No, 37Signals, Planning Is NOT What You Think

Rich irony: 37Signals, a great Web app for project management, ought to know better than anybody that real business planning is a process, not a plan. After all, they do the kind of nuts and bolts management that makes that happen. Instead, however, Matt of 37Signals posted the planning fallacy last week:

If you believe 100% in some big upfront advance plan, you're just lying to yourself.

I object. Who ever said planning was "believing 100% in some big upfront plan?" Good business planning is always a process involving metrics, following up, setting steps, reviewing results, and course correction.

He goes on:

But it's not just huge organizations and the government that mess up planning. Everyone does. It's the planning fallacy. We think we can plan, but we can't. Studies show it doesn't matter whether you ask people for their realistic best guess or a hoped-for best case scenario. Either way, they give you the best case scenario.

OK that's a dream, not a plan. Matt seems to confuse the two, but good business planners don't. Any decent business planning process considers the worst case, risks, and contingencies; and then tracks results and follows up to make course corrections.

Which leads to this, another quote:

It's true on a big scale and it's true on a small scale too. We just aren't good at being realistic. We envision everything going exactly as planned. We never factor in unexpected illnesses, hard drive failures, or other Murphy's Law-type stuff.

No, but you do allow extra time for the unexpected, and then you follow up, carefully (maybe even using 37 Signals' software) to check for plan vs. actual results, changes in schedule, new assumptions, and the constant course correction. Murphy was a planner. He understood planning process, plan review, course corrections.

Matt concludes:

That messy planning stage that delays things and prevents you from getting real is, in large part, a waste of time. So skip it. If you really want to know how much time/resources a project will take, start doing it.

Really bad advice there, based on a bad premise. Sure, if you define planning as messy and preventing you from getting real, then it would be a waste of time. But is that planning?

I wonder if Matt takes his own advice. When he travels, does he book flights and hotels? Or does he skip that, and just start walking.

3 Steps to the Startup Sweet Spot

(Note: reposted from Planning Startups Stories)

Every startup has its own natural level of startup costs. It's built into the circumstances, like strategy, location, and resources. Call it the natural startup level; or maybe the sweet spot.

1. The Plan

For example, Mabel's Thai restaurant in San Francisco is going to need about $950,000, while Ralph's new catering business needs only about $50,000. Sweet Spot The level is determined by factors like strategy, scope, founders' objectives, location, and so forth. Let's call it its natural level. That natural startup level is built into the nature of the business, something like DNA.

Startup cost estimates have three parts: a list of expenses, a list of assets needed, and an initial cash number calculated to cover the company through the early months when most startups are still too young to generate sufficient revenue to cover their monthly costs.

It's not just a matter of industry type or best practices; strategy, resources, and location make huge differences. The fact that it's a Vietnamese restaurant or a graphic arts business or a retail shoe store doesn't determine the natural startup level, by itself. A lot depends on where, by whom, with what strategy, and what resources.

While we don't know it for sure ever -- because even after we count the actual costs, we can always second-guess our actual spending -- I do believe we can understand something like natural levels, somehow related to the nature of the specific startup.

Marketing strategy, just as an example, might make a huge difference. The company planning to buy Web traffic will naturally spend much more in its early months than the company planning to depend on viral word of mouth. It's in the plan.

So too with location, product development strategy, management team and compensation, lots of different factors. They're all in the plan. They result in our natural startup level.

2. Funding or Not Funding

There's an obvious relationship between the amount of money needed and whether or not there's funding, and where and how you seek that funding. It's not random, it's related to the plan itself. Here again is the idea of a natural level, of a fit between the nature of the business startup, and its funding strategy.

It seems that you start with your own resources, and if that's enough, you stop there too. You look at what you can borrow. And you deal with realities of friends and family (limited for most people), angel investment (for more money, but also limited by realities of investor needs, payoffs, etc.), and venture capital (available for only a few very high-end plans, with good teams, defensible markets, scalability, etc.).

3. Launch or Revise

Somewhere in this process is a sense of scale and reality. If the natural startup cost is $2 million but you don't have a proven team and a strong plan, then you don't just raise less money, and you don't just make do with less. No -- and this is important -- at that point, you have to revise your plan. You don't just go blindly on spending money (and probably dumping it down the drain) if the money raised, or the money raisable, doesn't match the amount the plan requires.

Revise the plan. Lower your sites. Narrow your market. Slow your projected growth rate.

Bring in a stronger team. New partners? More experienced people? Maybe a different ownership structure will help.

What's really important is you have to jump out of a flawed assumption set and revise the plan. I've seen this too often: you do the plan, set the amounts, fail the funding, and then just keep going, but without the needed funding.

And that's just not likely to work. And, more important, it is likely to cause you to fail, and lose money while you're doing it.

Repetition for emphasis: you revise the plan to give it a different natural need level. You don't just make do with less. You also do less.

True Story: A Challenge

I was the planning consultant to Apple Computer's Latin America group from 1982 until 1991 or 1992, the end of the relationship being a bit hard to define as I was called on steadily more by Apple Japan and less by Apple Latin America.

The challenge came in the spring of 1985. The annual business plan was done every Spring, turned into management in June and then discussed and revised and resubmitted and eventually accepted in July. In April of 1985 I had been the consultant for that process for four years running when Hector Saldana, manager of the group, said:

"Tim, yes I want you to do our annual plan for us again this year. But only on two conditions: first, I want you to stop working for other computer companies. Second, I want you to take up a desk in our office, come every day, and sit here and see us implement the plan."

Happily, he also had some good news related to giving up other competing companies as clients: "And, if you agree to do this, I want to contract you for all of your hours for the next year, and at your regular billing rate."

The condition of giving up competing clients was difficult for a single person business. What if Apple had problems, or changed its policy regarding consultants? What if Hector got promoted or fired? Where would I be then, if I had given up other business relationships.

That's not the real point of the story, although it does relate to planning as you go. That certainly wasn't part of my business plan for my business, but it was a classic example of changed assumptions. We talked about it at home at length, and decided to go ahead with it. However, we also modified the plan we had going related to efforts to generate new leads and new business: we would focus that effort within Apple itself, different groups that didn't talk much to each other, to reduce risk of having two many eggs in the single Apple Latin America basket. The plan was modified for cause, to accommodate changed assumptions.

The problem of implementation, however, forced me to consider the difference between the plan and the results of the plan.

There was some history. The previous year or two had been the time of "desktop publishing" for Apple Computer. Desktop publishing, which we now take for granted, started with the first Macintosh laser printer in 1985. It was a huge advantage for Apple in competition against other personal computer systems.

Our plan for fiscal 1985 had been to emphasize desktop publishing in most of our marketing efforts. And it didn't happen. While we talked about desktop publishing in every meeting, the managers would go back to their desks, take phone calls, put out fires, and forget about it. They didn't intend to, but they'd had so much emphasis on desktop publishing that it seemed boring, old hat. Multimedia was the thing.

So, faced with the implementation challenge, I created what became the strategy pyramid to manage strategic alignment. We ended up with a relatively simple database of business activities. Collaterals (meaning brochures and such), bundle deals (software included with the hardware at special bundled prices),advertising, trade shows, meetings and events, all were tied into a system that identified what strategy point they impacted, and what tactic.

So during that year, as business went on, we were able to view actual activities, spending and effort, divided by priority. We set more budget money for desktop publishing activities than any other. During the review meetings, we compared actual spending and activities (the beginning of what I talk about as metrics)  to planned spending and activities. And over time, with pie charts and bar charts to help, we were able to build strategic alignment. What was done was what the strategy dictated.

The plan-as-you-go implication was that this didn't happen just because it was in the plan. It took management. There was a plan review schedule with the meetings on the calendar way in advance, and for every meeting I was able to produce data on progress towards planned goals. The managers discussed results. Plan vs. actual metrics became important.

When things didn't go according to plan, the meetings would bring that to the surface. Managers would explain how the assumptions turned out wrong, or some unforeseen event -- we had good results as well as bad results -- and we would on occasion revise the plan.

