Category Archives: Business Plan

Business Plan Events and Why They Matter

(Note: I posted this earlier this week on the SBA Industry Word blog. It’s reposted here for your convenience.)

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “business plan?” Does that bring to mind a formal document that starts with a summary and includes modules describing your business’s products, market, strategy, team, and essential projections? If so, let me introduce you to the concept of the business plan event and explain why this is worth thinking about.

The more common business plan events

Sometimes, in the normal course of running a business, growing a business, or starting a business, you need a business plan. I refer here to situations that require showing a business plan document to somebody outside the organization.

For example, the most common business plan events are:

  • Banks often require the business plan document as part of a business loan or other commercial credit. Most SBA loan programs, which guarantee bank loans made by local small business banks, require a formal business plan.
  • Angel investors usually require a business plan from a startup as part of the process of seeking investment. Unlike the common myth, they don’t use the business plan as an introduction to a business. Instead, they use it during what they call the due diligence phase, after they’ve met with founders and had a pitch, when they study the details before making a final decision.
  • Business plans are usually part of the process of buying and selling a business. That applies to the small business transactions that happen all the time, as well as to major acquisitions by big businesses.

There are other business plan events that come up. When I started my business 30 years ago, I needed to show a business plan to my bank just to get authorized to take credit cards. And I’ve heard of business plans used as part of negotiating divorce settlements and inheritance claims.

Widespread confusion between plan and planning

If you answered yes to my question in the first paragraph above, that you do think of a business plan as something hard to do that has only specialized use, then I say you are in good company. Let me suggest that you’d be better off, as a business owner, with an attitude adjustment.

My recommendation is that you dismiss the idea of the daunting big formal business plan, but adopt business planning instead. The distinction, in my mind, stands out with the famous quote from former president and military strategist Dwight D. Eisenhower: “The plan is useless; but planning is essential.”

I love that quote and use it a lot because it leads to what I call good planning process.

  • The process starts with a simple, lean business plan that covers the main points you need to write down. You can do this with simple bullet point lists and tables. Set down strategy, tactics, major milestones, metrics, and essential projections.
  • Then, as you steer your business with ongoing planning process, take that lean plan and review results regularly. As results uncover insights, revise that plan. Keep it lean, and review and revise it often.

The business conclusion: planning, not plan

My suggestion for business owners: Think about what business plan events are. Separate, in your mind, the business plan required for a specific business plan event from the business planning you can use on a regular basis to run your business better.

Then, once you’ve seen the difference, manage a lean plan that’s always fresh, with regular reviews and revisions. And when you face an actual business plan event, then and only then take your latest version of your lean business plan and dress it up, adding descriptions and summaries, as a formal business plan document.

20 Reasons to Write a Business Plan

all businesses need a business planQuestion: What are some of the main arguments for writing a business plan?

Here are 20 good reasons to write a business plan. Please note, however, that a business plan is not necessarily a traditional formal business plan. It ought to be a lean business plan that gets reviewed and revised often. It ought not to be static, used once, and then forgotten.

These apply to all businesses, startup or not:

Key elements of a lean business plan

  1. Manage the money. Plan and manage cash flow. Will you need working capital to finance inventory purchase, or waiting for business customers to pay? To service debt, or buy assets? To finance the deficit spending that generates growth? Are sales enough to cover costs and expenses? That’s planning.
  2. Break larger uncertainties into meaningful parts. Go from big vague objectives to specific numbers, lists, and tables. It’s compatible with the way most humans think. A plan makes it easier to estimate and visualize needs, possibilities, and so forth
  3. Set strategy. Strategy is focus. It’s what you concentrate on, and why. It’s who is in your market, and who isn’t; and why and why not. It’s what you sell, to whom. You need to set it and then refer back to it, frequently, as things change. You can’t revise something you don’t have.
  4. Set tactics to align with strategy. Tactics like pricing, messaging, distribution, marketing, promotion have to work and they have to align with strategy. You can’t manage a high-end strategy with low-end pricing.
  5. Set major milestones. Concretely, what is supposed to happen, when? who is responsible? Humans work better towards specific milestones than they do moving in general directions. New product launch, website, new versions, new hires. Put it into milestones.
  6. Establish meaningful metrics. Of course that includes money in sales, spending, and capital needed. But useful metrics might also include traffic, conversion rates, cost of customer acquisition, lifetime customer value, or calls, emails, ads, trips, updates, hires, even likes, follows, and retweet. Good planning includes methods to track.

