Category Archives: Business Plan

True Story: My Worst-Ever Business Plan Consulting Engagement

In more than 30 years with business planning, my worst-ever business plan consulting engagement was for a startup that should have been funded but wasn’t. It was a good business plan. But the business plan process became the fatal flaw.

A good plan, excellent team, good startup

Unhappy GuyI learned this lesson while sitting in a series of meetings, sitting in venture capital offices at 300 Sand Hill Drive, Menlo Park, CA. That office complex has been the epicenter of venture capital for four decades. It’s a rangy maze of stylish and expensive two-story office complexes. I was the business plan writer for a startup looking for funding. It was a long time ago, in Silicon Valley, in the early 1980s.

The three startup founders formed an excellent startup team. All three were Silicon Valley veterans. One was a marketing guy, another a technical guy, and the third a deal-maker salesman.  They had about 40 years of computer company experience between them. They had a good idea and, much more important, a market window, differentiation, and experience to make it happen.

I had done the plan, built the financial model, written the text, shepherded the document through the painful coil binding and the whole thing, but I wasn’t part of the team. I didn’t want to be. I was still at grad school, getting my MBA, and my part of this venture was writing the plan, period. I needed the money to pay tuition.

My three clients had good connections and managed to get meetings with several leading venture capital (VC) firms in the Sand Hill Drive offices in Menlo Park, just outside of Stanford.  in the heart of Silicon Valley.

But there was a problem with business plan consulting

In meeting after meeting, at key moments, as the venture capital partners asked critical questions, all heads turned to me. I would answer.  I knew the plan, backwards, forwards, and inside out; but I was the only one who did. It was my plan. And the meetings made that obvious.

The three of them never really got into the plan. They thought of the business plan as a hurdle; and they paid me to jump that hurdle. Every meeting generated new changes, so I would go back to the basement computer at the business school, and re-run the financial model. The team of three didn’t include a financial person to learn and manage the model, so I did the financial projections alone, tweaking. Which meant I was the only one who knew the plan. I’d re-run my financial model, edit the text, and publish a new version of the plan. They read paragraphs here and there, glanced at the numbers, but they stayed with the big picture, and left the details to me.

Details that, in fact, they didn’t read. They trusted my faithful recording of their ideas, and my financial modeling. They assumed, I guessed at the time, that these were functions that could always be delegated to somebody with special skills, while they generated high-level strategy.

And time after time, when questions came, I was the only one with answers. It was my plan, not their plan.

They never got funded

They did not get financed. I was disappointed. When you develop the plan and revise it dozens of times and support it and defend it through the long series of meetings with supposedly interested investors, you want it to take flight.

All these years later, memory of that disappointment is still fresh. I did learn my lesson, though, and I changed my strategy as a business plan consultant. From then on I made sure that any plan I worked on belonged — and I’m talking about intellectual ownership here, conceptual ownership — to the real plan owners, not the consultant.

How to work with a business plan consultant

If you have the luxury of a budget to pay an outside expert, consultant, or business plan writer, then maybe you should use them. This might be a good use of division of labor, and perhaps you can lever off somebody else’s experience and expertise. However, that will not work for you unless you always remember that it has to be your plan, not the consultant’s plan. Know everything in it, backwards and forwards, and inside out.

It’s not for nothing that I always say a business plan has to be your plan and nobody else’s. It can’t be your consultant’s plan. You must know it backwards and forwards and inside out, or it won’t work.

(Note: this is rewritten from a post I wrote in 2007)

 

 

 

 

10 Myths vs. Reality on Business Plans and Startup Investment

I gather from a stream of emails I’ve received that there are a lot of misconceptions on the relationship between a business plan and getting seed money and/or angel investment. So here’s a list of reality checks to apply to all those lists.

