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I was recently reviewing a booklet we are designing for a client and my mind wandered while viewing the Table of Contents. I always start with some form of a Table of Contents, whether I am laying out an article, a design piece, or a website, because it provides structure to the project, and I’m a big fan of structure. While reviewing it I started thinking about the life of a business and how it can neatly and succinctly be communicated through a Table of Contents.

Every business has a story (we’ve talked about that before) which means you also have a Table of Contents. Each chapter in your story identifies a defining moment in the life of your business, and I want to challenge you today to record your chapter titles.

Most businesses have at least a couple chapters in common. The first chapter is all about the experiences that led to the idea of your business and the second chapter either deals with early struggles or fast growth. I love hearing business owners talk about the innovation that surrounded their idea and the fortitude that turned their idea into a business. This is what chapter one and chapter two are all about.

Once you get to chapter three, the Table of Contents becomes more unique to each business – maybe you hired your first team member or landed a game-changing account, or maybe you formalized what you do better than anyone else. This chapter typically involves a turning point of some sort.

Five Benefits of Writing Your Business Table of Contents

As I began to think about a Business Table of Contents, I immediately wrote out M&R’s. I’ve thought through and written about our story multiple times but I had never written our story in such a condensed manner – it allowed me to really focus in on the most significant aspects of our story.

Thinking through your story is great, but writing it out is even better, and this is where most of us fall short. Research shows that if you write out your goals, you are 42% more likely to keep them*.

Writing your Table of Contents will benefit you in five ways:

  1. Cause you to step out of your day to day and focus on your business goals
  2. Force you to analyze your business from a big picture perspective
  3. Encourage you to learn from your failures and celebrate your successes
  4. Allow you to cast vision for the chapters that haven’t been written
  5. Produce a guide for you and your team to reference when you need a bit of motivation or when you need to re-align with your vision

What’s Next?

After I wrote M&R’s Table of Contents I envisioned what was next for our company and I wrote the titles to our next two chapters. It’s the part of our story that hasn’t been written yet but the groundwork had already been set. The titles closely matched the goals that my business partner and I established in a recent weekend strategy session. I asked Nick to write out our future chapters as well and his results were nearly identical to mine.

Casting vision is the life-blood of your business and you should consistently take time to evaluate the past and present and plan for the future. My favorite part of this exercise is writing the chapter titles to the part of your story that hasn’t occurred yet. You get to dream a bit here and you also create accountability to make it happen.

Here’s the M&R Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: When an Idea on a Napkin Became a Business
  • Chapter 2: The Leap of Faith: Quitting Jobs, Losing Insurance, and Going Full-time
  • Chapter 3: From 2 to 10 – The Joys (and Pains) of Hiring and Growing a Team
  • (Unwritten): Chapter 4: Continue to Evolve our Service Offerings
  • (Unwritten): Chapter 5: Changing Roles: Spending More Time Working On the Business than In the Business

A Few Stories to Share

Writing out your Table of Contents is not a difficult exercise – it only takes about 15 minutes, it has a real value, and you’ll enjoy the process. The difficulty is making it a priority.

I reached out to a few colleagues and invited them to try out the exercise and they responded pretty quickly with their Table of Contents and they gave me permission to share them.

Erin Bickley and Jenny Greer, Co-Founders of Hold Your Haunches (2010)

Note: In 2014 Hold Your Haunches was featured on ABC’s Shark Tank and accepted a deal with Barbara Corcoran and Lori Greiner.

  • Chapter 1: Filling a Need: Looking for a Product We Wanted and When We Were Unable to Find it, We Designed It
  • Chapter 2: When Ignorance Is Bliss: Making a Significant Investment in Inventory and Figuring Out How to Sell It
  • Chapter 3: Uh Oh! It’s For Real Now: Going from a Family Friendly Part-time Job to a Full-time Business Overnight
  • Chapter 4: Listening to Customers without Losing Ourselves: When Demand Becomes Significant and How to Balance Brand and Product Line Growth at a Manageable Rate
  • Chapter 5: Trial & Plenty of Error: Determining the Best Model to Sell our Products in a Rapidly Changing Retail Environment
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 6: Letting Go: Outsourcing Duties and Decisions So We Can Stay Focused on the Business Development
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 7: Will We Ever Get a Regular Paycheck?

