Outstanding Business Planning!

obpThere’s a mystique to the term business plan that makes it sound like you couldn’t possibly do one without an MBA or two, but much of what makes up a bona-fide blueprint is probably already in your head. A business plan is a part-words and part-numbers profile of where you are, where you want to go, and how you plan to get there.

The words describe your company, its products and services, competitors, customers, management, operations, marketing and sales plans, industrial outlook, and long-term goals. The numbers estimate your cash flow, income and expenses, balance sheet (what you have and what you owe), and a break-even analysis. There aren’t too many people not intimidated by both numbers and words, but once you break the plan down to these essential components, you’ll find you an do most of it.

12 Steps to Success

Here, in the spirit of helping business plan phobics, are the best ways to trick yourself into writing a plan–the 12-step program, if you will, for people who truly, madly, and deeply hate reports.

1. Even if you do only parts of a formal business plan, you’ll be ahead of the game. The more you learn about business plans, the more you’ll realize how useful they are, even for people who don’t need to borrow money or capitalize inventories. A solid business plan is a blueprint that can help you manage your workdays. Some of your tougher should-I-take-this-assignment-or-concentrate-on-that-client choices will be made easier with a plan. When you turn to your financials, you’ll no longer worry about how to make your next insurance payment–you’ll see where the money is coming from.

And you need not even write a whole plan to make one your best business tool. The other little secret is this: If you are writing for yourself, you can pick and choose the parts of a formal business plan that mean the most to you and ignore the others.

2. Work with software, a good book, or a $125-an-hour business consultant who will hold your hand. When business plan expert Rhonda M. Abrams, a San Francisco business consultant and author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets Strategies (The Oasis Press), decided it was time to reshape her company, she didn’t write her own plan; she hired a strategic consultant to help her. Sometimes you need objectivity, and sometimes you just need prodding.

The new generation of business planning software is full of prompts that can get you going when you aren’t sure what to put in your plan. Business Plan Pro (Palo Alto Software) puts a section-by-section outline in your word processor, along with questions like: “Why do people buy your product instead of others? Do you have better features, a better price, better quality, better service, or some other factor?”

PlanMaker (PowerSolutions for Business) has a manual you could use as a guide even if you never load the software. Each section comes with its own questionnaire that can similarly push you through the plan-writing process. “Do you know of any trade publications that have cited the growth potential of your industry, product, or service?” it asks, for example. And when it comes to crunching numbers, programs such as BizPlanBuilder (Jian Tools for Sales) offer spreadsheet templates for such financial forecasting as a break-even analysis.

Furthermore, the business section of every bookstore and library is replete with how-to-write-a-business-plan volumes.

3. Just put something on paper or screen. This is the old writer’s trick of doing anything to appease that damn blinking cursor. “Get over the idea that the first draft has to be perfect,” says Tim Berry, who wrote Business Plan Pro. “Type your first sentence, and understand you will change it and change it.” You can do the same with the financial section. Some people are afraid of writing business plans because they secretly fear their dreams will vanish upon close inspection, says Abrams, but this is usually not true. “Fantasy” businesses become more real and more exciting as we delve into the details.

4. Tackle the fun part first. You can’t write a business plan until you know where you want to go, so the mission statement should be your first building block. Your mission can be high-minded and mercenary: “To make a lot of money while providing superior marketing help to promising start-up companies,” for example. It sounds vague, but it isn’t. A mission statement like this helps you weed out schlock projects or low-paying clients. And on bad days, you can refer to it to keep your eyes on the prize.

5. Use plain English. If you are uncomfortable with the jargon of the business world, don’t use it. You can always go back later, before you deliver the plan, to insert capital assets” and “accounts receivable” at the appropriate points, where you thought computer and fax machine” and “what everybody owes me” were good enough.

6. Ask yourself questions. Abrams suggests that a meaningful business plan first answers your own questions. What do you need to know to make this business work? Ask yourself if it’s realistic to expect that you will do everything the company needs. Your business plan may point out areas–marketing or accounting, for example–where you’ll want to hire help.

7. At least do a marketing plan. Figure out, as realistically as possible, who your customers are going to be and how you are going to reach them. Calculate the costs of reaching them, through direct mail, advertising, commissioned sales people, and other methods. When you write your plan, outline it as specifically as possible.