  1. business managementBusiness plans are necessary but not sufficient. Even a great business plan won’t get any investment for any startup. Investors invest in the team, the market, the product-market fit, the differentiators, and so forth. And they evaluate the risk-return relationship based on progress made, traction achieved, and market validations. The plan gets information the investors need; it doesn’t sell anything. One of the most serious misconceptions is the idea that the quality of the writing and presentation of a business plan is going to influence its ability to land investment. Sure, if you consider the extremes, a poorly written plan is evidence of sloppy work. If it’s hard to find the important information, that’s a problem. But barring extremely bad plans, what ends up being good or bad is the content – the market, product, team, differentiators, technology, progress made, milestones met, and so forth – not the document.
  2. All businesses should be using business planning regularly. They should have a plan to set strategy and tactics, milestones, metrics, and responsibilities, and to project and manage essential numbers including sales, spending, and cash; and they should keep that plan alive with regular (at least monthly) review and revisions. Business plans are for business planning, and management; not just for investors.
  3. Nobody has ever invested in a business plan, unless you count what they pay business plan writers and consultants. People invest in the business, not the plan. Just like people buy the airplane or car, not the specifications sheet. The plan is a collection of messages about past, present, and future of the business. It’s past facts and future commitments. People invest in milestones met.
  4. The normal process goes from idea, to gathering a team, doing a plan, and executing on the early steps to develop prototype, wireframes, designs, and ideally traction and market validation. And the plan is constantly rewritten as progress is made.
  5. Investors come in only after a lot of initial work is already done. 
  6. The startup process does not – repeat, NOT – go from idea to plan to funding and only then, execution. You don’t go for funding with just a plan. That’s way too early.
  7. Investors do read business plans. Regarding the myth that investors don’t read business plans, I’m in a regional group of angel investors, we’ve had maybe 80 people as members during the eight years since it started, and the vast majority of us would never even consider investing in a company without seeing the business plan.
  8. But investors don’t read all the business plans they get; and they often reject deals without reading the plan. To reconcile this point with the previous, note that investors read the plans during due diligence, as a way to dive into the details of a startup they are interested in. They don’t read them as a screening mechanism. So a lot of startup founders who don’t get investment are telling the truth when they say investors didn’t read their plan. Investors rejected them based on summary information or pitch.
  9. On that same point, the process with angel investment today starts with an introduction or submission through proper channels (gust.com, angellist.co, incubators, 500 startups, and so forth). Investors screen deals based on summary information in the profile or a summary memo. The deals that get through that filter will be invited to do a pitch in person. Those that still look interesting, after the pitch, will go into due diligence, with is a lot of further study of the business, customers, market, legal documentation, and the business plan.
  10. Business plans are never good for more than a few weeks. They need constant revision. Things are always changing. People don’t expect the big full formal plan document anymore, not even investors. Keep a plan lean, review it often, revise it as necessary, and use it to run your business. Use it to steer the business and keep making course corrections. That’s what a plan is supposed to be these days.

How to Start a Business Plan

MarketingHow do I start a business plan? It’s a common question. And you can find lots of definitive answers. People answer with outlines, prescriptions, and recipes. Unfortunately, most of these misunderstand how people are different, and the way they approach the business plan ought to reflect that difference.

Let me explain with some examples of how your own preferences might determine the best way to start your business plan. See if you fit with one of these general patterns:

  • Mission-driven. Some people tend to build the concepts first and go from there to the specifics. So they start with a general concept like a statement of purpose, often called mission. That’s a matter of words only, but it seems to work for some. The downside of this is that these are way too often just empty promise words, vague marketing hype, in which case they are pretty much a diversion, or waste of time. For more on this: How to Write a Mission Statement in 5 Easy Steps – Bplans Blog
  • Problem and solution. Starting with the problem the business solves, and how it solves it, can be a useful way to get going. These two are the core of strategy and market analysis. And don’t think of that problem too narrowly either. Many successful businesses address what people want – prestige, confidence, status – more than what they really need. For more on this: Don’t Just Describe Problem and Solution in Your Business Plan; Make People Care – Bplans Blog
  • Strategy and tactics. Strategy is focus: I recommend a simple framework that considers the interaction between your identity (unique differences, strengths, goals, etc.), your market market, and your business offering. Then add tactics to execute, aligned with the focus. For identity: Strategy Step 1: Understanding Identity. For market: Strategy Step 2: Market Focus. For the three factors together: How to Develop Your Business Strategy
  • Numbers first. I’m one of these. I prefer to develop the sales forecast first (How to Forecast Sales). Thinking about the sales forecast helps me to imagine the whole business, and to think about what will work and what won’t work. In fact, I often to the financial forecast all the way to cash flow, before working on the words and concepts. Numbers help me to think about the whole business. I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I’m also sure a lot of people prefer to do concepts first.

