Around this time every year, I update my business plan and encourage my collaborators–whether business or scientific–to do the same. The business and funding climate constantly changes, so updating your business plan allows you to identify the key elements of success and objectively assess the current state of those elements in your business. This topic has gotten a little more traction than usual this autumn with the buzz around the proposed changes to the US federal tax code (which look to have a number of direct and indirect impacts on independent consultants and remote employees), so I thought I would write a brief post of encouragement with some tips and resources.Usually most small businesses know that they should have a business plan, but I know not all do and, if they do it’s probably not current. For established enterprises, writing a business plan is not billable time, and the effects are not immediate in most cases, so the business plan revision is a can perpetually kicked down the road. But updating your business plan (or completing the plan, or even writing it even though you have an ongoing venture) does not have to be the overwhelming process it is sometimes made out to be.
To begin with, not all business plans have to be thick tomes–the size and scope of the business plan should be appropriate to the size of the business, the number of employees and locations, the complexity of the business, and whether or not the business is actively pursuing outside funding. There are any number of books on how to write a business plan on the market and in the library, and I recommend them to new grant writers as well (since a fundamental tenet of strategic grantsmanship is that a grant proposal is a business proposal). I don’t recommend one here because there are so many easily discovered resources that it’s more important that you find the one that speaks to you (so you will use it!).
For many small businesses, a business model canvas may be sufficient. The basic model is below, but you may search the web for other models of the canvas that are tailored to fit your specific business type (the model itself and the more tailored models developed from it are all covered by the Creative Commons).
Looping back to my initial statement, note that I included researchers in my target audience for proselytizing about business planning. Research is a business. Granted, there is a spectrum, from the large for-profit corporations, to large not-for-profit research institutions, to the individual lab and researcher. Often researchers become so engrossed in their research that they feel the financial pressure from their company or institution’s administrators, but they don’t see themselves on that research finance spectrum (they are!) and so they don’t connect the dots of the larger picture or the situation along a timeline. This is a problem, because we all know funding of an individual project has a lot to do with both of those things, so a competitive grant proposal articulates the proposed project in those contexts; however, in order to write about those contexts and the project’s fit, the researcher needs to understand the bigger issues and plot out how their lab and their projects fit.
Realizing this, I developed a training session for researchers called Strategic Planning for Researchers, and a key element of that training was looking at the crucial elements of a business plan and associating them with their scientific analogs and timeline. The takeaway message here is that every researcher should have at least have a basic business model for her/his lab. Think you don’t have a customer? That’s the funder. Think you don’t have a “value proposition”–then why should you be funded? Of course funders are looking for a value proposition, whether it’s innovative research or the ability to provide a service that fulfills a well-articulated need (like healthcare for a medically underserved community). Your “key resources” maybe access to great facilities with cutting-edge equipment at your institution’s CTSA center or a group of patient stakeholders whose support and collaboration drives your project.
The point is, as a professional in business for yourself (or with others) or running a research program, you know what the elements of success are in your industry, you know what makes a competitive, fundable research program/project. So find a business plan model or a brief business model canvas that fits your needs (or modify one–it’s a tool, not a rule!) and get your thoughts down on paper. Identify the areas on which you need to focus in the coming year, get a sense of what resources you have and how you can best use them.