SaaS 101: Starting a Software as a Service Business

starting a SaaS business software as a service business

This article is part of our SaaS Business Startup Guide—expert resources to help you plan, start, and grow your SaaS business!

If you’re interested in starting a software as a service (SaaS) business, you’ll want to start with the basics. Here’s a quick overview of the details, benefits, and risks.

SaaS defined

SaaS (software as a service) means that users access software through their internet browser or a web-based app. The software maker hosts their product on their own servers, which is why SaaS products are sometimes referred to as a “hosted solution” or “web-based solution.”

It’s also common to hear SaaS products talked about as “cloud-based” solutions. In contrast, a desktop-based model is where an individual or company would install software on their computers and run it on their own servers.

Pricing models and customer acquisition

SaaS products often use a subscription-based pricing model. So instead of paying once for a lifetime of use, your customer pays on an ongoing basis—usually monthly or annually. You can think of it as a software license.

It’s a popular model because of the increased potential lifetime value of each customer. Instead of a flat lifetime value—like $120 for the single sale opportunity you have with each customer or user, you might charge $10 a month per user for as long as your customer uses your service. The longer they stick around, the higher their lifetime value.

When you build out your SaaS company’s business plan, spend some time modeling different subscription-based sales forecast scenarios so you can see how reducing churn (the number of canceled subscribers) and other variables can affect your path to profitability.

Download your free subscription sales forecast template today!

Growing SaaS companies are always testing their pricing models. There are a lot of different ways to get customers in the door to kick the tires, from offering free trials, to freemium services with upgrade options. Check out the Bplans guide to SaaS pricing models for more on how to get started.

Security and reliability

One of the objections you’ll probably hear from some prospective customers is that they’re worried about data security with SaaS products, and with apps in general. This is especially true if you’re presenting a cloud-based solution for something that used to only be available as a desktop version.

The concern is that “the cloud” has security vulnerabilities. But in actuality, legacy systems are actually more vulnerable than cloud-based apps. That said, take the responsibility of protecting your customers’ data very seriously.

What if you’re a non-technical founder?

If you have an idea for a software as a service business, but you don’t have the technical expertise to build your app yourself, it’s still possible to run a successful business. In his book “Lost and Founder,” Rand Fishkin talks about his journey as a non-technical CEO of Moz, a service company he founded and transformed into a SaaS company.

He emphasizes how important it was for him to learn (and keep learning) enough about the technical aspects of his business so that he was able to make good hires and understand technical roadblocks when they surfaced. And it’s not completely impossible to learn to code yourself—but it does take time.

Be mindful of your intellectual property—the code—whether you bring on an employee or outsource the technical work. A good contract can go a long way.

Starting with an MVP

There’s a great article in Geekwire on a Seattle founder of an app that helps parents find childcare. One of the best things about it is that it gives a clear example of what an MVP (minimum viable product) might look like for an app. In this case, it was just an Airtable spreadsheet that the founder posted online for free, where it got a lot of traffic in just a few days.

The point is that if you have an idea for a SaaS business, don’t invest all of your time and resources into creating the very best, most perfect version of your app before you start testing it. You want to use a lighter version so you can validate that the solution you’re offering is something people will pay for. You’ll waste a lot of time and energy if you skip validating your idea before you build the full-scale version.

Reid Hoffman famously said, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you launched too late.” The point isn’t to put out a bad product—it’s to see how it does quickly, before you invest a ton into it.

Funding your SaaS startup

Building a successful SaaS business doesn’t happen overnight. More so than in other industries, it’s easy to get the impression that SaaS companies grow very quickly—they just blow up over the course of a year. In reality, Spotify is more than 10 years old. Netflix is over 20 years old. It takes time to scale and grow a business. Keep that in mind when you’re looking for funding.

If you just have a business idea, but you haven’t tested it yet with an MVP or convinced anyone to pay for it, it’s going to be tough to make the case to angel investors or venture capitalists. They’re looking for traction in the marketplace, and that means you’re going to have to demonstrate that you can sell your product.

One of the other things you’ll hear is that some companies that take on investment run huge deficits for years on end—think Uber’s billions of dollars in losses. It’s true that lots of software companies that take on investment aren’t profitable for a long time. But investors are in it to win in the long term. You’re going to need realistic financials in your business plan, and a strategy to eventually be acquired.

But also keep in mind that depending on your end goals, it’s possible to run a profitable, healthy business for a long time without ever seeking outside investment. It all depends on your goals. Tim Berry talks about it in this articlenot all good businesses are good investments. (Full disclosure, Tim founded Palo Alto Software and Bplans; Palo Alto Software makes a SaaS business planning tool called LivePlan, and a shared inbox tool for teams.)

In the meantime, you might be able to fund your business idea with your day job or your savings. Maybe you have personal collateral that you can use to get a loan or line of credit, or maybe crowdfunding is an option.

Just start

One of the best things you can do in the early stages of your SaaS business is to map out a quick business plan. We call this approach a Lean Plan. You can do it quickly, and just by doing the process you’ll have thought through a lot of the most important parts of your business. Also, check out our SaaS and subscription business startup guide for more expert how-tos. 

