The following is part one of a four-part series on calling "Focus On A Small Business". I'm profiling local small business owners Renee Johnson and Chris Roberts, owners of Barkwheats, an organic dog biscuit company. I took them out to lunch and picked their brains. Here's some of what I learned.

A Strong Business Plan Will Do A Lot More Then Help You Get A Loan

I know, I know. If one more person tells you that you have to have a really good business plan, you going to stop taking their advice. It's so obvious. And there's a time of resources on the Internet that will help you write a business plan if that's what you want to do. But talking with Chris and Renee reminded me of some subtleties behind this big fundamental idea.

1. A good plan helps you make good decisions, especially about those important little things.

Barkwheatsboxes Having a very detailed business plan can really help business owners make the decisions they need to make. Chris and Renée do not have the same anxiety about making decisions as a lot of people that I know:

"We make decisions quickly, in part because it is just the two of us. We're not afraid to make decisions."—Renee

In making their decisions, from choosing business cards (80% post consumer recycled paper printed with soy-based ink) to the wood fiber compostable film they use in all their packaging, all decisions must go back to their green, pet friendly business plan. These all seem like small decisions but collectively they help reinforce the business plan Chris and Renée made a year ago (and continue to revise I'm sure).

And because both Chris and Renée around the same page about what their company is and where it's going, they can both make decisions and have an equal stake in the company. And to me, a married couple being able to accomplish that is pretty cool. And it's all because they are very clear about their common vision.

2. Build a community of people to help you, likely and unlikely.

A few months ago, Chris and Renée flew to San Francisco to attend a conference of green businesses. An expense of money and time like this is not one some businesses would make (for one person or company let alone the two people who run the whole company) but they both got a ton out of the experience:

"Sometimes being here in Maine, we feel very little. We have a big vision for what we want to do… and it can get really hard to see that vision because we"re in Maine and our business is so small. There is not an abundance of really green business models to emulate… so to go all the way to the other side of the country and be able to sit with all these people and hear their stories made it feel like "we can do that"."—Renee

When I asked them further into the conversation is either their families were involved in small business, Chris mentioned his family had restaurants when he was growing up. I was thinking "what does that have to do with anything?" When Chris said that it had been really helpful from the perspective of food safety to know someone in the restaurant business. And this is why I was buying them lunch.

They also mention they had been part of WHCA's Incubator Without Walls program, which they thought very valuable from the standpoint of being accountable to a group of people moving their business plan forward.

Multimillion dollar green business owners, family, and a group of people who wanted to develop small businesses: that's quite a diverse group, all with a valuable perspective.

3. Set goals for the future.

Chris and Renee may not only have a good product (my dog Sadie loves their stuff) but they have plans for their company to go further.

Their business was launched last November, perfect timing in regards to a right place right time situation for growth. Pet products and organic products industries are "growing like gangbusters"(Chris) while the green movement has really taken off in the last year. If Barkwheats hadn't planned for growth initially, when they started doing really well they may have frozen, asking themselves what they were going to do next.

They begun setting themselves up to produce dog food which is still in the beginning stages but clearly it's part of the plan. They know that as their business grows and the higher help, it may not be able to make every single decision. But a very solid foundation with clear goals will help other people do what Chris and Renée would do.

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