Friday, December 5, 2008

30-Day Biz Planning Challenge: Goals vs. Actions

Day 5's goal: Focus on your part.

I asked several freelancers to tell me their biggest obstacle to creating a business plan and one of the most commonly recurring reasons was that they didn't see the point. Freelancer (and personal mentor) Conn Hallinan had this to say:
How do you make a business plan if you have no control over the means of distribution? It is the same reason peasants during the Middle Ages didn't have a business plan: they had no power over anything, plus they had to bow to their lords (just like us!). For instance: My business plan is to write four 5,000 word articles for The New Yorker at $3 a word, and an 8,000 word piece for Atlantic at $4 a word. Also I intend to produce five other magazine pieces at $2 a word, minimum 4,000 words. That's my plan, and after I have smoked this really good stuff that someone from Humboldt gave me it seems perfectly reasonable. Once the stuff wears off, it is back to begging for four magazine pieces at $1 a word, and an every other week column at $75 a pop. So, good business plan: have a partner who is too smart to try and make their living as a writer.
To which I say: Good point. We don't control the means of production. We can't make the New Yorker hire us.

Does that mean we shouldn't have business plans? I argue no, and I'll tell you why.

To use the words of business planning guru Tim Berry, whom I interviewed for a forthcoming blog post on this site, "If I'm a fisherman, I can't control how much fish I catch. But I sure as heck can control what stream I'm fishing in."

Having a business plan is not Secret-style fantasy. It isn't magic. You can't just "conceive it, believe it, receive it." You have to plan it, practice it and produce it. A business plan isn't about the end results but the steps you'll take to try to get there.

Want to write for The New Yorker? I can think of a few steps to get there:
  • Figure out who writes for them now and what path they took to get there. Are there intermediary magazines you should try to break into on the way to getting to The New Yorker?
  • Ask for an informational interview from one or two contributors. You really can. They're people just like you and me.
  • Subscribe to the magazine and the intermediary magazines.
  • Study their content to get a sense of which stories would be appropriate for them.
  • Improve your craft to bring your writing to be up to The New Yorker's standards. That may mean taking a class. It may mean experimenting with different styles. It may mean reading books. Figure out what will work for you.
And most important:
  • Query them. Every month. Even if you get a "no" every time--or worse, no response at all. I queried The New Yorker this year. They turned my story down. They were very polite about it. Nice people there at The New Yorker.
Those four steps? That's what goes on your business plan--not "write four stories for the New Yorker at $3/word." You can't control whether they buy the stories. But you can control how you act.

And there's evidence that it does work. This week I met a freelancer who said he queried a big-name magazine regularly for four years before he broke in. But he finally did. Now he writes for them regularly.

And it's true in my life. I'm close to breaking into one of my target markets because I followed the steps above. I increased my income. If the measure of your success is The New Yorker or Atlantic, you won't feel successful and a business plan will feel like a waste. But if your measure of success is progress, your business plan will help you accomplish your goals.


GregB said...

Heather, you concluded with " But if your measure of success is progress, your business plan will help you accomplish your goals."

I guess my first response is, do you have evidence for this? Meaning, what makes you say so?

I can set goals. I can set goals I hope to reach, and I can set goals that are within my control, like querying x number of zines. However, those seem only a minor part of a business plan, and seem unrelated to whether I make progress or not.


Heather Boerner said...

Hi Greg,

Great questions. I can speak from my own experience that it does work: I had five target consumer mags this year. Right now, an editor at one of them likes an idea and is taking it to his editorial meeting to get approval from the other editors. Another editor at another magazine is doing the same. For me, this was part of my business plan: I targeted these markets, I queried them regularly. I got rid of clients that were no longer meeting my needs. I knew what my needs were because of my biz plan and I knew which markets to focus on because of my plan.

I blogged about this in the post previous to this:

My point is that if your goal, as mine was, is to send three queries a week, and you reach that. And one of your other goals is to target specific magazines, those two goals will work together to help you break into those markets. It's not magic. It's persistence guided by a plan.

Also, my income increased $10,000 this year because of my plan. Did I reach my ultimate goal? No, but I'm well on my way, and if I can keep working the same way, I trust I will get there.

I guess we have a difference of opinion, because to me those actions are the MAJOR part of the business plan, not the goals. They are the cause that makes the effect, if you will.

Does that make sense?


GregB said...

Sure, that makes sense. I simply disagree.


A business plan has to--I would think--relate to the bottom line. That's what business is about. When you write "My point is that if your goal, as mine was, is to send three queries a week, and you reach that," I could have that goal and fail completely at business. How? By doing so and not getting responses. By getting turned down. And so on.

I don't disagree that I should set those sort of goals. I simply don't see them as the major elements of business plans, which would involve defining product, making sales, determining time use, and so on.

I would also say that if one does set this sort of goals, one must include things like regular check points, to see if one is on track. shared experience. I value that, but it isn't evidence. I did this, and this happened. True--but did you test it against working without a plan? Against others' plans? And so on.

Please, please don't get me wrong: I would love to have a business plan. I would love to be able to take action X and produce result Z. But it hasn't happened yet.


Heather Boerner said...


I see we have very different approaches. I will ask you: Have you tried a process-based business plan? Can you really assume it's not worth it if you haven't tried? If what you're doing is working, then no need. But if not, could it hurt?

I'll simply say that if you keep querying, you can't help but be successful. It's true. Now, if your markets are all The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc., then you might experience that kind of mind-numbing failure. But if your markets are more realistic and within an appropriate income range (for instance, you could sell lots of queries if you're willing to work for 15 cents a word, but that wouldn't accomplish other business-plan goals, like paying your bills), I doubt you'd never sell anything.

That seems unrealistic to you.

Having said that, I agree that you have to have checkpoints to see if your plan is working (say, querying weekly to certain pubs). I do it monthly. Others do it quarterly. There's no point in having goals if you aren't going to check in on them.


GregB said...

Heather wrote, "I will ask you: Have you tried a process-based business plan?"

Yes, I have.

"Can you really assume it's not worth it if you haven't tried?"

Well, I have tried it, and I said nothing about it not being worth it. I said it's not really what I think of as a business plan. Big difference.


Kristin Ohlson said...

I'm finding this blog helpful, Heather! Or at least, encouraging. I'm one of those writers who usually has an annual list of goals, but rarely any sort of plan for income-- that seems so out of my control.