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Brian MackleyBrian Mackley
Brian Mackley

Brian L. Mackley is a cofounder of the Technology Advocacy Group. His background as a record setting sales professional in the SaaS environment, and as a professional sales trainer enable him to share the inside knowledge with his clients. He has trained thousands of technology sales professionals over the past decade and now shares his secrets with organizations to help level the playing field when buying technology. As an expert in SaaS and negotiation techniques, he teaches executives how to adopt technology without getting taken advantage of by clever commissioned sales reps or purposely confusing contracts. He has developed the sales methods and training for some of the largest technology companies in the U.S.

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How to Start a Digital Marketing Agency Without Outside Funding

how to start a digital marketing agency

It’s easier to start a digital marketing agency without funding than people might think.

In this post, I will cover starting your business on your own—with aspirations of becoming an agency. I will look at how to get your first clients and how to balance your time when finding them—when you start on your own, that is one of the toughest balancing acts.

Setting up

The beauty of setting up a digital marketing agency is that you can start from virtually nothing. I know this from personal experience because my business partner and I did just that with our company, Louder.Online. If you have the expertise, then all you need to get started is a computer and a home office (or at least a space to work). There are not many businesses where that’s all you need.

You don’t need to put it all on a credit card, you don’t need to get a bank loan, you don’t need startup capital—you can just build a website, and you can be on your way. That’s what we did, and we now have a successful digital marketing agency with clients around the world.

Taking on your first employees

Many businesses will hire recruiting and onboarding agencies to find employees for their burgeoning digital marketing agency, but if you’re going to build an agency without funding then you need to be doing this yourself.

Beyond the fact that you won’t need the extra cash from the start to make hires, it will mean that you have control over the kind of employees that you take on. When you’re ready, you can hire the right people for the culture that you create around your business.

Training your team

Training your employees can be a costly business if you are not wise. When building a digital marketing agency without outside funding, you need to make sure you have a plan in place to be able to train people as and when they join you without incurring additional cost to the business.

Something we found invaluable when building our agency was to train the first few staff ourselves and educate them on everything we could. Sure, it meant that we put in some long hours at the start, but it paid off in the long run.

Training our first employees in every area we could think of prepared them to be able to train the next wave of staff. In turn, those staff members were able to teach the team members that joined after them.

As people moved up the ladder in our business, the staff that joined early on were able to train up the juniors that came in after them. Higher paid employees were able to use their time to liaise with clients and strategize rather than spending their time on training—making the business more successful and profitable, while not losing any of the vision that we had for the company or how our digital marketing client work was undertaken.

Documenting your processes and making life easier

If you want to start an agency without having outside funding, you need to find ways to do things in a non-traditional manner.

If your business takes off straight away, then it is likely that you are going to be taking on staff fairly quickly to cope with demand. When you have new staff starting regularly, you need two things in place—process documentation and basic HR functions—preferably avoiding having to hire an HR person too early.

At Louder.Online we made sure that we concentrated on these very early on. We documented our processes from day one in some software called Process Street. The software lets you create checklists and workflows that any of your staff can run at any time.

We use Process Street to document things like:

  • How to answer the phone
  • What to do when you are sick
  • How to put in an expenses report
  • How to book a holiday
  • What is needed before a new employee starts
  • What is required when an employee leaves

Having these processes documented means that everyone knows what they need to do and can follow a standard protocol. They don’t have to ask their manager or other staff.

This saves time and means that the employees that you have at your agency can actually spend more time on billable work for the clients. That, in turn, makes you more profitable. You are saving money that might otherwise have had to have come from outside funding.

We also didn’t want to have to hire an HR person until we really needed to and we certainly didn’t want to outsource that to a third party. They both cost a lot of money, and we didn’t want to have to use outside funding to do that.

After some searching around in the early days, we found some software called AppogeeHR.

The software boasts:

  • Centralized employee information
  • Leave and sickness management
  • Performance and learning tracking
  • Reporting
  • OKR management

It is simple to use, and it means that my business partner and I were able to act as HR without having to spend a lot of time on it. As earlier employees moved up, they were able to take on some of the work as well—and of course, this was all documented in a subsection of Process Street for when they needed it.

There is a saying that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and when we knew we didn’t want to use outside funding we looked for ways that we could make sure we didn’t have to.

Bootstrapping

If you don’t have that cash injection at the start of your businesses life, then you need to be bootstrapping.

A dictionary definition will tell you that it’s to get oneself into or out of a situation using existing resources. When you read other articles, they will talk about relying on personal income or savings, and they talk about sweat equity.

We think the definition can be a little broader than that—essentially optimizing your current situation. We did this through an intelligent choice of clients and being smart with our cash. We found these to be essential to avoid that outside funding.

Getting good clients

Bad clients bring you down. Bad clients cost you money. Bad clients suck up your time.

If you don’t want to be spending money on additional staff to cover those losses, then you need to know how to spot a good client. Taking on every client that comes your way was never an option for us.

So how do you spot a good client? Here are my tips:

  • Choose clients that will let you do your best work—stay away from the clients that overly worry about cost, because they will cost you in the long run.
  • Choose clients whose business you believe in—the synergy between your agency and their business will lead to a healthy and respectful relationship.
  • Work with clients who understand what you do—if they have some knowledge of the digital marketing landscape then they will be interested in what you do and don’t expect the world.

