Things are tough out there - have been for a while - and the recovery promises to be painfully slow. Experts are talking about fundamental changes to the economy that will affect consumer behavior for years, if not forever. And change in the consumer economy inevitably affects the entire business-to-business market and your individual business marketing practices.
That's why now is a good time to revisit your business plan. Most of us have plans (some are only in our heads) and most of them are woefully out of date. We used them when we first established our businesses and occasionally dust them off for our bankers. In this time of change, it's especially important to "live the future" before it arrives by updating your plan.
As you know, business plans are a real pain and take a long time to do right. That's primarily because you make decisions that impact other parts of the plan. This creates a domino effect that often reveals dead ends and forces you to go back to a previous step, revise it, and start again. By the time you're finished, you have a plan that makes sense for your business and you've learned lots of lessons without spending a lot of time and money.
If you dust off your old plan, pay particular attention to the recent economic changes. I recommend that you start with the "Business Market Analysis" section of the plan and then use the results of your analysis to adjust, or at least anticipate, changes to the financial, organizational, product and other "dominos" of the plan.
The analysis starts with an understanding of where you are today. Many resellers are surprised when they review old plans because they find that they have drifted away from their original plan. That's not a bad thing - it just means that you have evolved with the business market you serve. But you need to start from where you are today.
Look at your strengths and weaknesses and take a hard look at how well you are serving your customers. Have you found new industries that have promise? Have you found new ways to profit from existing customers? How do you market? Are you taking advantage of the Internet - or the more recent social networking media? Does it make sense for you to market this way?
As far as today's market is concerned, there's a surprising amount of information in publications including public and government sources. Unfortunately, none of them are going to give you a roadmap to success. However, they can point to some market opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/emp) can be particularly helpful when looking at longer term trends.
At StrandVision, we sell hosted digital signage services. We're finding that Software as a Service (SaaS) is a preferred technology model today. When we started almost ten years ago, it was a market barrier. Similarly, people now understand what digital signage is so we no longer have to educate most prospects on the concept. We're also finding that our subscription pricing model is both understandable and easier to sell in this market. Not surprisingly, healthcare and employee communication is developing as a fertile market, along with some traditional markets, such as industrial distributors and education, which you'd think would not be as active right now.
There is also the broader question of how you market and how you sell. Despite all of the hype around Craig's List, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, there doesn't seem to be much chance that they will replace traditional sales, just supplement it. Business marketing, however, is a different story. These social networking sites may be valuable add-ons to your marketing programs. Be aware that viral success on these mediums requires exclusive information sharing, not selling.
Spend some time on them to see if there are appropriate interest groups related to your offerings. Check out what your competition is doing and do some research against companies that you respect to see what they are doing. It may also be helpful to see what your suppliers are up to in these social networks but don't rely too heavily on this information since, with the rapid change that is happening; you can be the first to discover a prosperous market opportunity.
The next step is to synthesize this information into the marketing component of your business plan. Define the new markets (if any) and look at your communications channels. Only then can you go to the rest of your business plan to see how the other components are affected - the dominos. Should you be moving to a SaaS model? What effect will that have on the financial and support sides of the business? Do you have the right staff to address new markets from both technological and marketing/sales standpoints? How much of an investment will it take to address the market opportunities? How can you continually evaluate the markets to keep your investment appropriate? Finally, especially for smaller operations that have been around for a while, do you really want to restructure your business?
Re-examining your business plan from a market stand point can be helpful. It will give you the direction and the opportunity to objectively evaluate your current situation and deliberately plot your future. In light of the economy, it should start with marketing and then keep an eye on your dominos to be sure that you develop a sustainable plan.
Mike Strand is founder and CEO of StrandVision LLC, an Internet-based subscription digital signage service that is distributed through resellers. Previously, Mike founded StrandWare, a leading bar code software and AIDC company. Prospective resellers may contact Mike at mjstrand@StrandVision.com.