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10 Questions Your Business Plan Should Answer

One reason people are sometimes intimidated by the prospect of writing a business plan is simple: They don't have a clue what a plan should contain. The good news is that there are no hard and fast rules. In fact, no two plans look exactly alike. For a sole proprietor, a business plan may run a couple of pages. A business plan for a large company plotting a turnaround can take up a hundred or more pages, with plenty of appendices. But to be useful and effective, all business plans should provide answers to these ten questions.

What business are you in?

The question sounds easy enough. But for some businesses, the answer isn't as straightforward as you may think. The best way to zero in on exactly what business you're in is by taking time to craft a mission and vision statement.

Consider Amazon. It began as an online bookstore. Then it morphed into a vast online discount retailer, selling everything from food to clothing. A few years ago Amazon turned into a publisher. Now, with the advent of cloud storage, it also provides a place for people to store their books and music.

Even small companies often have to give some thought to defining what their business is. Take the example of a garden maintenance company that found itself gaining a reputation for turning bland yards into showpieces. More and more people began to turn to the company not just to maintain their gardens but also to design them. The company began to realize that it could be much more successful — and charge a whole lot more — if it marketed itself as a garden design company.

How will the business make money?

You may think this would be the most elementary of all questions. But in reality, many start-up enterprises fail to formulate a business model — a fancy term that means how they'll make money. There was even a time, in the early days of the online world, when people dismissed the very notion of a business model as something from the old economy. If you build a website that's cool enough, the thinking went, success will follow. Well, it didn't always. A lot of clever websites found themselves scrambling for a way to pay the bills.

Even many conventional businesses need to think about their business model to ensure success. A hair salon may make some of its money from cutting, shampooing, and styling hair, for example, but it may also find that it can substantially boost the bottom line by selling hair care products. Thinking through all the different ways that your business can make money is crucial to success.

What does your business need to get off the ground?

Start-ups require a lot of enthusiasm and hard work, and often plenty of cold cash. One of the biggest blunders new companies make is not thinking ahead about how much money they'll need to get up and running. When the money runs out before the doors open, the best business idea in the world isn't going to spell success.

A good business plan must take into account everything that is required to start — and how much it's likely to cost. Building a little cushion into those estimates is always wise.

What is the operating budget?

The financial section of your business plan also must address how much it will cost you to run your business, month by month, and how much you need to earn to meet your expenses and make a profit. Chances are you'll need to make a bunch of decision up-front before you come up with a reliable number — decisions about where you'll do business, what kinds of equipment and staff you'll need, a marketing budget, and so on.

You'll then need to think about how much you'll charge for your product and service and how much you can expect to take in month by month. Needless to say, the more carefully you think through all these questions in advance, the better prepared you'll be.

Who are your customers?

Build a better mousetrap, the saying goes, and the world will beat a path to your door. Maybe. But to build a better mousetrap, you need to know what customers want and how much they're willing to spend.

The more you know about your prospective customers, the more successful you're likely to be. Take the time to look at what your customers like and don't like. The Internet has made it easier to understand customers. All you have to do is read through reviews on Amazon or Yelp to know what people are raving about and what they're dissing, covering a wide range of products and services. But old-fashioned tools are also effective, including customer surveys, focus groups, and simply observing customer behavior.

How will you reach your customers?

You can reach your customers these days in more ways than ever before, ranging from billboards, shop signs, newspaper ads, websites, e-newsletters, tweets, mass mailings, Facebook posts, and more. Your business plan should spell out how you intend to reach your customers and maintain an ongoing relationship with them.

Social media has created brand new ways to engage in two-way exchanges with your customers. Digital communications have greatly improved customer service for many businesses. But be advised that the Internet has also raised expectations about what great service should be. Customers are savvier than ever, and more demanding.

What sets you apart from the competition?

If you've invented something unlike anything the world has ever seen before, congratulations. You're in rare company. If you're like most businesses, you compete in a marketplace with other players. To succeed, you have to give customers good reasons to choose you over your competitors. An effective business plan should spell out those reasons and develop strategies to make the most of them.

To get started, find out all you can about your competitors and their strengths and weaknesses. Then consider how the business you're planning stacks up. Typically, businesses compete on the basis of price, quality, service, and features. But a company's image can also be part of its competitive advantage. For example, people buy Newman's Own foods not only because the quality is good and the price is right but also because of the company's image of doing good by donating a chunk of its profits to good causes. In a similar way, other companies attract customers by promoting their products or services on the basis of environmental protection.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

This question may well be the most important one you ponder as you develop your business plan. Most people have a vague sense of what they do well and what they could do better. If you're part of an organization, you can recognize some of its strengths and weaknesses. But there's a lot that people don't face up to. The process of writing a business plan gives you an opportunity to be far more honest and thorough in your assessment. A formal SWOT analysis grid can allow you to measure your strengths and weaknesses against the opportunities and threats in your business environment.

This question is so important because business success really depends on leveraging your strengths and addressing your weaknesses. For instance, when an orthopedic institute in southern California noticed that its patient satisfaction scores were slipping, the doctors were puzzled. The institute's complication rates were very low. The length of time patients spent in the hospital was below the national average. The medical staff, it seemed, were doing a great job. But in surveys, many patients complained that the care felt impersonal and rushed. To remedy the situation, the institute hired social workers who met with patients when they were admitted and again before discharge to talk over their concerns. The institute also scheduled a follow-up call between surgeon and patient a month after discharge. A year later, patient satisfaction scores were back on top.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Every business faces challenges, especially in competitive markets or with technological change. Your business plan should describe in detail the particular challenges you face and how you plan to overcome them. The challenges can be part of the business environment you compete in — a crowded field of competitors or regulatory uncertainties, for example. But some of the challenges you face are also likely to be related specifically to your company, such as hiring and holding on to skilled employees, for instance, or responding quickly to changes in the marketplace.

How will you measure success?

The simple answer to this question is money. Make enough money, and any business is a success. But in fact, for most enterprises, the answer is more complex. The most obvious example is a not-for-profit company. Consider a nonprofit community orchestra. Its success is measured in terms of filling seats for its concerts and providing local musicians a chance to play. Or consider a food bank. It spells success in terms of reaching as many people in need and giving them nutritious food as possible.

Your business plan should acknowledge all the ways you plan to measure your success. Your financial section will look at dollars and cents. Your goals and objectives will mark off specific mileposts that will help you chart your progress. Your mission and value statements will serve as a guide to the less tangible items that spell success for you.

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