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It's that time again: the end of another fiscal year. Time to assess this year's successes and start the annual business planning process for next year.

What does that mean? It means it's time to write your business plan.

Whether you're a sole proprietor or a multimillion-dollar enterprise, you need a business plan. Why? Because it sets the course for the coming year. It defines strengths (and what worked) and weaknesses (and what didn't work). It identifies priorities for the coming year and serves as a guide for your business.

A business plan can be hundreds of pages or just a few. Whatever the volume, however, it needs to contain at least the following five elements.

1. Situation Analysis

A situation analysis defines the current situation, and it must be an objective assessment. It's not a marketing pitch for your clients; rather, it's an honest description of where you are today. Look at revenues from the past three years. How do they compare with those of your closest competitors?

Take a hard look at your strengths and weaknesses. As you evaluate the opportunities in the marketplace, do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis to see how you measure up internally. Look at what is unique about your product or service compared with those of your major competitors.

Analyze the main environmental factors that affect your business. At a minimum, take a look at the economic climate in the industry in which you plan to do business in the coming year.

Is it in growth mode, or has it been adversely affected by the current economic conditions? Are there regulatory issues that may affect your ability to grow your business? Those are factors that are beyond your control, but they have a direct and immediate effect on where you should spend your time and dollars in the coming year.

2. The Market

Do an in-depth assessment of your competition and their marketing strategy. Who are your toughest competitors? What are they doing to entice customers to buy their products or services? Are they doing something that you aren't?

Think out of the box, and look more broadly at your competition. For example, if you provide snack vending machines for local businesses, your competitors are other snack-vending-machine suppliers. But, you're also competing against nearby convenience stores and fast-food restaurants, company cafeterias, and brown-bag lunches. Competition is often more than what you see on a first pass.

What is the price of your product compared with that of your competitors? Is your product the premium product? Is it the lowest-priced product? Are your services priced about the same as others offering similar services? Does price affect how your customers compare you with others that are offering comparable products or services?

How does your competition promote their products and services? Do they have a website? Do you? If you are a professional-services consultancy, are your competitors emailing a monthly newsletter with information about their services? Are you?

3. Positioning Your Product or Service

What is unique about your product or service? If you can't express what makes your product or service different, review why your customers bought from you in the past and then think about why they might buy from you in the future.

Define who is most likely to buy your product or service. Look at your current customers, as they are a good indication of who will buy from you in the future. Drill down from those customers to determine who your target customers are. Create a scenario that will describe what you can do to get that target customer to buy from you next year.

4. Setting Objectives

All the analysis you have done so far in your business plan is lost unless you absorb the data and use it to set objectives for the coming year. Objectives should include projections for monthly revenues, the number of clients you will need to reach those monthly revenue goals, etc.

Don't forget that objectives are measurable. When you set an objective, include dates for completion and provide time to monitor your progress.

5. Strategy

This may be the most important section of your plan. Based on the situation analysis, your competitors, your positioning statements, and your objectives, it's time to define how you are going to reach your goals. What strategies will you use to meet your financial and product and services goals next year?

Be honest with yourself; set realistic goals that don't radically diverge from your prior year's performance. Target areas where you think you can get business and concentrate on those.

* * *

Now that you have all the ingredients, it's time to get started. Remember, a business plan needs to be written; there's no avoiding it. A written plan forces you to think it through, follow a defined outline, and be specific.

Good writing, and good luck!

Continue reading "Top 5 Elements of an Annual Business Plan" ... Read the full article

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Donna Bletzinger is president of Dyer Stephenson, a marketing consulting firm that specializes in strategic planning for growing businesses. She can be reached via

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