By Sammi Soutar

      "If you don't know where you're going, how do you know when you've arrived?"
        Launching a business with a little start-up capital but no plan is a lot like starting a road trip with a full tank but no map. You may find your way, you may get lost, or you may just run out of gas before you get there.
   Fortunately for association management executives, planning is familiar territory. Many of us help our board leadership develop mission statements, goal statements, and long-range plans. So we know first-hand that the investment of time spent on strategic planning is likely to bring an appreciable return. Writing a business plan for your own AMC is time well spent, as well.
        I began "toying" with the idea of ownership several years ago while serving as the executive director of an association which has since become a client.  Reading, especially books on the how to's of writing a business plan for a start-up company, went on into the wee hours. (At the end of this article is a recommended reading list.)
  By the time Able Management Solutions, Inc., had incorporated and opened for business, the ink was dry on a final draft of the business plan. Since then, it has come in handy many times.
      Having the plan in place meant the time spent preparing documents for accountants, attorneys and bankers was shortened. Applying for property and liability insurance coverage was a snap because much of the information insurance companies were requesting had already been assembled in my company's strategic business plan. In addition, expanded sections of the plan found their way into the company's marketing strategy and into proposals made to prospective clients.
      Over the past 12 months, review of the plan on a quarterly basis has helped ensure the company remains on track and allows for refinements that reflect changing marketplace conditions. In fact, no other single exercise has been of more help to me during this first year than the ongoing process of developing, fine-tuning and studying that plan.
       While there are plenty of books on the subject of business planning, many of them focus on plans whose sole function is to obtain financing - either from investors or lenders. I personally feel these sell the business plan short and advise anyone considering the entrepreneur's path to research and prepare a business plan long before financing becomes an issue.
      Start with a mission statement. Initially, I reached for phrasing that was unique and clever, then realized that what worked best was something adaptive, straightforward, descriptive and easy to understand. In one form or another, the basic concept contained in that  mission statement has appeared in our marketing materials and presentations.
        The mission statement sets the tone. The rest of the plan takes its shape from your decisions on how to achieve your mission, short- and long-term goals. Books on the subject recommend a variety of plan components. Of all the possible combinations, my plan grew from the following: 
      *       Cover page, including company name, address, phone, fax, name of principal and date.
    *       Executive summary, including mission statement, brief company description and background, targeted market, situational analysis and financial projection summary.
       *       Company description, including goals and objectives, list of services, progress to date, legal status and ownership.
    *       Industry analysis, covering demographics, trends in company downsizing, technology, current client list, and long-term opportunities.
   *       Target market - market description, industries and customers.
   *       Competition - historical background, distinguishing characteristics.
    *       Marketing - networking opportunities, advertising.
      *       Management - background and education.
  *       Financial projections - balance sheets, income statements, net worth, income and expense projections, and cash flow projections.
        In addition, I maintain a current appendices section, following The Business Planning  Guide, by David H. Bangs Jr., which includes: Personnel resumes; personal balance sheets; cost-of-living budget; credit reports; letters of reference; job descriptions; letters of intent; copies of lease; contracts; and legal documents. This comes in handy should you decide to apply for a loan.
With a little last-minute updating, you have all the documents you need in short order.
For the most part, though, a strategic business plan's value comes from the exercise itself. The process of defining goals and objectives, identifying available resources, and integrating market and environmental analyses into a comprehensive plan of action helps set your ideas in motion.  Along the way, you may find yourself a) tightening your mission statement; b) establishing more specific goals; and c) plotting a detailed course to implement those goals. Follow the tips below to capitalize on your own business plan's usefulness:
      *       Review your plan regularly, doing a little judicious editing as needed.
*       Develop resource files - ASAE and the AMC Section; the Senior Corp of Retired Executives (SCORE), and the Small Business Administration are all excellent sources of information.
       *       Be concise. Use action-oriented language.
       *       After you've finished the business plan, start on your marketing strategy.
      *       When shopping for equipment, make a list with three columns to make price comparisons - I labeled mine  "Cadillac," "Buick" and "Former Owner." With this snapshot, it's easier to make decisions that fit your needs to your budget.
   *       Share your plan. Find a friend or business colleague who can view your work with an objective eye and give you an honest reaction. Visit with one of the SCORE counselors. The service is free, and the organization tries to match you with a seasoned executive from your field.
      Able Management Solutions celebrated its one-year anniversary as scheduled, with new clients and two full-service accounts, an early track record that convinced me a business plan can be an effective management tool. It took a "narrow escape," however, for me to fully appreciate its value in navigating around business obstacles.
      Last spring, I had an opportunity to acquire a client that was interested in full-service management but exhibited some troubling signs - financial documents that could not be corroborated, a divisive leadership. The decision to decline was difficult, since the company was - and is -  "young and hungry." But the plan indicated the prospect was not a "good fit."
     By the time news confirming those initial fears arrived, the company was miles past the

danger zone, thanks to thoughtful advisers and a strategic business plan that showed the way.
Sammi Soutar is the  president of Able Management Solutions, Inc., an association management company  that  assists small business executives and association professionals to grow as leaders in their chosen vocations and organizations.