Before you dedicate your life to crafting a business plan the length of a book, read these two paragraphs from the 1/9/07 edition of the Wall Street Journal in an article called “Enterprise: Do Start-ups Really Need Formal Business Plans“
A study recently released by Babson College analyzed 116 businesses started by alumni who graduated between 1985 and 2003. Comparing success measures such as annual revenue, employee numbers and net income, the study found no statistical difference in success between those businesses started with formal written plans and those without them…
“What we really don’t want to do is literally spend a year or more essentially writing a business plan without knowing we have actual customers,” says William Bygrave, an entrepreneurship professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., who says he generally advocates “just do it.” Entrepreneurs must be nimble, and will be more apt to stick with a flawed concept they spent months drafting, he adds.
I think that Prof. Bygrave’s study is so right. Here is the entire study if you’d like to read it. This is the plan’s abstract:
This study examined whether writing a business plan before launching a new venture affects the subsequent performance of the venture. The data set comprised new ventures started by Babson College alums who graduated between 1985 and 2003. The analysis revealed that there was no difference between the performance of new businesses launched with or without written business plans. The findings suggest that unless a would-be entrepreneur needs to raise substantial startup capital from institutional investors or business angels, there is no compelling reason to write a detailed business plan before opening a new business.
The phrase “unless a would-be entrepreneur needs to raise substantial startup capital from institutional investors or business angels, there is no compelling reason to write a detailed business plan” merits discussion. Most venture capitalists require a business plan as part of due diligence. This doesn’t mean they spend more than ten minutes reading the plan, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they believe it. :-) A great plan won’t make a lousy idea successful, and a lousy plan won’t necessarily stop a great idea.
Most of the plans that we see at Garage are too long and too detailed—to the point of reducing credibility. Here is my prior blog posting about business plans that you might find helpful. The gist of it is:
Perfect your pitch, then write your plan.
Use the business-plan exercise as a way to get your team on the same page.
Keep it short: ten to twenty pages.
Spend no more than two weeks writing it.
Don’t get obsessed with with details in your financial forecast because it should be one page long.
However, don’t draw the wrong conclusion from this study: “Analysis, planning, vision, and communication are unnecessary.” This isn’t true. What is true is that a business plan should not take on a life of its own. It is a tool—one of many that may help you get funded (or, more accurately, hinder you from getting funded if you don’t have one) and may help you get your team working as a team. But it is not an end in itself.
Are business plans obsolete?
Despite those (supposed) qualities, however, some recent studies are starting to show that the practice of using formal business plans as a corner stone of business ventures is not as widely spread as the theory suggests. Caddell mentions, for instanc…
I find this post somewhat ironic given that I’m in a business plan development class in b-school. I agree with your point wholeheartedly but I suppose it’s very difficult to find the balance between overplanning v. underplanning. I assume that this article is mainly intended for those who are on the overplanning end of the spectrum.
Overall, great advice. I’ll keep this in mind as the semester progresses.
Who is Musgrave? That word isn’t in the MS Word doc that you link to.
Sorry to pick nits.
I think one should give some thought to whether your business idea could be profitable, but not obsess over the exact amount. Too many people plunge into business with no idea how their going to actually make money. If youtube didn’t get bought out, how were they going to survive? You can’t bet on a billion dollar miracle.
To me this is a sticky subject (I’m somewhat living it right now with one business – and it’s working without a plan – at the same time we are self-funding with our own cash and time with no real idea of where it’ll break-even ;).
Guy, you have told me not to start killing the dolphins until you know the dogs are going to eat the food and I agree…to a point.
Most business plans are full of fluff, BS and baseless projections. Further, if strictly adhered to they would likely contribute to the demise of just about any business (they are usually not nimble as a business needs to be) – because it’s not until you are working the business that you really know what it’s going to turn out to be, how it helps and who wants what.
What about just covering the basics in a plan? Perceived market needs/solutions, demographics, psychographics, competition, and what will it cost/create in income should it be wildly successful, moderately successful and a complete failure?
Having founded three companies, I found the discipline of creating a Business Plan for the first business absolutely necessary. This discipline is probably vital for the ‘virgin’ entrepreneur and ensures they at least think about key elements such as customers, product, competitors, funding and so on.
With the second company, the Business plan was shorter, more specific and avoided hyperbole.
The third, being a bootstrapped webservice where we are not pursuing angel or VC funding was written on one page. So far, we are delivering against our own expectations. This could be because we have tapped into a gap in the market but a succinct one page plan has not hurt and has maintained critical focus!
Some great guy wrote a terrific bit about start-ups, “be impatient for profits and patient for growth.” Working on my third business, I’ve got to say the idea of profits sits far forward in my mind than does a business plan.
I don’t think the idea of Guy’s post is not to write a business plan, just don’t get in the business of writing a business plan. Some entrepreneurs (me with my second company) get stuck on the idea of writing a perfect business plan. I ,now, highly advise against that. In fact, I advise against what a friend calls “constructive procrastination” in the beginning of a new business.
Most of us entreprenuers aren’t starting up the next Cogent Communication that requires hundreds of millions just to get started. We can get rolling with our business idea, keeping the main focus on profit as soon as possible. Growth and a business plan can follow once we discover if the fish are biting your bait.
