Building a business plan – and using it to pitch your idea to others – is one of the most fundamental building blocks for establishing a new business. Although some people get lucky and succeed without developing a plan, for most entrepreneurs the process of building a business plan and presenting it to others is among the most meaningful and important learning experiences that they will engage in.
It’s what helps them make their new venture a success. Recently, some of the MBA students from the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) participated in a business plan competition in which they needed to prepare a full-blown business plan for a new business venture and then present it to an independent panel of judges.
As an exercise, the GIBS business plan competition served as an intense learning experience for those involved, which in turn has generated key insights for other entrepreneurs to learn from. Michael Bean, one of the GIBS Entrepreneurship MBA students, reflected on his experience as follows:
“Developing a business plan is a far more complex and challenging task than I realised.Even if you ‘think’ you know the industry, the rigour of doing a proper evaluation of the market, working out a value proposition, actively developing an entry strategy and ironing out the financial model behind what you are trying to do will reveal nuances that you may otherwise have missed completely.I firmly believe that the effort taken to do this, and being forced to put it in a format which can be readily understood by a lay person, not only provides a basis for sourcing investment but also helps you to understand the message you ultimately wish to convey to the market.”
At the end of the exercise, I asked those who did well in the competition to share what they learnt. My instruction to them was:
“Assume that your brother-in-law wants to start a new venture and he needs to prepare and present a business plan. What would you tell him to do based on your experience in the competition?”
After carefully analysing and categorising their insights, I arrived at six critical activities that an entrepreneur needs to do well to be successful in the business planning process. Three of these activities relate to developing the business plan and three relate to presenting the plan to others.
To make these activities easy to remember, I linked them with the first six letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, and F. Although I developed the framework for this article, the content comes directly from the students who participated in the competition. Their comments create a unique opportunity for you, the reader, to benefit directly from their learnings.
Delivering the business plan
Assess the context
The starting point for developing a successful business plan is to truly understand the industry, the opportunity and the environment. Understanding the context in which you plan to operate can result in direct business benefits, as described by one of the students.
“An in-depth and rigorous investigation of the competitive landscape was useful as it helped me understand what we were and, importantly, what we were not offering (some of it has gone directly into our marketing material). It also highlighted some features that our competitors were offering which we are now adding to our own product line, as well as markets that we had not thought of entering.”
So how can you assess the context? Here are some of the best ways.
- Read: Do as much research into your proposed area of business. It’s amazing what you can learn from just spending time reading.
- Have broad discussions: Speak to as many people as possible in that industry… there are always ‘unwritten’ rules that you can learn from those who are in the industry… “Preparing to write the business plan motivated my business partner and I to speak to many different people in the market to clarify certain components. These conversations led to one amazing opportunity after another.”
- Look for partnerships: The biggest learning from the business plan competition was ‘the value of partnerships’. A huge strength of some of the business plans was how they leveraged partnerships. In a sense, the entrepreneurs focused on how they could strategically take existing products to market. Instead of trying to recreate the wheel (being both the engineer and the entrepreneur) they were able to bring their specialities to the table and work in a team. This is an ingenious use of resources. It has broadened the participants’ views on opportunity scanning and screening.
Build the business model
A business is made up of many parts and it is critical to understand how those parts fit together to create value. In order to fully appreciate and understand how your business creates value you need to build a business model that fully incorporates the marketing, financial and operational elements of the business. As one participant reflected: “Make sure that your business model tells an integrated story… your concept must match your assumptions, which must fill a real customer ‘need’… and link back into your financial projections.”
So what do you focus on when building the business model?
- Understand your uniqueness: “Identify your competitors, identify why your product is unique, and validate that the product or service cannot be copied or adapted by competitors.”
- Deal with the detail: Pay very, very close attention to detail. Even the smallest thing will trip you up when you’re explaining your plan to investors. They’ve done this many more times than you have. If you have small doubts, address them before they become big doubts (and they will probably become big doubts when you’re presenting your plan and you don’t have a satisfactory answer to a tough question).
