Small businesses are not scale models of big businesses; they are characterized by resource poverty and dependence on a fairly localized market. Their greater vulnerability to the consequences of a lack of focus stresses the importance of their strategic plan.
The strategic plan defines the company’s “competitive edge,” that collection of factors that sets the business apart from its competitors and promotes its chances for success. It requires a clear evaluation of the competitive business climate and an intimate knowledge of the market for the entrepreneur’s product.
The foundation for the strategic plan is a clear mission statement for the venture. Addressing the following questions can assist in developing this statement:
What business am I in? The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems. A good example of an industry group that failed to take a broader view is the railroads. If they had viewed their business as transportation rather than trains-and-tracks, then the airlines would be named Union Pacific and Illinois Central.
Who is our product intended to satisfy? What customer needs are being satisfied? How are these needs being satisfied, that is, by which of our methods or products?
An important strategic option is in how we price our product (as a price leader, value leader, or prestige product). Other options include the way in which we differentiate ourselves from the competition and the particular “niche,” or subset of the market, we seek to serve.
Once we have set internal objectives, we must examine the external and competitive environments in which we will be trying to achieve them.
The external environment consists of those factors that are largely outside our control, but affect the market for our product. Examples of these factors include general economic conditions, regulations, technological developments, and consumer demographics and attitudes. This environment is very dynamic, but some attempt must be made at projecting its changes.
Analysis of the competitive environment must begin with consideration of whether there are any barriers to the entry of a new competitor into the market. How strong is consumer loyalty to existing brands? How important are economies of scale; can a small independent firm compete? Are capital requirements prohibitive? Is there some proprietary technology that puts prospective entrants in a serious competitive disadvantage? Is access to raw materials or to distribution channels limited in some way? Are new entrants limited by permit restrictions or regulations?
The competitive structure of the industry is another important consideration. Are there a few dominant firms, or is the industry fairly fragmented? Will current competitors attempt to “punish” new entrants, such as through a price war, heavy advertising, or exercising their clout with key suppliers? Is there some geographic niche we can serve? What factors create cost advantages or disadvantages? How important is a firm’s position on the learning and experience curves? How are prices set? Is demand rising, even, or falling? Are there exit barriers that raise the risk of entry?
Relative strengths of our strategic partners must also be considered. What is the bargaining power of suppliers? How wide is our choice of suppliers? Is it costly for us to switch? Can our suppliers compete with us for the same customers? How important is our industry to our suppliers?
Do buyers have a wide choice of vendors? Can they make our product themselves? Are there less expensive or superior substitutes to our product in some segments of the market?
These are certainly not easy questions to answer, but performing the research to make better informed decisions, and addressing these questions “head-on” can improve our chances of success.
John B. Vinturella, Ph.D has over 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.