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We’ve all been there. You're lying in bed trying to sleep when inspiration strikes: you have a million-dollar business idea!
Despite the fact that everyone has these ideas, only a few act on them. In fact, just by reading this post, you've taken the first step in becoming a business owner that most people wouldn’t dare to take. So, congratulations!
Now, let's capitalize on your momentum, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
If you ask 1,000 people how to start a business, you’re likely to get 1,000 different answers. In reality, starting a new business is a huge undertaking, and there is no exact methodology to go about it.
In fact, whenever I see those "Become a small business owner in 5 easy steps" articles, I cringe, because I’ve worked with hundreds of successful founders over the past seven years, and the one thing they all have in common is that they know starting a business requires far more than five steps, and none of them is as easy as just opening a business plan template and "filling it out."
One Bite At A Time
The late great Bishop Desmond Tutu, whom I had the privilege of hearing speak when I was in college, once once imparted a valuable piece of wisdom:
“There is only one way to eat an elephant, a bite at a time.”
No matter how daunting your endeavor may seem, the key is to make a start. And that's precisely the objective of this article. Today, I'll guide you on how to initiate your business plan in just 15 minutes, enabling you to take that crucial first 'bite' of your metaphorical elephant.
Business Plan Free-Writing Exercise
What Is ‘Free Writing’?
According to Wikipedia, free writing is “a prewriting technique practiced in academic environments, in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time with limited concern for rhetoric, conventions, and mechanics, sometimes working from a specific prompt.”
Our goal for today is to jumpstart the “business planning” process by quickly writing down all the thoughts spinning around in your head, with only one rule in mind: there are no rules. We don’t care about spelling, grammar, word choice, or even staying on topic.
This exercise is for your benefit only, and you don’t have to share it with anyone. The goal is simply to get past mental blocks that might be caused by self-doubt or anxiety.
A typical free-writing session lasts from five to 15 minutes per prompt. If you’re just beginning to develop your business idea, I think you’ll find five minutes to be a lot of time and plenty to get you started. If you’re further along in the process, it may be appropriate for you to set your timer a little longer.
What You Need for this Exercise
That’s it. Some people like to light a candle and turn on some music to create ambiance, but it’s certainly not required. You just want to be free from distractions and relaxed. (Personally I find a cup of tea to be helpful for getting me in the right state of mind.)
And one other thing, a #ProTip if you will, if you don’t think you’re a good writer and that the act of writing will slow you down, you can also try this exercise aloud and record it for playback later.
Let's Get this business plan Started already!
Now that you’re all settled, let’s begin the exercise with a series of prompts to write about.
Exercise 1: What is The Business?
Write about what your business does. Force yourself to think beyond the obvious. For example, if you’re starting an elephant ear shop (see what I did there?), you should probably discuss the different varieties you’ll make, but also think about the intangible benefits you provide: a place where people can gather with their friends and catch up, or work on a free-writing business planning exercise.
Other prompts to consider if you get stuck:
- What will your business not do? Many businesses start too broadly, so set your constraints.
- What other companies provide products that are similar or different from your idea? What are your impressions of them?
- Dream big! In a perfect world, where do you see your business in 5 years?
Exercise 2: Why Do You Want to Start This Business?
Be completely honest with yourself. Are you starting this business because you want to make millions, or are you starting it because you’re ready to be your own boss? Or maybe you just have an idea you think people will like.
Other prompts to consider if you get stuck:
- Why would you be good at this business?
- What gaps do you have in your skillset or experience that you’ll need to have filled either by learning or relying on others?
- What will your life look like when your business succeeds?
Exercise 3: Who Will Be Interested in Your Business?
No businesses sell to everyone. Is your company targeting a more upscale or economic clientele? Are you planning to target customers in your local area, tourists, or someone else?
Other prompts to consider if you get stuck:
- Pick a friend or associate you think would be a perfect customer. What is it about this person that makes you think that’s the case?
- Where do the people who might be interested in your product congregate?