The Secret Sauce

Where's my discussion of the secret sauce? Somebody asked me that a couple days ago, expecting it to be in this book. I was embarrassed. I talk about the secret sauce a lot, in my seminars and in my class, at the office. It's definitively another view of the same reality I'm calling the heart of the plan. So that's one thing to add for the next edition. Differentiate

The secret sauce is the magic, also called (boring) differentiators, and sometimes competitive edge; Guy Kawasaki calls it "underlying magic" and recommends that it be one of the 10 (or so) slides is a pitch presentation. You can google it and see how people are writing about it, using it to define what's new or different about some businesses. (You'll also see some items on McDonalds' secret sauce for the big mac, and some cooking stuff, but you'll see what I mean).

This idea of the secret sauce is a good way to explain how you're different from your competitors. What sets you apart?

Examples? Apple Computer's secret sauce is design, for example. Michelin tires' branding tries (in my opinion) to emulate Volve, the safety angle. My favorite restaurant in Eugene, Poppi's Anatolia, has an extremely spicy version of vindaloo chicken. Whole Foods' secret sauce is its having established the brand for healthy and organic foods. In cars, just look at the mini-cooper or the Honda Element or the Toyota Prius and you see secret sauce immediately.

Impatient? Then Jump In

I understand. Enough of the explanations and positioning, let's get working on a plan. So go ahead, just jump in and do it.

  • Most people like to start with the heart of the plan. Jump there now, you'll see what I mean. It's about what really drives your business. Your target market, your business offering, your strategic focus. And don't worry about format; write it, speak it, use bullet points, slides, or whatever.
  • My personal favorite is the plan review schedule. This makes it very clear that you're after planning, and better management, not just a plan.
  • Another very good starting point is the sales forecast. Some people like to get to the numbers first, and many people do the conceptual thinking while they work the numbers. Your target market, your business offering, your strategic focus are all in your head as you make your sales forecast. That's not a bad way to proceed.
  • Maybe you want to start with an expense budget instead. Estimate your payroll on an average month. Calculate your burn rate, a very important number, meaning how much money you have to spend per month.
  • If you're planning to start a business, startup costs is a good place to get going. Make lists of what you need, in money, goods, locations, and so forth.
  • Particularly when you have a team, SWOT (strengths, weaknessess, opportunities, and threats) analysis is a great way to start. You can jump to the SWOT analysis now and do that.
  • Some people like to set the scene better, with the mission statement, vision, mantra, objectives, or keys to success. That gives your plan a framework to live in. If you like.

However, there are some things in business planning, even plan-as-you-go planning, that have to happen in a certain order. For example, you can't really just start with the cash flow statement without having done your sales forecast, burn rate, and some asset and liabilities assumptions.

Still, you can get started fast. I don't blame you. Maybe you'll jump back here (use your Back button) to continue the explanations after you've made some progress.

An Approach, Not a Method

Words About WordsThe plan-as-you-go business plan is a new approach, a new way of thinking about business planning. It doesn't really change fundamentals, but it does change the focus. It adds some new angles, and it's better for you, and better for your business.

What's the difference? Why do I make the distinction?

Garr Reynolds, in his highly-acclaimed book Presentation Zen, says his approach to presentations "is not a method."

"Method implies a step-by-step systematic process, something very much planned and linear, with a definite proven procedure that you can pick off a shelf and follow A to Z in a logical orderly fashion.

"An approach implies a road, a direction, a frame of mind, perhaps even a philosophy, but not a formula of proven rules to be followed."

I like this distinction. It definitely makes plan-as-you-go planning an approach, and not a method. I've spent a lot of years working on step-by-step methods to do business planning. Some of them work. Sometimes. But the whole idea of step-by-step, attractive as it is, reinforces the myth of the business plan as a document or hurdle.

What's the difference? Why does it matter? It's not that important, but I do want to use the idea of an approach instead of method to emphasize that I don't want this plan-as-you-go concept to become another list of specific steps, or another list of "do it my way" methods. I want this approach, like this book, like your plan, to be yours, not mine. You take what I'm offering here and use what you want from it, in whatever order you want to use it, and make it work for you.

Those Military Quotes on Planning

Words about WordsThe military relates very well to planning. In business we talk about battle plans, and war plans, as well as business plans. One of the most recommended books for business is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. I use Eisenhower’s quote “the plan is useless, but planning is essential” frequently in writing, speaking, and teaching about planning. He makes a critical point.

There’s also the famous line: “no battle plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy,” often attributed to Colin Powell, but also to Field Marshal Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke.

The Big Plan, All At Once

Tips and traps

You can also do the big plan all at once! I understand. This new approach is great but never mind, you need the formal plan. You've been asked for it by somebody who might invest, or a bank loan manager, or a boss. Maybe you're doing it for a business school class. I call these business plan events. When you need the old-fashioned full document, so be it; there's a business need, so let's get it done.

We'll get there, in this book. You can jump there right now, and start writing things down, section by section. I'd rather have you develop your core plan first, then get the essentials including the who-what-when-how-much, the sales forecast, and the spending budgets (a.k.a. the burn rate: the amount of money that flows out of the business each month) but that's up to you. "Get started and get going" means you can also do it the old-fashioned way if you want.

15 Reasons You Need a Business Plan

Tips and trapsWhy do you want a business plan? You already know the obvious reasons, but there are so many other good reasons to create a business plan that many business owners don't know about. So, just for a change, let's take a look at a longer-than-usual list of the most important reasons you need a business plan.

1. Grow your existing business. Establish strategy and allocate resources according to strategic priority. You can find more information about growing your business with a business plan by reading my article "Existing Companies Need Planning, Too" at bplans.com

2.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.

3. Set specific objectives for managers. Good management requires setting specific objectives and then tracking and following up. I'm surprised how many existing businesses manage without a plan. How do they establish what's supposed to happen? In truth, most of the people who think they don't plan are really just taking a shortcut and planning in their head--and good for them if they can do it--but as your business grows, you want to organize and plan better and communicate the priorities better. Be strategic. Develop a plan; don't just wing it.

4. Deal with displacement. Displacement is probably by far the most important practical business concept you've never heard of. It goes like this: "Whatever you do rules out something else you don't do." Displacement lives at the heart of all small-business strategy. And most people have never heard of it.

5. Share and explain business objectives with your management team, employees and new hires. Make selected portions of your business plan part of your new employee training.

6. Share your strategy, priorities and specific action points with your spouse, partner or significant other. Your business life goes by so quickly: a rush of answering phone calls, putting out fires, and so on. Don't the  people in your personal life need to know what's supposed to be happening? Don't you want them to know?

7. Hire new people. This 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.

8. Decide whether or not to rent new space. Rent is another 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?

9. 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.

10. Back up a business loan application. Like investors, lenders want to see the plan and will expect the plan to cover the main points.

11. Develop new business alliances. Use your plan to set targets for new alliances, and use selected portions of your plan to communicate with partners.

12. Decide whether you need new assets, how many, and whether to buy or lease them. 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 decision. How long will this important purchase last in your plan?

13. Deal with professionals. Share selected highlights of your plans with your attorneys and accountants, and, if this is relevant to you, consultants.

14. 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.

15. Valuation of the business for formal transactions related to divorce, inheritance, estate planning, or 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, and why as well as how much that will cost and how much it will produce.

Adapted from a column for entrepreneur.com

Filter Ideas from Opportunities

Tips and trapsBusiness ideas are interesting, exciting stuff to build a business by, but they are worth nothing (in general) until somebody builds a company around them.

Opportunities are the best of the ideas. An idea is just that. An opportunity is an idea you can implement. You have the resources, and know-how to do it. There is a market. You can make money on it, and the investment will be worth it.

Good business planning filters the opportunities from the ideas. Apply the planning process to the idea to make it an opportunity. Determine the market strength, what exactly is needed, how long it will take, how much money it will take, what people are required. Lay it out into steps.

Not all ideas can survive the rigor of planning. Some fall by the wayside, ending up as interesting ideas that aren't really opportunities.

