. The idea of planning and forecasting, while enticing, seems too far afield.
But that’s where you come in. As a strategic advisor, there’s a huge opportunity to help your small business clients reach their business goals through planning, forecasting and advising. To be especially useful, the plan should be living, which means it’s referred to regularly for advice, and it’s updated at regular intervals too.
It should also be lean. Lean means it’s not formal—it’s in bullet points and almost note form, and contains the right information to drive business decisions. Decisions such as capital purchases, staffing, sales and marketing spend, credit terms, and so on, are examples of business management decisions that are addressed by a living Lean Plan.
Advisors can help businesses create a roadmap
The right components of a Lean Business Plan will feed and inform a financial forecast. A forecast is comprised of educated guesses on sales and expenses, and the timing of cash receipts, as well as other fiscal inputs. A finished forecast should include three primary statements: a profit and loss, balance sheet, and cash flow.
The forecast becomes the roadmap for running the business. Like a map that shows how to get from point A to B, a financial forecast will reveal which business decisions to make to reach the desired goals. It’s used to manage the business, and is the centerpiece of your advisory relationship. By meeting with your client monthly, you help them make business decisions and course corrections to the plan––studying their actual results compared to the forecast.
So how do you get there? How do you develop this crystal ball of business decisions?!
It starts with the Lean Plan—putting together “just enough” business information so that it’s useful for your small business client. Let’s look at each section of the Lean Business Plan and how it ties to, and affects, the forecast.
As you read these, remember, it’s not up to you to come up with all the answers to these sections. Your job as an advisor is simply to direct the conversation and ask the right questions. Having a clear agenda and talking points helps a lot. We’ve developed a resource guide for a planning meeting, which you can download here.
Problem worth solving and business solution
The problem. This first part about the market problem is crucial. For a business to stay relevant, which means truly servicing its customers, it must solve for an actual market problem.
The solution. The business solution your client defines from the market problem will eventually translate to what the business will sell, which will feed the sales, or revenue forecast.
It adds up to motivation. In addition to being foundational, these items are your own window into what truly motivates the business owner. How they talk about the market problem and their solution will reveal to you their passion and their goals—crucial for helping them succeed.
Simply put, who will the business sell to? This information will inform the sales growth plan, and revenue forecast. Understanding the business’s target market in their servable area will expose the business’s potential, as well as its limits.
Sales and marketing
What will it sell, and how will it sell it? This is where you really begin to understand the economics of the business’s sales model. New resources and partners are discovered here as well, which become a key part of the overall plan.
Understanding sales and marketing needs will also inform the expense side of the forecast. Sales and marketing expenses are typically underestimated.
Partners and resources
Who and what does the business rely on? Simply put, this section equals untapped potential. All resources should be considered assets. Maybe not in the accounting style of thinking about booked value and depreciation, but certainly items that could generate new revenue, expense savings, or general leverage. For instance, key team members and strategic partners can generate increased sales, help a business cut expenses, or possibly leverage an untapped market.
In addition to people, many businesses are sitting on intellectual property they don’t even realize they have, and some of these should be protected, or at least leveraged for business development. A healthy conversation about resources and partners should cover all of these subjects.
Never forget milestones! They may seem mundane, but they are key to successful execution of the plan. Milestones come in all forms: contractual obligations, long-term strategic goals, and even the tedious but important ones that help a business reach their next small goal. Meetings with key partners, researching competition, collecting on a large payment from a client—anything that affects the business plan can be given a due-date and treated as a milestone. And as your relationship grows, the milestones will take over as key agenda items at each advisory meeting.
These business plan components form the bedrock of the business. They are comprehensive and broad. The information they generate will inform the financial forecast in a way that is both personal for this business, as well as strategic. You can cover these items in a meeting with your clients that lasts about one hour.
Having a structure for this meeting, with an agenda and some talking points is helpful. We’ve developed a resource guide for a structured planning meeting—you can download it here.
Business owner motivations affect the plan
Like any type of plan, a business plan has nuances. It isn’t all black and white. For the micro and small business owner, these nuances are the expectations, needs, wants, and limitations of the business owners themselves. As an advisor, it’s impossible to keep the business roadmap on track without understanding these four critical motivations living inside the business owner’s head. And the smaller the business, the more these four motivations impact the plan.
Once a business reaches a larger size it is managed by a team of individuals, usually a CEO, CFO, COO, and other C level executives. These executives make group decisions during meetings over periods of time with individuals weighing in, and all manner of goals being considered.
The micro business owner, however, is another story. Small and micro businesses are typically managed by the owner themselves. And, because they are outsourcing their accounting and business planning, they do not have a staff of individuals to make group decisions. The owner is making independent, personal decisions.
And all personal decisions are motivated by expectations, needs, wants, and limitations. These decisions, once made, will directly affect the day to day management of the organization, so it’s important for you, their advisor, to understand them. For each section of the Lean Planning meeting, be sure to consider expectations, needs, wants, and limitations.
Putting it all together
Here are some examples of how personal motivations can affect a business:
- Expectations: Does the business have a growth trajectory based on the unique interests of the owner, or the owner's market space?
- Needs: Does the business owner have certain personal financial goals that affect budgeting decisions? Or certain other fixed expenses based on perceived need?
- Wants: Has the owner established certain personal goals or interests that affect business decisions and impact net profit?
- Limitations: Does this business have unique seasonality based on the type of business or the location? Is there unique competition because of it? Certain contractual requirements from investors or partners?
Industry standards and benchmarking data are helpful resources but they cannot be used solely to determine growth potential for (especially) a small business. It is the individual business owner running their individual business. You must have your radar set on them and ask the right questions to understand what drives them, what makes them unique, and what their individual expectations and needs may be.
Just as the plans you make for your own life will be directed and changed overtime by your expectations, needs, wants and limitations, so too will the plans for your small business owners. What is true for one business owner isn’t true for others.
If you want to help your clients grow, get to know them. Understand their unique business goals and personal motivations. Translate those into a living business plan, using a structured method, and use that plan to model a roadmap for their perfect business.
You cannot get anywhere effectively without a plan. Help your clients put together their plan and be a part of their growth. It will be an exciting ride!
Kathy Gregory has over 20 years of experience in business development, including: financial forecasting, strategic planning, process development, project management, and mergers and acquisitions. She has worked in public and private, small to mid-size organizations doing business development, and strategic planning and implementation, working with executives, boards and their investors. At LivePlan Kathy runs the specialized program for Strategic Advisors. She is a graduate of the University of Oregon.