You Can’t Handle A Business Plan!

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

-Dwight D. Eisenhower (Thirty-fourth President of the USA)

 

Eisenhower was a military leader of renown prior to becoming president.  His comment on the value of planning illustrates a key point that many who disdain planning would do well to heed: a plan is not the goal, but rather the exercise of thinking strategically through one’s options given a defined situation and set of resources at one’s disposal.

Serving entrepreneurs and existing business owners, I have seen the outcome of both lack of planning and belief that planning unto itself is a cure-all for potential challenges that may come the way of the enterprise. Tim Berry, author of Three Weeks to Startup, writes that, “If you’re serious about starting your business — even if you don’t have anything down in writing — you’ve already started to plan.” Yet, starting to plan is not the same as writing a business plan.

There are several planning steps that I would recommend prior to writing a business plan:

  1. Refine your idea. Think through how your business model would affect potential customers. Have a preliminary strategy in mind for each segment of your target audience.
  2. Conceptualize a winning strategy. Think through what is already available in terms of direct and indirect competition. Adjust your approach to the market based on what can win consistently.
  3. Create value before your first sale. Test your hypothetical product features and benefits, along with pricing model and go-to-market system. Secure feedback and revise your offering accordingly.

Once you have thought through these three main ideas, you are then ready to evaluate how best to launch a business. Evaluation is the point at which your first business plan should be written. Berry recommends “Your plan is for you first. Don’t make it for anybody else. Do it because it helps you divide and manage big goals into practical steps. Instead of looking at it as a document, think of your business plan as a place on your computer where you collect ideas, useful stories, lists and numbers. It’s a place where you keep track of the market, your milestones, goals and projections.”

Business planI could not agree more wholeheartedly! A plan is not a monument; it is a living, flexible document that needs to be modified on a recurring basis as long as you are in business. Early on, Berry recommends the following key components of planning:

  • Milestones: What’s supposed to happen, when, and who’s responsible.
  • Basic numbers: Simple spreadsheet projections for sales, costs and expenses.
  • Strategy: Strategy is about deciding how to focus a business offering on a key target market. It can start with just bullet points. I’ve seen it done well with pictures. It’s mostly a reminder for you and your team.
  • Cash flow: Because profits don’t guarantee enough cash to pay your bills, you need to manage cash from the beginning. Month by month, account for what you spend and what you deposit — not profit as it appears on the books, but money as it shows in the bank.
  • Review schedule: Set aside time for a plan verses actual review once a month to compare what you planned would happen in your business to what really happened. Be brief and practical.

Regardless of your market niche, whether you have attended a “hack-a-thon,” or who is on your start-up team, take the time to consider each of these components thoughtfully. Incorporating them into a plan that you are committed to revisiting and continuously improving will enhance your chances of launching a successful new business!

 

 

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Becoming an Overnight Artisan Success in Only 5 Years

When someone is touted as a wunderkind in any line of work, many line up to try and figure out how success was achieved. So many become disheartened when their passion or education does not produce immediate results. While most recognize that success does not come over night, it is not at all uncommon for an artist or artisan to go from unknown to well known in a short amount of time. Achieving recognition, however, is a cumulative process. How does one go about doing so on a shortened time horizon?

Fundamentally, an entrepreneur in this space must be willing to undergo wholesale change. It’s not enough to become masterful at creating great designs; without the corresponding strategies to maximize business operations and processes, success will be hard to come by. Too few artisan entrepreneurs take the time and make the effort to understand that sweet convergence of operational, artistic, and marketing opportunities. Those who do create value that is appreciated by the target market.

If you seek to identify and serve target buyers with relevant offerings, create cross promotions with other artisans and handmade entrepreneurs, and craft an airtight plan to execute your strategies, you will be far ahead of the average artisan. Hopefully, your artisan start-up will resonate with the target market, sales revenues will provide the opportunity to grow your team, and you can become strategic about roles and responsibilities. In addition to your design, production, and sales efforts, you will need to task team members with the following responsibilities:

  • strategy
  • vision
  • marketing
  • advertising
  • social media
  • partnerships
  • scheduling
  • logistics

artisan potterObviously, one person cannot handle all of these important roles for very long. That’s precisely why a focus on sales, production, and design early will help create the capital structure to build a team.

If the skill sets listed above are foreign to you as an artisan, you are not alone. Those with degrees in the fine arts, and related disciplines have been prepared to pursue a skill, but not necessarily a business. More importantly, planning, confidence, and diligence go a long ways towards helping you execute on your idea. Since many artisans are not prepared through educational instruction to be proficient in such things as negotiation and team work, they have to learn these things from a mentor. Please find a suitable mentor with a background different form your own who understand business principles well enough to guide you into disciplines that are needful but likely unfamiliar!

Basic business principles in marketing, communications, customer service, selling, and relationship management are undervalued in the art and design community. Disciplining yourself to learn and apply nest practices in each of these principles will yield wonderful results. Very, very few artisan entrepreneurs are able to transition from hobby to avocation to employing others. For you to be more successful, you must work on the business side of your brain, engaging more left brain convergent thinking.

