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Listen in! Pick up some expert advice to a reader's question that we selected from CyberSchmooz. For more biz answers go to Coffee Talk Answers.

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Featured Biz Question

Hello!!!
I'm really needing some help!!! Okay, I've started this damn business plan 3 times!!! I have a useless computer program & a pretty good book, but I'm getting stumped when it comes to researching...well, everything!! I'm not sure about going about researching the competition part, as well as the market. I have the biggest headache!!! I've always been great at creative writing, but when it comes to technical writing...well...I hate it!! Plus, I feel pressured to get this done ASAP cuz I want to quit my present job & open my own portrait studio biz...ASAP!!

I'm tired of working for someone else & didn't think this process would be as tough as it is...AGGGGGHHHH!!!!
So, I hear there are such as thing as programs that ask you questions, then when you're done, you hit Print & it all falls into place...anyone know about this biz plan program(s)?? Next to paying someone to do it for me.. LOL I'm not looking for getting out of actually doing it, cuz I know that besides the plan getting you $$, it give you a map to your goals.. BUT it is tempting..

PLEASE help me b4 I find myself rocking in a corner somewhere...THANKS!!
Dawn

Answer from our Guest Expert Kent Capener of Capener Consulting

Dear Dawn,

Don't despair! Business plans can be daunting, frustrating, difficult, quantifying, and a mystery. Good plans also produce results; validate your business model (or not!); gain access to funding either debt or equity; and compels its writers to dot the i's and cross the t's - that is, after they discover what the i's and t's are!

Operations plans, while a viable business tool, are not the same animal as a plan for funding. Start-up funding plans are also unique unto themselves when they're done properly. Now let's start to help you dig into this large repast.

First, you already have two key ingredients, a computer program and a book. The others are getting the right direction and doing it yourself and hiring a professional to write it for you. Please note that a biz plan software program that requires you to fill in the blanks, where it "falls into place", is the worst choice and guaranteed to give you food poisoning, aka, no money! [In the interest of full disclosure, I write business plans as part of my consulting business and specialize in start-ups.]

By the way, the very best book I have seen in thirty years of writing plan is the Business Plan Guide, which can be found at your local Small Business Development Center. It provides samples, but more importantly, it provides a very long list of pertinent questions to help you know what information needs to be in your plan. Some of the questions you'd ignore simply because of your business type, but most will apply to you.

About your technical writing and creative writing dilemma - let me just say that you aren't writing fiction, you're writing non-fiction and put those talents to work to avoid passive voice altogether if you can. Be direct and use action words. You're really telling a story that becomes complete when the reader finishes the plan.

Before I tell you more, let me address your specific research dilemmas.

The Wonderful Word of SIC

Since you indicate you want to do a portrait studio, you're in luck because it's easy to find out the market and competition information. Yes! Easy because you can use Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes, which are at federal OSHA's website. Your portrait studio SIC is 7221. Then go to zapdata.com and find the Industry Reports button and click it. Register. It's free. Then, find your SIC and follow the links to research paradise - kind of like being turned loose at the dessert bar at a fancy buffet. You can get market size; market analysis by company size; market analysis by state; and metro area and specialties. In your specialty, there are 19,352 portrait studios in the United States with an average of 3 employees each and averaging $100,000 in annual sales.

Get Into the Right Mind Set

The most important thing to understand about your business is that it's you, and as such, you're the most important part of the business plan. In your situation, and I'm presuming that you want to do your "escape" plan so it will validate your desire to join us in the entrepreneurial world, and facilitate obtaining some capital.

Get into the right "mind set" for writing your biz plan. Put yourself in the reader's shoes. It's too easy to get lost in the forest and run smack into a tree. If part of your consideration is a bank loan - then think justifying your ability to make loan payments in the long term. If part of your consideration is equity funding - then think justifying the profit opportunity your business model presents along with a good return on investment.

Next, know what the most important sections are of your biz plan and what they each need to say to and show the readers.

To key off an old Burger King slogan, "Do it the way they like it!" But how do they like it, you as?. Well, I've listed below a bare bones typical table of contents that works for both loans and equity.

Business Plan Table of Contents

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Introduction
  3. Key Considerations
  4. Marketing
  5. Management & Operations
  6. Proposed Transaction
  7. Summary Financials
  8. The Market
  9. The Company
  10. Risks

Projections

  • Income Statement
  • Income Statement Analysis
  • Balance Sheet
  • Cash Flow
  • Summary Financials
  • Working Capital
  • Revenue
  • Cost of Sales
  • Volume Salaries
  • Marketing Advertising

This table of contents probably looks like most you've seen with some exceptions. Let's concentrate on the exceptions and how they apply.