Conclusion: Get started. Get going. Do first whatever seems easiest, or most natural, to you.

Business Plans are Always Wrong

Yes, I admit; I’ve used “business plans are always wrong” a few times in slides, blog posts, and even in both of my two latest books. It’s an important concept. Way too many people misunderstand the point of business planning and assume that because we can’t predict the future, we shouldn’t plan.

Which prompts me to ask: does the fact that flights are often delayed and sometimes cancelled suggest you shouldn’t make reservations to fly? Does the fact that weather or traffic jams might change the optimal route mean you don’t want to plan a driving trip? How can you justify not planning your business with the fact that things change?

I say take that a step further: business plans are always wrong.

That’s because we’re human. Business plans predict the future. We humans suck at predicting the future.Istock_000000549056small_2

Paradox: nonetheless, planning is vital. Planning means starting with the plan and then tracking, reviewing progress, watching plan vs. actual results, correcting the course without losing sight of the long-term destination.

Planning is a process, like walking or steering, that involves constant corrections.

  • The plan sets a marker. Without it we can’t track how we were wrong, in what direction, and when, and with what assumptions.
  • Use this marker to manage the constant conflict between short-term problems and long-term goals. You don’t just implement a plan, no matter what. You work that plan. Use it to maintain your vision of progress towards the horizon, while dealing with the everyday problems, putting out fires.
  • So the plan may be wrong, but the planning process is vital.

The truth is that forecasting is hard. Nobody likes forecasting. But Istock_000000408066smallone thing harder than forecasting is trying to run a business without a forecast.

A business plan is normally full of holes, but you fill them, after the fact, with the management that follows. That’s what turns planning into management.

Good planning is nine parts implementation for every one part strategy. And you heard that one from me first.

 

10 Things Angel Investors Ask About Startups

Today the angel investment group I’m a member of (Willamette Angel Conference) finished our eighth year of choosing a startup to invest in. Our investment runs $100K to $500K, roughly. It’s announced every year on the second Thursday in May. The announcement comes later in the day, not here.

Our annual angel investors process

Every year we review 40 or so submissions from startups. We look at summaries, videos, financial projections, and pitches posted online at gust.com. We invite our favorites to pitch to us live in a series of meetings. We assign due diligence teams to read their business plans thoroughly, check documents, talk to customers, test products, look at their legal situations, and so on. And eventually we choose a winner (or two or three).

My personal list of 10 things I want to know

Push PinDuring the process, we’ve had to review again what we want to know from startups as we review them. What information is essential? With that in mind, I wrote up my own list of what I look for in startups, from the outset. This is what I want a startup to tell me from the beginning.

  1. The startup team’s background, experience, and credibility. Specifically, what experience do you have with startups. Have you run a startup? Have you been an employee or team member of a startup? And of course your education, degrees, schools, etc. And your work experience. That goes for founder or founders, and main team members. If you don’t have a complete team, have you identified the key skills you need and candidates to hire? Are they likely to come on board? What are their backgrounds, skills, and experience? Who will do the administration, production, marketing, and sales?
  2. What problem do you solve, and how? I want to understand the needs and wants so I can decide for myself on product-market fit. What kinds of people or organizations have that problem, and how badly do they need or want what you are going to sell? For that you have to give me the whys and the background, the stories, not just the numbers; but numbers are good.
  3. And why you? Why are you more qualified than anybody else. How can you keep others from jumping in on your business if it’s successful?
  4. And who else? Who else is doing what you are, or solving what you solve? How do they do it?
  5. Key Metrics. What traction do you have so far? How long have you been up and running, and how many customers or subscribers or sales or visits or downloads or conversions or leads and inquiries? What are your metrics so far? Where do you see them going.
  6. Milestones met and milestones to come. I want to see both what you’ve done and what you plan to do. Your valuation today is about what you’ve accomplished already. What you plan to accomplish gives me an idea of possible future valuations.
  7. How much money are you raising and what are you spending it on. Investment should be used to finance deficit spending that’s going to generate a lot of growth and increased valuations. If you can relate your financial ask to milestones you plan to meet, then that’s great.
  8. Strategy. Strategy is focus. What markets, what products, what specific attributes of your business make this focus realistic? What markets and solutions are you ruling out, or leaving for later?
  9. Tactics. Tactics are essentials like pricing, channels, online, social, marketing, sales, financial plans.
  10. Essential projections. Sales forecast built from bottoms-up assumptions, spending budget, projected P&L, balance, and cash flow. I’m annoyed if you don’t provide these, but I should add that I’m also not going to eliminate a startup for bad financials. Bad financials are the easiest problem to fix.

