On How to Get Started, Revisited
My friends sometimes refer potential clients to me who want to retain a business plan writer. Or they ask me for hints on how to write a good business plan, or good example business plans they can emulate. The most common sentiment expressed to me is “I have this idea for a business but I don’t know where to start. I have all these thoughts… It’s difficult to explain.”
My answer is to first de-emphasize the business plan as a product and reframe it as a process. Then, before they spend any money on consultation or hiring a web designer, I advise them to go through a method that will treat the business plan as a process instead of a product.
This post is an expanded version of the original “On How to Get Started” post.
- Do a brain dump before soliciting more information and guidance
- There is lots of info people can throw at you, and you probably already have so many thoughts in your head you can barely contain them. Asking for more information would only overwhelm you.
- First things first: before you ask anyone for help, do a brain dump. This will also help others help you better when your thinking is clear and your ideas are written down.
- My hack in 45 minutes:
- Get yourself a clear flat surface. Clutter on your desk? Use your dining room table. No table available? Use some floor space.
- Get yourself some index cards or flashcards. Don’t have any? The blank back sides of old business cards will do (actually, the card stock and size is just right!). Find some binder clips and paper clips. Don’t have any? A rubber band will do. Don’t go shopping for these supplies. The time is now. Do not put it off anymore and start where you are!
- Get yourself comfortable and jot down everything about the business that’s in your head. Spend no more than 30 minutes. The only rule is one idea per card. Leave some space at the top corners to put “tags” later where you can sort your ideas.
- Do not sort your ideas during this initial brain dump step, and don’t worry if some cards have meta ideas and other cards have specifics, or if cards don’t have parallel structure, or if some cards sound like duplicates. An item can be a question you need to ask, a concern you have, a decision you have to make, or an idea you want to check out. It can be as small and specific as the kind of font you want to use on your website, or as big and vague as “need funding” (and don’t even worry that you don’t know how much funding you need).
- When 30 minutes is up, take 10 minutes to go through the cards and start to group them into piles. Categories can be vague: e.g., all the money issues go in this pile, all the website issues here, etc.
- When natural piles start to emerge, label all the cards in the same pile with a word that would serve as the category/theme, on top right corner.
- You will start to see that some cards can be in multiple piles/categories. That’s ok. Keep the card where you think it’s most appropriate and tag the corner of the card “(also $)” or some such, to indicate that you want to take a look at that card when you are thinking about money.
- At this point, you might end up writing up a few more cards as more questions/ideas come up. Great! Assign them to the appropriate piles. This is a non-linear and iterative process. It’s meant to be that way. Don’t worry, keep going.
- You should start to see some patterns in your thinking, now that you have unburdened your brain of all the ideas and questions in your head.
- In the last 5 minutes, physically organize these cards in a box or a bag, bundled by rubber bands, binder clips or paper clips per category. Read them over again one last time. Remember, it’s the process you went through that mattered, not how pretty the resulting cards look.
- Start a notebook
- Now you are ready to write down your questions. Get a composition book, or some notebook. Start writing the questions you have for a consultant (some may be already in your card piles). Again, don’t worry about grouping. The margin can serve as a place where you can put a label/key word, for you to sort out the questions later.
- Are you starting to see a pattern to this method? “Don’t worry, write things down, head down and power through” disrupts the unnerving voices in our heads. Keeping it simple (not using a spreadsheet, just jotting things down) fosters a casual environment for you, as if you are making a shopping list.
- From now on, continue to write in this notebook daily. It can be a new idea, a reminder, or a phone number of a potential contact. The key is, to make an idea into a reality, you have to start a ritual to commit something to paper on a daily basis. That means you have to have thought about it, have done some research, called some people, etc. to fill up at least a page in that notebook, or write for 10 minutes. The key is DAILY. Then the ideas will start to take shape, and it won’t remain a daydream.
- Make sure the notebook is small enough that it fits in the bag you usually carry when you go out. When your friend is late to meet you for drinks, you can be reviewing your notebook!
- Reach out
- Now you are ready to reach out. There are many sources that are free or low cost out there.
- Small Business Administration (SBA) has several programs under their own brand but also offer SCORE (volunteer business mentors) and Small Business Development Centers organized by regions (providing assistance with business plans, etc.).
- Chamber of Commerce vary in their offerings to assist businesses depending on your region. Most offer networking opportunities (most are open to the public, not just due-paying members) and workshops. Many service providers (people/companies who provide business consulting, etc.) attend these events and you can probably squeeze in a couple of your questions.
- Other resources include union associations, non-profits, government programs at various levels (federal, state or county/local), entities that sponsor business plan competitions, startup accelerators, business incubation centers, and targeted programs for women entrepreneurs, etc. These programs, especially if they are grant-funded, must meet certain economic development quotas, so they are usually eager to serve you.
- Carry your notebook around, so when you do reach out, you have questions handy to ask.
- Spend your time and money on the right stuff
- Hiring consultants for a business plan will probably set you back $5000 or more. Advising/mentoring/executive coaching is probably around $50 – $150/hr depending on their experience and expertise. You should be able to get far without spending any money at that level. Save your money on building your product/service.
- Wait, I just lied. By building your product/service, I meant exploring the riskiest part of your business. Companies don’t usually fail because their incorporation documents were not optimized, or because you didn’t have a spiffy business plan. Companies fail because they run out of money when they face the riskiest part of the business.
- Identify your biggest risk
- If your business idea is to have a virtual store that sells specially designed durable clothing for overweight people, the biggest risk is not identifying the fabric for the clothing line or the e-commerce portion of the website, but marketing. Because our society has a stigma about weight, you first have to get your potential clients to identify themselves as someone who is overweight to even click your website.
- Spend your time figuring out the biggest risk and then addressing how to minimize that risk
- TEST, not THINK about how to minimize that risk
- Create a minimum viable product (MVP) of your business, out of cardboard and crayons if necessary (i.e., don’t wait to find the right technology, the back-end database, etc.). For the above example, create mock-ups of a banner ad (again, if you can’t whip up a quick digital version, print out or draw a picture, throw some lettering!) and show it to the demographic you are aiming for.
- Get their feedback, modify, and repeat
- Places like Factory X and other accelerators hold workshops on rapid prototyping.
- Start writing your business plan
- Draft a business plan, so that your multi-dimensional thoughts and non-linear progress can be presented in a linear manner for you and for outsiders (potential partners, investors, etc.). People like stories and you need a narrative.
- Use a template to organize your thoughts so the headers in the template can also point to any blind spots you missed.
- You can try the free version of BizGym or something similar. There are many examples of business plans out there, so curating them will have to be a separate blog post.
- Pitch templates can be less overwhelming to start. Here’s a free one to try, though there are many others.
That should get you started. The final step in the beginning phase is to go back to the previous steps. Establishing your business and writing a business plan is an iterative, non-linear process that must evolve over time. The business plan writing process should get you thinking back about the cards, maybe adding more cards, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
As for which daydream deserves to see the light of day? …If after all these steps, you have more passion for the idea. If not, scrap your idea, move onto the next, because it was never more than a daydream.
Photo: Florence, Italy