Glad to see you back Guy!
It seems to confirm that a restaurant is a restaurant while a web application is not.
Maybe a different type of paper applies?
as ever, sound and pragmatic real-world advice – thank you.
my own business plan has evolved into some 40+ pages and i am inclined to agree – next time i’d go for a lot more visual emphasis and some compelling sound-bites.
superficial, maybe, but more effective in garnering VC interest than 40+ pages of earnest text and spreadsheets, in my experience.
ergo, maybe a business plan would be better done in powerpoint as opposed to word – would totally change one’s approach.
think i’ll give it a go … ;-)
I agree the b plan can be a distraction, but so can anything if taken to the extreem.
I have intergrated tracking into my plan so a new promotion, process or what every can be tracked and changed faster if the stats don’t show what i’m looking for.
“Perfect your pitch, then write your plan.” Yes! That’s constructive advice because it is soooo important that an entrepreneur answer key fundamental questions and focus on the critical areas. This requires discipline to listen, to think honestly, and to fend off fluff and hyperbole. While I agree with your points about “formal business plans”, I do think that basic planning is essential.
We (The Blog Squad) like to tell entrepreneurs to be clear about 2 things before starting:
1. Who are the members of your targeted audience, your future customers/clients?
2. What is the purpose of your biz (how will you make money?)
This can be used before starting a blog, a program, an e-book, many things.
In my opinion, a business plan is not necessary for running a business. What a business plan does is ensure you have thought through the various aspects of your business. If you can do that in your head, and do not need to present your company to outside investors (just need to present to your internal team to get them hyped up about moving the idea of the business forward), then you are are good to go.
However, a business plan is necessary when you have to take your business to institutional money and other outside investors. They like to have a document to ensure they were not making a bad decision when deciding to help your business out with their money.
Remember, a business plan can be less than 10 pages long. It is like teaching the golf swing: good teachers understand the complexity of the golf swing so well that they can explain it in simple words to their students.
Guy, nice topic for discussion.
I’m currently working on my 3rd startup (the previous 2 being successful) and I never even considered writing a business plan. I may be too far to the other extreme, but I’ve always managed fine without one. Of course that doesn’t mean I didnt have a “business plan” – I always knew exactly what we were doing – in my head.
I dont think the business plan is such a bad thing. I think the issue is that if you are spending too much time formalizing a business plan and other tasks not adding value to the customer, you might not be attacking the startup business the right way.
Just my 2 cents.
It certainly helps to know it is a good idea to save my time for something else.
Overall, though, do you think writing a business plan is absolutely necessary for a single person project instead of keeping everything in one’s head?
I actually worked with Prof. Bygrave at Babson during the one year I was there. Amazing entrepreneurship scholar. This study reminds me of that classic quotation from Herb Kelleher that goes something like this: “Yeah, we have a business plan at Southwest Airlines. It’s called doing things.”
I think business plans are best written in a group. I used to work in a company that used Instant Messaging as the primarily means of communication. We wrote several business plans for our clients by hammering out the details in the chatroom.
Richard Branson uses a one-page business plan to sketch out if he’ll do a business. He makes it in one day and it helps him minimize the downside and understand how the business works.
So, I’ve seen hundreds of business plans. I’ve seen them for venture start-ups and internally funded businesses at big tech companies. A few observations:
1. Trying to generalize whether or not business plans are necessary is a bit presumptuous. The need greatly depends on the experience/skill of the founder and the demand for capital to fund the enterprise (and a bunch of other things). To say that they are or are not helpful based upon a survey done by a bunch of MBAs is like using Gartner to make investment decisions.
2. Smart entrepreneurs already have a business plan in their head before they ever sit down with PowerPoint or Word. The entrepreneurs that are most ‘fundable’ in VC world are those who come from a very large company already in the space, have spotted a disruptive opportunity that their current employer won’t pursue and have relationships with their first 3 beta customers already committed to the product. These guys don’t need no stinking business plans.
3. Bplans are great for finding the ‘weak spots’. Most entrepreneurs are great at a couple of dimensions, but not all fo the dimensions really required to create a great business. Reading their plan will highlight what they don’t know. “No competition? Hmm…looks like you need to do some work there.” “GTM Plan = Big Companies? Let’s figure out some focus for you.” “TAM = x% of GDP? Riiiiiight.” The funny thing is that weak entrepreneurs HATE to show their weaknesses when good VCs can spot them a mile away. The VC wants someone smart enough to say, “I got a great product designed and I’ve figured out my target customer, but I have no idea how to begin a viral marketing strategy and I’d like to find someone who knows what that’s about to really turn the crank on my deal.”
4. As an entrepreneur, my bplan was great for identifying the 3 critical variables that I needed to focus my time on. I knew if I couldn’t make significant progress or find a solution for all three variables, I didn’t have a business. Most VCs are looking for the entrepreneur that not only knows his standard bplan stuff, but then is able to focus his strategy by saying “With all of this analysis, I’ve figured out that I will have a great business if I can do x, y & z.” Strategy is about what you don’t do.