I should note that I do care a lot about exit strategies, and even more so about the intention to exit. But I assume the intention is there when you seek angel investment. And I want to go from your product and solution to your market, your competition, and my guess about future exits. Exits happen 3-5 years from now. I want you to focus on your business, and I’ll decide whether I believe you’ll eventually become an attractive acquisition so we can get an exit.

Also, on financials, I look for understanding the relationship between spending and growth, how much you need spend in the main spending categories, in broad brush, to be able to grow. I expect growth to cost a lot of money and almost always rule out profits. If you were going to be profitable, you wouldn’t need investment, and you wouldn’t offer a great ROI. I don’t hold you accountable for accurately projecting your essential  numbers, but I do expect you to understand the assumptions and the drivers that you use to develop the forecasts.

And, a third point: We usually get this information several ways, starting with the summaries our startups post on gust.com. There are summaries, slides, videos, and financials. I do always want to see a business plan, but I don’t care about all the text summaries and descriptions. I do want the business plan to include strategy, tactics, metrics, milestones, and essential business numbers.

Standard Business Plan Financials: Six Key Terms

A good argument for teams in business is not having to know finance if you love sales, marketing, or product development. But you’re a business owner. You’ll run your business better if you understand the standard business plan financials. These important terms aren’t that hard to learn and understand. You owe it to yourself and your business.

Like it or not, some very common terms including capital, assets, liabilities, costs, and expenses have very exact meanings in accounting and finance; but they are often used in conversation with much more flexible and fuzzy meanings. For example, in a conversation over coffee, a business owner might refer to her website as an asset; but in finance it’s an expense. And an employee whose work is sloppy might be called a liability; but that’s not proper use of the accounting term.

Just Six Terms

Every item in every standard accounting system is one of the following six terms. The first three (assets, liabilities and capital) appear on a standard balance sheet, and the next three (sales, direct costs, and expenses) appear on the standard income statement. Explanations of those, plus the all-important cash flow, are coming. But first, the six terms you need:

Assets

Assets are things of value a company owns. Money is an asset. Money in a bank account, or in securities like stocks and bonds, or liquidity accounts and banking instruments, is an asset. It goes on your books as some amount of dollars or pounds, francs, yen, or whatever currency you use. Land, buildings, production equipment, and furniture are assets. One definition is “anything with monetary value that a business owns.” Inventory is a very common category of assets, meaning the goods a business owns to resell (like the books in a bookstore or the bicycles in our cycle shop example), or, in a manufacturing business, materials to be assembled or processed to become a product.Rule of Accounting

Assets are often divided into current or short-term assets and fixed or long-term assets. The exact distinction between the two usually depends on decisions a company makes and sticks to consistently over time. Land and buildings are durable production equipment are almost always fixed or long-term assets, and furniture and inventory are almost always short-term assets. Some companies consider vehicles long-term assets, and some consider them short-term assets; and some vehicles (dump trucks and cement mixers, for example) are almost always long-term assets. You have flexibility on how you categorize long- and short-term as long as you know it and stick to it.

Assets can be tangible, like money in banks or physical goods, or intangible, like patents and trademarks and money owed to you, called Accounts Receivable.

Tax law and accepted standards dictate the value of the assets listed in your books. This can be annoying when your accounting lists a piece of land at $100,000 because that’s what you paid 10 years ago, even though its market value is $500,000 today. And tax code makes you list your patents and trademarks in your books at the value of the legal expenses you incurred in securing the registration; less “amortization,” a complicated formula that specifies in tax code the decline in value over time. And your plant, equipment, and vehicles have to be listed at what you paid for them less “depreciation,” another complicated formula that tax code specifies for their hypothetical decline in value.

