Business plan – ultimate waste of time or absolute necessity? #startups

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There is an enormous amount of information and advice about creating a business plan for one’s startup.

The advice ranges from the necessity to prepare a traditional narrative form business plan document, to preparing a business model canvas, or using a business planning tool or app.

There are even notions like the idea-less startup, where the team is formed before the startup idea comes together.

No business plan at all is not a good idea

While the consensus nowadays seems to be that shorter business plans are better, some folks even argue that preparing a business plan is a complete waste of time. Others who argue that business plans are a waste of time suggest:

“Throw your business plan in the recycling bin. Instead, focus on your team and on getting to market as quickly as you can.”

What a business needs to think about

That notion of no business plan is all very well. But a new business does need to consider things that are traditionally covered in a business plan, such as:

  • Business purpose – the purpose for which the business exists (some like to include mission and/or vision); what makes the business and its products special or different
  • Markets in which the business will operate – including competitors, geography, since these inform operational matters such as logistics and distribution
  • Sales – how the business will make money, as Guy Kawasaki said recently during his visit to Canva in Sydney: “Sales fix everything“, also need to consider pricing and distribution
  • Business finances – funding sources, financial projections including operating costs and revenue; how the business will make money
  • Business structure – incorporation, board and directors
  • Management and ownership – who will manage the business operations, who owns what and what obligations are to be fulfilled
  • Key personnel – people required to run the business, either contract or staff positions
  • Products or services, innovation, and intellectual property – including how the product will be developed and brought to market
  • Insurance and risk management
  • Legal considerations
  • Business operations – how the business will manage production, logistics, distribution, customer service, sales, accounting, bookkeeping, statutory requirements, etc

If these types of information are not written down it is hard to ensure that all participants share a common understanding.

Quick approaches to business planning

My approach to business planning is to do it in stages, with each stage focused on checking the team’s current understanding of key issues, risks, and obtaining agreement as to sensible next steps.

Lean business model canvas

A good way to start the planning process is to use a lean business model canvas to get the team thinking about the key issues for the business. If the team cannot answer the questions posed in this document then it is a clear risk signifier for the project.

Once agreement is reached on the high level information in the lean business canvas it is a good checkpoint for the team. The canvas also provides a helpful artefact for sharing with potential collaborators and investors. It is a useful way to assess the viability of the business idea.

More detailed planning

For the preparation of the next level of detailed business plan I had traditionally used the narrative form document with charts and tables. However, recently Avis Mulhall put me onto a business planning tool called Live Plan. I’m now a total convert to this approach (please note that I have no affiliation with Live Plan, just find it a very handy tool).

This kind of tool asks the right questions and enables the team to prepare a good looking presentation document that includes sensible categories of information.

This more detailed plan provides another useful artefact for sharing with potential collaborators and investors.

Quick business planning

For a few startups I’m working with, the teams went through the entire planning process outlined above – including lean canvas and detailed business plan – in a single day.

The business planning process does not have to be onerous.

Business planning at its best

At its best, business planning is about the team asking sensible questions about:

  • how the business will work,
  • how it will find and keep happy customers,
  • how it will make money,
  • how the risks will be mitigated,
  • and how the rewards for success will be shared among the founders and investors.
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Predicting success #startups

Un bonobo mâle du parc Lola ya bonobo
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“The only major personality trait that consistently leads to success is conscientiousness.” via Business Insider

In large companies personality tests and similar instruments are often deployed to provide people with better insight into their own and team performance.

Over the years I have participated in many of these – for example, Myers Briggs, DISC, Belbin Team Roles, Hermann Brain Dominance, 16PF, Big Five Inventory, etc.

Many people debate the efficacy of any or all of these instruments. However, the primary importance of these kind of instruments is the opportunity they provide for people to reflect upon their personal and work preferences. They also provide an opportunity for people to consider how best to participate in teams and to collaborate with others in a work context. These personal reflections and insights are the true value of these personality profile tools in the workplace.

Startups rarely have the luxury of investing time or money into administering these kind of instruments for their teams. This means that personal traits and interpersonal skills are not explicitly considered as part of the setup of a startup.

For co-founders and investors due diligence on the business is typically about the ‘hard’ data – budgets, sales targets, capital – rather than on ‘soft’ skills of the startup team.

Success, focus, and startups

In recent times I have been pondering how to assess the soft skills of startup teams. The one trait that keeps coming up is conscientiousness.

In the long run, brilliance and inventiveness are less important than the ability to focus and persist in the everyday tasks that accrete to make a successful business.

