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Make it grow… Bonsai Trees and Business Plans.

"If the root is strong, the tree will survive" Mr. Miyagi - fictional inspirational thought leader 1984.

Small is beautiful, but doesn’t mean you need to be limited in the long run as a brand.

80’s pop culture, morals and analogies.

Cards on the table I am a child of the 80’s. With some exceptional programs like Netflix’s Stranger Things, I am reminded of just how vibrant growing up in that decade was. From the bright patterned clothing to blocky colorful video games in the arcades visually the 80’s was an assault on the senses and full of interesting new things to explore.

In 1984 the film Karate Kid was released and love it or hate it, the storyline was packed full of moralistic plot features aimed at the young audience it aspired to capture.

To be fair films and programs were stuffed full of moral tales and messages throughout the 80’s and some like He-Man would go so far as to have a moral message inserted at the end of the cartoon covering topics to boost the viewers understanding of the episode one of the main characters would recite the main plot and provide context to the audience explaining how they could avoid doing something wrong or help someone out with what they had learned from the story.

Karate Kid didn’t have a moralist end note like the cartoons, but it was packed full of analogy and life lessons for the viewer, even if some of them might have gone over my head at the time.

One of the biggest takeaways from the original film was that simply put the underdog can become a champion if they train with and take advice from someone who understands the things that they don’t. Cleverly the character Mr. Miyagi begins training his student Daniel LaRusso before he even realizes it, through repetitive tasks which mimic the actions of Karate moves.

Many small business owners can often feel that they struggle to progress their business because they feel that they don’t have the experience or knowledge they need to undertake a specific task. For example, perhaps they feel they have developed a product but don’t know how to sell it. If they become desperate, they might then employ someone who knows “how to sell” or take their product to a distributor or wholesaler in the belief that by selling via an additional layer they will automatically unlock the gates to growth and profitability.

The truth is that in a lot of situations the desire to grow overtakes the reality of being able to provide product to market and employing a salesperson or distributor too early in a brands lifecycle can put pressure to reduce costs and margin before a brand and its products have had chance to mature enough to be sustainable.

As a consultant it often surprises me just how many new and long-established brands do not have a solid workable business plan. Worse still shockingly many who do and have spent time and money creating one ignore their own roadmap, veering from one idea to another in the hope that the next big idea management and executives present will be “the one”. With increasingly high demands on employees and finances many companies go from operational to marginally functional just because a well-founded business plan is either missing or being ignored.

So, if a sales manager isn’t in the plan, then before you jump off that cliff, analyze and question. Why do we need this change? What will the change do for us? Most importantly ask how this will change affect the rest of the business.

That last question above all others should be front of mind before you take any action. Considering the knock-on impacts of a change is critical to avoid costly and counterproductive work and waste.

Circling back to the Karate Kid a recurring element is the Bonsai tree which is used by Miyagi as an analogy to help subliminally explain a variety lessons LaRusso. So where am I going with this 80’s fueled Karate Kid themed walk down memory lane? Well, if the title of the article didn’t give it away already for you, your business plan is your Bonsai tree.

Starting with the roots

While they might not appeal to everyone there is no denying that a Bonsai tree is a remarkable thing. A marvel in miniature the looks the same in profile as a fully grown tree, carefully trained and sculpted over the years.

From a seed even the faster growing variety of trees will take 5 years before you can really start to sculpt and prune their form. It’s the reason buying a “real” pre-sculpted tree can be so expensive (and I am assuming the strange phenomenon of fake plastic Bonsais you can find in retailers today)

Like any business starting from scratch requires patience, the right resources, and more patience. The pot you grow your brand in is the brand itself, the name and identity of the business. It needs to look nice (because when you start there is nothing in it) so that it can sit amongst the other brands in the window and not look out of place or unsightly.

Then you have the soil and stones that make up the growing material you will use to grow the business. These need to be carefully selected to make sure they will do the job you need. Too much focus on social media and your product design suffers, too much focus on profit and your value proposition suffers.

Gaining the right mix of materials and resources affects the outcome of your business. Trying to sell a professional high-end product by marketing on TikTok to young cash strapped people looking for entertainment in an evening? Probably not the right ingredient to grow that type of business. Want to sell a new brand of sweets to discerning 20 something year old? Posters in the dentist might not be the right place to advertise!

For your business to grow you need to make sure you understand your market (the tree) to help grow the brand (also the tree – I will explain in more detail later) Sadly even with the best research and ingredients sometimes a brand will fail. There are other factors which affect this which we will explore but to maximize your chances of a successful brand understanding the type of business you are going to be creating and the resources you need available are all critical parts of your business plan.

Just as with the Bonsai if you are going to commit to your dream of success you will need to know what you need and make sure you have enough money to get the materials you need in the first place to survive.

