Category Archives: Back to Fundamentals

5 Things Entrepreneurs Need to Know About Valuation

Valuation is one of those four-syllable business buzzwords you’re going to have to deal with, eventually, if you either want to start a business or own a business. If it doesn’t come up when you start, it will come up later. Here is what I think you need to know, in five short points.

  1. The word has vastly Different meanings: don’t you hate it when the same words mean different things? Valuation means at least three different things:
    1. What a business is worth to accountants for legal purposes, such as divorce settlements, inheritance taxes, and gift taxes. A certified valuation professional, usually a CPA, makes a guess. Most of them use financial statements and analyze financial details.
    2. What a business is worth to a buyer. Small businesses go up for sale with  business  brokers. Hardware stores, for example,  get about 40-50% of annual sales plus inventory, as a starting point. Plus a bonus for growth and special strengths, or a discount for lack of growth and special problems.
    3. The pivot point in an investment proposal: it’s simple math, but tough negotiations. If you say you want to get $1 million for 50% of your company, you just proposed a valuation of $2 million.
  2. What’s anything worth? Like your car, your house, and a share of IBM stock, something’s worth what somebody will pay for it. The valuation in A is theoretical, hypothetical, but legal. With B and C, though, valuation is as real as agreeing to buy a house. It’s not what the seller says it is; it’s what the buyer is willing to pay. And this cold hard fact drives many entrepreneurs crazy.
  3. For Small businesses, there are guidelines and rules of thumb. If you do a good search, or work with a business broker, you can find general rules of thumb for what your long-standing small business is worth. For example, a hardware story is worth roughly half a year’s sales plus inventory, with bonuses for positive factors like  recent growth,  and discounts for negatives like lack of growth. You could read up on it in bizbuysell.com, bizequity.com, or business brokerage press. Or do a web search and check the ads for valuation experts.
  4. For Startups, it’s what founders and investors negotiate. Startups and investors and culture clash over valuation.  Investors care about valuation. Founders often misunderstand valuation. And never the twain shall meet. I’ve seen these kinds of problems many times:  Founders walk into the valuation discussion full of folklore and fantasy like stories of Facebook and Twitter. They want lots of money for very little ownership. Investors see two or three people with no sales history thinking their dream startup is already worth $2 or $3 million.
  5. Irony: sometimes traction, and revenues, make things worse. It’s easier to buy the dream than the reality. The same investors who’ll seriously consider a $2 million valuation for a good idea, business plan, and a credible 3-person management team – but with no sales ever — might just as easily balk at a valuation of $600,000 for a company with three years history, 20% growth, and annual sales of $300,000.  Despite the irony, it makes sense: few existing businesses are worth more than a multiple of revenues, but, still, before the battle, it’s easier to dream big. Or so it seems. I’ve been on both sides of this table, and I don’t have any easy solutions to offer.

If it hasn’t come up yet, it will. Every business deals with valuation eventually. The place any business sees it is during the early investment phases; but most businesses don’t get investment, so they can ignore it at that point. But then if it survives, or grows, valuation comes up again, because even if the business is immortal, the people aren’t: so eventually you either sell it or pass it on to a new team, an acquiring company, or your own family. And there’s the divorce and estate planning elements that require valuation. So every entrepreneur and business owner should have some idea what it is.

(Image: courtesy of wordle.net)

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.

Planning Principle: Do Only What You’ll Use

Efficient business in general means avoiding waste, doing only what has value. Therefore the right form for your business plan is the form that best serves your business purpose. Furthermore, for the vast majority of business owners, the business purpose of planning is getting what you want from the business – setting strategy and tactics, executing, reviewing results, and revising as needed. And that purpose is best served with lean business planning that starts with a lean plan and continues with a planning process involving regular review and revision. You keep it lean because that’s easier, better, and really all you’re going to use.

Form follows function

Consider the illustration that follows. I call the central image the lean plan because the lean business plan is about what is supposed to happen, when, who does what, how much it costs, and how much money it generates. It’s a collection of decisions, lists, and forecasts. It doesn’t necessarily exist as a single document somewhere. You use it to track performance against plan, review results, and revise regularly, so the plan is always up to date. I hope it’s gathered into a single place, as if it were a document, but it doesn’t have to be. And it’s only as big as you need for its business function.

