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.

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.

Take the Brand Genie quiz now!

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?

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