Being smart with your cash

This one sounds kind of obvious, right? But how many stories in the last few years have you read about businesses going under because of the inordinate amount of cash they spent on offices and perks to try and attract staff?

The employees that join your company are likely to know about these perks and want to see some of them. This is where you have to try and resist. Sure they are fun, but if you don’t want that outside funding, then you need to be sensible.

Company culture is not about the arcade machines and novelty slides from one floor to another. Company culture is about the bonds you create, the work that you do and how comfortable people feel at work.

People want to enjoy their work. When people enjoy their day to day life they produce better work, and they stay with a company longer. Combine these two together, and it cuts down the money you need to spend on recruitment and training—another way to avoid using outside funding.

Financial goal and milestone setting

Being smarter with your cash and spending less is one thing; financial goal and milestone setting is another. We knew we would have to create something scalable from the start and also be able to predict with some degree of accuracy what our potential revenue might be.

As we were starting a digital agency, we knew we were going to be selling hours from the very start. We knew that tracking employee time and client budgets were the way we wanted to head in. Using a project management tool like Liquid Planner or a Harvest/Basecamp combination can really help with this.

We set prices for staff, created client folders and subprojects early on. Every member of staff had tasks assigned that they accurately track time against. This allowed us to make sure we didn’t go over or under for clients and the tools turn the hours into dollars in detailed reports.

We started in a very granular way and had activities set for the different types of work that we were doing. This allowed us to accurately predict how long specific tasks would take and we could pitch accordingly—there was no finger in the air guesswork.

After we had started to collect this data we could predict how much revenue we might bring in per client. From there we created financial milestones based on the close rate of proposals and how much similar projects had cost—and whether they had come under or gone over. We found this to be an accurate way of getting solid estimates on where the business would be in six months, a year, five years and beyond. It’s strategic planning or Lean Business Planning.

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Start small but plan for growth

That’s how we did it at Louder Online, we took a no outside funding stance from the start and made sure we looked for alternative solutions to cut costs. We started small and made sure that there was a culture in place from day one.

We made sure that we documented everything so that new employees would know what they had to do and when.

We enabled the staff to train each other as the agency grew, creating last bonds and teamwork.  

It isn’t for everyone and it was definitely hard for us at the start, but it has made us the profitable digital marketing agency that we are today and we wouldn’t change that for the world.

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Aaron Agius
Aaron Agius

Aaron Agius, CEO of worldwide digital agency Louder Online is, according to Forbes, among the world’s leading digital marketers. Working with clients such as Salesforce, Coca-Cola, IBM, Intel, and scores of stellar brands, Aaron is a growth marketer—a fusion between search, content, social, and PR.

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How to Choose a Business Location

how to choose your business location

This article is part of our Business Startup Guidea curated list of our articles that will get you up and running in no time!

If you’ve been thinking about starting a business for a while, chances are you’ve got an idea of what your business location is going to look like.

That’s great, but it’s not enough.

Choosing the right location is about so much more than finding the place that looks closest to the one you’ve envisioned.

It’s about being somewhere your customers will see you, about being in a competitive location, about staying within budget, and about meeting local and state regulations and laws.

In this article, we’re going to review the things you need to keep in mind when choosing a location, offer you advice on where to look for a business location, and provide you with a few resources we think you’ll find useful as you work through the process.

Listen to Peter and Jonathan talk about the friendliest and least friendly cities for businesses on the fourteenth episode of The Bcast, the Bplans official podcast (at 27:42):

Click here to subscribe to The Bcast on iTunes »

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1. Questions to guide your business location search

Before you get into the nitty-gritty details of choosing the location, consider the following things.

General considerations:

  • Where is your target market located?
  • What image or brand do you want to convey?
  • How do you fit in with or stand out from your competitors?
  • How close do you need to be to suppliers?
  • What kind of neighborhood do you want to set up shop in? Is safety very important?
  • Will you easily be able to find employees?
  • Is your area business-friendly?
  • Do you have access to an engaged community that is eager to help?

Financial considerations:

  • Will you have to do extensive renovations before you can move in?
  • How much are property taxes? How much are income and sales taxes? Balance them out.
  • Could you pay less by choosing to start up in another state?
  • Can you afford to pay your employees at least the minimum wage?
  • Do you qualify for any government economic programs or incentives? Might you qualify somewhere else?

Legal considerations:

  • Can you legally conduct your business in this area?
  • If you want to make renovations or changes to the building, are there any legal restrictions?
  • Are you going to run into restrictions because of zoning laws in your area or location?

Find your small business loan today!

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2. Understand zoning laws and rental terms

Before you begin the “hunt” for the perfect location, it’s worth knowing a little bit about how zoning laws may affect you.

Zoning laws and setting up shop

In terms of where you can legally operate your business, you should consider local zoning regulations and ordinances. These will affect your ability to make changes to the property you purchase—and indeed, to purchase it in the first place. They will also define how various properties can be used and could place restrictions on things such as the height or size of a structure.

In general, a property is zoned either for commercial or residential use. This stops businesses from building in residentially-zoned areas, and vice-versa.