8. Predict cash flow, even if you ignore other numbers. A short-term way to predict cash flow is to lay out the next six months on a spreadsheet. How much is coming in and how much do you know you’ll have to spend? Cash flow planning would have saved a friend of Berry’s from the embarrassment of driving to the bank in a Mercedes to get a home-equity loan to pay his business bills. “When he landed a $300,000 a month contract, he ran out and bought the car,” notes Berry. “A little cash flow planning would have told him he wouldn’t have the money to meet his bills for months.”

9. Learn to do a break-even analysis. How many widgets, cups of coffee, or hours of layout work do you have to sell before you can take any real cash out of your business? Business plan software crunches this calculation for breakfast, but you can also build it into a spreadsheet like this: Figure out your gross profit margin and express it as a decimal (average percentage of gross income realized after you subtract the cost of goods–so if your cost of goods is 25 percent, your gross profit margin is 0.75). Divide your fixed expenses–rent, computer costs, overhead–by your gross profit margin to get the total amount of sales you need to reach the break-even point. Divide that figure by the price of the unit you sell to figure out how many of them you need to unload.

This can put an unrealistic idea in perspective, prompt you to raise prices, or expand or contract your line of products.

10. Cut to the chase. The hardest part of the entire business planning process is coming up with a five-year projection for sales, expenses, and profits when it’s all new to you–the projecting as well as the business. But cheer up! Nobody does this perfectly. Notes Thomas Carroll, the multiple-company entrepreneur who wrote PlanMaker software, “If people had an infallible way of doing that, there would be no business failures.” Make informed estimates based on the specifics you’ve laid out elsewhere in your plan, and be conservative. It is better to overshoot projections than to fail to meet them.

11. Implement it. When in doubt, go back to the plan. Follow your marketing plan until you see a reason to change it. Keep your expenses in line with what you projected to spend, and focus your business energies where your plan told you to.

12. Do it over. The beauty of computing, of course, is that you can print out a shiny, new plan every day. Probably overkill–Abrams says she has some clients who are so obsessed with creating the perfect plan that they never actually start their businesses. Keep your plan in a loose-leaf notebook and go back to it quarterly to make sure it’s still realistic and you are on track. As you gain more experience, you’ll make your plan more professional and specific, and you’ll probably have some new ideas that will change your blueprint a bit.

Finally, once you’ve gone this far, consider yourself well into recovery. Feel free to proselytize to all those colleagues out there who are still in denial and don’t think they need business plans of their own.




Desktop Publishing Tips For Time Savers

dptWhat we call desktop publishing isn’t really a A single job. It’s a series of individual tasks performed over and over again until everything looks and reads just right. If we shave even a few seconds off such repetitive tasks as changing type specifications, printing draft copies, and placing the insertion point at the right spot on a page, those seconds can add up to hours over the course of a complex job.

Design for Minimum Maintenance

One of the most time-consuming and nitpicky jobs in desktop publishing is checking for mishyphenations and overly letterspaced words. The major source of these bothersome problems is justifying text in nice, neat columns. By telling the computer to make everything line up flush against both the left and right margins, you invite frequent hyphenation and excessive spacing to horizontally fill out those columns (especially narrow widths).

The timesaving answer: Set your type with a ragged right edge whenever possible. Although in formal documents, usually books, this is stylistically unacceptable, for newsletters, brochures, fliers, and a host of other business materials, ragged right is not only acceptable, it’s desirable. It frees you from manually correcting the inevitable type uglification brought on by justification and adds welcome white space between text columns. If you go with a ragged right margin and decide that the page is too free-form, you can give it a more disciplined, rectangular look by adding vertical hairline rules between ragged-right text columns.

Don’t Print Complex Graphics in Each Draft

Printing pages with complicated graphics (illustrations with elaborate fills, for example) takes forever compared with printing an all-text page. Displaying those graphics also slows down screen redraw every time you move around the page. There are several ways to streamline the process.

First, save image placement for last, after all the text is ready. Second, if your page layout software allows it, turn off graphics printing for drafts when you don’t need to see the pictures. Some programs allow you to turn the printing of individual images on and off, others give you an all-or-nothing choice, and still others won’t let you suppress image printing at all. The same holds true for the option of displaying graphic images on the screen.

