Re-imagining the business plan for students

While the terms ‘enterprise’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ are often used interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between them, especially within the context of technical, vocational education and training (TVET).

‘Enterprising’ activities, which many TVET providers already focus on, enable students to develop interpersonal skills such as leadership, motivation, critical thinking, problem-solving, teambuilding, communication and presentation skills. ‘Entrepreneurship’ takes this a step further by encouraging students to explore the opportunity of self-employment by starting a new enterprise. There is a strong focus on developing business ideas, business acumen and skills such as product development, market research, finance and planning, and on providing access to pre-incubation services and business networks.

At Northern Regional College, in Northern Ireland, we embarked on an international TVET partnership with colleges from Spain, Portugal and Finland to explore a new approach to making enterprise education more entrepreneurial. Our area of focus? The business plan.

Completion of a business plan is a key measure of success for many enterprise start-up agency support programmes. To attract capital investment, the business plan remains, rightly or wrongly, the measurement of the entrepreneur’s commitment to the short to medium-term future of their business.

While many TVET colleges seeking to develop entrepreneurial thinking and action amongst their students emphasise the importance of the business plan, it is proven to be the least popular and, consequently, least practiced activity amongst TVET students.


In response, our Erasmus+ partnership, Enterprise is VITAL, is piloting a new business planning model using language relevant to TVET students. The approach focuses on five core entrepreneurial characteristics: Vision, Innovation, Teamwork, Achievement and Leadership.

The model is an adaptation from the international bestselling book Winning from Within by EA Fox (2013), which highlights four intrinsic characteristics that need to be understood and developed for success.

Interestingly, these characteristics link with the standard template business plan:

  1. Dreamer: vision, innovation, creativity, star-gazing, future thinking, idea generation
  2. Thinker: research, data – facts, risk analysis (acceptable loss-thinking), market research
  3. Warrior: performance, tasks, to-do lists, deadlines, goals, milestones, plans
  4. Lover: people, relationships, networks, communication, contacts, customers.

By focusing on these emotionally descriptive words, TVET students are better able to understand the critical skills required for embarking on a new venture. The term ‘Lover’ evokes a positive response, suggesting the importance of developing a long-lasting mutual relationship. The term ‘Thinker’ underlines the importance of making time for data gathering and analysis within busy schedules. ‘Warrior’ is a call to action. ‘Dreamer’ invites innovative solutions to problems.

Our TVET students have understood and adapted to this model extremely quickly. It has encouraged them to engage in lively debate, and to discuss their ideas through problem-based learning projects. All of this ultimately leads to the development of a business plan, without actually using the term ‘business plan’.

In addition to language and digital competence, the EU recognises that transversal competencies including a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, learning to learn, cultural awareness and social and civic responsibility are required to make individuals more flexible and mobile, and, therefore, responsive to the needs of a modern economy (Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, 2006). The programme content of any entrepreneurship programme must consider the level and extent to which these transversal competences are being addressed.

During the first year of Enterprise is VITAL, our students fully embraced these transversal competencies. Working in mixed international teams, they developed their business ideas and their market pitch proposal during a business planning competition in Spain, based on this visual model.

The judging panel, comprising of local business leaders, entrepreneurs and independent start-up agency experts from Spain and the UK, commended the students on ‘their clarity of vision, understanding of the market place and customer needs, realistic financial forecasts and doable actions’. The students were also congratulated for ‘their insights into their own weaknesses and how to build their social capital’, which the judges said was rarely included in an enterprise pitch. What more could you ask for from a successful  business plan?

To find out more about Enterprise is VITAL, contact Irvine Abraham at the Northern Regional College.