The best thing to do to find out how property in your area or city is zoned is to contact your local planning agency. You can also look to an attorney for help through the process.

A simple Google search should turn up a zoning map of your area as well, so give it a try.

Here’s an example:

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Zoning map of Eugene, Oregon.

If you’re operating a business out of your own home, many of the same zoning laws will apply to you. Common restrictions may include: limiting or prohibiting signage related to your business outside or on your home, making exterior changes to your home that relate to business activities, and traffic- or noise-related restrictions.

Depending on your city or council, you may also be required to obtain a Home Occupation Permit. Here’s an example permit for the city of Portland, Oregon.

It’s also worth remembering that if you rent your home, it may not just be zoning codes you have to contend with. Often, landlords will have a clause in a lease stating that the property may not be used for commercial purposes. In this case, if you break the law, you risk not just having your business shut down, but getting evicted.

The point? Do your research!

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3. Start your search on foot and online

Knowing what kind of location you want and what you need to consider is all very well, but where do you go to find a physical business location?

A few of your general options include:

  • Your local SBDC
  • The local Chamber of Commerce
  • Craigslist
  • Walking the neighborhood keeping an eye open for rental signs
  • Commercial real estate agencies

A few sites that list commercial properties to rent include:

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4. How others found their business location

Location prestige and SEO

Loveletter Cakeshop is a boutique wedding cake bakery located on 535 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Owner and head chef Brandon Baker says that he picked this location for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, that being on Fifth Avenue is a must for any luxury company in New York. “If you live in a city where certain streets carry clout and meaning over others, you must consider your address as an integral part of your overall branding efforts,” he says.

And secondly, that being positioned in the middle of the city gave his company an SEO benefit. “When you search for a local business in Google (e.g. New York Wedding Cakes), Google will show you businesses that are located nearest to your precise location. By positioning ourselves in the geographic middle of a large city, we made sure we were never too far from a searcher in Manhattan,” says Brandon.

For Bridgette Freeman, managing broker at Juwai Realty, location and prestige were also important deciding factors. “Although I am not pretentious, the industry I am in is very pretentious and location matters,” she says.

Of course, a great looking location in a good area isn’t all that counts. Bridgette adds: “I [also] looked at neighboring businesses, proximity to the interstate, and ease in getting to us. In this case, those things fit the bill and it was down to what’s in a name, or rather, a street name. Our business in located on Country Club Drive and down the street from a large country club community.”

Because Juwai Realty specializes in luxury property, it’s important that their business reflects the same. “An interior designer was hired to make the space shine. We close deals once people know our address and visit our office. We all know how important deals are to any business, especially a real estate business.”

Location, location, location!

Be where people expect you to be

For London-based tech startup Crozdeskpicking a business location had a lot more to do with where others like them were going to be located.

“As a tech startup, it was paramount for us to be located in what is called ‘The Silicon Roundabout.’ We identified a trend in London: the setting up of offices, communal spaces, and warehouses under the rails of the overground, inside ‘The Arches.’ Once we were sure about our location, we used Gumtree.”

In the tech world, access to talent is of paramount importance. When you situate yourself in the middle of the exact place things are going to be happening, you make your life that much easier.

Crozdesk is now located in the hub of London’s startup scene, granting them access to exactly these things: talent and a thriving lifestyle with lots of foot traffic (they’re just behind the famous Cargo Night Club).

Put your clients’ needs first

For Polaris Counseling & Consultinghaving a location that would be easy to get to was a primary consideration.

“We did some market research with our clients before we opened up shop. As therapists, we had existing clients at other agencies that chose to follow us to our new location. We made sure to let them know that we were leaving, and asked them where the easiest central location would be to get to,” they said.

Ultimately, they decided on a location in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, located right off the 95 and on every major bus route.

“For our local and some non-local clients this allowed easy access to all. We also saw after a few months the need to open up a virtual office for more of our out-of-state clients who wanted access to our services.”

Consider doing your own market research, and ask your target audience where the ideal location for them would be.

Think about your own values and where you will be happy

Harold Hughes was told that if he wanted his technology startup Bandwagon to be successful, he’d have to move to Silicon Valley.

The problem? He wanted to stay rooted in his community in South Carolina. “My company, Bandwagon, is a ticket market for college sports, so where better than the South to start a company? This is the home of college football, so by staying here in Greenville, SC, I get to stimulate job growth in my community while staying close to our customers—the fans!”

At the end of the day, Harold made the choice that was right for him, and he really couldn’t sound happier!

Other useful resources:

Do you have experience choosing a business location? What did you do right, and what would you change? Tell us on Twitter @Bplans!

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Unsure What Business to Start? No Problem, We’ll Tell You

what business to start in 2019

This article is part of our Business Startup Guidea curated list of our articles that will get you up and running in no time!

Every month, over 1 million people visit Bplans. Most of those people are at the very early stages of starting a business and as such, are looking to see what others have done. Some have already decided and are in the process of writing a business plan.

They’re asking questions: What should a restaurant that needs a business loan include in their business plan? How do you write an executive summary for an online clothing business?

Whether you’re writing a business plan, or simply looking for data to corroborate your research, reviewing sample business plans can give you excellent insight that will help you write your own plan and think through every aspect of starting your business.