Form Follows Function

The main output, and therefore the main purpose, of the lean business plan is better business, which means getting what you want from your business. That’s what your lean plan is for and that function determines what’s there. Forget the additional descriptions for outsiders until you need them. Wait for that until you have a business reason for it. But don’t let not having to show a plan keep you from using planning to help your business.

The lean business plan is the bones of other business planning outputs, including a summary, a pitch slide deck, and a full business plan document, if you need one. Do the lean business plan, keep it up to date, and to the rest as the need arises. Maybe you’ll never need to do the formal document. But you’ll always need strategy, tactics, milestones, metrics, and essential business projections.

Know your market, yes; describe, analyze, prove – not necessarily

You have to know your market extremely well to run your business. Know your market like you know the back of your hand. Know your customers, what they need, what they want, how they find you, what messages work for them, what they read, what they do, and all of that.

What you don’t have to do, however, is include any of that in your lean business plan. A lean plan doesn’t need rigorous market analysis. It doesn’t normally include supporting information — at least, not until later, with the business plan event, when it is actually required.

However, your lean plan is about what’s going to happen, what you are going to do. It’s about business strategy, specific milestones, dates, deadlines, and forecasts of sales and expenses and so forth. It’s not a term paper. Yes, you should know your market. But you don’t have to prove it until you’re trying to find outside investors.

Form follows function: The function of the lean business plan is management, not selling something to outsiders.

You don’t need supporting information. It’s still a business plan without it. It still serves its business purposes. You don’t have to do a rigorous market analysis as part of your plan if you know exactly what you’re offering, and to whom. So what about market analysis? Think about the business purpose. Do you need the market analysis to help determine your strategy? Then do it. Are you ready to go with that strategy regardless? Then don’t sweat the market analysis.

This is ultimately your responsibility. You don’t gather all the supporting information and do a rigorous market analysis just because somebody said you should. You do it if you’re actually going to use it to make decisions, or if your business purpose requires proving that there is an attractive market opportunity. You do need to know; but proving your knowledge isn’t necessarily part of the plan.

Stick to your business purpose

Planning is about managing. It’s a tool to set priorities, milestones, metrics; to track results, compare results to expectations, and steer the business.

 

Startups and Business Owners Will Thank Me for Posting This Debits and Credits Video

Business owners, startup founders: Do you know debits and credits? If so, cool, you know why I’ve posting this here as my Friday video. And if not, do yourself a favor and stick with this post and this video for a few minutes. You’ll be glad you did. It’s 13 minutes. If you go through this, then, for the rest of your life, for all your business dealings, you’ll know what the hell they are talking about when the financials get serious. Really, I’ve been through this, and it makes so much difference just understanding these basics.

I’ll always remember one of my favorite “this is how I did my startup” talks from a woman who’d made a scaled-up home cleaning service a business success, in Portland, OR. She made a big deal of how “knowing my numbers” became, for her, the secret to living with uncertainty, growing a business, and not obsessing day and night over the business. Once she learned her numbers, she was able to dampen the stress and get things done.

And that starts with debits and credits. Take the time to watch this video. You don’t have to memorize it; you don’t need to know it in detail; you just have to have an idea of how this works.

I run into entrepreneurs and business owners who’ve lived in fear of the phrase “debits and credits” for decades. Don’t do that. Take 13 minutes and watch this video. And then, for the rest of your life, you’ll get it. It’s actually a very easy concept.

 

For the record, I don’t know Mandi Conley and I have no relationship with this video except that I found it in the public domain and I like it.

Transaction analysis with T-accounts from Mandi Conley on Vimeo.

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.

 

A Simple Cash Flow Spreadsheet Anybody Can Use

If there’s just one formal business skill every business owner should have, it’s understanding and forecasting cash flow. It’s not intuitive because it’s not the same as profits; but it’s vital. We spend cash, not profits. It’s one of the most important pieces of every lean business plan.

Here’s my recommendation for a relatively simple way to lay out cash flow in a spreadsheet, so you can see it. It doesn’t take a CPA or an MBA to do it … just knowing your own business. (Note: you can click on the image to see it full size, and you can find more variations with this search on the lean business plan site.)

