This article is part of a series on how to write a great business plan.

Market research is critical to business success. A good business plan analyzes and evaluates customer demographics, purchasing habits, buying cycles, and willingness to adopt new products and services.

The process starts with understanding your market--and the opportunities inherent in that market. And that means you'll need to do a little research. Before you start a business you must be sure there is a viable market for what you plan to offer.

That process requires asking--and more importantly answering--a number of questions. The more thoroughly you answer the following questions, the better you will understand your market.

Start by evaluating the market at a relatively high level, answering some high-level questions about your market and your industry:

  • What is the size of the market? Is it growing, stable, or in decline?
  • Is the overall industry growing, stable, or in decline?
  • What segment of the market do I plan to target? What demographics and behaviors make up the market I plan to target?
  • Is demand for my specific products and services rising or falling?
  • Can I differentiate myself from the competition in a way customers will find meaningful? If so, can I differentiate myself in a cost-effective manner?
  • What do customers expect to pay for my products and services? Are they considered to be a commodity or to be custom and individualized?

Fortunately you've already done some of the legwork. You've already defined and mapped out your products and services. The Market Opportunities section provides a sense-check of that analysis, which is particularly important since choosing the right products and services is such a critical factor in business success.

But your analysis should go farther: Great products are great... but there still must be a market for those products. (Ferraris are awesome but you're unlikely to sell many where I live.)

So let's dig deeper and quantify your market. Your goal is to thoroughly understand the characteristics and purchasing ability of potential customers in your market. A little Googling can yield a tremendous amount of data.

For the market you hope to serve, determine:

  • Your potential customers. In general terms, potential customers are the people in the market segment you plan to target. Say you sell jet skis; anyone under the age of 16 and over the age of 60 or so is unlikely to be a customer. Plus, again in general terms, women make up a relatively small percentage of jet ski purchasers. Determining the total population for the market is not particularly helpful if your product or service does not serve a need for the entire population. Most products and services do not.
  • Total households. In some cases determining the number of total households is important depending on your business. For example, if you sell heating and air conditioning systems, knowing the number of households is more important than simply knowing the total population in your area. While people purchase HVAC systems, "households" consume those systems.
  • Median income. Spending ability is important. Does your market area have sufficient spending power to purchase enough of your products and services to enable you to make a profit? Some areas are more affluent than others. Don't assume every city or locality is the same in terms of spending power. A service that is viable in New York City may not be viable in your town.
  • Income by demographics. You can also determine income levels by age group, by ethnic group, and by gender. (Again, potential spending power is an important number to quantify.) Senior citizens could very well have a lower income level than males or females age 45 to 55 in the prime of their careers. Or say you plan to sell services to local businesses; try to determine the amount they currently spend on similar services.

The key is to understand the market in general terms and then to dig deeper to understand whether there are specific segments within that market--the segments you plan to target--that can become customers and support the growth of your business.

Also keep in mind that if you plan to sell products online the global marketplace is incredibly crowded and competitive. Any business can sell a product online and ship that product around the world. Don't simply assume that just because "the bicycle industry is a $62 billion business" (a number I just made up) that you can capture a meaningful percentage of that market.

On the other hand, if you live in an area with 50,000 people and there's only one bicycle shop, you may be able to enter that market and attract a major portion of bicycle customers in your area.

Always remember it's much easier to serve a market you can define and quantify.

After you complete your research you may feel a little overwhelmed. While data is good, and more data is great, sifting through and making sense of too much data can be daunting.

For the purposes of your business plan, narrow your focus and focus on answering these main questions:

  • What is your market? Include geographic descriptions, target demographics, and company profiles (if you're B2B). In short: Who are your customers?
  • What segment of your market will you focus on? What niche will you attempt to carve out? What percentage of that market do you hope to penetrate and acquire?
  • What is the size of your intended market? What is the population and spending habits and levels?
  • Why do customers need and why will they be willing to purchase your products and services?
  • How will you price your products and services? Will you be the low cost provider or provide value-added services at higher prices?
  • Is your market likely to grow? How much? Why?
  • How can you increase your market share over time?

The Market Opportunities section for our cycling rental business could start something like this:

Market Summary

Consumer spending on cycling equipment reached $9,250,000 in the states of VA, WV, MD, and NC last year. While we expect sales to rise, for the purposes of performing a conservative analysis we have projected a zero growth rate for the next three years.

In those states 2,500,000 people visited a national forest last year. Our target market includes customers visiting the Shenandoah National Forest; last year 120,000 people visited the area during spring, summer, and fall months.

Over time, however, we do expect equipment rentals and sales to increase as the popularity of cycling continues to rise. In particular we forecast a spike in demand in 2015 since the national road racing championships will be held in Richmond, VA.

Market Trends

Participation and population trends favor our venture:

  • Recreational sports in general and both family-oriented and "extreme" sports continue to gain in exposure and popularity.
  • Western VA and eastern WV have experienced population growth rates nearly double that of the country as a whole.
  • Industry trends show cycling has risen at a more rapid rate than most other recreational activities.

Market Growth

According to the latest studies, recreation spending in our target market has grown by 14% per year for the past three years.

In addition, we anticipate greater than industry-norm growth rates for cycling in the area due to the increase in popularity of cycling events like the Alpine Loop Gran Fondo.

Market Needs

Out target market has one basic need: The availability to source bicycle rentals at a competitive price. Our only other competition are the bike shops in Harrisonburg, VA, and our location will give us a competitive advantage over those and other companies who try to serve our market.

You may want to add other categories to this section based on your particular industry.

For example, you may want to provide information about Market Segments. In our case the cycling rental business does not require much segmentation. Rentals are typically not broken down into segments like "inexpensive," "mid-range," and "high-end." For the most part rental bikes are more of a commodity. (Although you'll notice in our Products and Services section we decided to provide "high-end" rentals.)

But say you decide to open a clothing store. You could focus on high fashion, or children's clothes, or outdoor wear, or casual... you could segment the market in a number of ways. If that's the case, provide detail on segmentation that supports your plan.

The key is to define your market and then show how you will serve your market.

Now let's take a look at the next major component in a business plan: your Sales and Marketing strategies.

More in this series:

Published on: Apr 7, 2015