Some of the factors that count:

  • Risk vs. return. Is what it takes to pursue this idea worth the likely return? This is not scientific. It depends a lot on your business' attitude about risk, and what other opportunities are available.
  • Realism. How realistic are the forecasts? Give them a good look. Are you pushing the forecast to make things work.
  • Resources. What will really be required? Think of people, know-how, skills, compensation, implied risk (paying people to build this company up). What are the start-up costs, including expenses required and assets required?
  • Market potential. The heart of your sales forecast is the market potential. How much do people want or need the business offering?
  • Business potential. How much money can the business make? How will this impact the business? How big is this opportunity, overall?

My Worst-Ever Business Plan Engagement

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 backward and forward and inside out, or it won't work.

I learned this the hard way, sitting in venture capital offices at 300 Sand Hill Drive, Menlo Park, California , the business plan consultant on the tail end of the new venture team. 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.

In meeting after meeting, at key moments, the venture capitalists would ask critical questions and all heads would turn to me. I would answer. I knew the plan, backward, forward, and inside out, but I was the only one who did. It was my plan. iStock_000000316874Small

It was a good founders team. It included three Silicon Valley veterans --  a marketing guy, a technical guy, and a deal maker. 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.

The three of them never really got into the plan. It was a hurdle they paid me to jump for them. Every meeting generated new changes, so I would go back to the basement computer at the business school, and rerun the financial model. The team of three didn't include a financial person to learn and manage the model, so it was always me doing the tweaking, which meant I was the only one who knew the plan. I'd rerun 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 strategy, and left the details to me.

Details that, in fact, they didn't look at. 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.

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 business owners, not the consultant.

If you have the luxury of a budget to pay an outside expert, consultant, or business plan writer, then maybe you should use one. 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, backward and forward, and inside out.

Adapted with permission from Planning Startups Stories. All rights reserved

A Military Exercise

StoriesIn Chapter Four of his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes how Paul Van Riper, a retired Marine commander, drove the U.S. military to fits in a war exercise called "Millennium Challenge." It's a brilliant argument for the plan-as-you-go idea compared with the traditional plan method.

The Millennium Challenge was an exercise designed to test the military's ability to deal with a simulated war in the Middle East. It pitted a very large team (Blue Team) equipped with a very detailed battle plan, a lot of computer models and simulations, against a very small team (Red Team) led by Van Riper, experienced and self confident and good at making quick decisions.

"Blue Team had their databases and matrixes and methodologies for systematically understanding the intentions of the enemy. Red Team was commanded by a man who looked at a long-haired, unkempt, seat-of-the-pants commodities trader yelling and pushing and making a thousand instant decisions an hour and saw in him a soul mate."

As you've already guessed, Blue Team is the might of the military, and Red Team is essentially one smart guy who starts with a plan and revises it constantly as the battle ensues.

When the game was actually played, Van Riper surprised the Blue Team quickly with a move not in its plans, and as they reacted to that, he surprised them again, and quickly caused considerable unexpected damage to a much larger force. It was all simulated and hypothetical, but the result was that the quick-to-react team with flexible planning beat the pants off the very detailed plan team that couldn't react to changes.

"Had Millennium Challenge been a real war instead of just an exercise, 20,000 American servicemen and women would have been killed before their own army had even fired a shot."

That was pretty hard for the military to explain. They analyzed it a lot.

"There were numerous explanations from the analysts at JFCOM (Joint Forces Command Center) about exactly what happened that day in July. Some would say that it was an artifact of the particular way war games are run. Others would say that in real life, the ships would never have been as vulnerable as they were in the game. But none of the explanations change the fact that Blue Team suffered a catastrophic failure. The rogue commander did what rogue commanders do. He fought back, yet somehow this fact caught Blue Team by surprise."

Implicitly, the problem was the big team full of computers and data trusted a static plan, while the other team didn't.

Red Team's powers of rapid cognition were intact -- and Blue Team's were not.

So relate that to the planning we want: planning that responds to rapidly changing reality. Not just "Duh, I can't plan, I don't know the future," and not just "Why plan? Why bother" and not "We have to follow the plan," but planning as you go.

It’s Not One Size Fits All

MythbustersIt's amazing how long business experts, teachers, coaches, and advisors have swallowed and even spread the idea that a business plan is some sort of standard document, a predictable standard task with a generally accepted set of parameters to define it.

It just isn't so. Like so many other things in business, the business planning should be appropriate to the needs of the business.

Just about every business needs to build and understand its heart, that core element of strategy that's about what you're doing for whom, and who you are and what you want to do.

Beyond that, every business ought to be able to set down some tracks it can then follow and manage, watching progress towards goals. The sales forecast is the most obvious set of tracks. Milestones, like who does what, when, and for how much, are almost always useful. And don't forget the burn rate.

This isn't necessarily written down carefully into a formal text. It might be just bullet points, or even pictures; it might even be something you say in a 60-second elevator speech.

And as your company grows, you can grow your plan and your planning. Grow it like an artichoke grows, with leaves -- more details, more specifics, more description -- surrounding the heart.

Or, if you're starting your company with a plan for investment or business loans, or if your company is already there and already plans and you want to grow it, then you might go all the way to the more complete formal plan.

What's important is that you do the planning you need, to run your business better. Not the one-size-fits-all plan, but the just-big-enough plan to give you better planning and management without wasting any time or effort on documentation you won't use.

No Time to Plan?

Mythbusters"Not enough time for a plan," business people say. "I can't plan. I'm too busy getting things done."

The busier you are, the more you need to plan. Too many businesses make business plans only when they have to. Unless a bank or investors want to look at a business plan, there isn't likely to be a plan written. If you are always putting out fires, you should build fire breaks or a sprinkler system. You can lose the whole forest for too much attention to the individual trees.

The Plan is Worth The Decisions It Causes

A plan is worth the decisions it causes. If you already know your market, don't waste time or money doing market research.

Don't do it just because somebody said it was part of a business plan. But are you sure? Is it worth a fresh look? You decide.

The supporting information isn't part of your plan; it's just supporting information. Do you have to prove the concept? Will outsiders be reading your plan, and evaluating it? Does the market research prove something that must be proven? Then include it.

Information in business is worth the decisions it causes. You measure this by taking a guess at what your bank balance would have been without the information and comparing it to what it is because you had the information. Subtract the hypothetical balance without the information from the balance with the information, and that's the value.

with the information: $10,000
without the information: $8,000

---------------

Value of the information $2,000

That's a hard equation to deal with sometimes, and of course it's based on hypothetical values; but it's still an important concept to understand. Your business plan shouldn't include anything your business won't use. Either it's going to use the market analysis or it needs to present it as proof of market for outsiders -- or you just don't perform the analysis.

Sample Business Plans Suck

The original title of this piece was "Business Plans Are Made, Not Found." It comes from my childhood memories of the Wheaties ad campaign of the 1950s. The slogan was "Champions Are Made, Not Found."

The same applies to business plans. You make one, you don't find one. You develop your own.

This idea comes up a lot these days because -- I think-- of sample business plans. The spread of sample business plans is a real problem for the greater good of business planning. And unfortunately, I might be part of the problem. Gulp.

I started creating sample business plans at Palo Alto Software in 1987 with the first Business Plan Toolkit, which included the original versions of Acme Consulting and AMT, the computer reseller, which I had written for clients.

Digression: If you're curious, Google one or the other and see how widespread it is. By the way, there are a few sites that use one of these examples with permission (the SBA, for example, has permission to use AMT as a sample on its site), but there are a lot of people just copying one and calling it their own. Seems like there are hundreds of them out there. Only a very, very few have permission. Most are pirates. End of digression.

We came up with the idea of including sample plans with the business-planning product to help people understand what a business plan looks like, what it covers, and how it comes together. We included 10 real sample plans in late 1994 when we released Business Plan Pro. People liked the samples, so we included more. We polled the users and came up with 20 real plans from real businesses to include with our second version in February of 1996, and 30 sample plans for the third version, in May of 1998. People really liked sample plans as part of the product.