So what business should you start this year? What are the most popular industries? What opportunities are opening up in 2019?

We can’t tell you exactly what type of business you personally should start (that would entirely take the fun out of things) but we can tell you which of our sample business plans were most popular in 2018.

Download your free business startup checklist today!

The most popular business plans on Bplans

In 2018, our most popular sample business plans were:

  1. Bakery
  2. Coffee shop
  3. Hair and beauty, salon and spa
  4. Fast food restaurant
  5. Agriculture and farming
  6. Nonprofit youth services
  7. Clothing retail
  8. Construction
  9. Cleaning services
  10. Personal event planning

what business to start in 2019

Food service: Restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops

Our sample business plans in the restaurant, bakery, and cafe category rank consistently within the top 20 on Bplans. Of course, fast-food franchise businesses are also still booming—globally, fast food generates more than $570 billion.

If you’re thinking about starting a business within the food services industry, we recommend preparing for a healthy if eclectic year ahead. Take a look at this great list of food trends for 2019.

If you’re serious about your research, also be sure to have a look at the “What’s Hot Culinary Forecast” compiled by the National Restaurant Association. I also recommend checking out the Benchmark dining trends for 2019.

Best of Bplans for starting a bakery, restaurant, or coffee shop:

How to start a business in 2019

Salon and spa

The salon and spa industry continues to grow and evolve. Just as a clothing retailer has to know fashion trends, hairstylists and beauty salons have to stay on top of trending hairstyles, looks, and other beauty trends, including new treatments and products.

For 2019, experts predict that CBD-enhanced treatments will land on the scene across the nation. So, make sure you know what services other salons are adding to the beauty menu in the upcoming year.

Best of Bplans for starting a salon or spa:

How to start a business in 2019

Agriculture and farming

Agriculture and farming sample business plans were more popular than ever in 2018.

We suspect that’s in part because of a growing interest in farm-to-table, or locally sourced ingredients. But it may also be related to newer legislation around growing and selling cannabis at marijuana dispensaries and other up and coming sales opportunities across the U.S.

Best of Bplans for starting a farming or agriculture business:

How to start a business in 2019

Nonprofit youth services

Starting a nonprofit as a way to use your skills to address a community is always a popular topic on Bplans. There’s always a need for quality counseling or mentoring services; if you have an interest in sports, you could start a basketball youth league; and if you have an interest in education, you could start an after-school homework-help program.

There’s no shortage of need out there. Take a look at trends in philanthropy for 2019 if you’re thinking about starting a nonprofit. And connect with the National Council of Nonprofits to learn more about wider trends affecting nonprofits heading into 2019.

Best of Bplans for starting a nonprofit:

How to start a business in 2019

Retail and clothing

Clothing retail is another area where we see a lot of interest from readers—both for brick and mortar stores and ecommerce.

One of the most notable retail trends to watch for in 2019 is the rising success of hybrid or multi-channel retail—meaning that retailers with a physical location will be more likely to also have an ecommerce or online sales arm to their business.

For more on this year’s retail trends, check out this podcast from the National Retail Federation.

Best of Bplans for clothing retail and ecommerce:

How to start a business in 2019

Construction

The 2019 outlook for the construction industry looks solid, thanks to increased demand and hopes around larger infrastructure projects this year. Especially as interest grows around green building techniques, and as the industry makes technical advances around modular and prefabricated construction projects.

Read more about the Associated Builders and Contractors’ take on the future of construction here.

Best of Bplans for starting a construction business:

How to start a business in 2019

Cleaning services

Cleaning services are among the easiest and most affordable businesses to start, and the industry is expected to spur 6 percent growth in new jobs by 2020.

Like the construction industry, the trend toward green or eco-friendly solutions is expected to continue into 2019.

Best of Bplans for starting a cleaning service business:

How to start a business in 2019

Event planning

From wedding planning to large galas to big corporate events, more and more businesses and individuals are looking for help with the details.

The event planning industry is expected to grow faster than the average industry—by more than 11 percent by 2026. For more on how the industry is growing and changing, check out these event planning associations.

Best of Bplans for starting an event planning business:

Still looking for the right business idea? Check out our guide to generating hundreds of business ideas, or this list of more than 30 ideas. If you’re not quite there yet, check out our guide to finding a great business idea.

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Why You Should Update Your Business Plan Regularly to Drive Growth

business planning for growth

I started an insurance agency two years ago. I had some friends who were all very successful in the industry, which led me to think that I would be blessed with the same fortune.

My business was in a highly competitive industry, rated as one of the best industries to start a new business in. Around 58 percent of businesses in the insurance sector survive longer than four years.

Things went well in the beginning, but just as I approached my first year, business started to slow down dramatically. It was like my business came to a halt.

The problem: Insufficient planning

My business came to a standstill.

I didn’t know what was wrong.

It was obvious that the market was saturated, but the insurance industry is evergreen and wasn’t going anywhere—I knew a significant number of people who were very successful with their own insurance firms.

I started to take a close look at my business.

After getting out an old document that was my business plan, I realized that I had reached the full potential of the plan I drafted when I first started the business. I also noted that I didn’t really leave room for further expansion, which explained a lot.

