Learn why the traditional way of writing a five-year business plan is often a waste of time and how to use a Lean Plan instead for smarter, easier strategic planning to establish your long-term vision.
In business, it can sometimes seem hard enough to predict what’s going to happen next month, let alone three or even five years from now. But, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t plan for the long term. After all, your vision for the future is what gets you out of bed in the morning and motivates your team. It’s those aspirations that drive you to keep innovating and figuring out how to grow.
What is a long-term plan?
A long-term or long-range business plan looks beyond the traditional 3-year planning window, focusing on what a business might look like 5 or even 10 years from now. A traditional 5-year business plan includes financial projections, business strategy, and roadmaps that stretch far into the future.
I’ll be honest with you, though—for most businesses, long-range business plans that stretch 5 and 10 years into the future are a waste of time. Anyone who’s seriously asking you for one doesn’t know what they’re doing and is wasting your time. Sorry if that offends some people, but it’s true.
However, there is still real value in looking at the long term. Just don’t invest the time in creating a lengthy version of your business plan with overly detailed metrics and milestones for the next five-plus years. No one knows the future and, more than likely, anything you write down now could be obsolete in the next year, next month, or even next week.
That’s where long-term strategic planning comes in. A long-term business plan like this is different from a traditional business plan in that it’s lighter on the details and more focused on your strategic direction. It has less focus on financial forecasting and a greater focus on the big picture.
Think of your long-term strategic plan as your aspirational vision for your business. It defines the ideal direction you’re aiming for but it’s not influencing your day-to-day or, potentially, even your monthly decision making.
Are long-term business plans a waste of time?
No one knows the future. We’re all just taking the information that we have available today and making our best guesses about the future. Sometimes trends in a market are pretty clear and your guesses will be well-founded. Other times, you’re trying to look around a corner and hoping that your intuition about what comes next is correct.
Now, I’m not saying that thinking about the future is a waste of time. Entrepreneurs are always thinking about the future. They have to have some degree of faith and certainty about what customers are going to want in the future. Successful entrepreneurs do actually predict the future — they know what customers are going to want and when they’re going to want it.
Entrepreneurship is unpredictable
Successful entrepreneurs are also often wrong. They make mistakes just like the rest of us. The difference between successful entrepreneurs and everyone else is that they don’t let mistakes slow them down. They learn from mistakes, adjust and try again. And again. And again. It’s not about being right all the time; it’s about having the perseverance to keep trying until you get it right. For example, James Dyson, inventor of the iconic vacuum cleaner, tried out 5,126 prototypes of his invention before he found a design that worked.
So, if thinking about the future isn’t a waste of time, why are 5-year business plans a waste of time? They’re a waste of time because they typically follow the same format as a traditional business plan, where you are asked to project sales, expenses, and cash flow 5 and 10 years into the future.
Let’s be real. Sales and expense projections that far into the future are just wild guesses, especially for startups and new businesses. They’re guaranteed to be wrong and can’t be used for anything. You can’t (and shouldn’t) make decisions based on these guesses. They’re just fantasy. You hope you achieve massive year-over-year growth in sales, but there’s no guarantee that’s going to happen. And, you shouldn’t make significant spending decisions today based on the hope of massive sales 10 years from now.
Why write a long-term business plan?
So, what is the purpose of outlining a long-term plan? Here are a few key reasons why it’s still valuable to consider the future of your business without getting bogged down by the details.
Showcase your vision for investors
First, and especially important if you are raising money from investors, is your vision. Investors will want to know not only where you plan on being in a year, but where the business will be in five years. Do you anticipate launching new products or services? Will you expand internationally? Or will you find new markets to grow into?
Set long-term goals for your business
Second, you’ll want to establish goals for yourself and your team. What kinds of high-level sales targets do you hope to achieve? How big is your company going to get overtime? These goals can be used to motivate your team and even help in the hiring process as you get up and running.
That said, you don’t want to overinvest in fleshing out all the details of a long-range plan. You don’t need to figure out exactly how your expansion will work years from now or exactly how much you’ll spend on office supplies five years from now. That’s really just a waste of time.
Instead, for long-range planning, think in broad terms. A good planning process means that you’re constantly revising and refining your business plan. You’ll add more specifics as you go, creating a detailed plan for the next 6-12 months and a broader, vague plan for the long term.