- Know your numbers: Proper financial forecasting helps clarify the bottom line questions. It has shown us better ways of approaching our pricing and the revenue models in servicing particular client segments profitably. Further, it has highlighted the key performance areas we need to track to drive performance for our operations going forward.
- Be real: Be realistic about what you hope to achieve. Don’t over-inflate the numbers.
- Explain how you will get things done: Ideas are nothing – it’s all in the execution. If you don’t have a concrete explanation of how you’re going to achieve what you want to achieve, don’t bother. Dream big, but dream real.
Capture the essence
Ultimately you need to take all the hard work that you have done in assessing the context and building a business model and translate it into a written business plan that captures the essence of what you are trying to do. The act of writing your plan in a formal document can seem like a laborious waste of time and yet the discipline and focus that this engenders can be the difference between success and failure in a new business.
So what can you do to succeed as you capture the essence of your business idea in a written document?
- Give yourself time: Preparing a business plan requires time and cannot be rushed, especially if you plan to present the business to an investor panel. Being thorough will save you embarrassment when your plan comes under scrutiny and when you are expected to field questions.
- Keep it simple: Find a simple way to explain how your solution works – the MBA lingo is not essential in a business plan, as it must be clear and easy to understand for a potential investor.
- Get a review: Get a few people to read through your plan. Their comments and criticism can be very helpful.
Delivering the pitch
Develop a pitch
Writing the plan is only half the story; the other half involves presenting the idea. Often the presentation of a business plan will carry far more weight than the written document. A good written document creates the appropriate foundation for a good presentation, but in addition to writing a good plan you need to prepare a knock out presentation to appeal to investors.
So what should you do when preparing to present your business plan?
- Give yourself time to prepare: Set aside more than enough time to prepare the presentation. It always takes longer than you think and proper preparation pays huge dividends.
- Assume ignorance: Assume investors have not read through your business plan. Plan to explain every aspect of the business. Even if they have read the plan, they will want to hear you describe the idea.
- Practice: Make sure you know the contents of your presentation backwards… so practice, practice, practice! Steve Jobs is as good as he is because he practices. Also, try to deliver your presentation to your peers and friends first so you can get some pointers and comments. This can be very helpful in helping to control your nerves when you finally need to deliver the presentation to investors.
- Constructive Criticism: It really helps to get constructive criticism prior to the actual presentation. While you may believe you are able to play devil’s advocate to your own idea, it is advisable to get the opinion of an objective expert before the real deal.
- Know who you are talking to: Research the background of the people to whom you are presenting to understand their frame of reference… Google them if you need to; this can help when you want to create rapport with your audience.
Execute the delivery
Ultimately, it comes down to what you say and how you say it. Standing up in front of a panel of investors is intimidating, but your ability to embrace the stress of the situation and translate it into positive energy can create the breakthrough you might need to get your business off the ground.
So what can you do to give yourself the best chance of effectively executing your delivery of the presentation?
- Have conviction: Having the confidence that your product or service will work translates directly into how you talk about it. If you think your venture will be successful, you automatically display the passion for it that investors seem to love.
- Sell the model: Spend enough time upfront to describe the business model as simply as possible, especially when presenting to investors who are unfamiliar with your industry. If investors fail to understand the business model, any supporting evidence you may use to convince them of the business’s viability will be lost.
- Bring in emotion: Add an emotional angle to your presentation. After all, you will be presenting to ‘people’. I’ve found that the emotional bits are what capture the attention of the people that you will be presenting to. All the other information then also becomes a bit more interesting to them.
- Simplicity: Keep it short, keep it simple and keep them smiling.
Follow up on feedback
The actual business plan presentation is a catalyst for further discussion. This discussion may happen immediately after the presentation, as the audience asks questions and provides feedback based on the presentation. It may also happen in follow-up meetings or via ongoing referrals.
