Tuesday, October 7, 2008

It’s a Plan

Sharon Wildwind

This past weekend I finished writing my business plan … for 2008. Since it’s only three months until I have to do the plan for 2009, I thought it was time to get busy for this year.

That’s not exactly true. I’ve been working on the plan all year. Bits and pieces. Here and there. Mostly in my head, though some of it had made it to paper. It’s not that I’m a novice at this. I spent fifteen years in a nursing position where I had to do the whole dog-and-pony show of yearly objectives, quarterly reports, and performance measures. I can sling the business lingo with the best of them.

In fact, several years ago, when I was weighing the pros and cons of transforming writing from a serious hobby to a business, one thing that tipped the scales in favor of going pro was that I was already doing the stuff my instructor in “Starting A Small Business” course lectured about every week.

What put me so far behind this year was that turning from a caterpillar to a butterfly thing. I’ve done six business plans, each of which has pretty much followed that small business template taken I learned in that long-ago course. Each year I felt more like the constraints fit less well, like trying to sew from the same pattern I bought ten years ago. My business shape had changed, but my business plan hadn’t.

For a while I went through a creative funk. I wondered if it might make more sense to embroider my business plan, or dance it, or drum it, because the neat Harvard outline I was staring at wasn’t working any more. And the thought of wading through the library’s collection of how-to build your business books didn’t appeal to me. The problem with those books is that often, when they talk about the “small business operator,” they mean a business with six to eight employees, a truck, an office, etc.

I reality there is just me, a computer, a filing cabinet, a chair, and some volunteer help. Oh yeah, and a couple of dozen characters, for whom—fortunately—I have to file neither withholding tax nor health benefit plan paperwork. There are some advantages to being an only.

I started by teasing out things that change only a little and things that change a lot from year to year. Then I tried to describe the things that changed only a little in the shortest, simplest way I could.

History and legal status of the company:
I formed a company. It’s still in existence. It will stay in existence until I either run out of ideas or something bad happens.

Products and services:
I write and sell mysteries. Sometimes I write and sell other things. I’m better than some authors and worse than others. If someone gives me a chance to do it, I also teach classes about mysteries and about writing.

Skills and capabilities of the owner:
I know how to write. I’ve got a list of other things I still need to learn how to do. I whittle the list down from one end and add new things to the other end every year. The list, like the business, isn’t likely to disappear.

Company management and organization:
I’m the owner, the manager, and the only employee. I keep track of stuff. I pay bills on time—mostly. I keep track of what's happening in the mystery community.

Land, buildings, memberships and equipment
I work at home. I keep in touch with a number of other writers and fans. They help me with stuff. I have all the standard office equipment. My major expenses every year are for paper, ink, computers, research, postage, and a mail box rental.

Assumptions and critical risks
The next book I write could be lousy.
The next book I write could be terrific, but the marketing could be lousy.
I could get bad reviews.
Someone could sue me.
I could sue someone else.
I could get sick or die.

Those simple sentences became my core business plan. Okay, I prettied them up a little and threw in a bit of business jargon, such as niche marketing, currently active focus, and competitive advantages and disadvantages.

The things that change frequently worked themselves into a day timer where I record how much time I spend on the business every day, plus a variety of simple spread sheets:
An inventory of what equipment and supplies I have in my office.
An inventory of books on hand.
A tracking sheet for books sold each quarter, how much I sold them for, and how much I owe in Goods and Services taxes.
A list of the articles I read from the Internet about the business of publishing and the creativity of writing.

That left only one thing: goals and objectives for this year. Since I was going for simple in a big way, I boiled it down to one diagram.

It’s like playing poker. Nothing beats writing. Creating a multi-media/Internet presence comes in second. Running the business comes in third, and so on up the pyramid, to that little bit at the top, grabbing the brass ring. I’ll gladly take advantage of any unexpected opportunities that come my way.

So there it is, my business plan in a nutshell.

If you’d like to read about another simple plan, I suggest looking at Jay and Jeanne Levinson. Startup Guide to Guerrilla Marketing: a simple battle plan for first-time marketers; Entrepreneur Press; 2008; 978-159918153-0. They have a seven sentence plan that will get almost anyone started.

Writing, or perhaps I should say, business quotes for the week.

Real artists ship.
~Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs is the CEO of Apple, and co-founded of Apple, and of Pixar Animation Studios.

Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.
~Sharon Schuster, photographer


Darlene Ryan said...

Sharon, I've heard it said that a lot of writers--and many other artists--don't treat what they're doing as a business and because of that aren't as successful as they could be. What made you work with a plan from the beginning?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Darlene,

Part of it was that course, which I took through the continuing education department of my local technical school. Part of it was having spend time in a part of nursing involved having a plan. If the bottom line is money---and that's what I think differentiates serious hobby from business---then it's a business. Businesses without plans fail.

Julia Buckley said...

Your foresight and ability to organize makes you a winner from the start. I am a bit envious of your gift for organization, because even when I try to organize, I feel most haphazard.