The Art of Business: Creating Your Future, One Month at a Time
"The best way to predict the future is to create it," said Alan Kay, the inventor of Smalltalk (which became the inspiration and technical basis for the Macintosh and subsequent windowing-based systems). The quote is particularly apt at year's end when we have a tendency to wax poetic about the wonderful opportunity of starting anew.
A set of nebulous resolutions usually fails to help us create the future we want, especially when it comes to your business. A more practical and effective device is a yearly action plan that details goals, tactics, costs, and expectations for the coming year. A business action plan ties specific tasks to specific dates or months, so when March or August arrives, you know precisely what needs to be accomplished. The key is to incorporate the plan into your daily calendar so it becomes a living blueprint rather than some theoretical document created in December and vaguely remembered in May.
An action plan has a number of benefits. It helps you crystallize the goals and actions needed to build your business. Secondly, it gives you something to chew on during those periods of little or no work, which beats the alternative of panicking yourself into hysteria or depression. Whenever you have a free day, open up your action plan and you'll find plenty of work to keep you from slipping into self-imposed misery.
An action plan can also save you money by preventing rash buying decisions, particularly spending on new technology. And it will help you communicate your vision to your employees and colleagues, showing them that you're thinking as every leader should.
Most importantly, a plan helps you pace your life so that the sheer weight of what needs to be done doesn't rest on your shoulders every moment of every day. It's a Gantt chart in slow motion.
Your yearly plan can be as simple as a to-do list or as detailed as a business plan.
Start by creating two sections for each area of your business you want to cover. In the first section, specify your goals for the year. In the second section, list all the tasks that can help you achieve those goals along a monthly timeline. In his excellent book, "The Business Side of Creativity," Cameron S. Foote suggests the following action plan for the category of sales:
Sales Strategy: To reduce our dependence on ad assignments from agencies from 25 to 15 percent of our workload. To more heavily merchandise recent collateral awards. To work for a 50/50 mix of small and large assignments. To obtain at least one new annual report clients with creative billing over $25,000.
January: Attend every meeting of the Business Marketing Association.
January: Run a six-line classified ad under "Design Services" in local Business Journal to develop brochure business from small companies. Cost: $1,200. Expectation: 5 leads, 2 jobs with $5,000 income.
March: Do a 250-letter mailing to showcase collateral services to new clients, sustain existing business. Follow up with telephone calls. Cost: $450. Expectation: 4 leads, 1 job with $4,500 income.
July: Develop the creative, and buy Ad and PR club mailing lists for September annual report mailing.
September: Do direct mailing to 500 annual report prospects. Cost: $3,500. Expectation: 5 leads, 1 job with $25,000 income.
October: Develop creative for Christmas card.
December: Send 150 Christmas cards. Cost: $500. Expectation: Goodwill only.
It's a simple but effective list that serves as the basis for a proactive sales campaign, easily amended as changing conditions dictate.
Consider these other business areas when building your plan:
- Client Care. Clients need to be tended, a lesson often forgotten until they become former clients. Schedule meetings, face to face, if possible once or twice during the year with every client, just to check in on the relationship and see what you can do to create greater customer loyalty.
- Strategic Alliances. With whom do you want to shack up this year? Investigate potential creative partners: PR firms, other designers with proficiencies outside of yours, writers, illustrators, Web developers, systems engineers, prepress shops, printers. Spend time throughout the year doing the due diligence necessary to select partners wisely.
- Web Site/Collateral Materials Update. What work is necessary to freshen your website, portfolio, and/or collateral materials? Try scheduling new work during historical down times for you or a contracted Web developer. Schedule all refreshes well in advance of sales and marketing initiatives.
- Technology and Facilities. Here's a fun task: Make a wish list of all the new equipment and software you need, prioritize the list and spread out the purchases throughout the year, leaving you plenty of time to do product research and shop for best deals. The same goes for your office space, be it the spare bedroom or a downtown complex. What changes would help you work more efficiently?
- Business Practices. December of next year is no time to decide you need a new accountant. July is a much better time. Business practices often get set on the back burner, but there can be significant cost savings and other benefits in reviewing your arrangements with CPAs, attorneys, insurance providers, lease and rental agencies, benefits management companies, and other entities. Better to make new arrangements before the next emergency.
- Learning and Professional Growth. Here's yet another back burner item. Check local programs for courses you would like to take during the year. And schedule in a trade show or two for both marketing and professional improvement. You can find a comprehensive listing of trade shows, in and out of the graphic design world, check the events listings on creativepro.com or go to Trade Show News Network.
The end of the year is also a good time to reflect on the year past, learn from your mistakes, and jettison the emotional and professional baggage that can weigh you down.
If it helps, put a limit on the time you spend developing a plan. You can probably complete it in half a day, certainly in one full day. Sometime between now and New Year's Day, grab an eggnog, sit by the fire, and create your future, one month at a time.
Read more by Eric J. Adams.
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