How to Know Your Business is Viable (Even if You Don't Have a Business Plan)

GUEST WRITER AND BUSINESS CONSULTANT KATIE WUSSOW summarizes three ways to test the viability of your business, even if you don’t have a business plan.

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I don’t have a business plan. If you are a small business owner or creative entrepreneur reading this, my guess is that you don’t have a business plan either.

My personal take is that, unless you need to bring on investors or borrow money, you probably don’t need a formal business plan for your small business. However, you do need a method to test the strength of your business or idea and understand whether it can be viable in the long-term. Writing a business plan is a helpful tool for this, but its not the only tool out there.

Below I’ve summarized three ways to test the viability your business even if you don’t have a business plan.

The Story Test

Your business needs to tell a story that makes sense and resonates with your audience. Evan Baehr and Evan Loomis, serial entrepreneurs that have seen hundreds of startup pitch decks, put it this way:

“Entrepreneurship is about telling a story that connects the deep needs of a group of people with a repeatable solution.” - Get Backed, p. 39

According to Baehr and Loomis, the story of your business takes a variety of forms, all of which need to make sense to the hearer.

  • Your personal story — How does your background or personal history make you uniquely positioned for your business or business idea?

  • Your customer’s story  What is your target customer’s current experience, and how does your product or solution improve that experience?

  • Your industry’s story  Are there factors at play in your industry that are providing a unique opportunity for your solution?

When you tell the story of your business, in any or all of these above formats, is it compelling, leaving people curious and wanting to hear more? If so, you pass the story test.

The Business Model Test

Even if you don’t have a business plan, you need to have your head around your business model, aka, how you propose to make money. Understanding your business model requires estimating the revenue that you expect to earn from your business as well as the costs that you will have to incur in order to earn that revenue. This kind of exercise is definitely challenging but is also critically important for you to understand what it will take for your business to be profitable.

For example, many interior designers, when they are getting started in the industry, are not comfortable with the complicated and intimidating purchasing side of the interior design business. As a result, many designers want to stick with design fees as their sole revenue stream. The problem is, as many designers eventually figure out, it is near impossible to run a profitable interior design business without purchasing. Without multiple streams of revenue, the business model isn’t viable.

When you develop a reasonable, realistic projection of your revenue and expenses, does your business generate a profit that justifies your effort and investment in the business? If so, you pass the business model test.

The Assumptions Test

Even the most professional and polished business plans are essentially a collection of guesses about what might happen. Your business idea is based on a number of untested assumptions about your customer’s needs, the usefulness and relevance of your solution to your customer, and the amount of money that they will be willing to pay for it.

The third test you can apply to your business is to identify the assumptions underlying your business idea and figure out a way to test them in the real world with real customers. You can use simple but effective tools – such as focus groups, one-on-one interviews, prototyping, and other proven methods – to get real feedback from people that fit the profile of your target customer.

For example, one of my goals for this year is to develop a digital product. Earlier this year, I came up with an idea for an online course that I thought was brilliant. However, I decided to do some target customer interviews before investing a ton of time into the idea. And, guess what? I found out during these target customer interviews that my idea didn’t really resonate with people. My assumptions about what my target customer needs was off-base, and I changed course as a result.

Do your key assumptions hold up when tested with real customers? If so, you pass the assumptions test.

Failed One of the Tests? Pivot, Don’t Quit

Just because you fail one of these tests doesn’t mean you should quit. Use the opportunity to pivot, tweak, and adjust. On the other side of these simple, but effective, tests, your business or idea will be even stronger.

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About the Author

Katie Wussow is a consultant and coach who works with creative entrepreneurs to take their businesses to the next level. She lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and two daughters. She blogs about entrepreneurship at katiewussow.com/blog.