This was when I realized that I had to continuously plan for the future if I wanted my business to continue growing.

Even though life is unpredictable, many business-related aspects can be forecasted—often successfully.

The Lean Business Plan Template

Tips to help your business grow with a solid business plan

Because as my business became more established I basically ignored the business plan that I relied on when I started my business, I felt lost when everything started to slow down.

I was confused about what I could do to gain new customers. Thankfully, I wasn’t losing customers.

After a lot of research and dusting off my business plan, I was able to reverse the downtrend.

Below, I’ll share a couple of the lessons I have learned along the way.

1. Keep your business plan alive

Your business plan is not something that should be written once and then buried away.

Instead, it is a document that you should refer to frequently. Something that should be updated regularly and then compared to the actual results you’re achieving.

Keep your business in line with what is currently going on, as well as what you plan to come.

When you reach a goal, then mark it on your business plan and set out to reach the next goal. Sometimes these goals are called milestones and they can help you keep your business on track.

At least twice a year, schedule a day or two to plan ahead of time.

Ask yourself:

  • What worked in the last quarter? (Note: Do more of that!)
  • What didn’t work and why?
  • What can you do differently?
  • What goals would you like your business to reach in the next six months?
  • Where do you see your business in three years?

Focus on the short-term goals, but also plan for the long game. If you’re using a business dashboard, that can make it easier to see how your actual performance compared to your projections, and to model possible future scenarios.

2. Let your business plan be the light

As business owners, we are sometimes faced with an endless road of darkness.

I remember how much more effort it took to stay motivated and keep hustling. At times, it felt like things were over—there was little I could do.

When times are tough, you can quickly lose your motivation to rise to the top – or even to get back up and fight to keep your business alive.

Some businesses choose to give up at these times and I wouldn’t blame them. 

In these dreadful times, your business plan should be the light at the end of that dark tunnel. When you look at your business plan, there is a good chance that you will find some useful information that could reveal to you why you are going through your current situation. At the same time, you might just discover solutions you have been looking for by analyzing the data in your business plan.

3. Keep things organized for better decision making

A study that was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explained how a clinical trial found being organized leads to improvements in cortisol levels, stress, anxiety, and even depression.

Especially in the business world, being organized will make a huge difference in your effectiveness.

When things are organized, it is easier to spot problems, as well as to make more accurate forecasts based on your company’s current situation.

4. Track your progress

How would you know how well your business is doing (or how poorly) if you don’t track your results and progress?

I was also a victim to this problem: When things were going great, I didn’t make time to look back and track how well I was heading toward my short or long-term goals.

Write S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable. action-oriented, relevant, and timely) goals in your business plan—dedicate an entire section to short-term goals and a separate section to long-term goals.

Add documents, scribbles, and anything else that has to do with your progress with your business plan.

Make some time every quarter to sit down and see how well you are really tracking so you can plan your next moves accordingly.

5. Keep it simple

A lot of people tend to overcomplicate a business plan.

While the document is important and will be extremely valuable for the future of your business, there is no need to compile an entire book.

Many businesses are turning toward a one-page business plan or Lean Plan to simplify things.

The single-page document would contain all of the most important elements of your business—a summary. I personally like to keep a one-page summary pinned at my desk, and keep the detailed information in the main document on my laptop.

As your business grows, so will your business plan and all the documents that go with the plan. Here’s a link to a downloadable template you can use to get started.

6. Consider your competitors

An often overlooked element of a good business plan is a thorough analysis of competitors.

You can learn a lot from watching your competitors. Competitor data allows you to see what they are doing, so you can decide if you should do the same or take a different approach.  If your competitors are doing something that works, consider copying them.

I used a variety of tools to help me gain valuable insight into how my competitors are marketing their products, who their target audience is, and what makes them unique.

Google is always a good starting point. Getting ahold of your competitor’s marketing material is another. If you come across a competitor’s customers, take a moment to ask them why they chose to do business with your competition.

By studying your competition, you may be able to pick up a few ideas to help grow your business.

Final words

Even though my business came to a standstill at one point and even caused me to lose some money, I did not regret starting my own company.

What I do regret, however, is that for a long time I didn’t pay enough attention to my business plan.

Only when my business seemed to be standing still did I revert back to my business plan, only to discover that the plan I had for my business mapped out all the success I had been riding all along.

Never underestimate the power of a business plan.

Frequently updating your business plan and comparing your real results to your forecasts will give you valuable insight to help your business grow into the future!

If you’re looking for sample business plans to give you a better sense of what you should include, check out Bplans’ examples specifically for insurance companies.

You can also download a free business plan template or even a Lean Plan template (it’s an alternative to a business model canvas) if you’re looking for a shorter version of a plan that can be updated quickly and easily on a regular basis.

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John Catibog
John Catibog

John Catibog is a business insurance broker and founder of Indagard Insurance Services. Based in Melbourne, Australia, John has an education in computer science, business and marketing and logistics. Combined with his insurance broking experience, he works closely with local business owners to cover the many risks they face in business today. John’s is a regular presenter on cyber insurance to protect against cyber risks. Over the years, John has worked in the healthcare, retail, and transport industries.