To truly benefit from the business planning process you need to be ready to receive the feedback and be proactive about following up after the presentation. As one student pointed out: “The feedback from the judges was great – we are already using some of it. It is very helpful to have a critical and experienced eye looking over your business without an agenda or bias.
“We all have blind spots. The positive feedback is also great as it provides reassurance that you are not crazy and you might really be onto something.”
So what can you do to make the most of the feedback and follow up process?
- Remove emotion: Do not be emotionally defensive of your plan when questions arise. Welcome the questions and refer to facts in your business plan to support your response. If there’s nothing in your plan to refer to… you weren’t thorough enough.
- Listen: Use all negative comments from people in the audience to your benefit. See the positive aspects in what they are saying and they might even co-create or refine your proposal, without even noticing it!
- Anticipate different reactions: Appreciate that you might get vastly different reactions from different groups of investors to the exact same business presentation. Appreciate where they are coming from, listen to what they say but don’t let a dissenting minority kill your idea.
- Provide a mechanism for follow up: Bring business cards, put your contact details on all material and get business cards from those investors who show an interest. Seek to build a longer term relationship with those investors with whom you get along. You will be amazed by how they might open doors for you.
Building and presenting a business plan is definitely not as simple as learning your ABCs. Business planning is an intricate and complex process. But there are a number of subtle, even understated, steps you can take to make a big difference as you engage in this process.
I recommend that you apply these unique, first-hand insights into the subtleties of business plan development and examination to your own business plans. Although the process may appear complex, understanding the simple steps outlined here will help you cut through the complexity to make you more effective in achieving positive outcomes as you prepare and present your own idea for a new business.
Why Your Business Beliefs Are More Important Than Your Business Plan
Your business plan will change. Your business beliefs should lead you to long-term success.
Do not spend more time working on your business plan than you do actually working on your business. A business plan is important, and you should take the time to make one. Just know that your beliefs about business will have a much greater impact on your success than what you put on paper.
I know this because I’ve coached dozens of entrepreneurs and business owners from the very beginnings of their businesses. I’ve watched some of them grow their businesses all the way to six-, seven- and even eight-figure earnings, even when their initial idea looked shaky on paper.
I’ve watched others struggle for years before giving up, even though their ideas looked foolproof on paper.
The short explanation here is that what you put on paper for a business plan will never match reality. Never. As soon as you start selling to and working with real people, things change. There’s a certain amount of chaos. However, there is a way to harness that chaos and use it to build your empire, which is what I’m here to show you today.
Innovation is moving faster than ever before
In the next five to 10 years, most of the jobs that exist today will be replaced by AI. For entrepreneurs, that means your business operations will be cheaper and more reliable than ever before. However, it also means that your daily operations will look completely different than what they look like today.
Plus, many of these technologies will have unintended consequences. They’re going to create problems that we’ve never had to deal with before (such as high unemployment).
I don’t say any of that to scare you. In fact, I’m extremely optimistic about the future, and you should be, too. My point is that none of us can afford to get stuck on how we do business today.
If your idea of success is to find the next “hack” or “quick fix,” then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Those hacks and quick fixes are going to become outdated almost as soon as they appear.
So, here’s what you need to do instead: Become obsessed with the principles of wealth and success, not just the delivery system. Study the entrepreneurs and the businesses you admire most and look for the principles that guided their decisions.
Focus on principles, not quick hacks
The most successful entrepreneurs on the planet are the ones that put in decades of hard work to build their empires. That means that they kept their businesses growing even in times of massive uncertainty, loss and change. How?
It comes back to their business beliefs, which is another way of saying principles. If your business beliefs are solid, you will quickly find a way to create new solutions when the old systems for doing business break down. For a great example of this, look at Ray Dalio. He’s been listed as one of the 100 wealthiest people in the world, and he even wrote a book called Principles.
He’s also the founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates, which has a fund called the Pure Alpha fund that only lost money three times in the last 20 years. Keep in mind, that includes the 2008 housing crisis, which was the worst economic downturn in recent history. When most people were suffering financial disaster, Dalio and others like him kept their empires growing.
