Maps? Who needs ‘em anymore. Plug your destination into the GPS, hit go, and a voice will call every turn, merge, and detour to get you where you are going.

They’re not all as dead as disco yet. Anyone who’s thinking of opening the doors of a retail music store, building a wholesale instrument parts organization, or stepping up to perform professional absolutely needs a map. A business roadmap, that is.

Don’t confuse the roadmap with a business plan. A business plan is a document that describes in detail core business activities, strategies for attracting investors, products, services, marketing analysis, financial planning, and budgets.

The business roadmap is a more flexible document that can help you visualize what’s needed to take your business where you want it to go.

A business roadmap includes short- and long-term goals and objectives, milestones toward achieving them, and dependencies, which are action items that must be completed before the next can be started. In a larger organization, “initiatives” would come after goals, but we’ll assume for the time being that your goal is not to become a major corporation.

Goals are not necessarily specific but instead outline what the company wants to achieve in a defined time frame. They keep employees’ aligned with timelines and ensure the company is headed in the right direction. Objectives, on the other hand, are clearly defined, measurable steps toward reaching the company’s strategic vision. The distinction can be described as: Goals define the “what” of a business’s purpose whereas business objectives define the “how.”

Once you figure out what you’re trying to do, it’s time to start your research. Dive deep! You need to know your business. Start by looking at potential competition or other businesses like yours that are successful.

  • How do they present themselves in the market?
  • What kind of online presence do they project?
  • What kind of reviews do they get?
  • How big are they (e.g. locations, square footage)?
  • What kind of inventory do they carry?
  • What goods or services do they provide?

If you’re not in direct competition with them (e.g. a business a few zip codes away), introduce yourself to the owner and offer to take him or her out to coffee or lunch to learn about their business. More often than not, successful people are willing to share how they did it, what they learned along the way, and what mistakes to avoid. It actually gives them pleasure to help other people succeed and you can learn invaluable lessons from other people’s experience.

Now that you have a handle on your goals and what you need to do to achieve them, prioritizing is the next step in building your business roadmap. Is getting a blog promoting your business up and running more important than building inventory? Setting priorities is a way of ordering preferences. The Covey “Important/Urgent” matrix is a useful tool for separating the needs from the wants. It’s important to back them up with a timeframe. Of course, adjustments can be made but it’s critical to execute your roadmap and hit your objectives on time and on budget. If you find that some things are taking too long and others are being neglected as a result, you may need to adjust your priorities—and that’s okay. Having a business roadmap doesn’t mean everything will work out perfectly but it can prevent you from getting completely lost.

If you’re new to this, don’t be shy about asking for help. If you have friends in the business that not you’re competing with directly, ask for a feedback on whether your timeframes are feasible and realistic. Also, it’s important to be self-critical about your strengths and weaknesses regarding your goals. You may have to outsource help or hire someone with a certain skill set to tackle certain areas.

Timeframes segue into milestones. Certain milestones may be mission critical to continuing your business, such as reaching certain revenue goals. Milestones also provide opportunities to celebrate successes, evaluate operations, and assess progress. Milestones help keep you on track. How are they different than goals? Your goal may be to reach $500,000 in annual sales. A milestone could be reaching your first $100,000 in sales. How long did it take to reach 20% of your annual goal? What did it take? How could you improve the process? Milestones should be significant but bite size, so to speak. Perhaps it took six months to reach your $100,000 milestone but now you have a tangible assessment tool from which to work.

Finally, review and revise your business roadmap regularly. It is general and flexible so you can make adjustments as needed to stay on course. Think of a tree that’s rigid. A windstorm comes along and blows the tree over. A flexible tree on the other hand can survive and prosper under those same adverse conditions.

Priorities will change as market and economic climates change, so you may need to shuffle them from time to time. For instance, if building inventory was a high priority but the central economic planners’ policies touched off a storm of raging inflation, you might want to put inventory on the back burner and instead concentrate on strategies to build customer engagement while putting inventory on the back burner.

A business roadmap is not rigid but avoid playing fast and loose with it. Coaches will tell you changing direction with every bump in the road is a sure sign of panic. Instead, stick with the plan for as long as it has a reasonable chance of producing the win.

A business roadmap is imperative whether you’re a sole proprietor or partnership or your growth plans. It will help you stay on target and refine your business practices. It can also be a useful tool in sharing your vision with employees. If expansion requires borrowing or raising funds, a business roadmap can literally help lenders or investors visualize how you plan to accomplish the proposed growth.

Like with any roadmap, there are multiple ways to reach the same destination. A business roadmap will help provide objectivity, efficiency, and a more direct path to fulfill your vision.