It is a jungle out there – a surreal land of make believe, fantasy and fiction at times. So how do you find your way through it to reach your destination? Vikram Venkataraman, Director, Salvus Strategic Advisors, feels that writing business plans is old news; understanding the thought process is what really takes you forward.
Alice in Wonderland is one of the finest books written. Read on about a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat.
Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where…”
The Cat: “Then it doesn’t really matter which way you go!”
Alice continued her explanation: “….so long as I get somewhere…”
The Cat: “Oh, you’re sure to do that, if you only walk long enough.”
Alice scratched her head and thought for a long time and realised that the forest was a big, confusing, dangerous place and that if she did not know where to go and how to get there, she was in for a lot of trouble – she knew she would spend a lot of time and effort in trying to get nowhere in particular. She knew she had to figure out where she wanted to get to, who she was going to ask for directions and help in getting there, figure out what she needed along the way, and how long it would take. She needed a plan.
The business plan is much like what Alice needed to come up with – nothing but a detailed journey planner, meant to help one think carefully about one’s journey and everything that goes into making a long and arduous road as smooth and well planned as possible. It is just about careful thinking and visualisation of the trip, and attempting to minimise the impact of various types of risks by arming oneself with proper tools and help.
The “How to write a business plan” theme has been written about ad nauseum – a Google search is proof enough. The “why” of the business planning exercise is the real key and it is extremely important to understand the practical implications of thinking of a business plan that addresses both, the long-term (strategic) and the short-term (operating) objectives and plans. A standard plan format is good enough to get you thinking carefully about the where, why, how and when of a business journey, in a structured manner that forces you to think of hugely critical issues that you otherwise might not think of, gloss over, or trivialise.
From the big picture to minor details
It is important to look at your business from two perspectives – the long and short term. A long term or strategic plan outlines your overall strategy and paints the big picture of what you are doing, where you are going and, broadly, how you’re going to get there. This exercise is meant to sharpen the focus on what you really want the business to achieve and how you are going to do it. It is not about the short term and a to-do list for the immediate. It is about the long term and about the larger canvas. A strategic plan is largely about Alice’s first question and what you need to get out of a robust strategic plan is:
- What does our business stand for – what do we represent?
- What exactly are we capable of doing and what needs are we addressing?
- How will we stay different?
- What are the serious challenges facing us and how do we respond (and continue to do so) to these?
- Do we have what it takes to get to our destination – what exactly do we need and when?
A strategic plan also depends on the type of business you run and what stage it is at. For example, if you are an opportunistic trader in Dubai, willing to trade in anything or make money on a “deal by deal” basis, there is not much point in a strategic plan! If you are a very early stage small business, then your strategic plan will focus less on organisation or structural issues and more on the market, your USP and funding strategy.
The word “plan” conveys the notion of rigidity, something you are not supposed to deviate from. A strategic plan is not about dogmatic adherence. It is meant exactly to do the opposite – it is meant to help you not only visualise your long term goals but also visualise the path to get you there. This path is always strewn with obstacles – new ones that you could not have foreseen but are prepared to handle, precisely because you have created an organisation that can respond quickly with alternative routes! The path is only as clear as far ahead as you can see it – what you can immediately or with reasonable accuracy predict, is the short term which you need to carefully think about and plan for as well.
Once you have a strategy and a basic strategic plan in place, only then can you answer the following:
- What are our short-term objectives?
- How do we organise ourselves to achieve these?
- Who will do what and by when?
- How will we measure everything that everyone is supposed to do?
A business or operating plan looks at your short-term objectives and needs in more detail and helps you plan in shoring up key areas and will help you avoid making common mistakes. It will also help you identify and address weaknesses in your firm, as well as help you think of areas where there is potential to make money – areas you never went to before. There are two types of business plans – one which is a combination of a longer-term strategic plan and a shorter-term perspective, for purposes of presentation to a financier. The other is more an operating plan where the business owner needs to get down to the nitty gritty of key elements of the business:
- Market analysis, competitor (and product) analysis and positioning of the firms’ products or services.
- Financial projections: Starting with the projected sales figure, you need to think of, and forecast, expenses – both running and capital expenditure, and plan on how you are going to fund your growth (effectively the balance sheet – sources and applications of funds).
- Cash flow forecasts: Profit is one thing, cash is entirely another. In my 25 years as a banker, it has been astonishing to see the number of businesspeople perplexed by their profitable firms being constantly short of cash!
- Organisation: People – do you have the right team, do you need more, when will you recruit more employees. Think about the time it takes to get good people…plan!
- Performance review: Milestones for the business, time lines and monitoring mechanisms need to be laid down.
Above everything else, one must realise that strategic and business plans are really tools to try and make one cover all bases – to think of as many angles as possible whilst making your business work. It’s not about a fancy document. Good plans will help you:
- take yourself, your beliefs and passion seriously and put them up to tough questions;
- take the market and the environment seriously and not put your head in the sand to avoid seeing reality and therefore opportunities and obstacles;
- take others’ (partners, stakeholders, employees) opinions, seriously;
- and will help you to be taken seriously.
Take time and care to plan well. You will discover where you want to go and how you want to get there.
Vikram Venkataraman is a career banker with 25 years of experience in banking in India and the Middle East with various banks. Some of the key senior positions he held are:
• Executive Director, Regional Head of Credit Structuring ABN AMRO Bank, Middle East and Africa.
• Founding Member of Management Team and Head of Corporate & Institutional Banking, Dubai Bank.
• Head of SME Business, Transaction Banking and Factoring, Mashreq Bank, Dubai.
• Various assignments in Corporate Banking in HSBC India.
His most recent experience in banking has been as the Head of the SME Business at Mashreq, which he left in 2010 to co-found an SME focussed investment banking firm – Salvus Strategic Advisors, JLT in Dubai and Salvus Capital Advisors Pvt. Ltd. in Mumbai. Salvus advises SMEs with the objective of helping them grow. Raising equity and debt capital is an integral part of Salvus’ activities.
Vikram has also been an entrepreneur in the wellness business, giving him a unique perspective of SME issues, both from a banking and entrepreneur’s points of view.