My Example of a Business Plan Free-Write
I wanted to see what this exercise could produce, so I decided to do a timed free-write for my hypothetical elephant ear shop. I set the timer for five minutes, but I was on a roll and didn’t stop when the buzzer went off. I’m guessing this took about seven minutes, and for reference, it’s 419 words.
I want to open an elephant ear shop. The base of my batter will be my great-grandmother’s Portuguese sweet bread recipe, which is what they use to make malasadas in Hawaii. So they’ll be a fry bread version of that, but may also sell malasadas too. The traditional flavor will be cinnamon and sugar, but our real thing will be all the toppings that we’ll offer. Fresh berries, jams, compotes. Maybe even a savory option with like ham and a light cheese? These are going to be messy and loaded, so maybe we serve it with a big napkin or wet wipe or apron or something though I want to keep paper waste to a minimum.
Why elephant ears? They’re nostalgic, fun, and family friendly. This is not an every day treat so we’re no Starbucks. I don’t picture people coming here and working like out of traditional bakery. This is a special treat, something people do once in a while. More of a destination. So finding a location with high foot traffic and maybe tourists will be key.
We will really lean into the one product tho. No sandwiches or fancy coffees. Just black coffee (but good black coffee) and we’ll do milk for kids.
I want to lean into a counter-culture alt-vibe. Funky. Fun. Whimsical. Hip. Definitely not a cozy coffee shop with ambient music. More upbeat and maybe punk type music. Maybe vinyl records on the wall. For some reason the color pink jumps out at me, maybe because that’s the color of an elephant’s ear, at least in cartoons. But I want to avoid a circus-tent feel, I think that’s too cliché and even tho I want to make this nostalgic, I don’t feel like people are that nostalgic for the state fair these days. So I want to downplay the carnival connection so maybe pink isn’t the right answer.
Our main competitors will be donut shops, so maybe that’s another reason to not do pink. Too similar to Dunkin. I can see this place being more popular late night than early morning like a traditional donut shop tho. Maybe we even do a cart that can serve them where there’s a nightlife scene, or maybe that’s the location we go for.
I could picture the kind of place where someone places an order at the counter and the cashier yells the order to the back. And maybe there’s some specialty where when a person orders it everyone yells. That kind of upbeat, fun, environment.
I did edit my free-write for spelling but did not make any other changes. I wanted you to see what kind of results you could expect if you performed the exercise on your own. As you can see, this exercise has helped me better understand my fictional concept: messy, fun, counter-culture, energetic, and so on.
Also, if any of you want to run with this business idea, let me know and I'll be your first customer because I’m now craving elephant ears.
Refining Your Business Idea with ChatGPT
After you've completed your free writing exercise, it's time to refine your business idea with ChatGPT. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to do it:
Step 1: Define the Role
Start by telling ChatGPT its role. You can say something like, "You are an expert in small business development and business planning. I need your help to refine my business idea and develop a company description for my business plan."
Step 2: Share Your Free Writing
Next, share your free writing with ChatGPT. You can simply copy and paste your free writing into the chat. This will give ChatGPT the context it needs to help you refine your business idea.
Step 3: Organize Your Ideas
Ask ChatGPT to help you organize your free writing by answering the following questions:
- What is the business idea? Please describe it in as much detail as possible.
- What is the industry or sector the business will operate in?
- Who are the target customers?
- What problem does the business solve for these customers?
- What are the key products or services the business will offer?
- Who are the main competitors?
- What makes the business unique or different from its competitors?
- What are the business's core values?
- What is the vision for the business in the long term?
Here's what ChatGPT-4 provided in response for my free-write:
Business Idea: The business idea is to open an elephant ear shop that uses a unique Portuguese sweet bread recipe as the base for the batter. The shop will offer traditional flavors as well as a variety of unique toppings, including fresh berries, jams, compotes, and even savory options. The shop will focus on creating a fun, family-friendly, and alternative atmosphere.
Industry: The business will operate in the food and beverage industry, specifically in the bakery and dessert sector.
Target Customers: The target customers are individuals and families looking for a unique, fun, and nostalgic treat. The business will also target tourists and late-night crowds.
Problem Solved: The business offers a unique and nostalgic treat that is different from the typical donuts or pastries found in most bakeries. It provides a fun and alternative destination for people looking for a special treat.
