One of my friends works for a multi-billion dollar cable company. And his role is extremely interesting. Specifically, he's charged with figuring out what the company needs do to now so that it will be competitive ten years from now.
Imagine that? 10-year planning. For most businesses, it's inconceivable to do this. But for a cable company, it could take years to implement changes such as installing cables to hundreds of thousands of homes. So, he spends his days researching, analyzing and theorizing over what the world might look like in 10 years and what the company needs to do today to start preparing for it.
And I'd like to think that he, and perhaps those before him, have done a great job at this. Because while 10 years ago I only use my cable company for television service, today I pay my cable company for television, internet access and phone service.
Break-Even Thinking Doesn't Work
But what about your business? Do you need to plan 10 years into the future? The short answer is "no." But it's important to point out that any planning is significantly better than no planning.
In fact, for most small businesses, planning generally tends to be more along the lines of thinking "what do I have to do to have enough revenue to pay the bills for the next month?" Missing from this thinking are the critical long-term decisions and directions on how to grow the business, increase its revenue, and expand market share.
And what inevitably happens is this: if your immediate focus is just trying to break even, your business often ends up just struggling rather than growing.
The solution is to develop a five-year plan, and using it to guide daily operations.
How It Works
A five-year plan is not a set of financial pro-forma statements and twenty pages of text and history on your company. Rather it must incorporate real thinking about 1) what goals you want your company to achieve, and 2) what goals every key division of your company must achieve.
Specifically, you must document the revenues and profits your company seeks to achieve in 5 years and then set similar goals (with different metrics as appropriate) for each operational area (e.g., marketing, fulfillment, etc.).
This in turn becomes the basis of the roadmap you'll use to grow our organization.
Use The Map
Ironically, after putting considerable time and effort into building a 5-year strategic plan, many business owners and managers never look at it again.
To avoid this, work backwards and document shorter term goals. Let me explain. Now that you know what you need to achieve within 5 years, determine what you need to achieve this year in order to make solid progress towards your 5 year goal.
Next, figure out what you must achieve this quarter to progress to your annual goal. You can break this down even further to figure out what you must accomplish this month to reach your quarterly goal.
This process allows you to set monthly goals that progress your business. Document these goals and share them with your team so you can accomplish them.
And importantly, use these short-term and long-term goals in your daily decision making. For example, is forging a relationship with a new partner in line with your goals? Or is it another distraction that will take time and prevent you from reaching them?
Also, use the shorter-term goals to measure your success. Are you meeting revenue goals? Do you have the amount of clients you projected for this time of the year? Use objective measurements that will not allow you to fudge your results. Your shorter-term goals give you a black and white, hopefully not red, assessment of where you stand in accordance to your goals.
Keeping your five-year plan alive is like having an up-to-date, accurate map of a foreign city when first walking its streets. It allows you to not just think about breaking even, but to reach specific performance targets and goals.
When people have a clear idea what to strive for and how to get there, even when challenging, they perform better. That translates to improved operations which also eventually improves revenues and profits for your company.
A five-year plan and periodic short-term goals also does away with complacency. When a business is in the "break-even" mode, it's only thinking about the immediate demands, never pushing to do more than just what's needed to meet the given threshold. Processes become routine and complacency sets in.
Your 5-Year Plan Must Be Updated
It's important to remember, however, that your five-year plan needs to be updated regularly. Markets, environments, customers and regulations change over time, all of which have an impact on a business and its profit margins. For example, the recent healthcare laws enacted by the federal government impose new health plan requirements on businesses of a certain size. Clearly, businesses did not consider this regulatory change in their five-year plans back in 2010.
So, update your five-year plan annually to reflect new changes, new ideas and new goals.
Finally, your five-year plan is only as good as the effort you put into it. The components, goals and targets have to be well thought out so as to be realistic and achievable. When you do this, and when you break down your 5 year goals into annual, quarterly and monthly goals, you will know precisely what to do to grow a thriving business. For help with this process, download my strategic planning template .