How to plan a business (without a business plan)

One of the first things you should do when you start a business is to work on a business plan. Or is it? What if a business plan just doesn’t suit the way you think? Surely there must be a better alternative?

It seems there is. For years we’ve been told that writing a business plan is a vital first step towards any kind of success – and been recommended to search for an online template to follow. But Lucy Barkas argues that traditional business plans don’t work for everyone, and has come up with her own solution.

Why I hate business plans

I remember when I first announced that I was going to set up my own business. So many people asked if I’d written a business plan, I almost wanted to scream. You see, a traditional business plan is a complex document full of facts, figures and forecasts which demonstrate how much money you’ll make (or lose) in your first few years.

But to me, it’s nothing more than a dull, bland document with no heart, soul or creativity. The other reason I almost screamed was because I personally think it’s all make-believe – just a best guess, and a risk-based forecast of your future.

I also knew, thanks to the countless business books and episodes of Dragons Den I’ve consumed over the years, that I also needed a  marketing strategy to accompany my business plan, plus a set of smart objectives.

I did give business plans a go, but my initial excitement in bringing my business idea to life was slowly replaced by a creeping nightmare of spreadsheets, KPI’s, matrix and data – not to mention analysis, plans, formulas and risk assessments. And any drive and enthusiasm was gradually waning. I realised that there had to be a different way for people like me. An anti-business plan business plan, if you will.

Why one size does not fit all

The problem with traditional business planning is that one size doesn’t fit all. While some people are natural analysers and planners, others are more comfortable with doing. We’re naturally more spontaneous and need to learn how to plan in a way that works for us (and doesn’t involve a paralysing number of spreadsheets and formulas).

For those of us who are filled with terror at the thought of financial predictions, we can instead use a more simple planning system – as basic even as just:

Business costs + income required to keep a roof over your head = revenue required.

As long as you have a system in place to track your incomings and outgoings, and what the balance is, you can then focus your time on the important stuff.

Five steps to creating a ‘business plan’ that works for you

So if traditional business plan templates strike fear into your heart, and make you want to run straight back to paid employment, don’t worry. I’ve put together five steps for building your own alternative ‘business plan’, and setting goals and tasks which reflect your aims.

1) Start defining your goals

What do you really want to achieve this month, year or decade? Stop playing small and have some fun brainstorming your vision for your business. What would you love to do? What would you love to drop? What part of your business or life would you like to develop further? Or is there an idea you are too scared to make real?

Write all of these thoughts down, draw them, mind map them or mood board them. Just get your vision or wish list out of your head and make it physical.

2) Reflect on your thoughts

Take a look at your thoughts and think about which ones are easy, which ones are tough, expensive or hard work, which ones will make you happy, which ones are slow burners. The easy, no-brainers can be prioritised as quick wins. So schedule them and get them done.

Then look at the tough ones and ask yourself do you need to do to achieve them. Are they tough because they are a challenge and you will feel fulfilled and accomplished once you’ve done them? If yes, then great. If not, then what are you doing them for? Are they really necessary or can you outsource them?

Ask yourself whether your tough goals really are a priority or not, and whether you want to achieve them for you, or for some other reason. Will they make you happy or move you closer to creating the life you want? If the answer is no, maybe it’s time to let go of them.

And finally the slow burners – can they be sped up? What needs to happen to light the embers?  How can you keep them burning while the other priorities are calling? If these goals really are important to you, what ways can you find to accelerate them?

3) Prioritise your actions

Once you’ve identified what’s really important to you, and what your priorities are, you can put them in order – something that is often easier said than done! They key though (as always) is to listen to your gut instincts.

Start working out what order your goals need to be tackled in order to achieve them. Which naturally work together on a timescale? And which goals depend on the completion of others to begin? Which will take a long time, and which small wins can you squeeze in?

Once you’ve created the first draft, take another look. Does it feel right? Is one of your wishes suddenly more important than the others? Take the time to move them around until you have a logical timeframe to work towards.

4) Plan your tasks

Take each goal individually and break it down into separate tasks that all need to be completed to achieve it. If you’re a fine detail person, go ahead and get your project planner out. If you’re not, just mind map or jot down some key words.

For example, your goal may be to set up a homemade food business. But before you can deliver your first order to a happy customer you’ll need to define your products, get a food hygiene certificate, order packaging and ingredients, create a brand, etc. By breaking each goal down into simple tasks you can make an easy-to-follow plan of action.

Often at this stage you’ll realise that you’ll need help with some elements of your goal – for example a designer to create a logo, a great supplier to source your produce etc. So start figuring out who you need to achieve each of your tasks, where you might find them, how long might you need them for, and how much they’ll cost. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it – we all love to help out where we can.

5) Commit and do

Ok, technically that’s 5 and 6, but I’m not a detail person!

To commit you need to understand what drives you, and lock into it. Publish your intent on a social media site, tell your friends, family, boss, mentor, coach or bank manager. Or make a poster and hang it on your fridge. Whatever method works for you, do it. You can be as creative, planned, spontaneous, serious, childlike as you like. Then just do it!

The anti-business plan business plan

And that’s it! My anti-business plan business plan. Five simple(ish) steps to planning a business without wrapping your head around a confusing business plan template, trying to work out your projected turnover, or plotting your growth on a spreadsheet.

Get help writing your business plan

Do you struggle to organise your thoughts into a business plan? Our Business Plan Masterclass makes it much more easy for you.

This class guides you through each section of your plan and includes a Word copy of our own business plan template. During the class we’ll explain why each section is important and what to write, and give you finished examples to guide you. You also get a copy of our class slides, so you can read through the examples we share in more detail as you complete your own business plan.

So, after watching this class you’ll be able to confidently complete a business plan for your own business – whether you choose to use our template or another.  

Photo by karima williams