Dealing with business decisions

  1. Set specific objectives for managers. People work better with specific objectives, especially when the come within a process that includes tracking and following up. The business plan is the perfect tool for making this happen. Don’t settle for having it in your head. Organize and plan better, and communicate the priorities better.
  2. Share your strategy selectively. Let other people involved with your business know what you’re trying to do. Share portions of your plan with key team leaders, partners, spouse, bankers, allies. Don’t you want them to know.
  3. Deal with displacement. You have to choose, in business; particularly in small business; because of displacement “Whatever you do is something else you don’t do.” Displacement lives at the heart of all small-business strategy.
  4. Decisions on space and locations. Rent is a new obligation, usually a fixed cost. Do your growth prospects and plans justify taking on this increased fixed cost? Shouldn’t that be in your business plan?
  5. Hire new people or not. Who to hire, why, and how many. Each new hire is another new obligation (a fixed cost) that increases your risk. How will new people help your business grow and prosper? What exactly are they supposed to be doing? The rationale for hiring should be in your business plan.
  6. Make asset decisions and asset purchase or lease. Use your business plan to help decide what’s going to happen in the long term, which should be an important input to the classic make vs. buy. How long will this important purchase last in your plan?

More on sharing information

  1. Onboarding for new hires. Make selected portions of your business plan part of your new employee training.
  2. Manage business alliances. Use your plan to set targets for new alliances, and selected portions of your plan to communicate with those alliances.
  3. Lawyers, accountants, consultants. Share selected highlights or your plans with your attorneys and accountants, and, if this is relevant to you, consultants.
  4. When you want to sell your business. Usually the business plan is a very important part of selling the business. Help buyers understand what you have, what it’s worth and why they want it.
  5. Valuation of the business for formal transactions related to divorce, inheritance, estate planning and tax issues. Valuation is the term for establishing how much your business is worth. Usually that takes a business plan, as well as a professional with experience. The plan tells the valuation expert what your business is doing, when, why and how much that will cost and how much it will produce.

The standard arguments that apply more to startups

  1. Create a new business. Use a plan to establish the right steps to starting a new business, including what you need to do, what resources will be required, and what you expect to happen.
  2. Estimate starting costs. Aside from the general in the point above, there’s the specific estimates that list assets you need to have, and expenses you need to incur, in order to start a new business.
  3. Seek investment for a business, whether it’s a startup or not. Investors need to see a business plan before they decide whether or not to invest. They’ll expect the plan to cover all the main points.
  4. Back up a business loan application. Like investors, lenders want to see the plan and will expect the plan to cover the main points.
  5. Vital for your business pitch and summaries. You can’t really do a good business pitch without knowing already the key parameters you estimate in your business plan, for headcount, starting costs, and of course milestones and key strategy and tactics.

 

A Good Resolution: Schedule Regular Management Meetings

It’s not too late to schedule your monthly management meetings for this year. Use some regular meeting schedule such as the third or fourth Thursday of every month. Review your business plan milestone dates, deadlines, tasks, plan vs. actual results, and upcoming milestone dates and deadlines. All the managers committed to the plan will know way ahead of time so there are few reasons to miss a meeting.

Plan Run Review Revise

Some excuses will come up. There will be events like trade shows or client events that some managers have to attend. However, with a preplanned schedule for review meetings, these problems won’t happen that often.

If your planning process includes a good plan — with specific responsibilities assigned, managers committed, budgets, dates, and measurability — then the review meetings become easier to manage and easier to attend.  The agenda of each meeting should be predetermined by the milestones coming due soon, and milestones recently due.  Managers review and discuss plan vs. actual results, explain and analyze the differences.

