Whoever Said ‘Stick to the Plan’ Was Wrong
Making Plans and Sticking To Them — Or Not!
Come the start of the year, whether that's the traditional New Year's Day of January 1 or the anniversary of your business startup date, most of us want to make better plans — and stick to them. So what holds us back? Is it the plan itself? Do we lack the tools? Are we weak in discipline?
Or is NOT sticking to a plan, sometimes, the better answer?
Here's my take.
There is no value in sticking with a plan "just because."
There's great value in a careful business planning process that keeps your business alive, thriving, refreshing itself, and growing regularly. But not every plan meets those criteria. You can outgrow plans, whether they're for improving your life or enhancing your business.
If your plan doesn't take into account the volatile nature of the markets, finances, or other exterior factors, it may cause you to stagnate, or worse. You should be learning constantly; if you are, you'll be tweaking things constantly, too. Just remember a couple of keys to good planning as you go:
1. Good planning is measurable, concrete, and specific.
The old saying is, "The difference between a goal and a dream is a date." Specific, finite, measurable goals you can easily track make your progress easy to see, so don't hesitate to "drill down" when you need to. Big concepts are great, but they work better when they're reduced to solid numbers. You can't track a concept, but you CAN track pluses and minuses!
Make your plan big on trackable milestones: sales numbers, cash flow, appointments, prospects, products, patents … whatever you deal in, make sure you're dealing in reality.
And keep your plan lean. A lean business plan is just bullet points for strategy and tactics, plus concrete specific milestones and performance measurements, a list of assumptions, plus sales forecast, expense budget, and cash flow.
2. Good planning means frequent review and revise.
I worked for years with a plan-vs.-actual-reviews meeting on the third Thursday of every month, so we could close the books on the previous month. At every meeting, then, review your plan versus your actual results. Don't forget to challenge any assumptions that may be holding you back: when assumptions change, your plans need to change with them. If results are good, stay the course with minor tweaking. If results are bad, this is the time to analyze why and change your plan to correct problems.
3. What you do stick to is the planning process
Former president and military strategist Dwight Eisenhower had it right: “The plan is useless; but planning is essential.”
There's a difference between fluidity and a plan that seems to "slip through your fingers." Numbers, dates, deadlines, and real black-and-white data will help you avoid that slippage. Don’t stick to the plan, but do stick to a lean plan with regular review and revision as part of the process.
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4 Tips for Coming Up With New Product and Service Ideas
Innovation is what keeps our businesses refreshing and growing. By thinking up new products and/or services to offer, we can:
- Stay in step with evolving market demands and trends
- Keep pace with or get ahead of the competition
- Acquire new customers
- Sell more to existing customers by offering them new products they may need
Business ideas don’t necessarily just come to you like magic. However, there are things you can do to make the process more focused and deliberate.
On the other hand, if you are too rigid or too structured when it comes to developing new products, it may suppress your creative juices.
Instead, think of the process as “harnessing” your creativity.
Here are four tips for how to harness your creativity to come up with new products and services:
Apply The 15% Rule To An Old Idea
Some entrepreneurs feel that innovation means they must almost literally reinvent the wheel.
You don’t really need a completely new idea, though.
Instead, pick an existing idea and apply the 15% rule to it. The 15% rule simply means to set out to improve on something by 15%. Make an existing technology 15% smarter. Make your service 15% more customer friendly. Make a product 15% more efficient, or 15% less expensive with 15% more value. You get the idea.
And you don’t necessarily need to make it a thousand times better right out of the gate. Just strive to improve a modest amount on an existing idea, and then you can build on it over time. It just has to be different enough to seem like an improvement to buyers.
Amazon.com, for example, isn’t a grand idea; it’s an ecommerce store. However, the speed and efficiency with which it operates makes it a top retail outlet in the world. The breadth of selection and the intelligence that its technology brings to offering product selections are impressive. Amazon improved upon the retail model. It didn’t offer all of innovation in the beginning that it offers today -- it started out modestly. But it continued to improve over the course of years. Can you do the same?