Products/Services: The main product is the elephant ear, a type of fry bread made from a unique Portuguese sweet bread recipe. The shop will also offer a variety of toppings and good black coffee.
Competitors: The main competitors are donut shops and other bakeries.
Unique Selling Proposition: The business stands out due to its unique product offering (elephant ears made from a Portuguese sweet bread recipe), its focus on a fun and alternative atmosphere, and its emphasis on being a destination rather than a daily stop.
Core Values: The business values fun, nostalgia, uniqueness, and sustainability (as evidenced by the desire to minimize paper waste).
Vision: The vision for the business is to become a popular destination for people looking for a unique, fun, and nostalgic treat. The business aims to create an upbeat and alternative atmosphere that stands out from traditional bakeries and coffee shops.
Not a bad start, right?
Step 4: Ask For Follow-Up Questions
Next ask Chat-GPT for some follow up questoins and considerations for developing your buiness. These answers are designed to help you think deeper about your business idea and provide more detail for your company description.
Here's what Chat-GPT suggested for me:
Product & Service
- Are there any complementary products you could offer, such as beverages or other types of snacks?
- How will you ensure the quality and consistency of your elephant ears?
- Who are potential suppliers for your ingredients and other supplies?
- What are the costs, quality, and reliability of different suppliers?
- Who are your main competitors and what are their strengths and weaknesses?
- What is the overall market size and trends in the bakery/dessert sector?
- What locations have high foot traffic, tourists, or a vibrant nightlife in your area?
- How does the location align with your business model and target audience?
- What are the costs and benefits of different potential locations?
Legal & Business Startup Items
- How much funding do you need to start and run your business until it becomes profitable?
- What are your potential sources of funding (personal savings, investor, small business administration loan)?
- What are the pros and cons of different funding options?
- What are the legal requirements for starting a food business in your area?
- What permits and licenses do you need to operate your business?
- What are the health department regulations and insurance requirements for your business?
- What staff do you need to operate your business (cooks, cashiers, cleaners)?
- How will you recruit, train, and manage your staff?
- What are your strategies for retaining staff and maintaining a positive work environment?
- What are some ways you can make your business environmentally friendly?
- How can you minimize waste in your operations (compostable serving materials, minimizing paper waste)?
- How can you source ingredients locally or implement energy-saving practices?
Ok wow, that's a lot. But it just goes to show you all the different things to consider when mapping out your business strategy. It's a starting point, and that's what we were looking for today.
Keep in mind, ChatGPT serves as a tool to streamline and enhance your ideation process. However, it doesn't replace your personal judgment, expertise, or the specialized services of a business planning company like ours. Consider the AI as an assistant, a valuable resource for brainstorming and initial drafting. It's not a stand-in for meticulous business planning and strategic thinking, which are crucial for your venture's success. Always ensure to review and modify the suggestions provided by ChatGPT to align them with your unique business vision. Remember, while AI can give you a head start, the insights and experience of a seasoned business planning consultant can provide invaluable depth and direction to your business plan.
And with that, you’re done! At least with the first step. First and foremost, congratulate yourself on taking this step. Copy everything in your chat and paste it into a blank word processor document
BUT DON'T READ IT. At least not yet.
You’ve accomplished enough. Try not to actively think about what you wrote (or the questions Chat-GPT posed) allow your subconscious to do its work instead. If you get an idea, jot it down, but then let it go.
The key, however, is not to lose steam. So I want you to pick up what you wrote tomorrow (or some day really soon). Before re-reading it, remind yourself that this was an exercise to get your ideas flowing, so leave out the criticism. What you’re looking for are the little gems that stand out. I like to copy and paste those insights into a new document and elaborate on them now that I’ve had time to reflect.
Another #ProTip: many people find that repeating the exercise yields even better results.
By following these steps, you can use ChatGPT to turn your free writing into a solid foundation for your business plan. This will not only help you clarify your business idea but also make the process of writing your business plan much easier.
That’s all there is to it. In just 15 minutes, you’ve taken the first step in starting your business plan!
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