You have a long development time
Businesses with extremely long research and development timelines do make spending decisions now based on the hope of results years from now. For example, the pharmaceutical industry and medical device industry have to make these bets all the time. The R&D required to take a concept from idea to proven product with regulatory approval can take years for these industries, so long-range planning in these cases is a must. A handful of other industries also have similar development timelines, but these are the exceptions, not the rule.
Your business is well-established and predictable
Long-term, detailed planning can make more sense for businesses that are extremely well established and have long histories of consistent sales and expenses with predictable growth. But, even for those businesses, predictability means quite the opposite of stability. The chances that you’ll be disrupted in the marketplace by a new company, or the changing needs and desires of your customers, is extremely high. So, most likely, those long-range predictions of sales and profits are pretty useless.
What a 5-year plan should look like
With the exception of R&D-heavy businesses, most 5-year business plans should be more like vision statements than traditional business plans. They should explain your vision for the future, but skip the details of detailed sales projections and expense budgets.
Your vision for your business should explain the types of products and services that you hope to offer in the future and the types of customers that you hope to serve. Your plan should outline who you plan to serve now and how you plan to expand if you are successful.
This kind of future vision creates a strategic roadmap. It’s not a fully detailed plan with sales forecasts and expense budgets, but a plan for getting started and then growing over time to reach your final destination.
For example, here’s a short-form version of what a long-term plan for Nike might have looked like if one had been written in the 1960s:
Nike will start by developing high-end track shoes for elite athletes. We’ll start with a focus on the North West of the US, but expand nationally as we develop brand recognition among track and field athletes. We will use sponsored athletes to spread the word about the quality and performance of our shoes.
Once we have success in the track & field market segment, we believe that we will be able to successfully expand both beyond the US market and also branch out into other sports, with an initial focus on basketball.
Leadership and brand awareness in a sport such as basketball will enable us to cross over from the athlete market into the consumer market. This will lead to significant business growth in the consumer segment and allow for expansion into additional sports, fashion, and casual markets in addition to building a strong apparel brand.
Interestingly enough, Nike (to my knowledge) never wrote out a long-range business plan. They developed their plans as they grew, building the proverbial airplane as it took off.
But, if you have this kind of vision for your business, it’s useful to articulate it. Your employees will want to know what your vision is and your investors will want to know as well. They want to know that you, as an entrepreneur, are looking beyond tomorrow and into the future months and years ahead.
How to write a five-year business plan
Writing out your long-term vision for your business is a useful exercise. It can bring a sense of stability and solidify key performance indicators and broad milestones that drive your business.
Developing a long-range business plan is really just an extension of your regular business planning process. A typical business plan covers the next one to three years, documenting your target market, marketing strategy, and product or service offerings for that time period.
A five-year plan expands off of that initial strategy and discusses what your business might do in the years to come. However, as I’ve mentioned before, creating a fully detailed five-year business plan will be a waste of time.
Here’s a quick guide to writing a business plan that looks further into the future without wasting your time:
1. Develop your Lean Plan
As with all business planning, we recommend that you start with a lean business plan. A lean plan is a simple, one-page plan that outlines your core business strategy, target market, and business model. It gives a snapshot of what you’re hoping to achieve in the more immediate term.
A lean business plan is the foundation of all other planning because it’s the document that you’ll keep the most current. It’s also the easiest to update and share with business partners. A lean plan will typically highlight up to three years of revenue and profit goals as well as milestones that you hope to achieve in the near term.
2. Determine if you need a traditional business plan
Unlike a lean business plan, a traditional business plan is more detailed and is typically written in long-form prose. A traditional business plan is usually 10-20 pages long and contains details about your product or service, summaries of the market research that you’ve conducted, and details about your competition. Read our complete guide to writing a business plan.
Companies that write traditional business plans typically have a “business plan event” where a complete business plan is required. Business plan events are usually part of the fundraising process. During fundraising, lenders and investors may ask to see a detailed plan and it’s important to be ready if that request comes up.
But there are other good reasons to write a detailed business plan. A detailed plan forces you to think through the details of your business and how, exactly, you’re going to build your business. Detailed plans encourage you to think through your business strategy, your target market, and your competition carefully. A good business plan ensures that your strategy is complete and fleshed out, not just a collection of vague ideas.
