by Bianca van der Meulen
The worst advice my co-founder and I ever got was to write a formal business plan. We had been business owners for about six weeks and it sounded right—especially to me. I’m the kind of person who creates 10-year plans for achieving my personal goals when I feel stressed. Sticking to the plan is another story. I pivot constantly—like deciding to get married and move back to New York within four months of planning to spend the next decade living a single, quiet life in Virginia.
As more planner than doer, I’m a bit of an exception in the small business world. Except for those who go after funding, the entrepreneurs I’ve met (90% of whom are women) have two things in common when it comes to business plans: they haven’t written one, and they feel guilty about it. Yet their conviction never moves them to action. Why not? Lack of incentive, lack of time. It took us a month of nearly full-time work to write our plan, and we were spurred by a competition that offered cash prizes. (Spoiler alert: we didn’t win.) Resources are extremely precious for small business owners. We need to make every hour and every dollar count—our dreams and savings are at risk. I devoured the business planning textbook, spent days researching at the library, and attended multiple seminars on writing a business plan because I believed that those hours would give us a huge return on investment.
Two and a half years later, I wish we had spent that month another way—and I’m not saying that just because we didn’t win any prizes. While we did learn a lot from creating that 20-page monster of a document, it ultimately encouraged the wrong mindset for a new service-based business. The act of writing a formal business plan implies that you can think your way to success. Rather than give us clarity, the process mired us in details that may be relevant to a large product company but certainly didn’t apply to us.
I’m still a die-hard fan of planning. Planning in itself is absolutely necessary and not at all bad. The question is: what kind of planning actually helps (rather than hinders) a new small business owner?
If I could speak to my younger self, the idealist who’s new to business and trying to get a creative services firm up and running, here’s what I would say:
- Ignore the well-meaning business expert in the suit. Listen to people who have built the kinds of business you want to build.
- Don’t aim for perfection; iterate. As the lean/tech startup folks say: fail cheap and fail fast! Before getting fixated on any idea, try out a prototype (“minimum viable product”). Film industry veterans can’t predict which movies will become blockbusters and stock traders never know if they’ll do better than the market average. How would you know if your new service or marketing strategy is going to work?
- When it comes to services and operations, you can not get too simple. Your energy, time, and headspace is much more limited than you think. Make time to focus on what’s most important by ruthlessly cutting out everything else. That means, among other things, limiting your services to 1-3 revenue streams and using the heck out of spreadsheets until you absolutely must get specialized software.
- The most important research you’ll do is face-to-face with real people. Forget the stats for now; spend your time finding and talking to as many potential customers as you can. Find out what they care about, what drives them crazy, what they’re looking for in a company like yours. Developing empathy for your target market will make everything else—product development, marketing, sales—infinitely easier and more effective.
- Every time you hear someone talk about the 4 P’s, run. Every time you hear the word lean, listen closely. Forget writing a business plan; use the 1-page Business Model Canvas instead.
Bianca van der Meulen is the Co-founder of Sunbird Creative, a boutique branding agency based in Harlem, NY that help solopreneurs and entrepreneurs carve their niche in the world. Bianca graduated summa cum laude from NYU with a literature degree, and then began a 4+ year as a freelance writer. She decided to take her talent for strategic thinking, marry it to her skill as a wordsmith, and then launched Sunbird Creative in 2015.