I don’t have numbers in front of me, but I’m guessing that most freelancers, entrepreneurs and small business owners don’t write a business plan before getting started. I certainly didn’t have a plan when I started freelancing. I didn’t write a proper business plan until I took my freelance design business from on-the-side to full-time.
For help writing my original business plan, I read a book called “Start at the End” by Dave Lavinsky. I suppose it was OK. It’s one of those “action oriented” books that includes worksheets and exercises as you go. It technically worked. I read the book, used the material and completed a business plan over the span of a week or so. Enthusiasm was definitely required.
I haven’t referenced my business plan since its creation. It was a feel-good exercise at the time, but it hasn’t had much practical impact. Recently I read a Harvard Business Review article that summarizes it perfectly: my business plan was “precisely incorrect rather than approximately correct.” I’d rather have something simple and approximately correct than sophisticated and off target.
When it comes to business plans, there’s stuff you know and everything else that requires guesswork and a lot of research. Let’s ignore the guesses for awhile and focus on the practical benefits of crafting a business plan: strategy, clarity, prioritization, focus, etc. I’m intentionally ignoring the prognostication that accompanies the standardized, formal business plan. Financial projections and potential market share? Not right now. Forecasting has its place but it comes after the internal meat-n-potatoes are sussed out.
For this short exercise, I’m thinking in terms of tools. If I’m using a tool to get something done, then it’s important and says something real. Looking back at the software I’ve used over the past month tells me more than my original business plan guesswork. When I condense my operations down to nothing but a set of tools, I’m left with a useful outline. From there, it’s easy to craft a concise business plan (if that’s still what you want to call it).
For the most part, I’m a designer. The single most valuable tool I use is Adobe Photoshop. But why? I use other design and development software, not just Photoshop. The answer is complex and it’s the complexity that illustrates real-world value (pertaining to my business plan). In short, I’m most efficient in Photoshop as a visual designer. My business works best when I’m designing more and delegating most of the development work.
Any creative professional can use a premium WordPress theme to launch an attractive website. That’s part of the current market problem: cookie-cutter websites and “me too” design solutions. Photoshop gives me a competitive advantage with original design (prior to WordPress implementation). I also communicate and collaborate with clients using mock-ups and visual proofs generated in Photoshop.
My core tool is directly related to a market problem, the solution I offer, a competitive advantage, client relations, team responsibilities and more (all good stuff for a business plan).
How do I organize my everyday operations? That’s easy, I use to-do lists. Asana is my project management tool of choice. And it’s much more than a to-do list.
Asana allows me to manage myself and my virtual team. I can assign tasks, create deadlines, juggle multiple projects and reduce email. It’s a scalable project management solution. Asana enables me to work with any number of freelancers and projects from a single dashboard.
Working with remote talent keeps costs down. Project management, flexibility and efficiency are all competitive advantages. Scalability is a huge part of business growth. All of this is directly related to my tool selection and welcome in any business plan.
I’m behind the times when it comes to sales tools. I currently don’t use a CRM (I’ve got my eyes on Infusionsoft and Hubspot). For now I still use old fashion technology like the phone, personal email and short meetings. A personal touch is part of the microbusiness appeal. So I take time upfront to get to know potential clients and help educate them on how to improve their websites. It’s a balancing act between “free consultation” and value-added service.
This is where a unique value proposition (UVP) comes into play. A few years ago, I attended a sales convention and sat in on some talks. One of the speakers had a fun idea called a POOBA (promise of overt benefits always). The idea is that you should be able to communicate and fulfill a promise to your clients. The POOBA ideally lines up with your UVP (holy jargon, Batman).
How about a promise as a sales tool? Why not. Here’s my promise when working with website redesign clients (all good material for a business plan or the back of a business card):
- Aesthetics: Great 1st Impression
- Strategy: Brand and Audience Alignment
- Content: Optimized for People and Search Engines
- Functionality: Works on Mobile Devices
- Performance: Fast Page Speeds
Recently my WordPress blog has become my marketing tool of choice. I have a fairly simple content marketing strategy using social media and an email list managed with Constant Contact. After I publish an article to the blog I share it on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn and occasionally Tumblr. After I’ve written four or five articles, I share them via email. Mapping out how my marketing tools are related tells me a lot about my marketing strategy (a key part of any business plan).
Looking at the tools and platforms helps me define my customers and target market. Writing a blog requires a lot of reading and exposure to the competition. It helps me see how I’m different from the rest of the pack and identifies my competitive edge. Once again, all good stuff for a business plan.
I keep track of my web traffic with Google Analytics. Analytics shows me stats on how I’m acquiring site traffic, what visitors are doing and whether or not they’re converting into potential leads. This tool is extremely useful for feedback regarding what marketing efforts are working and what’s a waste of time.
Google Analytics ties directly into my marketing strategy. It gives me up-to-the-minute feedback on what’s working. It’s this kind of real information that sits nicely in a business plan (rather than the widely inaccurate guesses I’d be making without data).
COSMA (Core, Operations, Sales, Marketing, Analytics)
My simple alternative to a business plan is a COSMA outine. It includes short descriptions of your core business, operations, sales practices, marketing strategy and analytics. Thinking about the tools you use can simplify the process of writing your descriptions. Here are a few things to consider including in your business plan alternative (enjoy):
- Software and tools
- Current and future market problems
- The solution you offer
- Your competitive advantage
- Managing client relations
- Team responsibilities
- Cost controls
- Project management
- Unique value proposition
- Promise of benefits
- Marketing strategy
- Ideal customer description
- Target market
- Competitive landscape
- Web presence and online strategy