10 Things I Look for When Reading a Business Plan 5

(Note: I originally posted this yesterday on gust.com, my favorite angel investing site/platform. I’m reposting it here with permission.)

It’s the end of May as I write this so I’ve just finished my annual April-May business plan marathon reading more than 100 business plans for my angel investment group and four different business plan contests. This seems like a good point to summarize here what I look for in a business plan.

  1. Don’t push adjectives. Let me assign my own. This year for every plan that really looks like it might be disruptive or game changing I saw 20 or so that claimed to be.
  2. Tell stories. A story tells market need way better than general market numbers. Write about problems you solve and who has them, how you solve them, and why you do it better than anybody else.
  3. I want a forecast that starts with specifics like channels or traffic and conversions or segments and builds up. I hate the forecast that assets some huge market and takes a small percentage of it. It seems like every time I read “this is a $X-billion-dollar market” the surrounding discussion lacks depth and credibility.
  4. I want unit economics. Often this is part of a good forecast. Tell me what it costs to produce one unit, what the channel pays for it (if channels are relevant) or what the buyer pays for it, what it costs to ship, and so on.
  5. I want realistic expenses. Most plans are pretty good about estimating direct costs but bad about underlying expenses. You can’t have a $20 million sales estimate with 10 employees in the company and a few hundred thousand dollars of marketing expense. It just doesn’t happen.
  6. Never write that you have no competition. Having no competition means one of two things: either your business sucks, or you haven’t done your homework and you don’t know your business. Even the most amazing disruptive game-changing plans have competition. If not now, then tomorrow. Who’s going to enter this market?
  7. I want good positioning. Don’t try to please everybody. Start with a relatively narrow product-market fit and, if you can, move it gradually up to more markets and more segments. Explain in your plan which segment is first and why. Explain who you’re leaving out of your market and why.
  8. I want to see basic numbers. I expect projected monthly income, balance, and cash flow for the next year and annual projections for the second and third year. And I want to see them, as in useful business charts, but I want to be able to see the numbers in detail too.
  9. I want to see milestones: dates and deadlines. And progress made. What have you actually done in the recent past? Write about achievements.
  10. By far the best validation of a plan is actual sales made already. People have written checks. Second best are letters from future customers promising future business.
  11. (Bonus point) Don’t muck it up with too much science. It’s not a research plan, it’s a business plan. Summarize the science so I have some idea and then tell me about the business.
  12. (Bonus point) Don’t let the document get in the way. I don’t want to think about formatting or editing, I want to read your stories and imagine your future. Keep it moving and keep my mind on the business, not the misspellings or repetitions.

Glasses on paper image (from homepage) courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry. Follow Tim on Google+ Read more »

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  • http://1blessed1.beginningofwisdom.net/ Sharice

    Hi Tim,
    This article was very helpful especially when you suggest to “tell a story” as a part of the business plan, which was initially how I started my Executive Summary. It was the only way I new to exhibit the passion I have for my business and yet set it apart from an existing business. I still have a way to go but the vision is still clear ;).
    Thanks,
    SL

  • http://None Ravindra Kathale

    Sir, a very informative and clear list. We should take this as a very balanced check list. Great! Only one thing. I keep coming across this phrase your story or tell stories. What exactly does it mean, could anyone of you please explain and give a small example? I shall be very thankful.

    • David Stockton

      Ravindra,

      Investors want to know where your business idea came from, what motivated you to prepare a plan and seek investment. Telling a story makes it personal and gives the investor a chance to learn something about you as an entrepreneur. I recently raised 2 million dollars in angel/seed funding to start an IT company. The idea came while I was working for a client and when the job was finished they had a bunch of video tapes that needed to be converted. This was not part of our original contract so I went to market and tried to find a solution for them and could not. This is how the idea for the new venture came about. In my business plan I shared the story of looking for a solution for my client, the frustrations of not being able to find one and ultimately the motivation that resulted in a new venture.

      By sharing this story I was able to show my investors how I solve problems, how they are analyzed in my mind and what the result of that analysis was. Instead of just boring the investor with market numbers and demographics (important but doesn’t really tell the investor anything about me) I was able to indirectly give him an idea of how I would approach problem, challenges, concerns, etc. once the business got off the ground.

      Hope this helps, feel free to email me with any other questions!

      • http://timberry.bplans.com Tim Berry

        David, thanks for that reply to Ravindra, that’s a great example. Tim

  • Alyce McGhee

    This list was very helpful. I created a website marketing plan for myself and I’m doing a lot of research on website marketing. It has all the statistical information on starting and forecasting an eBusiness and in my mind I know the why. But I did not put the story on paper since it was for my own purpose. I am going to modify it so I can relive the passion that brought me to start a business every time I reach a milestone.