No money no materials, wrong materials wasted money. That doesn’t mean you need a fortune to start a brand. Far from it. But by creating a solid business plan and ensuring that it contains realistic goals and benchmarks you created your own instruction manual which helps to ensure you are realistic and remain optimistic.

Grow, come on just grow!

With a solid business plan, you don’t only want to think about what you have already got, and it is not enough to have the seed of an idea and basic resources to simply get set up.

Plants like a business need ongoing support, Air, water, and sunlight. The air is you, and the people who work with and for you. It is a constant element that sits in the business and is in essence invisible because you must be there to make the business run, but to all intent and purpose unless you are a public figure or celebrity you will probably be invisible to everyone.

There is an argument that the best brands were and are created by inspirational people whose personality is the lynchpin of the brand and that without their presence the brand would not survive.

Steve Jobs would be a good example of this. His personality and ability to rally the troops and deliver feverish enthusiasm was seen as inspirational. While that might be true without Steve Wozniak apple would never have been what it became today. The Celebrity of Jobs certainly supported the brand and provided a great deal “air” for Apple but since his untimely passing in 2011 at just 56-year-old Apple has continued to evolve and remain relevant without him steering the ship. To a large part this is because of the roots (more about roots later) that Wozniak and Jobs managed to put in place when the company was small. Both provided air to help the company survive, but so too did 1000’s of other employees, all invisible to the consumers they served.

But having air is not enough alone to help grow a seed of an idea into a company. Water or in this case money is another critical element that is omitted will cause the brand to shrivel up and die. Just like a tree initially the effects of underinvestment will be hard to spot. You might run into a few problems that get resolved, your employees might start dropping off (see what I did there) and slowly but gradually the structure and appeal of the brand you are trying to grow will shrink and look less and less appealing both to your customers and as a place to work.

Just as with watering a Bonsai too much investment can also have negative impact too much investment in the big roots of the company and not enough on the smaller ones might weaken your structure. Too much investment overall and your cash reserves will dry up because you have put all your investment into the brand when it didn’t need it drowning it and removing the instinct to work hard to fill every crevice with strong meaningful support.

If you drown your business but use up all your water, you might have a short spurt of success followed by a prolonged period of slow and painful contraction because you have spent all of the resources you need to survive. It is all about balance. How much investment do we need? How much do we need to have ready just in case it gets hotter, and we need more? And where are we going to store the water, we don’t need now so it is safe and can be used later.

Lastly you need sunlight! Lots of it.

Sunlight represents your customers (and the tree – I will explain that in just one second) without customers you can’t sell anything, if you can’t sell anything you can’t grow, there is no point investing money into the business and your air is better spent elsewhere where it will benefit you and your employees to a greater degree.

The more customers you have the bigger you can grow your business, the bigger your business grows the more easily you can be seen by the customers. The more easily you can be seen by the customers the more customers you will have and so on and so forth. As your business becomes stronger and more established eventually some of those customers will become evangelists and repeat loyal consumers to your brand- becoming part of the business itself, providing exposure to more customers, defending your brand, and selling it for you through word of mouth, product placement and eventually for the most successful businesses your brand may become an eponym in its category.

Gaining the revered success of an eponymy doesn’t preclude you from the day-to-day struggle of keeping your brand strong. I certainly don’t ever recall buying branded Velcro before (hook and loop fastener) and while I still refer to my vacuum cleaner as a hoover (as a lot of people do in the UK) I am patently aware that I used a product from a different brand entirely. Regardless of this fact the strength of a branch of your business which is made of customers is a precious thing indeed.

The green shoots of success.

So you have put the ingredients for your business together, you are sticking to your business plan and have managed to make sales and grow. You have enough investment to sustain growth and want to grow more.

The temptation at this early stage to lace your investment with rich high nutrient fertilizer boost sales and place your brand in the warmest sunniest spot in the market is probably at this point immense. Not only have you got customers coming to you they are sticking with you, and you want more.

At this stage you might also have other companies paying an interest in your brand. Offering a shiny new pot to place your brand in, special water that is better than the water you already use or even customers who can’t see you yet because you are still so small compared to the other trees around you.

In reality some of the things on offer might actually be sensible. Getting a consultant to provide advice is no different to asking a Bonsai specialist to tips on how to prune and nurture your tree. Advertising in the right places where more light can reach you if you need it can grow sales and connect to new audiences but is it right for you.

This is where a solid business plan can and will help guide you on your journey. By this time you will know your product, your customer and how your business operates. But, and it’s a big but, how will making the changes on offer, additional exposure to new customers or a shiny fresh branding affect you and your business?

Do you need a shiny new pot? Or is the one you have part of your brands attraction. Is the pot larger or smaller than the one you have already and how might that affect how your customers see you as a business.

