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.

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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.

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.

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?

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
[see-also]How to Write a Mission Statement (Video) »[/see-also]

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.

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.

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.