Finally, if you want to see scanned images while you’re working, you can save time by creating a low-resolution scan to be used during the design phase, then replacing it with a high-resolution version for final printing. Either scan the original twice, or load the high-resolution scan into an image editing program and save a second copy at a lower resolution.

Use a Font Management Package

A growing font collection can bog down the page layout process. Your software takes longer to load with a bloated font list, and it takes you longer to find the font you need when scanning a seemingly endless menu. To keep the number of installed fonts down while ensuring that your entire collection is readily accessible, try a font management utility.

A program such as FontMinder makes it easy to install and uninstall fonts through simple menu choices. You can even create groups of fonts appropriate for a specific project or client and make the whole batch available with a single command.

Buy a Full-Page Monitor

The ability to see a full page onscreen at a workable size is a tremendous time-saver. Scrolling around to move from here to there quickly becomes second nature, but that doesn’t make it efficient. With a full-page monitor, you click where you like, so you don’t waste time scrolling.

Large monitors come in two varieties: tall, vertically oriented, one-page displays, and wide screens that provide a full view of two-page spreads. You can find single-page color displays in the $700 range, such as the Nokia Valuegraph 447L. And if you’ll settle for black and white, a single-page display can run about $300, with a two-page model going for around $700.




U Of Miami Found IBM’s Servers To Be The Best

ibmsBack in 1997, IT managers at Miami University set out to make their system Y2K compliant–and their technology overhaul snowballed shortly thereafter.

“We realized that the amount we were willing to invest for Y2K could bring us a whole new system that would grow with our future technology needs,” says Kristin Froehlke, associate provost for computing and information services and CIO at Miami University. “We knew it was time to seize the moment.”

Their first need was for a more robust software solution to handle the school’s many administrative duties. They had been operating with a patchwork of commercial, custom and homegrown legacy systems and applications running on an IBM 9672 R21 mainframe under OS/390 MVS and CICS.

“We had a hybrid of homegrown and vendor-supplied software and a lot of patches to make it work,” explains Froehlke. “This made access to even simple research data a real nightmare. We also wanted to provide system access to the 18,000 students at the university.” Prior to the upgrades, the system was open only to the 2,000 faculty members.

They finally settled on an ERP solution called SCT/Banner Systems. The new software would not only run the main functions of the university, including student services, financial and HR (hotel reservations) functions, but also would make it possible to bring the entire student population online.

But there was one hitch. The software wouldn’t run on their mainframe, so they had to move to a client/server environment.

Bid Winner Pulls In Partners Miami University was required to go through a competitive bidding process to find a vendor. RFPs were sent to several manufacturers, including IBM, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and DEC Alpha.

IBM sent the request to several of its business partners, among which was the bid winner, CTS.

Founded in 1993, CTS is a premium IBM partner that specializes in organizational consulting. “Additionally, we help our customers with change management,” says Bill Beck, CTS president. “We encourage all of our clients to look at their own needs and business processes and then work with them to design and implement changes.”

Miami University was pleased to be working with IBM and CTS, because it has a strong relationship with the pair that dates back to 1994. “In the early 1990s, IBM asked us to take over the marketing for all higher education in Ohio,” notes Beck. “It lasted for only a couple of years but allowed us to work closely with a number of higher-education institutions, including Miami U.”

CTS knew it needed the help of its partners, IBM and Keylink Systems. “It was a three-tier relationship,” recalls Beck. “IBM is the manufacturer and set up the supply channel. It supplied a set of distributors around the country; among those was Keylink Systems, which we chose for this project.”

Although it was not called in until the final months of the project, Keylink’s role was to secure and assemble the hardware, and to make sure it worked properly.

The new system was built around five IBM RS-6000 servers. It includes two H10s (CheckPoint firewall and Kerberos servers), two H50s (database server and development application server with two CPUs) and one H50 (application server with four CPUs). Additionally, several hundred workstations were installed.

“Live” Test Leads To Revisions
The system went live in the fall of 1999, more than two years after work began. Although everything was checked, rechecked and verified, problems surfaced. The original RS-6000 server just wasn’t up to the task.