Travel to Gain Ideas
Travel is one of the biggest self-teaching endeavors you can ever take. Leaving places you know well for completely different ones opens up your senses. It gets you paying attention to things around you. It makes you be more mindful because you are seeing, smelling, and hearing new things.
By experiencing new things and new places, you may come up with ideas you wouldn’t have thought of.
Now take those ideas and build on them. If you experience new foods and new tastes, does it give you ideas for new offerings in your restaurant or food business? If you see buildings of different styles or colors, could it trigger ideas for new clothing styles in your fashion or interior design business?
Whether you are a once-a-year tourist or a veteran traveler, chances are you’ll come back home with your head brimming with ideas.
Solve Your Own Needs
I can’t tell you how many entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed who said that they came up with the idea for their business because “we solved a need we had in our own business (or in my own life).”
As you go about your day, think about how to solve a nagging problem in your life or business. Then solve it.
That solution just might become your next product.
Use Group Brainstorming
Brainstorming is a technique whereby a group gets together and quickly comes up with many new ideas -- no matter how impractical or wacky they may seem. The goal is to encourage quantity -- not quality -- of ideas at first.
It’s important not to criticize an idea or point out all the flaws at first -- just get the ideas out there. The idea is to give free reign to your creativity for a period of time, long enough to develop a pool of ideas.
Then once you have some ideas on the table, you and your team can evaluate them and sort them out. The vast majority of ideas you come up with will be discarded. But you only need one for a successful new product.
Sometimes the mot amazing product breakthroughs come from the wackiest, most impractical ideas.
Of course, it takes more than ideas alone for a successful business or new product. But ideas are the starting point.
Ideas sometimes happen when you aren’t looking. Hopeful and ambitious entrepreneurs are always looking, though.
What new product or service idea will you think of now?
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Why You Should Hit The Pause Button Before You Buy That Franchise
If you’re seriously contemplating the purchase of a franchise, there may come a time in the process when you’ll need to consider stepping back for a bit.
I’ve found that sometimes (especially when making major life decisions) it’s wise to put things on pause.
That’s because you are too close to whatever it is you may be about to do. Being too close to a situation involving something big (like the purchase of a franchise business) may cause your decision-making skills to be affected in a negative way.
You are too close
Of course you’re “too close.” You’re probably so hyper focused on the franchise opportunity you’re investigating that you may be missing a few things that could be pretty obvious to an outsider, but not that obvious to you.
That’s why (at some point) it’s important to bounce your ideas off of people that you know and trust.
Tip: Don’t share your ideas – like on what franchise or franchises you’re looking at too early in the process because you don’t know enough about the franchises you’re interested in to ask for opinions or advice. It’s too easy to be deterred by wellmeaning friends, family members and “advisors” to begin with. Wait for the right time, like when you have a lot of facts and figures in front of you.
One more thing: Don’t ask for opinions and/or advice too late in the process. Because, if you’re at the point of no return-which is when you’ve convinced yourself without the shadow of a doubt that whatever opportunity you’re looking at is perfect for you, no one will be able to convince you otherwise.
Hitting the pause button
It’s when you hit the pause button…when you step back and take a little breather, that good things can happen. Things like possibly getting a better perspective about what you may be about to do from people who will give you honest feedback.
Now, you don’t have to try to find people that will shoot your ideas down. That’s not what I mean by finding people who will give you honest feedback. Feedback doesn’t automatically have to be negative. But, you do need to find people who may not tell you what you want to hear. It’s honest feedback you want.
Besides talking with friends and family members about your idea, I encourage you to find others, like people in the small business community who can give you valuable feedback. There may even be a few in your backyard.
Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) have business counselors on staff who assist would-be small business owners with things like business planning, financial packaging and lending assistance. These centers are funded in part by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Go here to see the list of SBDC’s and contact one today. Their services are free.