Then the idea spread. People started buying and selling sample plans. Our life as market leader became very complicated when a competitor bought 100-some sample plans from a book compilation and included them as Adobe PDF files with some business plan software. That company didn't tell their customers that the plans were just electronic documents, didn't work with their software, and most didn't even have financial information, but they did cause a stir in the market. We had to work like mad to get 250 real plans, all of which worked with Business Plan Pro and had financial data, to compete. We sponsored business plan competitions, and paid our customers, looking for real plans.

So the race was on. By this point we had our version 2002 (equivalent to the fifth version) of Business Plan Pro out. People started selling sample plans on the Web, most of them poorly-disguised knock-offs of our sample plans exported from Business Plan Pro and massaged slightly. We've had several legal battles with people using our work to compete against us. We're up to 500 sample business plans with Business Plan Pro now, and, frankly, I hate it.

Here's the problem: When it was two sample plans or even 10 sample plans, people generally understood that the examples were supposed to give you an idea of what a plan is. Now with hundreds of sample plans available, some people naturally think their own business plan is supposed to be one of those 500.

As an author and professional business planner, I hate this idea. People are buying and selling finished business plans as if they were term papers (also a bad idea) for college students. That trend is really spreading, and it's a mistake. Not just wrong because of plagiarism, but wrong because it doesn't work and clouds business planning.

I get the question all the time: "Do you have a plan for X?"

This brings me back to the title of this sidebar. I want to tell everybody that finding a business plan you can use is a really, really bad idea. You make a plan; you don't find one. Obviously, every business is unique. Every business plan is unique. Even if you happened to find a business plan for a business very much like yours, it would never have the same owners, the same management team, the same strategy, and probably not the same market or location either.

Sure, I recognize that a sample plan can help in several ways. You can find out how somebody else defined the units and prices in a business, what her expense projections were and for what categories, and how she described her market.

But I strongly recommend you start at zero, and write your own plan. Refer to samples for some hard points, perhaps, but start with an empty plan. If you're using Business Plan Pro, the wizard takes you through the process step by step, tells you what you need to include and why, so that you just tell your own story and do your own numbers. If you start with somebody else's plan it's going to be very hard to distinguish your own ideas from hers. You're going to end up with a hodgepodge of rehash.

I just can't believe people are buying and selling sample business plans as stand-alone documents, but they are. It's bad enough that we have samples readily available for editing and modifying within the business plan software, but then you have several websites selling finished sample plans without any software, just as Word documents or worse. Most of these are the same plans recirculated, essentially stolen, but even that isn't why they are a bad deal. It's like buying a novel as a Word file and trying to get it published -- it's a bad idea.

Adapted with permission from blog.timberry.com. All rights reserved.

If You Dread Planning Your Startup, Don’t Start It

Recently I had one of those lightbulbs go off in my head. I'm referring to those times when you're reminded of something you already knew, but had forgotten. In my case today it was this: Planning your new business, the one you're thinking of starting, ought to be fun. Planning isn't about writing some ponderous homework assignment or dull business memo; it's about envisioning that business that you want to create. It should be fascinating to you. What do people want, how are you going to get it to them, how are you different, and what do you do better than anybody else?

Honestly, isn't that related to the dreaming that makes some of us want to build our own businesses? It was for me, every time, including those ventures I worked on that made it and those that failed. Dreaming about the next thing I wanted to do was always part of it. Dreaming is related to looking forward, anticipating, and (in this case) business planning.

This came up during an interview for SBTV (which was later absorbed by a bigger site, and the video lost), which was filming interviews with me on starting and managing a business and business planning. I was answering a question Tim on SBTVrelating starting a business to getting out of the cubicle, when I realized that I was in danger of forgetting that business planning is part of the dreaming and part of the fun. And it is.

I think what's important is that none of us should be intimidated by business planning because of what I've called the not-so-big business plan, or the point I've made about starting anywhere you like.  The business plan is a way to lay out your thoughts and think them through -- it  shouldn't be some dull ponderous task you have to get through.

If thinking through the core elements of your business, or for that matter the details of your business, isn't interesting, then get a clue. If you're not really looking forward to it, maybe you don't want to start the business after all.

If you dread the planning of your next vacation, stay home. If you dread the planning of your new startup, don't start it.

Before You Write a Business Plan

Validating the idea and understanding the business model are pretty important steps that should come before writing a business plan. That's hardly a novel idea.

Still, novel idea or not, successful entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa spells out the early stages very well in a BusinessWeek special report published in early 2008, "Before You Write a Business Plan."

He starts with a short list for validating the idea:

  1. Write down your thoughts on the product you want to build and the needs you want to solve. You'll be detailing your hypotheses.
  2. Validate these hypotheses with as many potential customers as you can. Ask them if they will buy your product or service if you build it. Learn about what features they need and what they will pay for, ask them for more ideas, and be sure that there is a large enough market.
  3. Build a prototype of your product or offer a test run of your service and again ask potential customers what they think about it. You'll find that customers usually provide much better input when they can actually try out a product.

Then Wadhwa also suggests a slightly longer list for developing the business model, by answering s a series of questions:

  1. How are you going to find customers or have them find you? Are you going to advertise, cold-call or rely on word of mouth?
  2. How will you differentiate your product or service? There is always competition, so how are you going to set yourself apart?
  3. What can you charge for your product or service that's profitable for you and provides value to the customer?
  4. How are you going to persuade potential customers to buy from you? Even great products or services don't sell themselves; you have to develop a process for closing deals (BusinessWeek, 7/12/05).
  5. How will you deliver your products or services to your customers? Are you going to have a direct sales force, sell through distributors or over the Internet? Can you do this cost-effectively?
  6. How are you going to support your customers if your product breaks? Are you going to provide a telephone hotline, on-site support or answer e-mails?
  7. How are you going to ensure customer satisfaction and turn customers into loyal fans? Your success will ultimately depend on how happy your customers are.

These are good lists to go over as you consider your plan.

Guy Kawasaki on Mission Statements

The fundamental shortcoming of most mission statements is that everyone expects them to be highfalutin and all-encompassing. The result is a long, boring, commonplace, and pointless joke.

In The Mission Statement Book, Jeffrey Abrams provides 301 examples of mission statements that demonstrate that companies are all writing the same mediocre stuff. To wit, this is a partial list of the frequency with which mission statements in Abrams's sample contained the same words:

  • best - 94
  • communities - 97
  • customers - 211
  • excellence - 77
  • leader - 106
  • quality - 169

Fortune (or Forbes, in my case) favors the bold, so I'll give you some advice that will make life easy for you: Postpone writing your mission statement. You can come up with it later when you're successful and have lots of time and money to waste. (If you're not successful, it won't matter that you didn't develop one.)

Make Meaning : The Art of the Start

Jump to the Future and Ask This Question

You fall in love with your plan, and love is blind. You don't see the fatal flaw.

I know a man who jumped headfirst into a new venture based on building a chain of used CD stores. The punch line? It was 2000. Napster was already there. Do you see the fatal flaw? He didn't. And this was a man who'd had a string of successes.

Love is blind.

So here's a trick that might, sometimes, if you're lucky, help you see the fatal flaw.

  1. It takes imagination. So close your eyes, relax your shoulders, and take a deep breath and let it out slowly.
  2. Jump in your imagination to the future. Go to three years from now.
  3. Now pretend that, there in the future, you know that the business you are starting now, your baby, your dream, is over. It failed. I know, that's hard, but it's a game; it's only in your imagination, so make that leap.
  4. You're sitting at a table, maybe in a coffee shop, maybe at lunch, and somebody asks you: "What happened? Why did it fail?"
  5. Now, using your imagination, your intelligence, and what you know about your business, answer that question. This is fiction now, so you have to tell a story. Make it believable. What happened?

This activity will help you think about flaws. Was it competition? Did the management lose interest? Was there not enough money? Did some new technology come along?

I don't know for sure, but I believe that if my friend with the used CD stores had done this exercise, he would have come up with the possibility of a change in the way we deal with music, meaning Napster, downloading, iTunes and so on.