A complete business plan is also a good foundation for a long-term business plan and I recommend that you expand your lean business plan into a complete business plan if you intend to create plans for more than three years into the future.
3. Develop long-term goals and growth targets
As you work on your business plan, you’ll need to think about where you want to be in 5+ years. A good exercise is to envision what your business will look like. How many employees will you have? How many locations will you serve? Will you introduce new products and services?
When you’ve envisioned where you want your business to be, it’s time to turn that vision into a set of goals that you’ll document in your business plan. Each section of your business plan will be expanded to highlight where you want to be in the future. For example, in your target market section, you will start by describing your initial target market. Then you’ll proceed to describe the markets that you hope to reach in 3-5 years.
To accompany your long-term goals, you’ll also need to establish revenue targets that you think you’ll need to meet to achieve your goals. It’s important to also think about the expenses you’re going to incur in order to grow your business.
For long-range planning, I recommend thinking about your expenses in broad buckets such as “marketing” and “product development” without getting bogged down in too much detail. Think about what percentage of your sales you’ll spend on each of these broad buckets. For example, marketing spending might be 20% of sales.
4. Develop a 3-5 year strategic plan
Your goals and growth targets are “what” you want to achieve. Your strategy is “how” you’re going to achieve it.
Use your business plan to document your strategy for growth. You might be expanding your product offering, expanding your market, or some combination of the two. You’ll need to think about exactly how this process will happen over the next 3-5 years.
A good way to document your strategy is to use milestones. These are interim goals that you’ll set to mark your progress along the way to your larger goal. For example, you may have a goal to expand your business nationally from your initial regional presence. You probably won’t expand across the country all at once, though. Most likely, you’ll expand into certain regions one at a time and grow to have a national presence over time. Your strategy will be the order of the regions that you plan on expanding into and why you pick certain regions over others.
Your 3-5 year strategy may also include what’s called an “exit strategy”. This part of a business plan is often required if you’re raising money from investors. They’ll want to know how they’ll eventually get their money back. An “exit” can be the sale of your business or potentially going public. A typical exit strategy will identify potential acquirers for your business and will show that you’ve thought about how your business might be an attractive purchase.
5. Tie your long-term plan to your lean plan
As your business grows, you can use your long-term business plan as your north star. Your guide for where you want to end up. Use those goals to steer your business in the right direction, making small course corrections as you need to.
You’ll reflect those smaller course corrections in your lean plan. Because your lean plan is a simple document and looks at the shorter term, it’s easier to update. The best way to do this is to set aside a small amount of time to review your plan once a month. You’ll review your financial forecast, your milestones, and your overall strategy. If things need to change, you can make those adjustments. Nothing ever goes exactly to plan, so it’s OK to make corrections as you go.
You may find that your long-term plan may also need corrections as you grow your business. You may learn things about your market that change your initial assumptions and impacts your long-range plan. This is perfectly normal. Once a quarter or so, zoom out and review your long-range plan. If you need to make corrections to your strategy and goals, that’s fine. Just keep your plan alive so that it gives you the guidance that you need over time.
Vision setting is the purpose of long-term planning
Part of what makes entrepreneurs special is that they have a vision. They have dreams for where they want their business to go. A 5-year business plan should be about documenting that vision for the future and how your business will capitalize on that vision.
So, if someone asks you for your 5-year business plan. Don’t scramble to put together a sales forecast and budget for 5 years from now. Your best guess today will be obsolete tomorrow. Instead, focus on your vision and communicate that.
Explain where you think your business is going and what you think the market is going to be like 5 years from now. Explain what you think customers are going to want and where trends are headed and how you’re going to be there to sell the solution to the problems that exist in 5 and 10 years. Just skip the invented forecasts and fantasy budgets.
If you’re looking for a better way to explore your business’s future, you may want to check out LivePlan. LivePlan makes it easy to build and update your strategic Lean Plan, set milestones, and connect them to your financial statements. You can better plan for the future by exploring potential scenarios and easily update forecasts based on actual performance. Explore how LivePlan can help you more effectively manage your business while connecting your short-term plans to your long-term vision