“The software and hardware were installed and working without problems,” says Froehlke. “We reviewed the configuration, CTS and IBM reviewed the configuration, even the GartnerGroup reviewed it. But as we began to process information live, we found the response time and throughput wasn’t holding up. By November of 1999, it was a crisis.”

Despite all of the planning and checking, the interaction of batch and online processing didn’t work in Miami University’s new client/server environment. “We were among the first universities to make this change, so we didn’t have a lot of help from the outside,” adds Froehlke. “We went by the books and played by the numbers, but it wasn’t enough.”

The biggest problem was the processing of application letters, a critical element in maintaining the University’s status as one of the top schools in the country. The letters, which peak just before Christmas, are the first point of contact between potential students and the school. “If we want to attract top students, we can’t be late with those letters,” notes Froehlke.

“I was really in the ditch last November,” she recalls, though adding that she wasn’t worried. “I knew all I had to do was make a few phone calls, and I could get out of the ditch because we had these wonderful partners–CTS, IBM and Keylink–to rely on.”

Fast Track
But emergency or not, the competitive bid process was still mandatory. The partners realized that to be the successful bidder on the new project, they needed to respond quickly with a competitive price and guarantees for reliability and effectiveness. Most importantly, the equipment had to be delivered within a nine-day window over the holidays.

Within a few days, the trio won the contract to install an IBM RS-6000 S80 server and IBM SSA disk in Miami University’s existing client/server environment. The configuration guaranteed a system that was scalable and would eliminate future bottlenecks.

The Power Of Partnering
Getting everything in place and operational by the end of the year required that the entire system be assembled and tested by Keylink Systems in its Cleveland office during Christmas weekend.

Throughout the process, Keylink was in constant contact with IBM’s Austin, Texas, office, where a mirror system was installed to confirm hardware configurations. Once everything checked out, it had to be disassembled, shipped to Miami University, reassembled and put online.

“We knew how critical this was for the customer,” says Tony Palermo of Keylink Systems. “It was a combination of the right people and communications. Everyone went the extra mile to get the job done.”

On Dec. 31, the system went live without a hitch. The final configuration was built around an IBM RS-6000 S80 with 12 onboard processors. An IBM SSA disk freed the H70 from database server duty. The H70 took over the H50’s application server job, and the H50 became a development platform.

“We have four major servers running the Banner system,” Froehlke says. “In the overall client/server environment, we have over 150 servers. There are some Dell machines, a couple of Sun machines and lots of IBM RS-6000s.”

According to Froehlke, the project took two-and-a-half years from beginning to end and cost “about $13 million,” which included the hardware, software and contract programmers.

The project could only have been accomplished through partnering, Froehlke says. “When we needed help, they were there. It wasn’t just three vendors coming together in the heat of the moment. It was a willingness to go that extra mile in the interest of the end user.”

Rick Ransdell, area executive for education, Midwestern area for IBM, agrees that it took teamwork. “Everyone was burning the late night oil over the holidays–us, the customer, the vendors. It was a real team effort.”

For CTS, it was a success on many levels. Financially, it led to another successful bid at Miami University that amounted to nearly $1 million. More importantly, it renewed Beck’s trust in his partners. “It all has to do with ethics, partnerships and customers. Success comes from a collaborative effort with the customer at the center. I’m only successful when I have partners like Keylink and IBM.”




So How’s Your Privacy Doing?

pvpF YOU THINK YOUR PRIVACY IS PROTECTED, GUESS again. Anyone with access to a computer and certain online services can dig up more about you in one afternoon than an old gumshoe could track down in a week. In just 10 minutes, for example, we found out Vice President Al Gore’s and House Speaker Newt at Gingrich’s home addresses and phone numbers, their lengths of residency, the value of their homes, and their estimated incomes, using the PeopleTracker database. PeopleTracker also provides another choice bit of information: The names, addresses, and phone numbers of Gore’s and Gingrich’s neighbors.

Fame and fortune, however, are not criteria for disclosure. Depending on the state you live in, other CDB Infotek services and databases, such as Nexis, might provide personal information about you: your divorce, bankruptcy, and credit history. Strangers can also freely eye any court judgments against you, information pertaining to a criminal record, your bank balance, previous address, and voter registration. Other juicy morsels available for quick and easy retrieval: where and how you secured a loan, whether you have defaulted on a loan, if there are: any state or federal tax liens against you, who sold you your home, and what size or type of house you have.

