Simple as 1-2-3? Maybe. I like the 1-2-3 because it points out that the core elements of business planning are for managing a business, regardless of context. And that some of the other common elements, and what’s essential, depends on context.

The 1-2-3 of it starts with three things, The first three points — focus, specifics, and cash flow — apply to any and every business plan and business planning process.

  1. Focus: it’s a plan, not a life projected forward. You have to summarize. And it’s business, so you can’t do everything, you can’t please everybody, and you have to focus. Plans don’t work when they try to include everything. Think of do-do lists: they work with a few key priorities, not when they list everything possible.
  2. Specifics: dates, deadlines, who’s in charge of what. Business plans get a bad name because they too often deal in the high-level strategy without including any teeth, like tracking and metrics, to make them real. Ask yourself how you’re going to tell, later, whether you are on track with a plan or not. Ask yourself how you’ll know what went wrong.
  3. Cash flow: money in, money out. Don’t ever think profits, or selling for more than direct costs, guarantee cash in the bank. Most businesses have to wait to get paid, many have to buy stuff long before they sell it. Profitable businesses go under because they don’t have cash.

These three elements are essential for any business planning, whether or not seeking investment or loans is involved.

The next two — making the investors money and management team — are essential for plans related to seeking investment. What bothers me, though, is how often these two are in lists supposedly applying to all business plans, rather than just the subset related to investment.

  1. Exit strategy. Plans related to seeking investment need to address how the investors get money back from their investment. Recognize that not all good businesses are good investments. But for most plans, the vast majority that don’t involve investment, that doesn’t really matter.
  2. Management team. Investors want to know the backgrounds of the management team. Most investors almost insist on having somebody with startup experience. But for normal plans, describing your team to your team is useless.

The final, sixth of six, applies only to plans related to getting a commercial loan:

  1. Collateral. ¬†Good credit. If banks are involved, this additional information is essential. But that’s for those plans only.


Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.