Do you need more sunlight? Or are you growing at a sustainable and manageable rate?

More customers are always good because it means more money, but what if more customers mean you can’t deliver the expedient delivery which is part of your brands charm. What if by having too many customers the level of water you need to balance out the increased demand to grow will simply dry up.

Is the special water something really any different from the water you have already, or perhaps is it laced with snake oil and diluted promises.

At a certain point if your business is sustainable, it will be inevitable that you will need to look and explore how to grow it further. Your business plan will change from needing incremental tweaks each year to keep it inline with reality to needing to take a step in to a larger form. Or you might want to keep it the same size and sustain it as it is. This is maintenance and depending on where you want to take your brand you will need to do this instead of writing the next evolution of your plan.

Maintaining your business plan.

A part of the process of growing a Bonsai tree is root trimming. Naturally the confines of the pot you grow your plant in will limit the growth it can sustain. But overtime the strength of the roots and the will of the tree itself will dictate that it will want to grow bigger than you want it to.

For business owners who are seeking exponential growth evolving your business plan is a more involved process. But for those who have reached a level of sustainable success who want to continue to sustain what they have built there are some simple steps that need to be taken to move on. Adjusting the levels of investment, employees and advertising will to a degree keep things in check. But if one product line or service is getting too big to manage and affecting the direction of your company you will need to consider if it stays part of the brand or really offers any value long term.

Root trimming is the process of analyzing your business and keeping in check the things you need to ensure you don’t have excessive areas which are using resources that you need elsewhere. It can be thought of as waste management and by its nature is easier to do each year than it is when problems get to large to handle.

As an example, a company is running successfully but within the limited confines of its entity is chose to branch out into a new product line to compliment some of its other products. The new offering grew well at first but then sales dried up either because the market changed, or it was not possible to remain profitable. The root that supported that brand would exist beneath the surface supporting the branch above. If you no longer need or want the branch stopping should be as simple as removing it. But as part of your strategy, you will need to deal with the consequences of removing it or it might affect other parts of your business in a negative way.

Trimming the root is removing the stock of parts or resources needed to provide the product. By definition removing the root means that the resources and investment it provided to the product line above the soil are no longer going to be in play but you need to do this carefully, so you don’t negatively impact the surrounding branches.

You might also want to think of the option of turning the branch you no longer want into a new tree for someone else. While its value might be less than your brand as whole it might for someone with the right resources and ambition prove an attractive proposition.

In short referring to the business plan and keeping to within the confines of its objectives is the most likely way a sustainable model will survive. The best part is you will know exactly what to look for to keep it as it is and its written down in your plan if you decide to pass it to someone else.

Evolving your business plan

If your objective is to grow bigger then with a strong business plan you already have the key to growing further. You might need more investment to get there but the principles remain.

When I talk to clients about brand evolution, I explain that to make changes to grow their business it is important to make sure that each step is sustainable. The CEO of a large company I once worked for was a massive advocate of Evolution over Revolution and the company is still going strong today.

To properly evolve you need to first understand the impact of change and more importantly your environment. Darwin’s theory that it is the most adaptable to change that survive is a truism but managing the risks of change is not an easy task. For example, if you are a company creating and producing surface treatments for motor vehicles and you come up with a new product that eliminates the or drastically reduces the ability for painted bodywork to be scratched but your main product line is something that removes scratches from bodywork, how can you mitigate the risk of your current best-selling product becoming obsolete? What is the value of the new product to you? Is the new product a new direction to the business? Or is it something that can be positioned to compliment it?

So many questions, but unless you consider them and establish how they will impact your brand cutting off or growing roots and branches can have a serious impact on your brands identity. Peugeot who started their business as a steel foundry then going on to make saws and coffee mills are a strange example of evolution that mutated into something completely different. Microsoft and Apple are an example of brands that have a more structured and recognized adaptation path, but all of them have one thing in common. The ability to adapt and change which if you want to do with your new brand, concept, or existing business you will need to properly plan for and manage.

Can a business survive without a plan, yes! Just as a tree can grow from a seed after falling into the crack in the pavement- but the chances of it growing to its full potential, not being trampled underfoot, or surviving without a proper source of nutrients is low and extraordinary.

Plan for your business and give it the best chance of success, even if it is a small unknown brand in a big forest of trees.

About the Author

Luke has spent most of his career in the manufacturing and music industry working in various director positions with global brands from product development, marketing, sales, and business development.

After realizing that so many businesses needed help to add structure and support, he began working as a brand and business consultant working with companies to help provide direction and inspiration to help grow and be more visible.

His objective is to make more UK business be successful in what they do and offers his support through consultancy and as a non-executive director to help drive change and deliver consumer focused thinking.


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