Simple Cash Flow Spreadsheet

Do Your Numbers

Making Your Estimates

  1. In lines 3 and 4, you forecast the revenue from sales. Yours might be just cash sales, a single line. If you have sales on account, you know it. If you’re not sure (maybe you’re looking at a startup so you don’t have the experience yet), assume you do have sales on account if you sell to other businesses; and probably not if you sell to consumers. Line 4 is your prediction for when the business customers will pay invoices.
  2. The ‘Start’ column reflects the starting balances and starting funding for a startup. With an ongoing business, you might have that balance labeled ‘Dec’ for the ending month of the previous year. In this example, the startup owner borrows $55,000 and gets $25,000 as new investment.
  3. Lines 5 and 6 are important because new money from loans and investments doesn’t show up in your profits, but it’s there.
  4. That whole block of rows 3-6 is a simplification. You know your business. Where else does money come in? Maybe you’re selling assets too? Stay flexible. Take this simple example as just that, an example. Make yours specific to your business.
  5. Rows 9-10 are also simplified. Use as many rows as you want to estimate operating expenses, focusing mainly on fixed costs, rent, utilities, and payroll.
  6. Row 11 is there to make the point that cash flow counts what you spend for inventory and other direct costs of sales, when you spend it – not when it shows up in profit and loss. When a bookstore spends $10,000 in November to buy books to sell, those books might not show up in profits (as cost of goods sold) until December, January, or beyond … but that money leaves your bank in November. So you put it into your cash flow in November. If you don’t sell products, and don’t deal with inventory, then you might have a row for direct costs such as hosting, or customer service.
  7. Row 12 is there because most businesses pay a lot of expenses at the end of the month, or 30-45 days after received. For example, the ad you place might come through as an invoice that you’ll pay later. Row 12 is for all those things you pay later. And, just in case you’re keeping track, these are expenses, including tax and interest. The projected interest on that $55,000 loan is included there.
  8. Rows 13 and 14 show two items that are often forgotten in cash flow planning. Principal payments on debts, and buying new assets, don’t show up in profit and loss. But they cost money that goes out of your bank account.

Simple Calculations

As you can see in the illustration, row 7 sums the money coming in, row 15 sums the money going out, row 16 shows the cash flow for the month, and row 17 shows the projected cash balance. You can see from the illustration how the cash flow is the change in the cash balance, and the cash balance is the equivalent of checking account balance; it’s how much money you have.

They Key is Using it Right

First, tailor your cash plan to match the actual details of your business. This is a very simple example. Be flexible about adjusting it so it matches your business, and your bookkeeping,

Second, using it correctly requires keeping it up to date. Review it every month. Calculate the differences between what you expected and what actually happened, and make adjustments.

You never guess right. And this is all guessing. What matters is watching carefully and updating so you can react to changes in time.

Like all business planning, the value is in the decision. The business value of cash planning is the decisions it causes.

(Ed note: I’m reposting here from my post yesterday on the SBA.gov Industry Word blog: A Simple Cash Flow Spreadsheet Anybody Can Use)

The Value of Business Plan Assumptions

(This post is an excerpt from my latest book, Lean Business Planning, reprinted here with permission.)

Identifying assumptions is extremely important for getting real business benefits from your business planning. Planning is about managing change, and in today’s world, change happens very fast. Assumptions solve the dilemma about managing consistency over time, without banging your head against a brick wall.

Assumptions might be different for each company. There is no set list. What’s best is to think about those assumptions as you build your twin action plans.

If you can, highlight product-related and marketing-related assumptions. Keep them in separate groups or separate lists.

The key here is to be able to identify and distinguish, later (during your regular reviews and revisions, in Section 3), between changed assumptions and the difference between planned and actual performance. You don’t truly build accountability into a planning process until you have a good list of assumptions that might change.

Some of these assumptions go into a table, with numbers, if you want. For example, you might have a table with interest rates if you’re paying off debt, or tax rates, and so on.

Many assumptions deserve special attention. Maybe in bullet points. Maybe in slides. Maybe just a simple list. Keep them on top of your mind, where they’ll come up quickly at review meetings.