Key Considerations

The first and most important is Key Considerations. In this section, you take all the validation, justification, reasons, and assumptions that make your business model workable and cull them down to specific and succinct advantages. Include all the positives, in other words.

Risks

The second and almost as important is Risks. Some think that to put in the negatives is counterproductive. My experiences, however, show it's an absolute requirement. Why? Again, go back to the reader's perspective. Don't assume the reader is dumb. In fact, assume the opposite. If you perceive negatives, they surely will. If you don't address them, or in other words, cite them and provide what you will do to overcome them, then you won't have a complete plan. Furthermore, when you present it to someone, the first round of questions will likely focus on the negatives.

One common risk that people avoid is that of competition. Let's say that you're located in an area with a population of 500,000 and there are already 200 portrait studios in operation, versus the same population of 500,000 with no portrait studios. Wouldn't you perceive a higher risk in the first scenario? Of course, you would.

The reason the Risk section is last is because through the construction of your business model presented previously, you should've provided the answer, the amelioration, or the exclusion of an identified risk. In this section, you refer to those and the salient points that affect the risk.

Another important part of the perspective you write from is to answer obvious questions and not to generate questions that will result in a negative that you can't turn to a positive.

Summary Financials

The third most important section is the Summary Financials. This should be a one-page compilation of the income statement. It must be five years at a glance. Five years! Yes! The projections, in my humble opinion, must conform to GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) and that means they need to be done monthly in years one and two, quarterly in year three, and annually in years four and five. In this area, this is sort of like the Health Department relationship with a restaurant - if you don't pass, you don't do business.

The very best program to do projections in my opinion is Microsoft Excel. You'll find templates for business plans in the software that can help you with the format. I'd also recommend that you look at the many samples and examples that you can find on the Internet.

Proposed Transaction

The fourth is Proposed Transaction. This is the meat and potatoes if you're seeking a loan or equity funding. Here, you detail exactly what you seek, what the use of the proceeds will be, and what the return will be. For most novices, the part of writing a plan that will put them into a rocking chair is projecting. You must make projections in your plan.

My strong preference with each and every business plan I write is to start with the projections. It's the appropriate and mannerly way to tackle this bear. If you write the verbiage first, then its tempting to do the projections to justify the words. And you'll be forced to put blanks, like this ________ amongst your words because you won't know what goes there. When you start with the projections, you're forced to really think and consider everything about your business. Then the normal human temptation is to justify the numbers with the words. One works; the other doesn't.

Project sales and methods and costs for marketing, advertising, public relations, salaries and those things that are related. For example, salaries means projecting costs of salaries like what it costs the company to have an employee. Advertising, for example, may mean media advertising - and get specific in your numbers and your statements. Say things like, "We will advertise in the daily newspaper once per week with a 16 column inch ad which costs $550 per insertion; and, we will reach 100,000 readers each week."

You may have heard the terms wild @$$@& guess, or projections are never accurate, etc. Well, they aren't and they can never be. The goal is getting close and being able to justify the most important assumption you will make in your plan and that's that the totality of what you're doing will result in X number of people spending X number of dollars over X period of time and that your margins of X, will result in a bottom line of X. You could pay me twenty-five billion dollars to write a plan for you and I would tell you the same thing.

Final Thoughts On Biz Plan Writing

One last philosophical point regarding perspective and that is to think of your business as a stool. If you have three legs, i.e. management, financing, and product/service marketing which are strong, then you have a good chance of success. If you have two legs, you can still sit on the stool, but not without support and your plan should provide the third leg. In most cases, the missing leg is the financial one. If you have one leg, you can still sit on the stool, but not without support and your plan should provide the other two legs. In most cases, the missing legs are money and management.

Lastly Dawn, the analogy I use often for business plans is this. Think of the reader sitting in a beach chair in the shade with a Pina` Colada on the table. They open the plan and start reading and when they are done they know everything that you know about your business. If you can accomplish that, then you'll have a winner.

Hope this helps.

Kent Capener of Capener Consulting

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About the Expert

Kent Capener
Owner of Capener Consulting

Kent Capener

Kent is an expert on marketing; advertising; print, radio, and TV production; biz plan writing; trade show services; and direct response television. He relishes helping start-ups grow. more