Do you know any small business owners? If so, ask a couple of them to look at your idea.
Do you have any old college friends that are in financial services or the legal profession? They could end up becoming great resources for you to share your plans with.
Taking a step back – hitting the pause button before you buy that franchise you’ve been investigating could turn out to be one of the wisest business decisions you ever make.
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Small Business Development Centers – Get Help Starting and Growing Your Business from Your Local SBDC
Need help getting your business off the ground? Baffled by the steps involved? Looking to break into new markets or take advantage of the latest in social, web and mobile marketing? Look no further than your local Small Business Development Center.
Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) have been around for 35 years. With nearly 1,000 locations across the country, each provides small businesses and entrepreneurs with access to the essential resources to start and grow. From in-person consulting and training to a mobile app webinar series that can help budding entrepreneurs plan their escape from the nine to five – during their commute!
For small businesses that seek out the services of their local SBDC, the payoff is significant:
- SBDC clients generate $100,000 in sales every four minutes and create a new job every 7 minutes!
- Over 58 percent of pre-venture SBDC clients start new businesses (that’s a new business every 33 minutes)!
So if you thought you knew everything about what your local SBDC has to offer, think again! Here’s a glimpse of the valuable services they provide:
FREE face-to-face business consulting
Small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs can go to their local SBDCs for FREE face-to-face business consulting and at-cost training on topics including:
- Writing business plans
- Accessing capital
- Managing your taxes
- Regulatory compliance
- Federal contracting
- Technology development
- International trade
Start your dream business – mobile apps make learning a breeze
If you’re looking to start your own business but are tied down by your current job, SBDCs are making it easier to make the transition to entrepreneurship with a business-on-demand mobile app webinar series! Developed by Pennsylvania SBDC, but available to anyone, the First Step: Starting a Business webinar series walks aspiring entrepreneurs through the process of starting a new business venture and can be viewed on all mobile devices. Each webinar lasts about 15 minutes and covers topics such as how to legally structure your business, writing a business plan, funding options, and selling advice. Other SBDCs around the country are also offering similar type mobile-app-ready entrepreneur training.
Just imagine, one day you could literally go into work and tell your boss you quit, because you’ve got your business started while you’ve been commuting back and forth!
Get help with your next web or IT project
Starting any new IT or web project is a costly and complex endeavor. To help small businesses get the best return on their investment, Delaware SBDC has established Web-IT-Match-Coach program called Digital Compass. The program provides comprehensive guidance to small business clients on their next web or IT project. Advisors work with the business to identify and diagnose the business problems, and then help identify and interview solution providers to get the best match. They also coach both the business and the Web/IT provider during the course of the project to achieve the best solution to grow the business.
Optimize your web marketing
In addition to one-off training sessions, some SBDCs are recognizing the need for more in-depth programs that help small businesses harness the potential of technology to boost sales.
The Georgia SBDC, for example, runs a Digital Marketing Boot Camp designed for small business owners who want to learn how to integrate technology and marketing with tactics like search engine optimization, social media, mobile marketing, paid online advertising and content marketing.
Access PCs, software and more
Some SBDCs also provide access to business software and other resources. Loudoun SBDC in Virginia, for example, features an Entrepreneurial Resource Center featuring computer and printer access so that clients can conduct market research, create business plans, manage their finances and more. Business guides, videos, books and publications are also freely available and counselors are available to assist.
Find your local SBDC
Want to know more? Find out what your local Small Business Development Center can do for you. Here’s a complete list of SBDCs by state.
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Swimming in Shark-Infested Waters: Avoiding Entrepreneurial Scams
Are you an entrepreneur looking to get your startup funded? Be careful.
I suppose it’s no surprise that hopeful entrepreneurs are good targets. Too often we’re led to believe that getting investment money is the ultimate victory. Supposedly we’re all going to be successful as soon as some investor says “yes” and we get a big check. And that eagerness to get the money makes us vulnerable to sharks.