Maybe you’re assuming starting dates of one project or another, and these affect other projects. Contingencies pile up. Maybe you’re assuming product release, or seeking a liquor license, or finding a location, or winning the dealership, or choosing a partner, or finding the missing link on the team.

Maybe you’re assuming some technology coming on line at a certain time. You’re probably assuming some factors in your sales forecast, or your expense budget; if they change, note it, and deal with them as changed assumptions. You may be assuming something about competition. How long do you have before the competition does something unexpected? Do you have that on your assumptions list?

The illustration below shows the simple assumptions in a bicycle shop sample business plan.

assumptions
Sample List of Assumptions

Coming Crisis of Social Metrics

I think we’ve gone too far on marketing and metrics. We used to do most of our marketing blind, essentially guessing whether or not it worked. Now we have analytics to measure almost everything. Where we’ve gone to far now is we’re tempted to discount, entirely, what we can’t measure. And that’s just wrong. We are headed for a crisis of social metrics.

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”– Albert Einstein

It used to be mostly pay and pray

Crisis in Social MetricsTo those of us old enough to have done marketing in the last century, to know click rates, conversions, email opens, visits, hits, downloads and all of that is heaven. We used to guess at the message, guess at the medium, guess the delivery, then pay and pray.

Don’t think “and where did you hear about us” ever worked well. Most of the time, the phone operator forgot to ask, or chose not to ask to focus on getting the order, not the info. And when they did ask, two thirds of the time the answer was useless. They’d cite some magazine we’d never advertised in.

We lived with it because we had to. Big companies had research, focus groups, surveys, better answer to our collective hunger for knowing. But really, it was all just guessing. I routinely made marketing decisions based on what maybe a fourth of our customers told us about the source of their interest.

Show me the money became show me the analytics.

I’ve read some of the best minds in marketing confuse “measurable” with “valuable.” Now that we have analytics, we want analytics. What can’t be measured isn’t worth doing. What’s the value of a like in Facebook or a follower in Twitter? Where are the metrics?

To some extent this makes perfect sense. Clicks are attention. Clicks become visits, and visits become conversions, and conversions become money. Why guess. You can know. You can get amazing detail on what works and what doesn’t work on a website, a landing page, a checkout page, and emails of course. A/B testing means immediate feedback and fine tuning results. As the Huffington Post rode its meteoric rise to fame, they did real-time testing on headlines and changed them, improved their traffic impact, in minutes.

Compared to what we used to do, this is heaven. Count me in. Except …

But aren’t there values we can’t measure?

Consider this case. Put yourself in this place. So you’re running a business. You get featured, favorably, in a segment in the local television news. Tens of thousands of people see you as a local expert in your field. Is that valuable to you? Will it show up in your website metrics? Of course it probably will, right? You’ll see a bump in traffic.

But think of this problem: Let’s say that win the other night was the result of years of local speaking dates, lunches with journalists, meetings, conferences, and, well, call it just showing up. That ended with the TV reporter calling you. Right? So where were the metrics? You have the bump now, months, years, later. But were you able to track the analytics of every article, blog post, conference presentation? Were there analytics? Did you have metrics? No. But you still did the work. And it was still worth it.

Voila. There is still marketing that isn’t immediately measurable. Not everything is clicks.

Crisis of social metrics

Now we have social media. It’s amplified word of mouth. It’s like a giant conversation. People who focus on analytics – clicks, leads, visits, hits, downloads, conversions – are going to question the return on relationship, the analytics of long-term relationship, offering useful content, contributing, standing up for values, representing something. So they are tempted to focus their social media representation on what is essentially self-centered selling. Offers, promotions, product announcements, and all the equivalents of shouting slogans, don’t generate relationships. They don’t generate empathy, trust, or – the ultimate definition of marketing – getting people to know, like, and trust you and your business.

And a fascinating trade-off. Social media done right generates long-term relationship, know-like-and-trust. I’m convinced it’s critical to business now and is going to be steadily more so in the future. But what works takes time, and doesn’t generate instant analytics. It pays off over the long term. So is that not also valuable?

