Business planning inspired by Francis Ford Coppola

Small business owners face dozens of questions each day. Having a theme for your business helps you answer them correctly.

Small business owners face dozens of questions each day. Having a theme for your business helps you get to the right answers.

By Michelle van Schouwen

Legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola shared this insight:

“When you make a movie, always try to discover what the theme of the movie is in one or two words. Every time I made a film, I always knew what I thought the theme was, the core, in one word. In “The Godfather,” it was succession. In “The Conversation,” it was privacy. In “Apocalypse,” it was morality. The reason it’s important to have this is because most of the time what a director really does is make decisions. All day long: Do you want it to be long hair or short hair? Do you want a dress or pants? Do you want a beard or no beard? There are many times when you don’t know the answer. Knowing what the theme is always helps you.”

As the prospect of business planning for the next calendar year looms close, discovering your own theme can be a fresh and valuable strategy. Once you determine your theme, which can also be stated as your “true business mission,” you can better make decisions to support it.

It’s important to note that your business theme, your true business mission, may or may not mesh with the type of language we’re accustomed to seeing on the “Mission” page of company websites, which is too often vague, pretentious, and sometimes even unsupported by the business’ actual activities.

Your theme is what you and any partners want for and from the business. This includes what you want to accomplish, avoid, represent, and live.

Your theme may be publishable in your company materials (spoken), or it may be left unspoken because it represents your own needs even more than the needs of the customer. It’s your decision.

Here are examples of small and startup business missions and themes, some worthy of including in marketing outreach, others more personal:

-“Create organic facial care products for a better world” (Two-word version “better world”)

-“Lead a team of programmers to develop awesome apps” (“team awesome”)

-“Run a business that lets me get home to my kids on time every day” (“family”)

-“Sell big-ticket items, not cans of soup” (“big checks”)

-“Build a medical device, sell the startup for megabucks” (“accelerate salability”)

-“Provide affordable legal services for people starting businesses on a shoestring” (“serve entrepreneurs”)

Your theme will inform many important business planning decisions. 

Let’s take the two-word theme for the business that develops organic facial care products: “better world.” Apply the “better world” theme to a number of decision points to emerge with directives:

Hiring: Hire people with ethics and a commitment to a better world

Workplace: Create work-life balance where possible

Sourcing ingredients: Consider the way organic ingredients are produced, how their organic nature is assumed or certified, the way workers are treated and the impact your ingredients have on the environment and social systems

Packaging: Think organic, minimized and reduced environmental impact

Pricing: Price products so you can pay your people and yourself fairly, but also so your products are not available exclusively to affluent customers

Cash flow and expansion: Conduct business efficiently to conserve resources; if borrowing or taking investments, be confident that you can meet your commitments/keep your promises

Messaging: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?

Company ethos: The product, the process and the people all “give back” to create a better world

If your theme is “big checks” or “family,” that inspires whole new sets of directives. Happy planning.


Michelle van Schouwen is president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company based in Longmeadow, MA. vSA is known for vSALaunch, its proprietary, modular and scalable system for B2B marketing launches, vSAConsult, its executive-level strategic planning capability, and for its expertise in integrated marketing for B2B. The vSA theme, “Launch!” helps keep every aspect of this 31-year-old business fresh.

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