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Head, Heart, and Hands: 3 Essentials for Startup Success

startup success

This article is part of our Business Startup Guide—a curated list of our articles that will get you up and running in no time!

Starting up a business requires a lot of different steps.

First-time entrepreneurs and small business founders often feel anxious when they think about all the factors that play into getting their idea off the ground.

Plus, it can seem like success or failure hinges on finding deep-pockets funders, expert mentors, ample press coverage, and other “champions.”

But the truth is, you already possess some of the most important assets you’ll need to achieve success. These are nothing less than your personal faculties—the awesome power of your own head, your own heart, and your own hands.

In other words, much of your potential for success will be determined by:

  1. The quality of your idea
  2. The strength and sincerity of your belief in it
  3. Your effort to make it a reality

Succeed with your head: The impact of innovative ideas

Big or small, every successful business starts with an innovative idea.

Nike was born when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman recognized the hidden potential of a waffle iron to improve soles for running shoes. Howard Schultz brought the espresso bar concept from Italy to the United States and grew Starbucks into a global phenomenon. And when Jeff Bezos started Amazon in 1994, many people had never even heard of something called the internet.

True, your business aspirations may be on a more modest scale than these world-famous brands. Nevertheless, your first step is to come up with an innovative idea.

But where to begin? Tim Berry, the founder of Palo Alto Software and Bplans, says there is no better starting point than looking in the mirror. Each of us is a unique individual. Within ourselves, we each carry the seeds of entrepreneurial success—concepts that interest us, questions that intrigue us, skills that set us apart, and an internal sense that some things could be done differently and better.

It’s good to have role models in business, but you should not try to mimic someone else’s success. Successful businesses are always built from the special aptitudes and unique insights of the people who founded them. Your truly innovative idea will be as one-of-a-kind as you are.

The Lean Business Plan Template

Succeed with your heart: The power of positive belief

To bring your idea to fruition, you must genuinely believe in it.

Good luck persuading others to invest if you can’t convey your own enthusiasm and confidence in your idea. An idea for a business might seem “great,” but if it fails to ignite your sense of passion, it probably isn’t the right one for you. Go back to the drawing board and come up with an idea you can truly commit to.

A secure and persevering spirit will be an essential factor in your success. Trust that you will adapt to changes; learn to conquer fear and approach uncertainty with confidence. Become fiercely committed to seeing your goals through.

For example, if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur who feels “mathematically challenged” (and many of us do), then you may feel intimidated by financial forecasting and fall into a pattern of prioritizing other tasks. You may tell yourself you’re “too busy” tending to outside obligations or allow yourself to get bogged down in other details of ongoing business planning.

Sometimes we engage in such behaviors just to procrastinate. At other times we are actually creating preemptive excuses for the failure we fear is inevitable. If left unchecked, negative belief can grow into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Freeing yourself of negativity will require a conscious effort. Take note of the goals you tend to put off and the productive tasks you habitually avoid. Ask yourself why. As you learn to identify the negative beliefs that are impeding your progress, you will feel empowered to begin changing them.

Use tools that can help you manage the challenging aspects of your business. For example, if finances are challenging and you notice that you avoid reviewing them, use a business planning and ongoing financial management tool with a dashboard so you can see where you are without getting bogged down in spreadsheets.

If you need to learn more about digital marketing, take an online class—just take small steps toward the things that seem overwhelming. You don’t have to solve everything all in one day. Small accomplishments can mean a lot when you’re trying to get out of a procrastination rut.

Succeed with your hands: The effectiveness of effort

The best ideas and most heartfelt belief are of little value without the resolve to take action and work hard.

You will sometimes hear people explain a business leader’s success by giving credit to “good luck.” People who talk like this have little knowledge or practical experience starting a  business.

If you believe in succeeding through perseverance, you have the right frame of mind to do what it takes to make your business grow. Those who believe in success through luck might be better served to buy lottery tickets. In business, there is no such thing as luck; you achieve success because you are willing to work hard for it.

People who are accustomed to working hard are less inclined to feel overwhelmed by challenges. They are eager to acquire new skills because they can quickly put them to good use. And contrary to the image of the “head in the clouds” visionary, you will probably find that your most inspired thinking actually occurs when you are engaged in productive work. Research even indicates that hard-working people tend to live longer than take-it-easy types.

Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Much has changed since Edison’s day, but sweat equity is still the most effective kind of startup capital.

Practical ways to get started

If you’ve been thinking about starting a business but you haven’t yet taken the leap, there are a few ways you can position yourself for success.

1. If you have a business idea, write a quick business plan—a Lean Plan

If you’ve heard of the business model canvas idea, Lean Planning is similar but ultimately more useful. You can download the Bplans Lean Plan Template to help you get started.

2. Validate your idea and make sure that it’s one worth pursuing

Passion is important, but so are the details.

Use your Lean Plan to help you think through your ideal target market, the specifics on your product or service, and whether you’ll need to seek a loan or private investment. This idea validation checklist can help you think through every aspect.

3. Make sure you take care of the details

When you’re ready to start a business, you’ll need to think about registering your business’s legal structure, doing market research, finding office space if you need it, developing a website for an online business—and more!

Use this startup checklist—it will guide you through every aspect you’ll need to consider. And if you have trouble staying on track, read and then follow along with this guide to starting a business in 30 days.

