It’s October, the end of a long Mediterranean summer, the good people of Barcelona have been back at work for long enough for their holidays to be a distant memory punctuated by lightly-clad Facebook selfies and mid-day beers. Somewhere in the shadowy, interlocking streets a red-haired girl on a yellow scooter crosses parts of the city she hasn’t seen before, edging through the traffic towards a meeting that she would leave having committed to start a new business with a group of people she barely knew.
Perhaps business plans should include stories of how each founder became embroiled in the project, somehow convinced that diving into uncertainty and working for free for an unspecified period of time was a good idea. Yet they are a macro story themselves, a story every bit as creative as an early evening fantasy you might invent for children eager to stay awake a while longer.
Business plans are the very basis of what Paul Zak calls the “Founding Myth” and are usually the first attempt at defining it. Here are some ways they are like a story:
1. The plot
There is some debate on how many native plot lines exist, but the consensus that it’s limited. In a business plan there is generally one narrative you are interested in telling:
“Once upon a time there was a great team of avengers each with different management superpowers and many a war behind them, and they had an amazing idea for a new business.
They did all their research and found that it wasn’t just them that thought it was great, but that even the wisest socio-economic owl in the world, seemed to be telling them it would work. And when they looked at who would buy their products they stood in awe at the many people who would arrive to exchange their bags of gold for their invention.
And they looked at the enemy and laughed at their outdated weapons and strategies. As the avengers gazed in the mirror, they acknowledged their meager weaknesses, at the same time planning for ways to overcome them. Yes, they truly were the best team in the world.
So while some went to the marketing drawing board and the invention lab, others put their maths thinking caps on until the found the magic numbers. Lots of big numbers, and fractions and ratios that may rich barons from far and wide want to invest in their company. And they did, and everyone made lots of money and lived happily ever after.”
Every story has a structure, an introduction, a call to adventure, a contrasting middle where good and evil often battle it out, and a resolution, a business plan is no different and leads the reader through in exactly the same way:
- Presentation of the situation and the characters (Presentation of the business idea and the promoting team)
- Problem to be solved (Problem to be solved)
- Setting the scene (Soco-economic, competitive, etc analysis)
- Development of the characters (Internal analysis)
- The action (the Marketing, HR and Operations plans)
- The resolution (the financial plan)
Ending on the financial plan is like an intellectual ending to a book or film where you are left wondering what happened next but have been given sufficient clues from the writer or director to draw, what you feel is your own conclusion, even though it’s curiously the same as everyone else’s.
3. Importance of language
Now you might be thinking, I’m writing a business plan, not the next Booker prizewinner, why should I care about language, surely content is king? Of course, your content is vital but it is your language that will put your idea center stage. The language of stories is what draws the reader in, it builds the “ah yes I can see exactly what the writer is describing” moment, that moment of initial connection when you no longer doubt whether you will finish the book or stay up to see the end of the film.
Good business plans use language in the same way to connect with their audience. Of course where storywriters have the full gamut of vocabulary syntax, structure and tone to help the sculpt with words, business plan writers are rather more restricted, yet this is no reason to belittle the importance of language.
If it is painful to read, investors won’t read it and all your work has gone to waste.
4. Research and general hard work
There must have been many times when historical fiction writers like C.J. Sansom, have lifted their heads from a pile of Medieval history books and wondered why on earth they decided to set their story in that age. Similarly, with each business plan I’ve worked on I’ve had that moment of why did I end up with Brazil? Why have I just spent a day wallowing in economic indicators in Portuguese, culminating in an end-of-day word count of 0?
In general, writing a book or a business plan is hard work. The fact is there is no easy way out. I doubt writers basing stories in the modern-day get to shirk off their research or visualization, just as businesses launched in your own back yard still require a level of investigation to prove they’re viable.
5. Visualising the story
With a story and a business plan, you need a way of seeing the future. Since most of us, don’t have a time machine on hand, we must rely on our imagination. “Imagination and business planning!”, I hear you say “What is this girl talking about? Isn’t it all carefully calculated and told via excel?” Yes it is but where do those figures come from? There are many models to help you decide how many widgets you will sell in year 1,2 and 3 but the fact is, you just don’t know what will happen, so you imagine and the basis of that imagination is a story:
“So Jo and Sam are the sales team, they work 40 hours a week and visit 20 potential clients between them on average per working week. 50% of those customers buy widgets but only 10% buy more than one.”
We have no idea what Sam and Jo will actually do, we can only imagine, visualize different scenarios, giving them life like situations and character in stories.
Business plans are a huge project and require a great deal of technical analysis and Excel gazing, but don’t lose sight of the fact that they are the backbones of a new, ever-hopeful story. When played out in reality, some end well, some don’t. But on paper they follow the fairytale script and end with “and they all lived happily ever after”. In moments of financial planning despair remember that, the spreadsheet you are looking at is the creation of a story with a happy ending.