Privacy advocates are wary of the easy retrieval and widespread availability of this personal information. Supporters, on the other hand other personal information. Services are not extraordinarily invasive because the data is already a matter of public record. The only difference, proponents contend, is that the information is distributed faster and is easier to access.

Fair Representation?

Both sides agree that quick and easy information gathering will be the primary factor prompting more people to glean more data for a variety of uses–most of which are legitimate, necessary, and helpful.

These services can be a godsend for anyone researching an investment opportunity, for example. Judy Fahys, a business reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune unravels the tale of a businessman who put together a partnership for a luxury hotel and golf course community in the Bahamas. After learning that the partnership was not filed properly with the Utah Department of Corporations and federal authorities, suspected fraud. In just three hours, she uncovered that the only type of business this guy was into was running scams. The con man had a rap sheet and a number of outstanding judgments against him. Although he probably couldn’t even get a car loan, local investors were eagerly handing over their hard-earned savings because they were unaware of his tainted public record.

Entrepreneurs can check out a prospect’s payment history or find out if an especially litigious client is doing business under another name. Ted Smith (not his real name) owns a small public relations firm in Boston. He often uses CDB Infotek services to check out the credit histories and environmental records (for citations) of prospects. But these information checks have also come in handy for personal reasons.

Smith got a call from his daughter, who wanted to borrow $5,000 to buy a franchise. He did a background check on the company and discovered that the franchise had not only been successfully sued three times in two states over two years but also had liens against it. There was no longer a need for the loan.

There was a time when, due to high costs, only professionals, including private detectives, journalists, and other people who worked in or were affiliated with the research industry, could afford to access this personal information. But now almost anyone can affordably gather data unassisted. Suzanne Wiley, a Sacramento, California, researcher was able to locate her brother-in-law’s biological parents. Although she’s no neophyte to fact finding, Wiley says that a novice can achieve similar results.

The birth father has a very unusual name, which Wiley admits made her task of locating him much easier. In a matter of minutes and at a cost of what she estimates to have been around $2.50, Wiley used CompuServe’s PhoneFile database to conduct a search for all Americans with that last name. The database also provides phone numbers. Wiley quickly called the family. By happenstance, the birth parents had married each other after giving up their first child for adoption. They were shocked and thrilled to hear about their son. A reunion followed and everyone was happy-thanks to the information superhighway. But there’s not always a happy ending to these stories.

A battered wife who skips town to evade an abusive husband, for example, can be tracked down in minutes. Although good faith players sometimes lose court cases, a database is not likely to convey the circumstances. Someone who is now regarded as an upstanding citizen may have broken the law a decade ago. This person must face the reality that a youthful indiscretion will continue to live in his electronic file forever.

Private Subjects, Public Venues Credit bureaus are required by law to drop bad-credit information after 10 years. But in a world where information is recycled, regenerated, and regurgitated by countless parties, an ancient credit ding can continue to pop up long after that time frame has passed. As Jim Sulanowski, a former writer for the Privacy Journal, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Trying to protect your privacy is like trying to stop a computer virus. The information just keeps getting sold, resold, and sold again.”

You may wonder how credit information can be passed on when it is illegal, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, to give out consumer credit information without the consumer’s consent. It seems that a number of credit bureaus have been busy finding ways around the privacy shield laws by selling what are known as credit profiles. The Electronic Privacy Information Center reports that the Federal Trade Commission has ordered a number of credit bureaus to stop selling credit information to direct marketers. The FTC’s most recent action, against Trans Union, however, is being appealed.

Privacy advocates fear that hyper-target marketing could occur if online services were to sell what many subscribers consider personal information. Last October the news that America Online would sell its user list sparked controversy, for example. Although AOL president Steve Case tried to assure subscribers of AOL’s “sensitivity toward our members,” information watchers foresaw a future in which, if the practice spread, any service or subscriber might learn potentially damaging facts such as who contributes to homosexual bulletin boards. Will Congress, which chose to shield information concerning consumers, video rental choices after Robert Bork’s rentals were made public, step in?