As you get your startup or small business up and running, don’t be afraid to reach out to your network for support. It can also be helpful to find a mentor. SCORE provides free business mentorship from experts who have been where you are and want to see you succeed. Good luck!

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This Year’s Best Email Newsletters

the best email newsletters

Most of us don’t have a ton of time to sift through everything to find the best ideas on the internet, on top of all our other obligations. And I don’t know about you, but my inbox is more crowded every day.

So, I’m always on the lookout for the best email newsletters—the ones I can rely on to be the right combination of informative and truly insightful, especially for entrepreneurs and small business owners.

So here are the best reads I’ve found this year:

Swipe File

Jimmy Daly, the author of Swipe File, is the marketing director at Animalz. Animalz is a content marketing company for software-as-a-service, tech, and crypto companies. He previously worked with GetVero and Quickbooks in the marketing department.

An experienced marketer, Daly identifies the four best articles he read that week and gives a brief description of each. This one stood out to me.

“In every issue of Swipe File, there is at least one thing that changes the way that I work or the way I think about work,” says Val Geisler, a professional email marketer. “The internet is full of crappy newsletters that deliver zero value. Swipe File is not one of those.”

Anyone with a company involved in content marketing should keep up with Swipe File. Daly gives you several pertinent articles about marketing, saving you time and verifying what tactics will help your business the most. Go here to sign up.

Emergent

“There’s a lot of great content out there, but there’s also a lot of mediocre content,” says Noah Parsons, COO of Palo Alto Software and creator of Emergent. “We’re taking the tact of going a little further and pulling in things that are off the beaten track and hopefully a little bit more surprising and interesting than getting the same genre of content every single month.”

Parsons also wants the Emergent newsletter to share Palo Alto Software’s personality. He wants to make the company more transparent by sharing things employees find intriguing that don’t pertain directly to business planning.

“Our site talks about our products and what we offer, but doesn’t give a lot of insight into the behind-the-scenes of what we find interesting as a company,” he says. “We have a wider interest-set than the more narrow focus of what our products offer.” Sign up here.

Moz Top 10

93 percent of business-to-business (B2B) businesses do content marketing, but only 5 percent feel like their efforts are effective. Moz publishes a semi-monthly newsletter called The Moz Top 10.

When I began my content marketing internship, I immediately subscribed to The Moz Top 10. Twice a month, I get 10 articles sent straight to my inbox, many of which have changed how I write and construct content—useful information for any small business or startup that’s figuring out how to be found in Google search. Sign up here.

Dan Pink

Dan Pink has written many books about business and behavior, several of which are NY Times bestsellers. He continues to write books while publishing a newsletter every other Tuesday—it boasts more than 150,000 subscribers.

Like Emergent, his newsletter has three sections—a changing assortment of tips, suggestions, and recommendations relating to business in different ways. Topics involve articles, podcasts, TV shows, gadgets, and more.

John Procopio, Palo Alto Software’s director of marketing, says: “I don’t always have the time to read all the newsletters in my inbox, but I still want to keep up with business news and trends. Dan Pink’s newsletter gives me the most bang for my buck because the video leaves you thinking—articles can’t always do that.” Sign up here.

The Hustle

The Hustle is a daily newsletter that has a pulse on growing startups and corporate dramas.

“The Hustle really cuts through because they somehow just know how to get to the root of what I’m looking for and they give it to you straight,” says Alyssa Powell, Palo Alto Software’s digital media marketing specialist. “I don’t know how they do it, but the way that they write is just phenomenal. Their branding shows through on all different platforms and communities.”

But it’s not the Wall Street Journal. They’re trying a new model for news-sharing, and it seems to be working, based on their incredible subscriber numbers. Sign up here.

CB Insights

The CB Insights newsletter gives me key reports and takeaways in a graphically pleasing way,” says Edward Silva, a marketing intern turned Stanford MBA student. “Other newsletters don’t necessarily do that. They just provide me knowledge, but CB Insights turns that knowledge and data into interesting and often funny insights.” Sign up here.

But wait, there’s more!

You’ve all probably heard of these three newsletters—there’s a reason why they are three of the most popular for entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Tim Ferriss, author of five NY Times bestsellers about self-help and personal development, is the author of 5-Bullet Friday. Each week is a surprise, but the topics are always helpful for improving your work-life balance.

Entrepreneur Daily is the ultimate newsletter to keep up with trends and breaking news in the world of business. It’s released every day and talks about a few of the biggest events that took place in the last 24 hours.

Lastly, Kevin Rose has created the extremely popular business newsletter: The Journal. His writing is very conversational, a break from the automated newsletters that usually fill your inbox. He, like Ferriss, includes a few random topics that can benefit your productivity and work-life balance.

What’s the newsletter you can’t live without? Tell us about it on Twitter @Bplans.

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Nate Mann
Nate Mann

Nate Mann recently finished his second year at the University of Oregon. He is pursuing a major in journalism, along with minors in business administration and computer science. He is currently a content marketing intern for Palo Alto Software. Outside of school and work, Nate is an avid basketball fan and writes about the Portland Trail Blazers for Rip City Project. He is also a data reporting intern for the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.



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