The monthly plan vs. actual review includes financial results and other measurables — product milestones, support calls, sales events, etc. — and takes just two hours a month.

It doesn’t take that much time, but there is very little in management more valuable.  It makes your plan a planning process. And planning process turns planning into management.

7 Small Businesses Lessons From Tech Startups

Small Business Lessons from High Tech

What can every small business learn from tech startups? David Rose, founder of Gust.com and long-time leader of the New York Tech Angels, says normal businesses are different from tech startups, and offers small business lessons he’s taken from decades dealing with what high-end tech startups do as they start. He says:

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve seen proven true over and over again, is that many of the biggest obstacles that businesses face along the way can be avoided IF you take care to start things up correctly from the beginning. When launching a company, investing a little bit of time and money at the very start can pay large dividends later…but only if you have a solid foundation, a thoughtful structure, and a strong focus.

That’s from 7 Lessons Small Businesses Can Learn From Tech Startups, published in Forbes yesterday.

What’s a startup to you?

For the record, David’s view on startups is somewhat different from mine. I think of every business that starts up as a startup. He defines startup more narrowly:

While all businesses “start up” and start out “small”, not all “small businesses” are “startups”. Whereas a small business is founded to be profitable and create a good living for the entrepreneur and his or her family, a “startup” is founded with the intention of rapidly achieving exponential growth through scale, and either being acquired in a few years by a larger company, or becoming a “unicorn” and going public in an IPO…in both cases bringing in massive returns to its founders and investors.

The 7 Small business lessons

We come back together, however, on what David Rose recommends all businesses do. He’s recommending all businesses should take the same care that his version of startups do. That includes:

  1. Get smart. Read up on it. There’s so much wisdom available for a few dollars. Take the time to browse the essentials. David doesn’t mention it in this context, but his book Startup Checklist is a good one.
  2. Resolve your business model. Know how you make money. How will people pay you, and why.
  3. Get initial feedback. Talk to people about it. Find people you know who have experience. And listen.
  4. Analyze the market. “You must understand the landscape you are about to enter, inside and out.”
  5. The business plan. All businesses deserve business planning. I’m quoting him in detail in the next section, below.
  6. More feedback. Now you have market knowledge and an initial business plan. “At this stage you are looking for substantive comments about the business and market, along with specific critiques (don’t take offense; listen to them carefully!) and actionable insights.”
  7. Put it to the test. Launch. Do it. “The biggest test will be to see if customers really want or need what you are providing, and to understand if they are willing to pay for it at a price at which you can afford to supply it.”

The business plan we all need

And my favorite of David’s recommendations is the business plan.

“Many entrepreneurs draw up a complicated business plan as step one, but end up wasting a lot of time rewriting it as they work through their business concept. If you’ve done all the previous legwork and feel confident that your concept is marketable, viable and profitable, the next step is to begin to write it down. You’ll want to use a simple, structured format to note the various things that you are going to need to do to implement your business idea. For now, don’t worry about a long document for investors…just start by writing down bullet points outlining what is supposed to happen, a timeline, assignment of responsibilities, cost analysis, and revenue projections.

I strongly agree with him on this. We may not all need a that “long document for investors,” but we can all use the kind of business plan he suggests, “bullet points outlining what is supposed to happen,” and so forth, in that last sentence.

And then there’s this, my favorite part of David’s article, his recommendation.

There are some great resources available for this, and the best I’ve seen is the web site leanplan.com, by Tim Berry, the legendary author of Business Plan Pro. The site offers an online course you can purchase, as well as commercial online tools such as LivePlan, but it also includes the entire text of Tim’s book ‘Lean Business Planning’ for free. As you’ll learn from Tim, the most important thing about a business plan is not that it be long, but that it be live. An effective business plan is a living document, reviewed and updated every month, that adapts to the market, the field, and your actual results.”

Did I bury the lead?

 

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.)