Writing a strategic business plan entails using all the available information plus a notion of how a business will create a unique place in the market to frame a compelling argument for investors and colleagues. To do this requires honest assessment of the facts, the current marketplace, and competitors and enough hope about the future to spark interest. Any successful business needs such a plan.

Collecting, Assembling and Analyzing Data

Begin by creating a horizon for your plan. When will you accomplish the vision your plan describes? It can be one, five or 10 years. Choose a time frame, then create a graph (on a whiteboard, ideally) that has years along the top axis and rows for various data. The first column of the graph will be this year, and there must be enough columns for every year between now and the date of your horizon. Collect all of the current financial information that you can about the business and the marketplace. For the business, this includes the revenue, costs, profit, goods sold, number of employees, locations, models or types, services or goods, and so forth. For the marketplace, you should collect broad figures about competition, pricing, locations, target customers, demographics, customs and tax numbers (especially if import or export is involved).

List all those metrics on the vertical axis of your chart and insert the current numbers for each line in the first column (this year), each in its appropriate box. Enter values for each of those metrics in the last column of the chart, the one describing your plan when it is accomplished. In order to fill in that column, you will have to assess what your vision will look like in real terms. So if today, for example, you sell $10,000 a year of product, you might put $100,000 a year in the same row for the column depicting 10 years from now or five years from now. To fill in the rest of the chart you will need to determine how fast you expect to grow, making sure that each column has a believable relationship to the next, and that you preserve the important ratios. Important ratios include the relationship of costs to profit and the number of employees you will need to function at the level of growth you anticipate.

Creating a Strategy

In order to create a strategy, you must find out more about the current landscape. A SWAT analysis is a way to analyze that landscape. SWAT stands for strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities. Many of these will be apparent in your chart and in your assessment of the marketplace. Using your whiteboard, make lists of those four areas. For strengths include any special skills, technologies, products, distribution channels or anything else your business does particularly well. The same areas should be evaluated for weaknesses. Make sure you include all problems that are threats, including regulations, competitors, customer or delivery issues, and lack of capital or lack of personnel. Then list all of the opportunities that make this the right moment to pursue this plan.

Invent a strategy

A strategy is a theory about how to accomplish a goal. Your theory should be an idea about how you will be unique and why your customers will choose your business over other options. Use your data about customers and the marketplace to create this. Remember, this is a theory, so it can turn out to be wrong. But you should have enough information to make a strong guess. For example, if you have an online shoe store, you could strategize that your customers will choose your business for its convenience over a brick-and-mortar store.

Begin to plan your execution of the business plan

Every aspect of your planning must keep in mind the chart and all of the relationships within the business, as well as your SWAT analysis. In the example of the online shoe store, you might want to consider a practice of sending multiple sizes to customers with prepaid return envelopes. That way, the built-in problem of trying on shoes to find the right size (an advantage that your brick-and-mortar competitor has) is alleviated. But remember, while that’s a great idea, it has costs associated with it (extra inventory, postage, shipping, etc), so build it into your graph. Put the plan in narrative form and include all of the data and analysis. if you plan to present the plan to investors, or even to use it as a plan, it’s a good idea to bind it, and all the data, in a usable book.