Friends who have been successful in the arts community have told me that, not unlike big businesses, change is hard for an artist. The willingness to tinker with what you make, how you describe it, who you make it for, how you determine who will buy it, how you promote your wares, how you replicate success, and how to transition from sole proprietor to small business are all based on being able to hold your talent with an open palm. Objectively stepping back from your creations to seriously consider who may appreciate them will, by nature, cause you to think differently about what you are making, how you are making, and what it will take to sell enough to pay not just yourself but others.

Best wishes on your journey!

 

 

Find Ways to Improve Manufacturing Company Profits

In trying to understand business issues, case studies can serve as a useful tool to show us what we may not see at first glance in our own businesses. When I was doing the research that led to the founding of the Turnaround Management Association a number of years ago, I had the “opportunity” to compile, read, and review over 900 case studies on attempted turnarounds. As I read about companies from a variety of industries, geographies, and backgrounds, I was able to decipher certain trends and best practices. While I obviously don’t have the space (or your attention span) to delve into that level of detail in a blog post, I wanted to recount a case study and point out some lessons to be learned.

better resultsA $100+ million company lost 25% of its revenue during the period 2005 – 2010. Simultaneously, EBIT declined by 91%, dropping to 0.9% of  2010 sales numbers. A turnaround firm was retained to restore revenues and achieve at least 10% EBIT by the end of 2012. The results of the project were that 2011 revenue improved by 20.20% over 2010 and 2011 EBIT was 5.5% of 2011 revenue, an increase of 470% over that of 2010.

How the Results Were Achieved

Strategic Alignment

By analyzing the markets served, rates of growth, and trends, the turnaround firm was able to highlight the very best opportunities for high growth. Historical analysis yielded insights into top customers and products, with breakout information by plant location. As insights were gleaned from the data, brainstorming sessions were held with the executive team to modify strategic and tactical plans.

Product Pricing

As with many companies who suffered a decline in fortunes, this company had begun to compete on price rather than more strategic competitive advantages. As their products and services became commoditized, considerable price variability had snuck into the company based on local market conditions. With considerable (40%+) market share in its primary markets, the company in crisis had very few price comparables available from competitive intelligence by which new pricing could be developed. The consultants helped the company do the following:

  1. Make product groups by cost and technical specs,
  2. (For each product group) establish minimum, mean, and max prices,
  3. Determine products that were priced outside of guideline rages, and
  4. Identify customers who were not profitable to serve.

Margins were terrible, so the company implemented the following procedures recommended by the turnaround firm: 

  • Pricing for non-strategic customers was immediately increased,
  • Held meetings with strategic customers to explain the fair price increases, and
  • Future price increases were planned in unison with strategic customers.

Product Costing & Standardization

The old product costing model was jettisoned in favor of a more accurate, easier to maintain one. Product Standardization was accomplished by analyzing SKUs across key product groupings. A small list of products were designated as standard offerings. Everything else was labeled “custom,” with appropriate cost and pricing decisions.

Operations Improvement

Process improvements were instituted after plant visits. Highlighted items included:

  • Supply chain improvements through TQM and JIT were achieved
  • Minimum order quantity guidelines streamlined production runs and enhanced scheduling efficiency
  • Setup and preventive maintenance routines were sharpened
  • Paperwork and scrap reduction and recycling were instituted

The culmination of 2011 efforts was that higher contribution margin at the plant level. Production scheduling and materials requirement procedures were highlighted as areas for additional improvement. 

When an outside team is brought in to focus on profitability and the executive team cooperates fully, great things can happen in a turnaround. Clear communications, improved decision-making, unified focus all lead to enhanced morale and the profitability becomes an outgrowth of good management.

 

Watch Your Asset – It May Not Be a Resource

First, the bad news: making operations, finances, and employees work to maximum value can mean having to eliminate some employees or operations at times. The good news, though, is that many businesses have been able to hold on to existing resources–even during a turnaround situation–by reassigning them to better purposes and uses where required. This is the heart of asset redeployment–the practice of reassigning people, things, and efforts to achieve optimal efficiency. By using capital wisely, your team can make it stretch a lot further. For example, coordinating employee and independent contractor work to produce the greatest amount of work with the fewest number of people working the least number of hours means greater return on efforts and dollars.

Eliminating Operations

Eliminating unprofitable operations–in whole or in part– is a wide-ranging task. Anything that may be termed “waste” in the company needs to be discarded or put to better use. One area that should be addressed is waste due to unnecessary multiple consumption of potentially shared resources. In plain terms, the individual use of items that could be shared is an extravagance that few small businesses can afford. Think of shared printers rather than a printer on each desk as an example. it is highly unlikely that every single person in the office will be printing at the same time. What’s more, high volume printer/copier combination machines use less expensive toner than ink cartridges in smaller units. This initiative may require more cooperation and patience than providing unique units for each employee, but such a move can reduce the amount of money the company must spend to get work done.

