When Lexi Soukoreff launched Daub + Design in 2010, the business was an experiment. Straight out of textile school, the Vancouver resident began hand-dyeing swimsuits and selling them at markets. “I just started making them,” she says. “I didn't really have a plan.”

At a certain point, she realized that swimwear alone wasn’t going to pay the bills — “we have such a short summer” — so she expanded into hosiery, then yoga leggings, then a full line of activewear. Now, just over a decade later, she’s opened her first storefront on South Granville, down the street from retailers like West Elm, Anthropologie and trendy local clothing shop The Latest Scoop.

How did she get there? Some talent, a bit of luck, a lot of hard work — and a solid business plan. But what does that mean? Here, we examine this essential business tool and share tips on how to get started with your own.

What is a business plan?

“A business plan is the story of your business,” says John Baxter, business plan advisor at Small Business BC. “It's breaking down and showing all the decisions that are being made in your business, and why you're making those decisions.”

You could also call a business plan a strategy, notes Alanna Keefe, director of communications and client services at the Women’s Enterprise Centre of Manitoba. “It's your map to address issues that may come up, to mitigate the issues before they do, and to support you as your business evolves and grows.”

Your business plan will include all the different aspects of your business, including your history, your present situation and your future goals. The Small Business BC business plan template, for example, covers everything from market research and product to sales, operations and financials. Baxter also points out that when he works with clients, they look at cash flow as part of the business planning process. “Those two go hand in hand,” he says.

The idea isn’t to lay out every individual step and follow it to a T, but rather to examine all the aspects of your business and think through your goals and how you want to reach them. “It's a living document,” Baxter says. “It's showing your plans, but all of those things are going to be flexible and changing.”

And while a business plan for a company looking for investors or financing might be on the longer and more detailed side, yours doesn’t have to be, says Keefe — at least not at first. “It can be a really solid six and a half–page business plan,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be wildly cumbersome.”

Who is a business plan for?

First and foremost, a business plan is for you. The act of writing it will help you clarify what you want your business to be, and how you intend to get there. You may also discover gaps in your planning, or areas where you need training or external support in order to do a good job.

For instance, Soukoreff says she was never a natural at math. But she committed to learning how to monitor and evaluate business financials in order to have a clear picture of how Daub + Design is doing. Now, she says, “I enjoy understanding the numbers. But I really had to teach myself how important that is.”

A well-thought-out business plan also helps you explain your business to others, both informally — think refining your elevator pitch — and formally, such as when trying to get funding, hiring outside support such as design or PR, or even applying for a lease.

“As a business owner, you don't have time to sit down and write out the same thing every single time somebody wants to know about your business,” Soukoreff says. “Your business plan ends up being an extremely valuable asset.”

Do I really need a business plan?

“In a business, there are cheap lessons and expensive lessons,” says Baxter. Good planning can uncover problems and costs that you’ll be able to avoid, while poor planning can end up costing a lot of money and time — or even your entire business.

His point? It’s better to get clear on what you need to do when you have time on your side rather than at the last minute when the unexpected might come up or you might be overwhelmed.

Good planning can uncover problems and costs that you’ll be able to avoid, while poor planning can end up costing a lot of money and time — or even your entire business.

Take returns, for example. If you sell product, you should have a clear idea of whether you’ll let customers return what they’ve bought, and if so, how that process would work. This returns policy should be part of your business plan. Better to think it through when it’s not urgent than to have to invent it in front of a disgruntled customer.

Keefe also points out that your business plan is your business history should you one day want to sell, as well as your backup plan for when emergencies happen. For instance, you might be on top of your operations and handling everything just fine — until a personal issue or illness suddenly takes you away from your work. A well-maintained business plan can help someone else step in and take over when necessary.

Soukoreff’s business plan came in handy in early 2021 when she was making decisions about opening a storefront.

Before she committed to a lease, she and her accountant reviewed the plan and a few potential sales scenarios to evaluate if retail would be worthwhile for her business. “It was important to look at how the business had grown and examine customer spending both over the years and through the pandemic,” she says.

Maybe you don’t have plans to rent a storefront, or even a studio. But a business plan can still help you refine what you want to get out of your business, Soukoreff says. She points out, for instance, that many people simply assume they want their company to get bigger, without thinking what that might mean. “I think it's something that business owners really have to consider,” she says. “One, how they do it; two, if they want to; and third, does scaling actually mean more money?”

What makes a good business plan?

If you’ve ever had a job with formal performance reviews, you know about SMART goals. They’re not vague, like “I want to make my business bigger.” They’re specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound — like “I want to be making $2,000 per month in profits by next July.”

Baxter says that a good business plan should be packed with SMART goals — and the entire thing should be actionable, so you know exactly what to do next. “I've heard from clients, ‘I've finished my business plan, now what do I do?’” he says. “Well, that sounds like an incomplete business plan.”

Another element of a good business plan is consistency, Baxter adds. Any themes present in one place should be there throughout. For example, he explains, a business plan that discusses marketing via social media should also be including social media in its audience section (“our target customer spends a lot of time on Instagram”) and in its financials, where it would set a budget for social media advertising. “It has to be a consistent narrative,” he says.

How do I write a business plan?

Don’t worry — it’s not a matter of sitting down in front of a blank document and a blinking cursor. There are plenty of business plan templates and resources out there to support you in the planning process. The important thing is that you do it yourself, Baxter notes, even if you call in reinforcements to help — because no one understands your business and your goals like you do. “It is not the best thing to have an outside party do it,” he says.

Many people appreciate having other entrepreneurs to talk through their plans with, which is one reason Keefe recommends signing up for a group course to write your business plan with the guidance of an instructor. Her organization, for example, offers a workshop series that covers the business plan process in six three-hour classes. (It’s her job to promote the course, but she’s so enthusiastic, you get the feeling she’d recommend it even if it weren’t.) “You get hands-on instruction and good content and lots of material to back it up,” she says. “You're also integrated with your peer group, and it's interactive. It has proven really successful.”

A business plan shouldn't be something that you do start to finish and put on a shelf afterwards. It should be something that you're working on as you're working on the business.

One tip for those who choose to DIY? Don’t start at the beginning and work from start to finish, says Baxter. Instead, he advises clients to think of it like a test in school. “Do the easy parts first,” he says. “If you get to something that kind of stumps you, move on for a while and then circle back to it.” In fact, if something stumps you, it’s a sign you need to either do more research or hire an advisor to support you in that area.

Finally, be realistic and accept that this is a big job that you won’t — and shouldn’t — complete in one sitting. “A business plan shouldn't be something that you do start to finish and put on a shelf afterwards,” Baxter adds. “It should be something that you're working on as you're working on the business.”

It’s all about the journey

The point of writing a business plan isn’t to check “write business plan” off your list. It’s the act of writing the business plan that helps you define your goals and desires and figure out your strengths and weaknesses so you can build a business that’s successful in exactly the way you want it to be.

Will it be a lot of work? Yes, probably. Will it be worth the effort? Almost certainly. “Your business plan is an extremely valuable item,” says Soukoreff. “It takes so long to do if you're doing the full thing, but it's so worthwhile.”