I believe stories can contain as much or more truth than pure “facts.” Think of the power of the phrases sour grapes, crying wolf, or the emperor’s new clothes. Don’t they tell us something instantly, regardless of historical fact, because we understand the story? My favorite part of an investment pitch or an elevator speech is where the entrepreneur talks about how some ideal customer has a problem and this new business solves it.
Suspend your image of a business plan as a document, for a while, and think of it as a collection of all your stories, combined with concrete specifics or goals that aim to make those stories come true. Essentially, your strategy is the story of you and your business. It tells how and why you started and what you do well. It’s what you like to do. It’s the story of why your customers need what you sell, how they find you and how you give them what they want. It’s the story of how you focus in on the most important parts of the business.
As you imagine what those stories are, break them down into meaningful, trackable parts. Set tasks associated with those stories, assign tasks to people and give them dates. Think about your long-term objectives story. Are you looking for wealth and fame, or to do what you like? What does success look like to you? Is it getting financed and making millions, or taking off at 4 p.m. to coach your kids’ soccer team?
Your marketing strategy also is a collection of stories. Invent a fictional character as your ideal customer, flesh out the character with age, relationships, job, family, media preferences, transportation patterns, likes and dislikes. Then figure out what story to tell that person, and where to tell it so he or she will see it.
Market numbers can also be easier to imagine as stories rather than just numbers. Which of these statements resonates more with you: “There’s a potential market of 120 million units,” or “this belongs in every household in this country”?
The numbers associated with your sales forecast, expense budget and cashflow can also be told as stories. Essentially, they are predicting the future — telling you a story of what can happen, based on logical assumptions. The numbers make the stories real, and the stories make the numbers real.
When putting these stories together, don’t sweat the format, especially if you don’t need to create a formal document to show people. Leave them on your computer and refer back to it regularly. Track your progress, review the plan compared to actual results and make regular corrections.
Afterthought: It’s been almost six years now since I wrote Let Your Business Plan Tell Your Story in this same space, this column. In the years since then I’ve grown more convinced than ever about the importance of the story as the essential building blocks of business planning. And I’ve grown less convinced about the importance of wordy and often superfluous elements like mission and vision statements.