You know what the problem is with most business plans? They don’t exist. It’s hard to chart a course toward your ideal future when you don’t have a map. Of course, the opposite can be true as well. Some business plans exist in the extreme. Inches thick, they map out every minute detail of a business to a level that no human could ever follow.
The common factor: Both types of plans are functionally worthless. Whether you don’t have a plan or your plan is too cumbersome to use on a daily basis, you’re in the same boat, and that boat doesn’t have a rudder, a compass, or a captain who knows where to go.
Ronan Ryle, president of client success at 3XM Solution and Business Success Academy, wants to help photographers change this navigational nightmare for their businesses. Ryle, who has dedicated himself to helping photographers make more money, says business plans should be brief and always at hand.
“A business plan needs to be short enough that you’ll actually read it,” says Ryle. “Get that plan from a thick document down to two pages. And those pages should sit on your desk every single minute of every single day so you can refer to it and use it.”
When Ryle says “short,” he means it. He advocates a two-page business plan that includes a page for vision and a page for implementation. That’s it.
Ryle’s planning methodology includes three stages: discovery, deciding, and doing. Discover why you want a particular future for your business, decide how to make that future happen, then do the things necessary to make that future real.
The first page of the plan describes your vision for the business. Where do you want to take your business, and what are the steps to get there? Ryle suggests thinking about where you want your business and your life to be in 10 years, then backing up in small increments to plot out how to create that new reality.
The why. Critical to your vision for your business is an understanding of your why. It may sound rudimentary, but understanding why you’re a professional photographer is an essential part of the process. “Great businesses communicate the why, not just what they do,” explains Ryle. “But in the rush to come up with a plan, too many people focus too much on the what and the how.” Concentrating on the mechanics of your business before figuring out your fundamental inspiration can lead to a business that lacks guiding principles. That’s a problem because these principles are the milestones that help you establish what you want your business to become. Without them, your business will lack structure and context.
Business values. Ryle views business values in concentric circles. At the center, and most important, are your core values. These are the defining principles determined by your why. They are the values that are fundamental to everything you do as a professional.
The next circle is made up of what Ryle calls permission-to-play values. These are the minimum values you want to see in employees and partners before they are fully integrated into your business. Ask questions to see if a prospective employee or partner matches up with both your core and permission-to-play values.
The outer circle is your aspirational values. These are what you want to make core values but are not yet embedded into your culture. How do you envision your business in its ideal state? Ryle often counsels photographers to view a selection of descriptive words and identify the terms that absolutely identify the business (core values) as well as the words they would like to describe the business (aspirational values).
Marketing pillars. Ryle’s three marketing pillars include a brand positioning statement, a marketing persona, and an elevator pitch. These elements act as a guide for any marketing campaign or promotional plan.
The second page of your business plan details how you’ll make things happen. This is the do it stage of the process where you identify what you need to do, quantify the tasks at hand, and figure out how you’re going to deliver on the promises you’re making to yourself and your business. Consider: How are you going to reach your goals? What are you going to do to achieve your aspirational values? How are you going to achieve your yearly benchmarks and fulfill your 10-year vision for your business?
The 12-week year. Ryle suggests breaking down the process in manageable chunks. Instead of writing out a plan for an entire year, which leads to procrastination and imbalanced scheduling of tasks, break it down into quarters—a concept created by Brian P. Morgan and Michael Lennington. The 12-week year lets photographers hold themselves accountable for a realistic set of goals during each 12-week period, building incrementally toward your year-end goals. Goals should be specific and tasks manageable. Write it all down and post it on the wall by your desk. At the end of the quarter, take down that 12-week plan and put up a new one for the next quarter.
Planning for uncertain times. All of this planning makes sense in good times when you can reasonably predict how typical events will affect your business. But what about when the world is, say, overturned by a global pandemic? In uncertain times, a plan is even more important, says Ryle. “None of the core things change. What changes are the next steps and the timing.”
It’s important to work flexibility into your overall plan and allow for changes in your 12-week plan to accommodate shifts in the marketplace that were impossible to predict.
With that in mind, photographers should consider how to develop multiple sources of revenue, says Ryle. Think about how you can translate your core skills, equipment, and materials to other related enterprises if your main source of income unexpectedly dries up. Write down the areas that could be a potential pivot, then create step-by-step processes for building up those alternate revenue sources. If all is going well in your main pursuit, this doesn’t need to be a primary objective, but if you work it into your 12-week plan and chip away incrementally, then you’ll be better positioned for an unexpected downturn—or to emerge from that downturn stronger than ever.
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.