Avoiding Duplicate Efforts

A counter problem to the above is too many employees doing the exact same job, either knowingly or unknowingly. Such multiple effort, a clear waste of time, resources, and money, often occurs when someone is fearful of delegation or feels threatened by another’s talents and abilities. Therefore, management should make sure that several people are not doing the same job in differing formats and degrees. 

Non-linked software is a perfect example of this kind of waste; if the secretary maintains supplier addresses and phone numbers, and the accounting group keeps the same information in their files, someone is performing an unnecessary job. Instruct employees in ways to avoid duplication of effort. Look across your organization, document processes by task, and find ways to reduce overlap. This is not to say that your staff should not be cross-trained. It is, in fact, good succession planning and talent management to have people who could do someone else’s job in a pinch!

Managing Capital Resources

Capital resources include facilities, supplies, and work in process. Buying only what is needed when needed (“just in time”) is one way to wisely manage resources. Another way would be to try to have more finished goods inventory than unfinished, because finished goods can be sold quickly to raise cash. At times, you may consider renting or leasing an asset rather than purchasing it–especially if the term of the contract is less than the useful life. You may elect to “turn in” resources that you don’t need very often or convert them to less cash intensive resources through alternate financing. 

Coordinating Human Resources

This is an area often overlooked because it is seen as “just administrative.” When employees, however, have jobs that overlap in requirements, it is up to the executive team in the small business to correct the situation for optimization. When your people are performing jobs that are not their strong suit, they usually take more time and make more mistakes than a better qualified and motivated counterpart.

Develop a competent management team to help you steward resources more efficiently. There are multiple areas for gains in efficiency and profitability if you will commit to the process. Note: process rather than one-time task–follow-through and experience the fruit of your labors!

Keeping Costs Under Control

If expenses are simply allowed to fluctuate, with no way of monitoring where they will be, optimal profitability will be hard to come by. Cut out as much fat as possible and keep the company lean. Clearly, certain expenditures are necessary and unavoidable. There are ways, however, to limit their influence on company profitability. For example, taking advantage  of any offered cost savings an creating efficient procedures to save time and project financing overruns will cut costs significantly. A purchasing requirements program is a start for reducing many hard costs. Most soft costs, however, can be decreased through effective scheduling.

An effective requirements program includes the following steps:

  • using purchase orders 
  • inspecting all deliveries
  • taking advantage of discount incentives
  • implementing invoice verification procedures
  • scheduling efficiently

Using Purchase Orders

Purchase orders are seen as a relic of old business practices by some. Others view them as an indispensable management tool. Somewhere in between the extremes there is a fit for every organization. Their usefulness is in getting reliable quotes upon which invoices can be checked later.

Inspecting all Deliveries

Inspecting all deliveries is essential to make sure orders are shipped according to the quantities and quality specifications provided on the purchase orders. Many managers complain that they do not have the time to physically inspect every item delivered to a work place. Inasmuch as doing so would require a huge time commitment, they are right.  However, for containing cost overruns, these same managers could not be more wrong in their assumptions.  Inspecting samples  from every delivery when delivered and figuring quantities by up close, visual inspection are necessary steps to ensure that suppliers are responding to the company’s needs.

Taking Advantage of Discounted Materials Prices

When suppliers make discounts available on purchases, your team should try to make the most of them. In addition, verify all invoices against delivery inspection reports, checking  the invoiced amount against the total amount delivered, and unit prices against the purchase order. This procedure will help ensure that a supplier’s negligence is not costing the company money.

Scheduling Efficiently

Time constraints are of utmost importance in eliminating inventory carrying costs–whether your business produces goods or services. If a product line or project is slow to be completed, many extra costs begin to accumulate. Alternative uses of profit margins are foregone. Had your team been able to finish sooner and collect within a finance cycle closer to the one in which work began, there would have been profit margin to discuss how to allocate. With margins, choices exist that don’t otherwise–suppliers can be kept happy and bankers and investors can too! If yours is a business that uses work in process assets, insuring those assets is an ongoing cost for the company. Theft and obsolescence of design and features due to carrying raw inputs too long further eat away at margins. The cost to repair items damaged over time also rings up expenses. All of these combine to make inventory (due to delayed delivery) costly.

Proper scheduling is not limited to getting one work team to immediately follow another onto the job. By ordering raw inputs in bulk through purchase orders, trips to supply houses are reduced, resulting in cost savings through lower fuel costs and less time away from actual work. As these employees spend more time on the job and less time running around town picking up materials, their projects are completed faster. Getting teams to succeed one another promptly with slight overlaps can also tighten production schedules and help reduce costs.

By tying your project financing to interest rates in a market where rates are rising, you and your team can make the most of prompt completion of projects. If you operate efficiently, you can move before rates rise consistently. Finally, scheduling vacations with as little overlap as possible will help with your production efficiency, and thereby improve margins.