And, for the record, I haven't done the research, either, but what do you think? Would you like to own a used CD store? What do you think has happened to the sale of used CDs?

Adapted from Up and Running blog.

General Principles of Real-World Strategy

In 30 years of working with businesses of all sizes, I've come across several of what I would call general principles of strategy. These don't necessarily apply in the academic world, or for larger corporate enterprises, but they do apply to small and medium businesses everywhere:

  • Strategy is focus. The more priorities in a plan, the less chance of successful implementation.
  • Strategy needs to be consistently applied over a long term to work. Better to have a mediocre long-term strategy consistently applied for years than a series of brilliant but contradictory strategies that never last long enough to matter.
  • Strategy needs to be tailored. There are no standard strategies. Every company is different. A given strategy must always be tailored for a specific company.
  • Strategy needs to be realistic. You have to deal with your company as it is at this point in time, understanding what choices you really have, what knobs you can actually turn.
  • The best strategies are market driven. When possible, it's not "how to sell what we have," but rather, "how to make what people want or need what we offer."
  • Good strategies understand displacement. Displacement in business refers to the undeniable fact that everything you try to do rules out many other things that you therefore can't do. You have to choose carefully, because one project displaces many others.

from Hurdle: the Book on Business Planning

The Business Model

Nobody talked much about business models until suddenly a lot of businesses, valued for a lot of money, didn't have them.

For almost any traditional business, the business model is so obvious that you don't have to talk about it. Stores sell goods. Restaurants sell meals. Hotels sell lodging. Airlines and taxis sell transportation.

Think of the business model as how you make money -- how you get money out of your customer's pocket and into your bank account.

The new businesses, mainly Web businesses, need to explain how they make money. Some of the most highly valued businesses in the world -- Facebook, for example -- don't have an obvious way to make money.

Some businesses still get away with generating traffic, so-called eyeballs, but not money. The underlying assumption in these cases is that the traffic means a likelihood of being able to generate money somehow, some day.

And if you want to be really trendy, use the phrase business model to mean type of business. This can get really interesting. Take a look at Alexander Osterwald'sBusiness Model Alchemist, for example, a blog focusing on new ways to do business. Here's how he defines the business model:

A business model is a conceptual tool that contains a set of elements and their relationships and allows expressing the business logic of a specific firm. It is a description of the value a company offers to one or several segments of customers and of the architecture of the firm and its network of partners for creating, marketing, and delivering this value and relationship capital, to generate profitable and sustainable revenue streams.

Along with that he adds nine points:

  1. The value proposition of what is offered to the market;
  2. The target customer segments addressed by the value proposition;
  3. The communication and distribution channels to reach customers and offer the value proposition;
  4. The relationships established with customers;
  5. The core capabilities needed to make the business model possible;
  6. The configuration of activities to implement the business model;
  7. The partners and their motivations of coming together to make a business model happen;
  8. The revenue streams generated by the business model constituting the revenue model;
  9. The cost structure resulting of the business model.

This is perhaps a bit thick in language, but still, a nice summary of a business. You could use this as the heart of a plan too, no? His value proposition is our business offering, his target customer segment is obvious, but our strategy adds more attention to your business identity and your narrowed strategic focus. This is descriptive. Regardless, it's a good list.

Remember: Your Plan Is Not Necessarily a Written Document

I want you to use words and numbers written down somewhere to keep track of your plan, but that doesn't mean it isn't there unless you have it written into a text. It is there if you know it and if your team knows it.

Don't get freaked out by the text, or the writing. It's just for you, and probably your team members, to track your progress. Just type snippets. Stream of consciousness is fine. Pictures, photos, or charts are fine, too. Some of my favorite plans use illustrations or pictures to represent the key concepts for the heart of the plan; they can be as simple as a single slide.

Sometimes it's as simple as a mantra. Fine dining in Eugene, Oregon. Fresh organic Korean food in lower Manhattan. Your weekend cottage in Cape Cod. Healthy fast foods.

You might be writing bullet points. Whether short text or picture or completely written out discussions, you want to keep track of your plan so you can track or your plan so you can review and revise it and, of course, communicate between different people. But until you need to present it as a document to be read by others, don't make extra work. Keep it simple.

I do recommend keeping it on a computer, making it accessible to the few key team members who must be able to refer to it, but do only what you need.

Don't ever get caught worrying about the actual writing. Just type snippets. Steam of consciousness is fine. Pictures or photos or charts are fine.

Key New England Patriots Stat: Restroom Wait Time for Women

How Analytics Help Build this Champion

Posted by Tom Davenport on January 31, 2008 8:54 AM

Last spring, on baseball’s Opening Day, I confidently identified the Boston Red Sox on these very pages as the eventual World Series winner—based in part on their analytical prowess. You may recall that I was correct in that prediction. This Sunday, I will go out on a much more solid limb and pick the Patriots to triumph in the Super Bowl. I’m more of a baseball guy than a football nut, but fortunately both of the Boston teams I cheer for are not only winners of late, but also heavy users of analytical approaches to their respective games (the Celtics aren’t doing badly either, but I think Kevin Garnett is more of a factor in their success than any statistician).

Like the Red Sox (or any analytically-oriented sports team, for that matter) the primary analytical application for the Pats is selecting the best players for the lowest price. This is particularly critical in the NFL, with its stringent salary cap. In-depth analytics helped the team select its players and conserve its dough. (Until last year the team had only a middle-ranking payroll in the National Football League, but now Tom Brady is getting expensive!) The team selects players using its own scouting services rather than the NFL-generic one that other teams employ; Brady, for example, was the 199th pick in 2000. They rate potential draft choices on such nontraditional factors as intelligence and willingness to subsume personal ego for the benefit of the team (though I had my doubts about their fidelity to that variable when they signed the famously mercurial Randy Moss before this season).

The Patriots also make extensive use of analytics for on-the-field decisions. They employ statistics, for example, to decide whether to punt or “go for it” on fourth down, whether to try for one point or two after a touchdown, and whether to throw out the yellow flag and challenge a referee’s ruling. Both its coaches and players (particularly quarterback Tom Brady) are renowned for their extensive study of game video and statistics, and head coach Bill Belichick has been known to peruse articles by academic economists on statistical probabilities of football outcomes—over breakfast cereal, the legend goes.

Off the field, the team uses detailed analytics to assess and improve the “total fan experience.” At every home game, for example, twenty to twenty-five people have specific assignments to make quantitative measurements of the stadium food, parking, personnel, bathroom cleanliness, and other factors. The team prides itself not only on scoring the most points ever this season, but also on having the lowest wait time for women’s restrooms in the NFL. External vendors of services are monitored for contract renewal and have incentives to improve their performance. This won’t help them win the Super Bowl, but it helps fill Gillette Stadium every home game.

Belichick deserves a lot of credit for the analytical emphasis (God knows, he can’t get by on charm), but so do the team’s owners. Just as the Red Sox owner John Henry moved the Sox in an analytical direction, Bob and (especially, I’m told) Jonathan Kraft believed that analytics could make a difference in football. Jonathan is a Harvard Business School alumnus and a former management consultant. In addition to Belichick, they hired Scott Pioli, a former Wall Street investment analyst and now the “player personnel” guru.

The only thing the Patriots lack is an analytical secret weapon equivalent to Bill James, the god of baseball statistics who acts as a “senior adviser” to the Sox. I’m not sure there is a Bill James of football. If there is, the Pats need to hire him (or her). Such a move could keep the Patriots dynasty going for many years to come.

From Harvard Business' discussionleader.hbsp.com, posted by Tom Davenport on January 31, 2008. URL http://discussionleader.hbsp.com/davenport/2008/01/how_analytics_help_build_this.html

Yes, You are Qualified to Forecast Your Business

There's a scene in one of the Monty Python movies in which the woman on the operating table is about to give birth. Frightened, she asks the doctor--a memorable John Cleese character--"Doctor, doctor, what do I do?"

The doctor, looking down at her with a sneer, answers "You? Nothing. You're not qualified!"

It's a very funny scene. I'm a man. I've been present for several births. I know who does everything. Not the doctor.