Again, it goes back to beliefs, aka principles. One of Dalio’s core beliefs was that he could design an investment portfolio that would remain safe and keep growing under any economic season. Through years of researching and testing, he created the All Seasons portfolio and accomplished just that. And he accomplished that because he was looking for the principles that would keep his money growing over the long term instead of get-rich-quick tricks and hacks.
Another great example is Google. Google’s mission statement is “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That’s not a hack or a get-rich-quick scheme.
That’s a guiding belief in what’s possible. It’s a huge idea that serves the needs of people all over the world. That’s what has allowed Google to create billion-dollar solutions and rewrite how much of the world operates today.
Beliefs can make you mentally strong — or weak
Let’s bring this back down to a personal level. If you believe that you have the creativity, focus and discipline to solve any problem that comes up in your business, then that will come true. On the other hand, if you believe there’s no room left for your ideas, or that you’ll never be able to lead other people toward your vision, that will also come true.
With that in mind, let me offer you a set of beliefs that have helped me succeed in business. These are not beliefs I pulled out of thin air. These are beliefs I’ve seen in action with dozens of other successful entrepreneurs.
I’ve tested them out in my own life and found that they each helped my businesses grow faster. I encourage you to read these aloud to yourself until they become habits in your own thinking.
- Money is attracted to decisiveness, action-taking and speed.
- I can learn whatever new skills I need to succeed and keep my business on the cutting edge.
- I can earn the respect and cooperation of anyone whose help I need.
Now, you might be wondering if I’m preaching some kind of woo-woo, “law of attraction” stuff here. I’m not. If you read those beliefs again carefully, you’ll see that they emphasize taking action. They emphasize going above and beyond what most people are willing to do.
The whole point of this is to prime yourself to want to take these actions even when they are uncomfortable. You will do this because you believe that the rewards will come. No, the rewards will not come immediately. Yes, the reality will be a long and difficult road.
Related: The Power of Dominant Thought
That’s precisely why you need deeply held, empowering beliefs to push you forward even when your plan falls apart. Focus on developing your core beliefs, and you will have the power to overcome any challenge on the path to empire.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
Top 9 Business Plan Resources
Want to write a business plan but don’t know where to start? Find the top 10 business plan resources here.
A business plan is essential at every stage of your business. By writing a business plan you are giving potential funders a reason to invest in you and you are giving yourself a reference throughout your business journey.
You should be referring to your business plan at regular intervals to make sure that you are still on the right track or to update it in order to grow your business.
Writing a business plan need not be confusing or difficult because of all the available resources on the web. Entrepreneur lists the top nine business plan resources below to help you get started.
Entrepreneur Magazine SA offers advice on every area of writing a business plan
Entrepreneur Magazine being the ultimate “how to” guide for starting and growing a business offers a helping hand to anyone looking to create a business plan.
This section goes into detail on the format to follow and also offers sample plans for you to use as a template. You can also read through articles offering expert advice and do’s and don’t of business plans.
A creative, visual map for success.
The Right Brain Business Plan offers readers a fun and accessible way to creating their business plan and reaching their financial goals.
This book is ideal for the creative entrepreneur, designer, wellness professional, writer or photographer.
With the use of worksheets and step by step instructions, you will find that the business plan process is easier than you thought.
A visual guide to writing a business plan.
Entrepreneur Magazine has an in-depth business plan template that you can easily download and use as a detailed guideline when writing your business plan.
You can download this template for free and start creating the various sections of your business plan so that in the end you have a detailed business concept that is attractive to potential investors.
Practical advice from business plan experts.
BPlans was founded by Tim Berry, a renowned business planning authority, and their website caters to entrepreneurs and business owners who need sample business plans as well as advice for writing a business plan when starting or growing their companies.
This website offers free as well as paid for services for you to choose from depending on your needs.
Complete guide to business plan contents.
There are 10 elements or sections that need to be included in a business plan and this article from Entrepreneur Magazine goes into detail on each.
