The need for a business plan

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business plan
Photography: Kaspars Grinvalds – 123RF

Some practices operate without ever having a business plan, but experts agree it’s never too late to make one. By John Burfitt

In the long list of things meant to be completed when starting a new veterinary practice, creating a business plan is one of the fundamentals that too often falls through the cracks. That’s been the finding of Melbourne business consultant Jon Michail of Image Group International in his work with a variety of veterinary clients.

“I’m always surprised by how many approach the first few years by just stumbling along and hoping for the best, without following a clear business plan,” he says. 

“I later ask them to consider how different their business might look if they had a comprehensive plan in the first place, and that point always hits home.”

But, Michail insists, it’s never too late to make a business plan, and he cites fear as a major reason why many business owners and managers avoid doing so.

“The reason I’ve found practice owners and managers are afraid is because of having to include all the things in a business plan they would rather not address and all those things they feel comfortable ignoring,” he says.

“One way or another, it’s never too late to create a business plan, even if it’s a few years in. It’s something that should be embraced for what it can achieve.”

Veterinary industry consultant Dr Diederik Gelderman, the author of the book Veterinary Success Secrets Revealed, says creating a business plan can be one of the most intimidating propects for a new enterprise. Doing so a few years down the track, however, can prove far easier.

I’m always surprised by how many approach the first few years by just stumbling along and hoping for the best, without following a clear business plan.

Jon Michail, Image Group International

“A lot of practice owners are afraid they will never meet up to what a business plan might outline,” he says. “It can be frightening to have something they need to stay accountable to, so instead they just open up the door and hope it works out.”

A comprehensive business plan should cover 10 key areas of the business. Starting with an executive summary, it should then provide a detailed overview of the business, an operations plan, market analysis, the product and services of the practice, sales and marketing strategies, analysis of competitors, background on the management team, a financial plan and income projections.

The well-developed business plan should define targets and goals, as well as outline the ways the practice will keeps itself accountable as it grows.

There are many business plans available online that can be easily downloaded, and Alan Manly, CEO of Group Colleges Australia, says this can be a good place to start.

“Go for one that is not too big, not too complicated, clear to work with and then be as honest, realistic as well as ambitious as you want as you complete it,” he says. “Doing this a few years into operating a practice can prove to be very therapeutic.

“It can also be a powerful measure of what you have been doing right and what you are not. It might also highlight what you need to do now to move the business forward, as well as make you recall the things you have wanted to do all along.”

When addressing each stage of the business plan, it’s important to adopt a questioning approach to each area, adds Image Group’s Jon Michail. He says a questioning approach can prove to be more valuable than the end result of the finished document.

“You need to be contrary as you do this; a serious questioning of what your business is doing will uncover a lot of what has been going on, as well as within yourself and in your team,” he explains.

The plan needs to be a living document that is applied, is relevant and applicable, and that can be amended in 12 months so it adapts over time as new plans and targets are made.

Dr Diederik Gelderman, author

“This procedure needs serious attention. Question everything, like why you operate in a particular way, who makes certain decisions, why that much of the budget is spent in those areas. It might prove to be the best thing you have done for your business in years. At the end, you will have a business plan that relates to your business as it stands today, with a path of where you intend to take it into the future.”

But he adds, “Whatever you do, don’t create a business plan that covers all the bases but is boring! Make it inspiring so it’s the kind of plan you want to follow and refer back to.”

For all the value of finally creating a business plan, it’s possible the end result still ends up getting filed away as yet another forgotten document in a drawer.

“It’s useless if no-one ever refers back to it,” Dr Gelderman says. “The plan needs to be a living document that is applied, is relevant and applicable, and that can be amended in 12 months so it adapts over time as new plans and targets are made. 

“If you are going to bother doing it, then take it seriously. Put the plan up where people can see it. Address it in half-yearly and annual meetings and ask for input about it from the rest of the team. Give it real value in how you conduct your practice. 

“This is why creating a business plan after the doors have already been open for a few years might be the most valuable time to do it.”

Taking such an analytical and critical approach to the state of play of a business takes courage, but Alan Manly says the payoff can be a game changer.

“Some people might be embarrassed and think, ‘we’ve done okay so far, so let’s keep muddling through’,” he says. “But it takes real tenacity to say, ‘let’s do a business plan now to see how we did and what we still have to do to guide it forward’.”

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