And the same strange hesitance shows up a lot when people in business need to forecast. They think somebody else, somebody with more schooling, knows better. Someone else can run the numbers, do an econometric analysis, look at the data better, find the trends.

The truth, however, is that nobody is more qualified than a business owner to forecast her business. You've been there, you've lived through the ups and downs of it, you have the sense of it better than anybody.

For the record, I spent several years as a vice president in a brand-name market research consulting company. Our clients often thought we knew better, because that's how we made our living. And most of the time we were just making educated guesses, like you do when you forecast your own business.

You are qualified. Trust yourself.

And I'm sorry, I just found the scene in YouTube. You can click the link if you don't see the video below. I couldn't resist adding it here. The specific "You're not qualified" moment is at about 1:25:

Spreadsheet Basics

You probably know this already, but I'll go over it just in case. I recommend using Business Plan Pro software so you don't have to do this, but it's good to know anyhow, and you can certainly do everything in this book without that software. So here's a bit about spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets are normally arranged in rows and columns, with rows numbered from 1 to whatever, and columns labeled from A to whatever. Simple mathematical formulas refer to the cells that are identified by row and column. For example:

So what we see here is a simple formula that adds the 34 in cell B2 to the 45 in cell C2 to get the sum of those two, which is 79. That number is in cell D2, so you see the formula showing at the top when you click on D2. Also the number in the upper left corner indicates which cell the displayed formula belongs to.

Here's another simple example:

In this case the cell named B5 is highlighted, and its formula says to sum up all the cells from B2 to B4. That's three cells, and the numbers they contain sum up to 128.

There are lots of books and websites and different instructions and tutorials available for spreadsheets. This is enough for now, so you can understand my simple forecast examples.

Snapshots of Spreadsheets

Just a quick note. I hope it's obvious. With examples in this book I'm not showing you the full columns of the spreadsheets, because that would be awkward. Numbers would have to be very small and difficult to read. I use my spreadsheets for sales forecasting and other normal monthly projections with a standard layout.

I base my tables on the standard spreadsheet layout as used in Microsoft Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, AppleWorks, Quattro Pro, and even the true pioneer, VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet, from 30 years ago. The rows are labeled from 1 to whatever, and the columns are labeled from A to whatever. When you get past the 26 letters of the alphabet you start over again, with AA, AB, AC, etc.

Labels in Column A Special uses for Column B 12 Months Monthly in Columns C-N Annual Columns as Needed.
I run the labels along the lefthand side. These might be Sales, Expenses, Profits, etc. I keep column B open for variables like growth rates and such. This is convenient for starting balances too. My months go off toward the right, one by one, in 12 columns. The first year's totals of the numbers from the previous 12 months. Then come the additional years as needed.

How Could I Know?

One of the more powerful drags on business planning in general is what I call fear of forecasting. Lots of people have it.

"How could I possibly know?" is one of the more popular complaints. After all, who can predict the future? How can you know what's going to happen in the market, with the competition, or with new technologies. Isn't it just wasting your time to try to guess?

No, it isn't just wasting your time, because one thing harder to do than forecasting is running a company without a forecast. The real question isn't, How can I possibly know what's going to happen? but, rather, How can I possibly know whether what actually does happen is good or bad or better than expected if I don't know what I thought would happen?

Confusing? Think of it this way: although you forecast for at least a year, you actually go out on a limb only for the next month. In a month, you're going to review that forecast. You're going to see what is different from the forecast, and revise the forecast. Your year doesn't stay static after the first month if results of the first month cast doubt on the whole year.

So don't worry so much; get started with your forecast, and you'll be revising.

Cash Flow Problems

This is a true story, although the names and places have been changed. Everything ended up OK, but there was a lot of unnecessary stress, all of which could have been easily prevented by just a minimum of business planning. This kind of problem happens all the time, and it's so easily preventable, it’s a shame it happens at all. The lesson: Don’t be a victim of unplanned growth.

The story takes place in a midsize university town on the West Coast, during the mid '90s, as the Internet boom took off and most everybody in business and education was getting connected. The main players are Leslie and Terry, co-owners of a consulting business offering computer and network services mostly to local businesses.

At the beginning of this story, Leslie and Terry had a small but comfortable office a few blocks off Main Street, near the university, and a comfortable business, averaging about $20,000 in sales per month with a few steady clients and not a lot of seasonal variations in sales. They had one employee who did the bookkeeping and general administration tasks, maintained office hours and made appointments.

Then came the big, wonderful new job--a contract with a large and fast-growing company to install new Internet facilities in offices on its corporate campus, ten miles up the freeway. This was a $200,000 contract that had to be delivered quickly and opened up an important new relationship with a potential business-changing client. There was great celebration. Leslie and Terry and their spouses started with a fancy dinner in the best restaurant in the area.

Both partners readily got going on fulfilling the contract, delivering the network, connecting the systems, making good on their promises. To make sure the new relationship would be a permanent increase in business, they took on five contractor consultants to deal with the needs of installation, training, and the general increase in business demands.

Within two months, it seemed clear to both partners that they’d made the leap. Systems were being installed, clients were happy, and they were on the road to doubling their business volume in a very short period of time. The contractors were doing good work, and four of the five were happy to consider becoming permanent employees. Leslie and Terry decided they could celebrate more, so they both went to the local car dealer and leased new Mercedes sedans.

Then things started going bad. Like a television loosing its connection, things got fuzzy, then blank. Though sales and profits were way up, jobs were done and invoicing was underway, Leslie and Terry had no money. The contractors -- good people who Leslie and Terry wanted to keep -- needed to be paid, but there was no money. They rushed to their local bank, waving their increased sales and profits, but banks need time. The business suffered the classic problems of unplanned growth. Just as the accounting reports looked brightest, the coffers were empty. People were barely done celebrating, and suddenly they were looking at the disaster of unpaid bills and, much worse, unpaid people.

What happened? Unplanned cash flow problems happened. The new, larger client had a slow process when it came to paying bills, so the jump in sales didn’t mean an immediate jump in cash in the bank. Leslie and Terry were more concerned about delivering good service than delivering necessary paperwork, so their own invoicing process was slow. They were owed about $85,000, but they couldn’t go straight to their new client to get the money -- she said she’d already authorized payment and sent them to the company’s finance department for answers. The people in the finance department were slow to respond and not particularly concerned about vendors getting paid quickly; their job was to pay slowly, but not so slowly as to get a bad credit rating.

Leslie and Terry had a bad case of “receivables starvation" -- money that was owed to them was already showing in sales and profits, but not in the bank. It would have been predictable, and preventable, with a good plan.

In this case, fortunately, the two partners had enough house equity to get a quick loan and pay their contractors. The business was saved and grew, but not without a great deal of stress and strain, and even second mortgages.

The worst moment is worth remembering: One of the partners' spouses was particularly eloquent about the irony of taking on a new mortgage while driving that [profanity omitted] Mercedes.

The moral of the story: Always have a good cash flow plan. Never get caught not knowing the impact of a sudden rush of new business. Get to the bank early, as soon as you know about new business, and start processing a credit line on receivables. And never lease a Mercedes until you’re sure you won’t have to take out a new mortgage a few weeks later.

Adapted from Entrepreneur.com column by Tim Berry, January 10, 2007

Assets vs. Expenses

Many people can be confused by the accounting distinction between expenses and assets. For example, they would like to record research and development as assets instead of expenses, because those expenses create intellectual property. However, standard accounting and taxation law are both strict on the distinction:

  • Expenses are deductible against income, so they reduce taxable income, but expenses cannot be depreciated, ever.
  • Assets are not deductible against income, but assets whose value declines over time (usually long-term assets) can be depreciated.

Some people are also confused by the specific definition of startup expenses, startup assets, and startup financing. They would prefer to have a broader, more generic definition that includes, say, expenses incurred during the first year, or the first few months, of the plan. Unfortunately, this would also lead to double counting of expenses and nonstandard financial statements. All the expenses incurred during the first year have to appear in the profit and loss statement of the first year, and all expenses incurred before that have to appear as startup expenses.