“Traditional fair information practices, developed in the age of paper records, must be adapted to this new environment where information and communications are sent and received over networks on which users have very different capabilities, objectives, and perspectives,” writes the Privacy Working Group, which is drafting a code for privacy principles. A 1991 Time/CNN poll found that 93 percent of those polled believe that companies that sell personal data should be required to ask permission from those whom it profiles.

The Name Game: Are You a Player?

A friend who subscribes to a number of online information services allowed me to conduct a search on myself using PeopleTracker. I braced myself for the awful moment when I would see my income onscreen. Get used to it, I told myself. This is the information age.

But when I input my name into PeopleTracker, which provides address, income, home value, as well as neighbor’s addresses, I found that I didn’t exist. Nor did my mother-in-law or a onetime boss. Why? It’s still a new service and not everyone is on it–yet.

On the fourth try, a friend-s name came up. The service listed his address, “median income,” wealth rating, and home value (about $181,600). The service also listed his mother’s name (she co-owns the house), the name of his live-in significant other, and the names and phone numbers of his neighbors. I asked him if the information was accurate. “Somewhat,” he said. “The median income was close enough but the home value was low.” Of course, data services don’t promise accuracy. They merely claim that the data reflects information as it exists according to other records. Boy, am I glad my name didn’t come up.




Microsoft’s Early Browser War Was A Sign Of Things To Come

mebJudge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s ruling that Microsoft cannot force OEMs to buy Internet Explorer as a condition of their Windows license raises more questions than it answers. But the questions, at first blush, seem either unanswerable or unimportant from a pure force-of-impact standpoint.

While the media can’t have enough of this story, the ruling will hardly be felt by anybody except the main players, spinmeisters, and some programmers and marketers at Microsoft. Let’s walk through it:

COMPETITION.
There are only two browsers that matter: Netscape’s and Microsoft’s. The judge’s decision won’t change that. What he seemed to be saying is that Microsoft cannot tie the potential success of a rising product to an established monopoly. But he also wrote, “Microsoft demonstrated, at the very least, the ambiguity of the term ‘integrated product.'”

A hardware company could argue it doesn’t want the clock and disk defragger in Windows. Or the games. From a practical standpoint, that won’t happen. The difficult job of determining what constitutes an “integrated” product will be left to the legal expert assigned to the case.

Enhanced competition could arise if Microsoft must think twice before adding functionality to Windows. Historically, the company has always pushed hard on the existing body of law, and there’s no reason to think Microsoft will back off in any appreciable way. And it shouldn’t, if for no other reason than to force such legal issues.

TECHNOLOGICAL IMPACT.
Since the release of Lotus 1-2-3, the first product to combine entire applications into one package, I’ve generally thought “integrated” products were a good thing. They work better, and there’s little evidence that they’ve driven up software prices.

On the other hand, when Microsoft put PC utilities into Windows, a few dozen software firms went kerplunk. For vendors, this was bad. For consumers, it’s hard to see where this trend wasn’t good. They got more software at the same or lower price.

MORAL VICTORIES.

Score one for Netscape and perhaps a few PC company negotiators, who were whacked around by Microsoft’s negotiators. It will be interesting to see if hardware companies take advantage of the judge’s ruling in taking Windows without IE. The price difference will be negligible, and hardware OEMs I’ve talked to are very reluctant to jeopardize their relationship with Microsoft.

IMPACT ON MICROSOFT.
Reporter Mary Jo Foley argues in her online story that Microsoft will have to rethink its packaging strategy. Clearly, there will be a Windows with and without an IE. The bigger problem involves the Microsoft applications that require IE for some features to work (Internet Gaming Zone, for instance). This is where I agree with Judge Jackson: IE should not get a free ride from Windows.

As Senior Editor Mike Moeller points out, the release of Windows 98 and NT 5.0 could be delayed as Microsoft thinks through the impact of the ruling. Government and judicial intervention is designed to slow market forces and say, “Hold on here. Is this right?” And that’s what this intervention does.

If the reaction from Internet World in New York last week is any indication, IT welcomes the respite from the browser wars, which produced new versions every three to six months. Yes, IT is waiting for key features in a product like NT, but the additions to browsers, such as glorified links to certain content and new desktop metaphors, lack the same urgency.

Delays could have the biggest impact on IT managers, but for the most part, they are bemused observers.