Most entrepreneurs don’t start with a plan. They may have a rough idea of where they want to go, but few have a full roadmap for how to get there. Still, entrepreneurs tell themselves and everyone around them they know exactly what they’re doing. “We are right on track,” “Everything is going as planned,” and “We couldn’t be better,” are common phrases heard in the startup world. But it’s a lie. And you know what? It’s okay not to have a plan and for many, they may still find success. Recent research published in the book Hearts, Smarts, Guts and Luck found that 70 percent of successful founders did not start with a business plan.
When I started my company AWeber, an email-software marketng company, more than 15 years ago, it just sort of happened. I was in sales at the time and realized that following up with prospects through automated emails increased sales and reduced labor costs. I developed software to do this for my colleagues and myself. I soon found out others were willing to pay for it. That’s how and why I launched. An extensive plan for my business didn’t come until much later.
So for those who have no roadmap (but keep telling people they are on track), here is a few tips to help get you started.
Think about the ‘who’ not the ‘how.’ Business plans force us to think about “how” we’ll get to our end goal. But it’s more effective early on to think about who you’re selling to. You may have a general idea of what a potential customer should look like but take it a step further. Literally come up with a picture of what your ideal customer looks like. If you’re artistic you can sketch something out but a stock photo can also do the trick. Take the time to write down as much about your ideal customer as you can including their name, interests, wants and needs. Put the picture in as many places as possible so that you can consider them every time you make a business decision.
Be ready to change faster than Superman in a phone booth. Inevitably when building a business, you’ll have to respond to unexpected crises at any given moment. It would be a lot easier to do if you had a red cape and super powers. But without that advantage, you’ll just have to adapt quickly. The truth is, even if you have a “plan,” it may not be worth much in six months or six minutes. Instead of a business plan, think about developing a series of micro-plans. These should not be as forward looking or detailed as typical business plan, a page or two covering a few months will do. It will at least give you a starting point and make it much easier to adjust and iterate on.
See the future, write it down. Guess what? Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t have formal business plans when they started Microsoft and Apple. What they did have was a vision for where the products would go. Your vision doesn’t have to be as world-changing as “putting a computer on every desk in every home” or “a computer for the rest of us.” What matters more than the content of these visions is that they are very specific and simple to understand. Create a vision that meets these two requirements then make sure you write it down and keep it somewhere visible.