This treatment is the only way to correctly deal with the tax implications and the proper assigning of expenses to the time periods in which they belong. Tax authorities and accounting standards are clear on this.

What a company spends to acquire assets is not deductible against income. For example, money spent on inventory is not deductible as an expense at the point when you buy it. Only when the inventory is sold, and therefore becomes cost of goods sold or cost of sales, does it reduce income.

Why You Do Not Want to Capitalize Expenses

Sometimes people want to treat expenses as assets. Ironically, that is usually a bad idea, for several reasons:

  • Money spent buying assets is not tax deductible. Money spent on expenses is deductible.
  • Capitalizing expenses creates the danger of overstating assets.
  • If you capitalize the expense, it appears on your books as an asset. Having useless assets on the accounting books is not a good thing.

Run Silent, Run Deep, Run Out of Money

The most important problem is getting people who haven't been running companies to believe that cash flow and profits are different. That's so vitally important because, on the surface, it doesn't add up. It isn't believable.

I developed business planning software originally as templates for business-planning clients to deal with the following amazingly typical exchange:

Me: So if you grow faster, then you'll need to get more financing.

They: No, that can't be true, because we're profitable. We make money with each sale, so the more we sell, the more we can fund ourselves.

Me: Bingo! Please sit down here for a few minutes and deal with these numbers.

And so it would go. As soon as you're managing inventory or selling on credit -- which means just about any sale you make to a business -- then your cash flow is waiting in the wings, a silent killer, to foul you up.

I learned this first in business school and then forgot about it. I learned it later again, the hard way, when Palo Alto Software sales tripled in 1995 and that nearly killed the company. Why? How? Well, we experienced a huge sales increase by selling a software product through traditional channels of distribution, meaning stores, and that means selling to distributors who then resell to stores, and that means that it can take five months between selling the product and being paid for the product. In the meantime, you've got to make payroll and pay your vendors.

Yes, it's a good problem to have -- we all want to increase our sales and profits -- but it's a whole lot easier to deal with if you plan the cash implications well.

Often in presentations I use one of my favorite metaphors, the Willamette River as it runs through Eugene, Oregon, where I live. The river slows down coming out of the Cascade Mountains and into Eugene, and it looks deep, slow, and peaceful, but it's much more dangerous there than when it's throwing up white water through the rapids. Why? Because it seems so calm and welcoming. People disrespect its currents, get caught in weeds, branches, or rocks, and ... well that's a good metaphor for the way cash flow hits small businesses when things are good, when sales are growing.

What's particularly painful about the cash-flow problems that come with growth is that, precisely because there is growth, these problems can be prevented by planning.

You can see how the sales are growing, then determine what your cost of sales will be, and look at what you have to pay, to whom, and when. See how your checking account will balance go down and down. Next, chart out when your customers will pay you. It will be obvious if you will run out of money before those profits actually reach your hands. You can then plan how to find the financing to float your boat before you actually hit the snag and sink.

We've had growth spurts since then that were far less painful because we understood the dangers of cash flow, planned for the cash implications of growth, and worked with our bank ahead of time to make sure the working capital was there.

Adapted from an article originally published on blog.timberry.com. All rights reserved.
Image: courtesy of University of Oregon Department of Journalism

Fixed and Variable Costs and Burn Rate.

As you consider your projected income statement, I hope you see three of your spending budgets there -- the cost of sales, the payroll, and the expenses. These also contain your fixed vs. variable costs, and your burn rate, which we went over in the Chapter 4. Those are good numbers to keep in mind.

Why do fixed costs matter? They add to the risk. You have to pay them, whether you're making money or not. Some companies reduce risk by trying to make as much as possible into variable costs, depending on sales, instead of fixed costs. For example, to make programming expenses variable instead of fixed costs, contract the work by milestone, or pay less fixed compensation and more royalty on sales.

The burn rate is the same thing. It's a sense of risk. If you know you need $10,000 every month to cover your burn rate, then when you watch your sales you have an instant sense of where they have to get.

Seven Simple Words You Should Know

You don't have to be an accountant or an MBA to do a business plan, but you will be better off with a basic understanding of some essential financial terms. Otherwise, you're doomed to either having somebody else develop and explain your numbers, or having your numbers be incorrect. This is a good point to note the advantage of teams in business: if you have somebody on your team who knows fundamental financial estimating, then you don't have to do it yourself.

It isn't that hard, and it's worth knowing. If you are going to plan your business, you will want to plan your numbers. So there are some terms to learn. I'm not going to get into formal business or legal definitions, and I will use examples.

  1. Assets. Cash, accounts receivable, inventory, land, buildings, vehicles, furniture, and other things the company owns are assets. Assets can usually be sold to somebody else. One definition is "anything with monetary value that a business owns."
  2. Liabilities. Debts, notes payable, accounts payable, amounts of money owed to be paid back.
  3. Capital (also called equity). Ownership, stock, investment, retained earnings. Actually there's an iron-clad and never-broken rule of accounting: Assets = Liabilities + Capital. That means you can subtract liabilities from assets to calculate capital.
  4. Sales. Exchanging goods or services for money. Most people understand sales already. Technically, the sale happens when the goods or services are delivered, whether or not there is immediate payment.
  5. Cost of sales (also called cost of goods sold, direct costs, and unit costs). The raw materials and assembly costs, the cost of finished goods that are then resold, the direct cost of delivering the service. This is what the bookstore paid for the book you buy, it's the gasoline and maintenance costs of a taxi ride, it's the cost of printing and binding and royalties when a publisher sells a book to a store for resale.
  6. Expenses (usually called operating expenses). Office rent, administrative and marketing and development payroll, telephone bills, Internet access, all those things a business pays for but doesn't resell. Taxes and interest are also expenses.
  7. Profits (also called Income). Sales minus cost of sales minus expenses.

Business Ratios

By the time you have your financial forecast complete, you have numbers available to do some standard business ratios. I can't say that I'm a big fan of ratios, but they can look good in a full and formal business plan, even though they are projected ratios. Here's an example.

The real use of ratios, in my opinion, is watching them as they change over time. In the best of the plan-as-you-go business planning idea, you have some key ratios that are important to you. They are in your objectives and you review them in meetings.

Notice in this case that I've also added a reference to standard business ratios. This is a good touch in a business plan. They come from available industry data, which I discuss in the next section. Don't expect your company projections to ever be an exact match. Be prepared to explain why they are different. And they are always different.

Break-Even Analysis

The break-even analysis is not my favorite analysis for a business plan. It has lots of problems. First, people often confuse it with payback period, meaning when do you break even on the money spent with money returned to you from a business, as it grows. That's not break-even. Second, it depends on being able to deal with estimated average numbers that are hard to do. Businesses rarely produce an average revenue per unit, or an average variable cost per revenue unit, or average fixed costs.

Still, it is useful if you take it with a grain of salt. It can help you see the implications of fixed vs. variable costs, and it can give you a basic idea of how much you need to sell to cover costs. If you don't expect it to be too exact and you don't put too much stock in it, then it can make sense and be useful.

I have an example here. The standard break-even financial formulas are:

The units break-even point is:

Fixed Cost ÷ Unit Price - Unit Variable Costs

The sales break-even point is: The sales break-even point is:

Fixed Cost ÷ (1-(Unit variable Costs/Unit Price))

This section of the model calculates technical break-even points, based on the assumptions for unit prices, variable costs, and fixed costs.

The break-even analysis depends on assumptions for fixed costs, unit price, and unit variable costs. These are rarely exact assumptions. This is not a true picture of fixed costs by any means, but is quite useful for determining a break-even point.

People often represent break-even a line chart, showing the break-even point as the point at which the line crosses zero as sales increase. The example here shows a break-even analysis that compares unit sales to profits, and assumes:

Fixed costs of $94,035

Average per-unit revenue of $325

Average per-unit variable cost of $248

Heath Brothers on Business Language

"This is where so much business communication goes awry. Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions -- they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images ... because our brains are trained to remember concrete data. In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience."