Business Plan Market Research and the Fresh Look

The Artist
The artist takes a fresh look at the scene every time paints it. How many times as this man seen the banks of the Seine? It doesn’t matter, because he takes the fresh look every time.  The business needs to take a fresh look at its market and its strategic situation at least once a year.

Back in the 1970s when I was a foreign correspondent living in Mexico City, I dealt frequently with an American diplomat who provided information about Mexico’s increasing oil exports, which were a big story back then. We had lunch about once a month. He became a friend.

The Fresh Look

Then one day he told me he was being transferred to another post because he had been in Mexico too long. “What? but you’ve only been here for three years,” I said. I was disappointed for two reasons. “You’ve barely learned the good restaurants!” He explained to me that the U.S. foreign service moved people about every three years on purpose. “Otherwise we think we know everything and we stop questioning assumptions,” he said, “that’s dangerous.”

I remember that day still because I’ve seen the same phenomenon so many times in the years since, in business. We — business owners and operators — are so obviously likely to fall into the same trap. Our business landscape is constantly changing, no matter what business we’re in, but we keep forgetting the fresh look. “We tried that and it didn’t work” is a terrible answer to a suggestion when a few years have gone by.  What didn’t work in 2000 might be just what your business needs right now. But you think you don’t have to try again what didn’t work five years ago.

Not Necessarily Business Plan Market Research

For the record, I disagree with so many experts who insist on detailed and thorough business plan market research for every plan. I vote for a lean business plan that includes only what you are going to use. And a lot of us know the market already, so we don’t have time, resources, or budget to do market research for our normal planning process. I make this point here in my latest book on Lean Business Planning.

However, I do also suggest taking the “fresh look” at the market at least once a year.  Existing businesses that want to grow too often skip the part of business planning that requires looking well at your market, why people buy, who competes against you, what else you might do, what your customers think about you. Think of the artist squinting to get a better view of the landscape. Step back from the business and take a new look.  Use the standard Know Your Market techniques and content, just applying it to your business, not a new opportunity.

It’s about your now and future customers

Talking to customers — well, listening to customers, actually — is particularly important. Don’t ever assume you know what your customers think about your company. Things change. If you don’t poll your customers regularly, do it at least once a year as part of the fresh look.  As an owner, you should listen to at least a few of your customers at least once a year. It’s a good exercise.

For creativity’s sake, think about revising your market segmentation, creating a new segmentation. If for example you’ve divided by size of business, divide by region or type of business or type of decision process. Aim for strategic segmentation.

Remember to stress benefits. Review what benefits your customers receive when they buy with your, and follow those benefits into a new view of your market.

Question all your assumptions. What has always been true may not be true anymore. That’s what I call the fresh look.

 

 

When So-called Experts Say Don’t Do a Business Plan…

… don’t be confused. What they really mean is … experts speak half truths

  1. Don’t do a long static formal business plan. Do a lean, just-big-enough business plan. Deal with it as a constantly-renewing latest version, with a shelf life of a few weeks at most. Don’t fill it with excess supporting information.
  2. They won’t even look at a business plan until after they’ve understood the main points from a summary memo, and — in most cases — been through the pitch and met the people. The idea that potential investors would read a business plan as a first step, from somebody they’ve never met, without going through preliminary materials … is laughable.

Understand where the business plan fits in the process of securing investment.

  1. It’s not the calling card, not the sales brochure, not something you ever send to somebody who doesn’t already know you, your business, and the basic story.
  2. It’s likely to come up for deals that have gotten through some filters first. Investors will ask for it as part of the due diligence that starts after they understand the deal and are interested in pursuing it further.
  3. It explains a deal: problem, solution, product-market fit, potential market, potential growth, scalability, defensibility, traction, major milestones, management team, and essential projections of financial progress and, in cases where this applies, trackable progress in traffic, visits, downloads, users, and so forth.
  4. It’s the screenplay for the summary memo and the pitch. Even though investors won’t want the plan immediately, you’ll need it, when you pitch, to refer to later to answer questions like “can you grow faster with more money” or “how would it look with double the sales force?”

And you don’t have to call it a business plan. The lean startup advocates, for example, like to call it anything but a business plan, but ask them about it, and they’ll confirm you need to cover the same ground as I have in my point 3 above.

My suggestion: call it a lean business plan.