Write a Successful Small Business Plan in 7 Steps

2 Mailchimp Partners on opposite sides of the globe offer their advice.

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Portrait of Gavin

Posted by Gavin

• 4 min read

So, what does a successful small business plan look like? How do you know that you're accounting for any and every possibility down the road? Well, honestly, you can't. What you can do is research, ask a lot of questions and seek sage advice from those who have been through it. Fortunately, we've got the latter part covered for you.

Meet Mailchimp partners, Kelly Vaughn and Danny Phillips. Kelly is the founder of The Taproom Agency based in Atlanta. On the other side of the world, in Australia, Danny is the director of the CX agency, Arkade. Both Kelly and Danny are small business owners dedicated to helping others execute their plans.

If you're really ready to commit to creating your plan, hold yourself accountable by writing it out.

"The first thing is to actually build out that physical plan," Kelly says. "Have it down on paper. Having it all written down on a true business plan is really helpful. You might be diverging from the those plans at some point, but you always have something to refer back to as far as, 'this is where we started, this is what our goals were.'"

We pulled Kelly and Danny away from their busy schedules to chat about the 7 things to keep in mind when you're putting your small business plan together.

1. Do your paperwork.

Yeah, we know doing taxes is about as fun as watching paint dry, but don't start any business plan without handling that first.

"The first thing everyone needs to be thinking about is taxes, especially if they're based in the U.S., and how it's going to affect their annual tax return," Kelly says. "Thinking about that now versus after you're already starting to make money, you'll set yourself up on the right foot."

While you're at it, set up your legal and business accounts.

"Registering as an LLC basically separates your personal assets from your business assets where if, absolute worst case scenario, something happens, and you're sued or something like that, it makes it so that your personal assets are not actually accessible in that kind of situation," she says.

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2. Pick a format that works for you.

Is it an outline? Do I create a slide deck? Are their templates? Danny says he uses Lean Canvas, but find what's right for you.

"One of them will speak to you and your sensibility and your attention to detail, or your short attention span like I have," Danny says. "If one format doesn't work for you try a different one. One thing might look good on paper, but when you actually try to put your own thoughts and ideas and projections into it, it might not stack up. It might not be that your idea is wrong, or your plan's wrong, it might be just the format of that plan isn't quite right."

3. Make your goals official.

You're going to be juggling a lot at the start. Stay on track of your North Star(s), and remember what's driving you toward them.

"I think when you're doing your business plans and setting up the basics, knowing what you do stand for and what you don't stand for is important," Danny says.

Knowing that, as well as developing your S.M.A.R.T. goals will keep you honest about what your business is and where you want it to be.

"What are your goals for your first 6 months," Kelly says. "Your first year? Your first 3 years? What is it going to take to acquire those? Who are the stakeholders involved in this business? Is it just you or are you serving certain clients? Are you selling a product, or products? Having it all written down on a true business plan is really helpful."

A dog and two people wearing suits.

4. Know your roles.

If you're not going into this business alone, document who you need and why you need them.

"You need to make sure you write every single person's job description as if you were hiring for that position," Kelly says. "This way everyone knows exactly what their role is in the company."

And always remember: "It should be more out of necessity rather than head count," she says.

5. Find a mentors and peers who can review your plan.

"In my case, the best thing I ever did was find a mentor for myself," Kelly says. "She's very good at setting me straight when I start to veer off of a path that I shouldn't be going down."

Forming partnerships early on is also important.

"If you don't have your own business partner to bounce ideas off of, then have some sort of trusted advisor or mentor that's been through this," Danny says. "Articles like this help, but I think having someone that knows you and can critique your work in a sort of safe way and give you that constructive criticism is valuable."

Small person riding large dog that is tracking a scent.

6. Follow your money trail(s).

Not a numbers person? You're not alone, but it's crucial that you're keeping tabs on cash flow, and writing that into your plan.

"Spend enough time on your business plan to make sure that you understand your true costs, your costs of goods, or just the ins and the outs," Danny says. "Make sure you do your accounting, even if it's rough. Just be really careful with not banking for your own time and effort. You can loan your effort into the business, but you can't pretend that it's viable when it's only viable if you're putting in 20-hour days."

7. Always revisit your plan.

Both Kelly and Danny say get use to revisiting, tweaking, and revising your plan on at least a quarterly basis.

"One thing will be true: if you look back every 3 years, you won't recognize the business you were," Danny says. "Even if you've only been a 2-person operation for 20 years, every 3 years, when you look back, you won't recognize yourself," Danny says. "If you're not open to change, you'll generally be a victim of it. So build into your plan the ability to pivot, the ability to change, the ability to adapt."

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Put your plan into action!

At the end of the day, the plan, guidebook, map—whatever you want to call it—are words on paper. Ultimately, according to Kelly and Danny, that's all they'll ever be until you put them in action.

"Once you start you're going to have like this reality of, 'Oh I thought this was how things were going to be,' or 'I was completely wrong about who my target customer is,'" Kelly says. "A lot of things can change and you're not going to know all these answers until you actually get started."

Dannys says to not overthink it.

"I've seen so many people that have been paralyzed by possibility, and months and years go by," he says. "You've just got to get it down on paper and make sure it makes sense. Check it with a couple of people that you trust, and start."