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Dewi Gray, Cardiff Met’s Business Start-up Manager’s thoughts on business planning


Business plans... where do I start? I'll be honest when I started at Cardiff Met I didn't realise business plans would consume so much of my time. I think this is largely due to the fact business plans, although intrinsic, have not been the most important part of my own businesses – and there have been many. From selling sweets on the school bus to promoting concerts and running crews at Glastonbury, I remember certain details about each one; the crowds, the stress, the emotions, the rewards and failures - but not the business plans.

On one occasion I went to see an existing customer who had always shown an interest in investing in my business projects. I took a few excel sheets and photos with me. He didn't really understand what I was talking about and gave me that sort of disapproving look that you get from someone who doesn't think you're a grown up yet. Noticing things were going South, I hastily tore down an old gig poster stuck to the pub wall and began drawing out my plan in front of him. He also had some pretty interesting stuff to add in. Three hours and five pints later we were in business together and I had ten grand in my pocket… which I subsequently lost – but that's another story.

Each situation is different and there is no perfect or right or wrong way of doing things. The initial planning stage of each business is different from one to the next and situations like we see on television very rarely exist. Understanding your business and knowing what you need is what matters and all your plans should reflect that. Just because someone says you need a 3-year forecast of your sales doesn't mean you have to.

Play to your strengths and what matters to your business. If you have £20 to your name and a business that involves cleaning windows what good is a 20 page excel document going to do for you? Use your efforts on the areas of your business plan that are relevant. Numbers might not be your strong thing but if you can sell snow to an Eskimo, marketing is likely to feature quite highly.

Your business plan might be exactly what you want it be and answer all your questions. But to others… it just doesn't inspire. This is quite often the case with visionaries – to see what others cannot. If this is the case for you, then maybe you need to ditch the business plan 'presentation' altogether. Keep it for yourself. Go out and show people who you are and what you can do – there isn't a piece of paper in the world that can do that better than you.

I can't stress enough how important it is to plan things properly. When I say plan, I don't mean a .docx template from ebay. Think of it as an organic way of exploring your ideas, assessing the risks and how to minimise them and how it all sounds to someone else. Every business plan I have ever written has started out on the back of either a beer mat or an envelope. If the idea has weight then it might get promoted to a notepad and eventually a golden coronation onto a spreadsheet. By the half way point it will normally be a sprawling mass of beer mats, scraps of paper, spilled coffee, post it notes, quotes, photos, articles, web links and random numbers that I've forgotten the reasoning of. But in and amongst all this madness the message remains the same "How do I make this work?" and "Is it worth doing?" It's likely that some bits will change or get burned in frustration and anger as ideas are tested and other people's opinions trickle in. Later, I'll tidy it up depending on 'who' needs to see it and what they need to see… and what they don't.

There are some great tools for helping you plan your business and of course it does help to know the different areas, such as market research, product development, finances and so on. How important each of these are to your business is for you to decide. Play to your strengths and understand the justification of each section.  An academic business plan will require specific levels of detail as will many competition entries so take note. Writing a business plan at university is a great opportunity to explore your inner entrepreneur! 

So don't waste your time putting together 130 pages of blood, sweat and research into why the world needs an app to time pasta. Think about it first, draft it, test it and finally explain it. The explaining bit takes ages so don't progress unless it deserves your time. Just bin it and start again.

Business plans have always played a crucial part in my own ventures. To me it's the start of an adventure - but ultimately it's a tool to get me where I want to be.  

Hopefully you won't lose your own beermats of ingenious ideas like I have on many occasions. But if you know your business inside out, you'll always have plan B (and C and D) tucked up your sleeve.