As Thomas Edison said:

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration.

Related research on the Big Five

How Universal Is the Big Five? Testing the Five-Factor
Model of Personality Variation Among Forager–Farmers
in the Bolivian Amazon

 

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Startup, stay in business.

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The biggest hurdle facing most startups is to stay in business long enough to be successful. If they accomplish this then they have the chance to turn into an ‘overnight success’ after many years of hard work.

The numbers are against most new businesses. Many new businesses fail within the first three to five years. Even inside well-resourced large companies the challenges of bringing new products to market see many fail to make it.

This means that every startup sets out on a journey with the odds stacked against it. Every new startup is a triumph of optimism over evidence of other startup failures.

The real challenge for each startup is to stay in business. And sometimes hard questions must be asked to help the business survive.

The important factors in small business survival are:

  1. Focus – ability to say no to interesting opportunities that do not support the strategy
  2. Revenue – realistic sales targets with concrete and realistic plans to achieve them
  3. Cost control – ability to resist non-focused expenditure
  4. Customer focus – understand the specific market or markets and deliver what they will pay for; be ruthless with products that they don’t want
  5. Competitor analysis – know what competitors are doing and how to respond (if at all)

Focus

As Mick Liubinskas is well-known for telling entrepreneurs, startups must “focus or fail“. It is easy for a new business to find many things that it could possibly do. Often it is more important to identify the things that the business will not do (or will not do now).

One of the most important things to know is what things the business will absolutely not do. Out of scope items are more critical than in scope items, since they determine the boundaries within which the business will operate.

Survival

Everyday that the business survives and makes money is a good day. Many startups have big dreams. But if the business cannot survive to realise them then those big dreams will be crushed.

Cashflow and sales are nourishment for the business. There is a temptation to say “more capital will solve our problems”. However, this is not always the best course of action. The more investors a business has, then the more obligations one has to deliver for the investors.

Substance over style

There is a temptation for many startups to focus on external impressions and public relations at the expense of doing the hard work. That is, the hard work of setting up proper business management systems and processes to support the enterprise. While marketing and public relations are important, if the substance of the business is not well formed, the business will likely struggle to scale (or even to survive).

Leadership and management

Typically people startup a new business due to passion, and very often they do not have previous experience in leadership and management.

Business leaders undertake serious roles with obligations to shareholders, investors, customers, and staff. The fiduciary duties associated with business leadership are often not common knowledge.

Some things to do…

  • Set up sound management and operational processes and systems to support the business
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities within the business
  • Have a clearly documented business plan together with key performance indicators to track progress
  • Set up a business support or mentor network – get advice from people with experience (and be willing to act on that advice)
  • Read up on why other businesses failed and work out how to avoid the same pitfalls
  • If in doubt, seek professional advice, and be smart enough to take it

Some useful links from the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) about running a company:

Articles on business failures

 

 

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Innovation Bay seeking Startups for Angel Pitches

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On Tuesday 21 September 2010 those smart folks over at Innovation Bay will be running another one of their angel dinners.

With these dinners Innovation Bay acts as a broker between “angels” (those with money to invest or advice to give) and “entrepreneurs” those with ideas and talent but not enough money or business advice.

Previously a number of Australian businesses have pitched and it has been reported that about $7m of funding has been raised as a result. This is great news for startups in Australia.

If you have a business and are looking for funding Innovation Bay is interested in hearing from you.

HOW TO APPLY

You need to submit a 90 second video to info@innovationbay.com telling us about the business and why we should select you. Please see some of the posts below for advice and guidelines as to how best to do this.

DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS IS 5PM ON TUESDAY 14 SEPTEMBER 2010

More infomation is available on http://www.innovationbay.com/

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Startups Trade-offs Balance | Startup BarCamp Sydney

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In late November I spoke at Startup BarCamp in Sydney. The topic was about the kind of personal trade-offs & choices we make when choosing to work in a startup.

These choices are not always immediately obvious when you go into a startup. However, the number of broken relationships and partnerships amongst my acquaintance in the startup community does seem to be higher than in the general population.

It is worth considering how to manage these trade-offs going into the startup, rather than waiting for the inevitable and dealing with the fallout.

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I'm wondering about scribetribe?

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When two of the nicest and smartest people I know start talking about a new idea they are working on I get extremely curious. So when @jedwhite (entrepreneur & startup guru) and @mediamum (mainstream & social media maven) shared this video they caught my attention. I’m very curious now & want to see their new project ScribeTribe.

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