I’m sure almost everyone is familiar with the story that Thomas Edison discovered 99 ways to NOT make a light bulb. That’s 99 no to reach 1 yes. The point here is that a negative result, proving something didn’t work or was not so, is just as valuable as a positive result. Sadly, scientific research has become so expensive, and so heavily subsidized/sponsored by corporations, that it has become the expected norm that every result must be a commercially marketable yes result.

That “always yes” attitude has come to shade the development and use of business plans as well. It’s gotten to where people think that every business plan has to show exorbitant profits and wild success. And to reach that end, all that they need to do is overestimate the financial tables a bit, or a lot, until the Profit and Loss and Balance Sheet show the desired results. This is a bad and dangerous tack, in my opinion.

For instance, we saw one plan for a tennis club with indoor court rentals. The financial tables looked good until we divided the rate per hour into the sales forecast. Seems those courts were rented continually, 28 hours a day, every day, 365 days a year. Not possible I’m afraid.

Or the mobile auto oil change business in a large mid-western city. Again, closer inspection of the sales forecast showed that the one worker was changing the oil in a car every 45 minutes, with no travel time between jobs, in all weather, every month of the year. Now, I’ve tried to change my oil in Illinois in January, outdoors, lying on my back in the snow and below-freezing temperatures. Let me tell you from experience that 45 minutes is painfully unrealistic.

Final example: there was the apartment rental company with five vice-presidents but no employees in the personnel forecast, and they never showed how or when they paid for the buildings they said they purchased.

These business plans all said YES in the financials — if you didn’t look too closely.

Now, I say that NO is an acceptable result from a business plan. A business plan for a start-up company that shows huge losses, or negative cash flow is an OK result. It tells you that the business as planned will fail. It tells you that some of your basic assumptions are wrong. It tells you that you are missing something immensely important.

And this is better than OK! Rather than starting up with unrealistic expectations and then hitting bottom in an excruciating crash, you can stop right now and reassess, before you make a financial commitment. Don’t ‘embellish’ the financials by boosting the sales forecast. Look at your market, your competition, your expenses, and everything about your plan and be realistic.

Honest reflection may tell you that this isn’t the business to start right now. Or, you might revise the plan and discover if you put some of those vice-presidents out on the production line, it reduces your costs of goods to a point where you really can make a modest profit on steady sales, without hockey-stick growth. After your revisions, you still might not make a profit until year three. But in going through this process, you may become convinced that the business is viable with adequate start-up funding and second-round investment.

NO is an acceptable result for a business plan if the plan exposed the flaws and showed the way to a realistic YES.

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Tim BerryTim Berry
Tim Berry

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