Liabilities

Liabilities are debts: money your business owes and has to pay back. The most common liability is called Accounts Payable, which can be any money you owe to anybody but is usually money owed to vendors for goods and services purchased recently but not yet paid for. And there are notes, loans outstanding, long-term loans, and others.

Like assets, liabilities are often divided into short-term or long-term, and short-term liabilities are often called current liabilities. Accounts Payable are always short-term or current liabilities. Companies can choose how to distinguish between short- and long-term liabilities, as long as they are consistent. So some companies call debts owed within a year short-term debts, and others call them current debts. Some companies break out the next year’s payments of long-term debts as “Current Portion of Long-term Debt.” All of these options are fine as long as you maintain them consistently.

Capital

The quickest way to explain capital is by the magic formula that is always true in finance and accounting:

Capital = Assets less Liabilities

Capital starts formally with money the owners of a business put into its bank account to get it started. When our restaurant example owner Magda writes a check from her own funds to open a bank account for her restaurant, that’s supposed to go into the books as capital. It’s usually called paid-in capital. When an angel investor writes a check to a startup, that money goes into the books as paid-in capital.

You’ll also hear about so-called working capital, which is the money it takes to keep a company afloat, making payroll, buying inventory, and waiting for business customers to pay what they owe. Accountants and financial analysts calculate working capital by subtracting current or short-term liabilities from current or short-term assets.

And retained earnings, which are profits you didn’t distribute to yourself or other owners as dividends, or to yourself or other co-owners as a draw, add to capital in standard accounting. If there are no dividends, then last year’s earnings in the balance sheet are added to previous Retained Earnings to calculate this year’s Retained Earnings. And both Earnings and Retained earnings are part of capital, while dividends and distributions or draws decrease capital.

But none of those common interpretations of capital change the basic rule. The capital in a business is always, exactly, in every case, the number that results from subtracting the liabilities from the assets.

Sales

Most of us understand sales from an early age. Sales is exchanging goods or services for money. Technically, in standard accounting, the sale happens when the goods or services are delivered, whether or not there is immediate payment. Do you know it can be a criminal offense to report financial results including sales that you haven’t actually made, even if you are 99% sure your client intends to buy? Some very big companies have gotten into legal trouble for confusing optimism with actual sales, when for example they book a full year’s service contract into sales in the same month the customer signed the agreement. Technically the sale is for 1/12th of the annual contract value each month.

Direct costs (COGS, unit costs, cost of sales)

Most people learn COGS in Accounting 101. That stands for Cost of Goods Sold, and applies to businesses that sell goods. COGS for a manufacturer include raw materials and labor costs to manufacture or assemble finished goods. COGS for a bookstore include what the storeowner pays to buy books. COGS for Garrett, our bicycle shop owner in Section 3, are what he paid for the bicycles, accessories, and clothing he sold during the month. Direct costs are the same thing for a service business: the direct cost of delivering the service. So for example it’s the gasoline and maintenance costs of a taxi ride.Defining Profits

Direct costs are different down the value chain of a business. The direct costs of a bookstore are its COGS, what it pays to buy books from a distributor. The distributor’s direct costs are COGS, what it paid to get the books from the publishers. The direct costs of the book publisher include the cost of printing, binding, shipping, and author royalties. The direct costs of the author are very small, probably just printer paper and photocopying; unless the author is paying an editor, in which case the editor’s income is part of the author’s direct costs.

The costs of manufacturing and assembly labor are always supposed to be included in COGS. And some professional service businesses will include the salaries of their professionals as direct costs. In that case, the accounting firm, law office, or consulting company records the salaries of some of their associates as direct costs.

Direct costs are important because they determine Gross Margin. Gross Margin, which is part of the Profit and Loss, is an important basis for comparison with other companies.

Expenses

It’s hard to define expenses because we all have a pretty good idea. Expenses include rent, payroll, advertising, promotion, telephones, Internet access, website hosting, and all those things a business pays for but doesn’t resell. They are amounts you spend on business goods and services that aren’t direct costs but reduce your taxable income and profits.

You have to understand what isn’t an expense. Repaying loan principle isn’t an expense. Buying an asset isn’t an expense. Purchasing inventory isn’t an expense; amounts spent on inventory go into direct costs when goods are sold, but they aren’t expenses.

(Ed note: this is reposted here from the original at leanplan.com.)