Adapted from Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath

Always Lead With Your Story

Start with stories. In your business plan, your presentation, and even your elevator pitch, always start with a story about who needs what you're selling. Needs and wants are the biggest thing in business, so make that come alive.

Ralph promised his wife Mabel that he'd get new suits before his London trip, but Mabel normally goes with him to the stores and she's been busy with their daughter and new grandson, and Ralph hates shopping. His solution, for this and his long-term need for a steady supply of good-looking clothes befitting his position as president and founder, is The Trunk Club. He doesn't have to shop, his clothes will fit, he'll be able to just call the club and ask for what he needs, whether it's business casual, office suits, or formal, or even golf and hiking. He'll be in style and matched and he won't have to worry about it. And he won't have to go into a store either.

I just made that story up to illustrate a point. That one paragraph does a decent job, in my opinion, at setting up the market need, the target market, and the business offering. This is one of the more interesting new businesses I've seen lately. The plan, the presentation and the elevator pitch could begin with this story.

Linda's been dreaming about and thinking about the business she wants to start. Sometimes she can't sleep at night for thinking about it. Will people want what I'm selling, she asks herself? How many? How much will they pay? What's the right equipment to start? Can I afford it? What will I need to spend to get going, and what will I need to spend on people, rent, and so on as I start? How much will it cost me to build what I'm delivering? Can I make an offering that will be attractive to outside investors? Finally Linda gets Business Plan Pro and starts working, building the plan. She takes it a topic at a time, a step at a time; she jumps around the different projections and concepts. Now when she wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about it, she has a plan underway, somewhere to put those thoughts down. Now she has a much better idea of what she needs, how long it might take, what the key points are.

Leslie and Terry both work, and they also both care very much about creating the right home life for their two children, three and one years old. When they shop for groceries they always go to the more health-oriented grocery store. They buy organic, they cook organic, but they don't always have the time to cook. They hate giving their kids the foods they can get delivered, and they hate giving their kids the meals they can pick up. Then they discover a new business that prepares healthy family meals and sells a subscription plan. Terry stops by several days a week to pick up the family dinner on the way home from work. What business is this story for? You tell me; I'm just thinking here about a problem that needs solving. It's about telling the story. That makes a business plan come alive.

One final example, this one a true story: Recently, I spent most of Thursday and Friday one week at the University of Notre Dame with seven other people reviewing more than 60 executive summaries submitted to the two Notre Dame venture competitions – the McCloskey Business Plan Competition. As part of this we reviewed two otherwise equal executive summaries. One starts with the founder's story of how he had this problem nobody could solve. That one scored significantly higher than the other one, which was relatively similar on all other noticeable points but was missing a story.

This story idea isn't new. For more on how to do it, try reading Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath or All Marketers are Liars by Seth Godin. What's new here is that I've experienced another example of how much difference this tactic can make. Turn your core marketing strategy into a story, and then tell that story first.

Adapted with permission from Planning Startups Stories blog

A Good Business Plan is Never Done

A good business plan is never done. If your business plan is finished, then your company is also finished.

It's a lot like the legendary farmer's axe, that has had its handle changed four times and its blade changed three times, but it's still the same axe.

As your company gets used to the planning process, the business plan is always a work in progress. It gets a big refreshment every year, and a review and course correction every month.

Every so often, as business plan events come up, you spin out of your business plan a formal output piece, whether it's a pitch presentation, an elevator speech, or a full-fledged formal business plan document.

But that's not the plan, that's just output. It's the latest version. But the plan goes on, like steering, walking, dribbling, and navigation.

Don't ever wait for a plan to be done. Get going.

Sidebar: Tip: What If I Don’t Know

This headline caught you because you're planning something new. If you're planning something that's been around for a while, then you do know, or somebody knows, what you've been spending. That gives you past data to help with your planning.

So, for you newbies, first you should know that you're not the first. Everybody who plans something new has to go through that initial stage when you don't have past results as a base. So you estimate.

I get this complaint a lot. "I don't know what my costs are." Or, the interestingly naive alternative to that: "What will my costs be?" The answer is, you'd better know. Here again, if you're never going to get this and don't want to, but you believe in the business, then you either already have somebody who does this or you better find somebody and get him on the team. Teams, remember? Businesses don't have to be teams, but then most of them are, and that's because people are different.

One way or another, if you're going to run your business you're going to have to plan the ebb and flow of money. Deal with it. It's not that hard. Just break it down into pieces. Guess your rent first, or maybe your salaries. Utilities are fairly easy. Health insurance. Don't try to globally guess how much it will be altogether; break it into pieces. Your car. Gasoline and insurance. Maintenance.

And then follow up. Check your plan once a month, compare the plan with the actual results, and improve the plan. Nobody's supposed to know everything, and nobody knows the future, but you can keep making your projections better. The hardest is the first, before you have any results. From there, things improve.

The Meaningless Word Filter

If you do get into the phase of dressing your plan for others to read, guard against meaningless words and phrases that just get in the way. It might be simple hype, like user-friendly software, or excellent customer service, or best of breed or whatever.

This kind of meaningless language turns up a lot in mission statements. What does "excellent customer service," when it's in a mission statement, tell you? Is there any company you know that aspires to "average customer service," or "mediocre customer service?" Why bother to put these words into your business writing?

So the test is this: would what you're saying in your mission statement, or your mantra, apply as well to any company in the industry? Could anybody tell, just from listening to this mission statement or mantra, which company it is? Can somebody identify you by your words?

If not, then your mission statement is useless. If it would apply as well to any other company, then trash it. Forget it.

The Dilbert mission statement generator on the web is a great example. Click and you get another mushy sounding meaningless mission statement. Don't do that in your plan, or your summary, or your cover letter, or any business writing.

It’s Not Rocket Science

Please, recognize that you either have a pretty good idea of these numbers, or you'd better find out, or you aren't really running a business and you don't actually want to. Or there is somebody on your team that can do this. Or you have to find somebody on your team.

Who Isn’t Your Customer

Consider the Trunk Club, Joanna Van Vleck's interesting startup described in "Startup Success Story: The Trunk Club" in Up and Running at upandrunning.entrepreneur.com. How important is it that she understands who isn't her customer? She told me this herself:

  • I realized that although I thought my target was women, women are normally closer to style. In general. So they aren't as likely to pay money for style consulting.
  • Men have less ego invested. Some, in fact, pride themselves on not knowing style. In general.
  • The metrosexual man is not my customer. He loves his own style and spends his own time and effort finding it.
  • The man whose partner in a relationship likes to shop for his clothes is not my customer. She wants to do it. She doesn't want me to.
  • The younger men on a budget aren't my customer. They can't afford me.

Notice how the "isn't my customer" routine helps define and position your marketing better.

A fast-food restaurant knows that the relatively well-to-do baby boomer empty nesters aren't their customers. On average. The sushi restaurant knows that the construction worker driving a pickup truck who eats at the Texas barbecue drive-through isn't its customer.

Consider Jolt cola. Twice the sugar and twice the caffeine. How important is understanding who isn't the customer.

Your blog, if you're doing a blog as a business, needs a focus. People don't care about your inner angst, but there are specialty niche areas all over the place. Old Volkswagen maintenance. Arranging dry flowers. The narrower you cut it the better. Sure there are some general blogs that work, but they started years before you did. Nowadays you need to focus.

Sidebar: Like Dribbling

Think of soccer or basketball. You get control of the ball near your own goal (or basket), and you want to dribble it forward to the opponent's goal. Ideally you have a plan. You're going to pass it up the side, and from there a play will develop. Or some other plan.

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And things change rapidly. The opposing players surprise you by doing something different from what you expected. 

You watch the play developing. You keep your eyes up to see the field (or the court), but you also focus on the ball and the details of dribbling, probably at the same time.

This is a good example of planning as you go. You watch the field and the details at the same time. You expect things to change. You expect to react to the change quickly.

So it's not that you don't have a plan, or that you don't want planning. It's that you want planning to be very fast and flexible and adaptive. The goals remain the same, but the detailed plan changes.