Related: Free Sample Business Plans
Their format guide will ensure that your business plan covers everything that it needs to for your own use as well as to present to potential financiers.
A useful handbook for building the ideal business model.
Alexander Osterwalder’s has created a guide to building a detailed business model that any start-up will find useful.
You can purchase the full book if your decide that you would like further information on his process and thinking around business models.
Top advice from finance institutions and entrepreneurial experts.
Renowned experts such as Martin Feinstein of Enablis, Allon Raiz of Raizcorp, Keet van Zyl of HBD Venture Capital and Andre Deiderichs of Old Mutual all give their opinions and top tips for writing a business plan by taking into account the do’s and don’t s and what potential investors will be looking out for.
Related: Free Business Plan Template Download
If you are working on a marketing plan for your company, MPlans can assist.
Because writing a marketing plan is just as important as your business plan, it’s important to take the time to understand the various elements.
MPlans offers a range of free marketing plans that you can use as a template to create yours. They also have marketing software that you can purchase if you want to create a totally unique plan.
Tim Berry is the owner of Palo Alto Software, a co-founder of Borland International, and a well known expert in business planning.
Entrepreneur Magazine’s website gives you free access to his articles and advice so that you have all the knowledge you need when writing or modifying your business plan.
Related: 21 Free Sample Business Plans
Apps To Help You Write A Business Plan
A number of apps simplify the often tedious, complicated process of crafting a thorough bank- and investor-ready business plan.
If you have a killer idea for a start-up, but lack the time, resources and budget to develop a business plan, a business plan-generating app can help you get your plan on paper and, ideally, off the ground.
A number of apps simplify the often tedious, complicated process of crafting a thorough bank- and investor-ready business plan.
You provide the information, they organise it into a plan, and hopefully soon you’ll be in business.
Here’s a look at three apps that can help get your business plan rolling:
This is an all-in-one web app that walks users through every step of creating a traditional business plan.
Here’s how it works: Based on the data you enter into the app, Enloop automatically generates sales, profit and loss, cash flow and balance sheet projections for you, complete with explanatory graphs and other compelling visual elements.
Enloop also provides standard, yet customisable business plan text for each section of your plan, including portions focused on key company information and financial data.
Enloop’s Free & Easy option includes a single custom business plan packaged in a clean, professionally formatted PDF file that you can download, print and share.
More fully featured paid versions range from $9.95 a month to $39.95 a month and allow you to make multiple business plans. Enloop is only web-based and not yet available for mobile devices.
Alex Glassey, who designed this iPad-only app, describes it as “a strategic-planning app that helps entrepreneurs with the thinking and decision-making process.”
StratPad can be a smart choice for people who are writing their first-ever business plan. It is packed with several free how-to tools for beginners, including a 58-page business strategy tutorial, view-on-demand training videos, email-based customer service, and more.
A free basic StratPad edition is available for students. Paid, one-time fee plans range from $9.99 to $54.99. The more you pay, the more advanced business plan options you get.
The easy-to-use app guides users through a series of simple questions and prompts. Your answers are used to develop a summary business plan, complete with revenue projections and full-colour graphs and charts.
3. Business Plan Premier
This $7.99 iPad app does double-duty for users who are eager to have their business plan backed fast.
Not only does Business Plan Premier help you organise and write your business plan at an extremely detailed level, it also enables you to present your finished plan to more than 3 000 high net worth potential investors, who are also members of investment research firm Ben Stein & Accredited Members Inc.
Business Plan Premier leads you through writing your prospective company’s vision and mission statements, product descriptions and marketing plans.
You can also use it to complete competitive and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, outline your management scheme, identify your start-up expenses, define your target market and more depending on your needs.
Your completed business plan is exported as a Microsoft Word document that you can edit, print, email or upload to Dropbox. Business Plan Lite is the free (but much less functional) version of the app.
Sample Business Plans: Still stuck? Click here to view over 100 industry-specific, free sample business plans.
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