Shane Gottwals, Founder of Walls of Books Franchise (2012) and Gottwals Books (2007)

  • Chapter 1: Business Idea Sparked During Family Lunch
  • Chapter 2: Clueless How to Start; Praying for Wisdom
  • Chapter 3: Dismally Slow Sales
  • Chapter 4: Business Takes Off
  • Chapter 5: Expanding the Brand Nationwide; Systematizing Operations
  • Chapter 6: New Roles Needed with New Organizational Structure
  • Chapter 7: Infrastructure Investments
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 8: Growing Profitability Across Multiple Markets
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 9: Becoming the Recognized Leader in Our Field

Nichole Brewer, Owner of Signature Salon (2008)

  • Chapter 1: Dreams Become Reality: Opening my own Salon
  • Chapter 2: Needing a New Direction: Phasing in Commission Stylists Along with having Booth Renters
  • Chapter 3: Hair Salon School for Dummies: Learning How to Run a Commission Salon Based on Summit Salon Model (And Complete Phaseout of Booth Renters)
  • Chapter 4: Managing: Learning How to Leverage Labor and Not Completely Rely on your own Production
  • Chapter 5: Expansion: How to Find More Stylists and How to Bring in More Clients
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 6: Stabilizing: Recoup Investment in New Location and Model, Dominate Competition, and Establish our Salon as Best Salon South of Atlanta.
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 7: IP Growth: Trademarks, Patents, Intellectual Property for Future Licensing and Multiple Locations
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 8: Building Blocks for Retirement Plan/Exit Strategy: Offer Ownership and Operating Responsibilities to Level 4a Staff
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 9: Pass the Sig: Start New Locations with Shareholder/Employees

Steven Brewer, Owner of Steven C. Brewer, CPA (2013)

  • Chapter 1: Taking the Leap on my Own
  • Chapter 2: Finding Clients
  • Chapter 3: Getting Systems and Processes
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 4: Adding Staff, Managing Peeps
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 5: Moving from Bookkeeping and Tax Prep to Only Review and Consulting

Aaron Safley, Founding Pastor of Redeemer Baptist Church (2013)

  • Chapter 1: Do What? Two Full-time Pastors Struggle with a Sense of God’s Calling them to Plant a New Church
  • Chapter 2: All Work and No Pay: Countless Hours Spent Casting Vision, Writing by-laws, and Creating Structures that will Support a Biblical Church
  • Chapter 3: Let Us Worship: Unconventionally Beginning with the Only Thing we Know to do…Gather for Worship
  • Chapter 4: Moving: The Blessing of Growth and Struggle of Moving Locations
  • Chapter 5: Using What We Have: Finding Opportunities to Cooperate with Like-minded Churches to put our Limited Resources to Work Building the Kingdom both Locally and Abroad
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 6: Growing Internally: More Staff and Elders to Lead and Protect our Church and Help us do Greater Ministry
  • (Unwritten) Chapter 7: Identity Crisis: Trusting the Lord to Help us Find a Permanent Location in the Community with Permanent Facilities to Call our Own

Get Started and Share Your Results

I invite you to create a Table of Contents for your business. This simple exercise encourages you to write chapter titles for your story. Maybe your story has 3 chapters or maybe it has 10 – it completely depends on the life of your business. You’re not writing your whole story out, just the chapter titles. And here’s the real challenge – after you’ve written out your Table of Contents write the titles of your next two unwritten chapters. This is where you begin to cast vision for how you’d like to see your company grow.

I would love for you to send us your Table of Contents. I’ll even look over it and send you feedback and advice on achieving the goals you’ve set forth in your two unwritten chapters.

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*Source: Dr. Gail Matthews, Dominican University of California