While you’re probably as alert as anybody to scams involving fake Nigerian royalty, or free weekends in resorts, your normal anti-scam radar can malfunction when you’re in startup mode looking to get financed. Keep your eyes open and stay safe.
Write a business plan. Don’t buy one.
Take, for example, the business plan writers who sell their services using the claim that the look and feel of a written plan will get you investment. That’s just not the case. Investors invest in the people, the business and future potential growth. But overpromising on results isn’t necessarily a scam if the business plan writers actually deliver a written plan.
On the other hand, people selling pre-written business plans with claims like “investor-ready business plans” for sale and “just fill in the blanks” know they are lying.
A lot of general and obvious rules apply. Deals that seem too good to be true are almost always just that – not true.
Real investors write checks – not invoices
Yes, it takes money to make money. But that’s about ideas, execution and working capital – not sharks. Beware of consultants, brokers, loans and offshore deals that collect your money as a step towards getting investment. For more detail and a good list, check out Martin Zwilling’s "Shortcuts to Entrepreneur Funding are Usually Scams" on Forbes.com. And Adam Roy of Gaebler Ventures has good related advice in a post called "Recognizing and Avoiding Business Scams." Here are some specifics:
- Fake investment brokers who contact you saying they represent investors, but require a retainer up front. You pay the money, and whoops, sorry, the investors disappear.
- Fake investors, often from overseas, interested in investing but only after you pay some fees to cover costs including due diligence.
- Offers of commercial loans, promising quick approval, but requiring stiff fees for fast processing. Then the lender vanishes.
- And of course you don’t fall for pyramid schemes, chain letter and other classic get-rich-quick schemes.
- Beware of businesses that don’t like written contracts and documents.
- Always check references and don’t settle for references they give you; do a web search and find your own.
Magic formulas, magic information
Be very careful with people selling names and lists for fat fees. For example, lists of commercial lenders, angel investors or venture capital firms are available free for anybody who can do a competent web search. But they are also sold as scams for hundreds of dollars, packaged as if they were magic formulas for easy money.
Turnkey start-your-own-business packages, often bundles of software and information you can use to set yourself up in your own business, are usually too good to be true. For example, you make money from home processing bad debts or insurance claims. But think this through: How many businesses are there that will actually work with software and a how-to binder? Don’t you have to know the business, and have the selling and administrative skills, before that would work?
It’s true that legitimate network marketing companies sometimes require a certain up-front investment for products, kits or educational materials. But the good ones provide money-back guarantees on several levels, and the best ones never promise any get-rich-quick results or disguise the reality of the hard work involved to make it to the top with their companies.
Angel investment pay-to-play
Many legitimate angel investment groups charge a fee for processing and submission to a screening process. For example, the group I’m a member of, Willamette Angels, is right now taking submissions for a May investment of six figures in local startup. We charge $125 to the startups that enter (if you’re a startup in Oregon and interested, here’s a link: Willamette Angel Conference). The fee goes not to us, the angel investors, but to the local chamber of commerce that organizes the event. And startups that submit get at the very least a real review and great feedback from real angel investors, worth a lot more than the submission fee.
On the other hand, you can find startup events that charge thousands of dollars to startups for a chance to pitch to a group of angel investors. And you can find some very vocal critics of these events, who call them a scam. How much is okay to pay? I think paying a hundred dollars or so to a local chamber of commerce is fair, and paying thousands to pitch is probably a bad deal.
Red flags to watch for
Think it through. Of course you should beware of any business that has only an online presence, with no physical address; or any scheme that has you sending money to a list of names; and a work-at-home business that requires upfront investment; or a company with no contact information beyond an email address or telephone number.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Yes, you have to “spend money to make money”—but no legitimate venture capitalist invests in new businesses through oddball approaches such as phantom funding, “qualifying” you with cash or inviting you to join a long chain letter. What your gut tells you is still valid: even in the exhilarating world of entrepreneurship, if something sounds too good to be true…it probably is.
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