Great point! I’ve worked in venture debt and we saw a lot of wasted paper. Now I’m founding a next gen social network and I have found shorter is better for a b-plan. In fact an exec summary may be all that’s needed to get people on the same page. If it’s too long people just won’t read it. Cheers.
-Chris Comella, Founder
BuzzPal – The World Is Your Party
True true… it’s not an end in itself. but written or not, it’s surely helpful :)
I see a business plan as the business equivalent of personal goals. Sure, you can have all the information in your head (goal,strategy, action plan) but studies show that writing down goals increases the likelihood of achievement.
Plus the whole idea of building a sustainable business is having it be able to run without the founder. Difficult to do with the information all in the founder’s head.
Not to mention budgeting for cash flow. Lack of cash flow can kill a business.
Keep it brief, sure but I would reco doing a business plan.
Plans are nothing; planning is everything.– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential — Winston Churchill
Planning is everything. Plans are nothing. — Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke (1800-1891) which clearly Ike reorganised…
Thinking Of Starting Your Own Agency?
Nice post over on Guy Kawasaki’s blog about the modern day business planwhich, in some cases, may include not having one. He highlights some findings from a report as published in this Wall Street Journal article: This study examined whether…
I concur very much with this findings. Why? Because that is what I am presently doing. In the last internet boom,one of the lessons I learned was the time I wasted courting VCs to fund by company. Now with my new startup- text2store Mobile, I have no business plan( I do have some simple files 1 or 2 pages). That is it. We are learning and rolling out features and things are moving forward. We are recruiting based on ideas in my journal.A form of boostrapping.
Great stuff Guy. As a veteran of business planning over the past 25 years I merely add in that the great benefit of the business planning process is the “joint diagnosis” resulting in shared ownership of the challenge,and the end result that all involved finish the process facing in the same direction and supporting a common cause.Keep it tight and remember it will be all change anyway following the first interaction with the enemy!
Someone wrote that study (the .doc-file) using a typewriter. A friend said; ‘first I became skilled in programming M$ Words, then I became a skilled programmer’. Though the researcher probably aren’t programmers, they would be better of with a pdf.
Fuzzy Thinking About Fuzzy Planning
How would you react to somebody saying that regular exercise is bad for you because some people exaggerate? That’s how I feel about the January 9 Wall Street Journal column that confuses plans with planning. Guy Kawasaki’s response, Is a
Do you need a busines plan – part deux
A few weeks ago, I posted a sneak peak of this month’s Globe and Mail column on whether or not you need a business plan. Well today it hit the wire:….Hundreds of years ago, Magellan, Cabot and Drake explored the
Thanks for the fisk Guy. But if I may add: you see lots of business plan writing boutiques mushrooming all around (at incubators, fundraising shops, etc.).
Don’t go with these whatsoever! Should you decide to write a business plan, do it yourself, with your team if you like, but don’t outsource the writing of your business plan. Writing a business plan if a good way for entrepreneurs to reflect on their business model and forecasts – and see later the standard deviation between their planned figures and the actual reality.
One last thing: a business plan isn’t static and may become a useful tool to the entrepreneurial team itself if updated once a month (spend no more than 2 hours). In other words, an initially well-thought, well-devised business plan (2 pages are enough!) may serve as a compass during execution.
A couple of business planning methods already take this into account. A good start is the wikipedia article on assumption based planning
I agree that a formal business plan isnt needed. Especially when you invest too much time in it.
But you should plan your entry into a new business; that’s something different…
For that I’d recommend the “The New Business Road Test: What Entrepreneurs and Executives Should Do Before Writing a Business Plan” book; got more out of it than a whole lot of courses at my MBA.
A great post on this lasting debate. Personally, I think the attention should be focused on business outcomes – that is execution.
Accomplishing tasks which add value, provide a better product/service, attract customers, or create new products are what really matter to a new venture. Most of us seem to agree that these goals and how to accomplish them should be written down (and thought through) prior to getting started, but not this is not necessary. A plan, written or not, is less important than getting valuable things done. Clearly, if you are trying to convince others that your way to change the world is the best, start writing…
What do you think?
Inventure Global, Inc
Small Business Outsourcing Made Easy
Can’t remember where I first came across this classic quote:
“As I’ve said many times before, the trouble with our business plan is that it depends for its success upon a steady, rapid increase in the supply of really smart people (to buy our stuff). Whereas what we see instead is explosive growth in the supply of idiots.”
www.onepagebusinessplan.com – Tom Peters favourite book on the subject – and the name sums it up. Genius methodology (even if the software looks a bit rubbish – buy the book)
Venture Design, part 23
I love this post from Guy Kawasaki: Is a Business Plan Necessary? For all but the most incremental of innovation efforts, a comprehensive business plan is shot in the dark. You’re guaranteed to be 100% wrong. So why try to
There are so many holes in this discussion.
First of all – we can’t and don’t know how many great businesses that failed might have made it, had they spent the time developing a plan.
Then, read the fine print on this study: “Those companies with a business plan in comparison with those without one had greater revenue (mean $2.52 million, median $550,000 vs. mean $2.18 million, median $350,000), higher net income (mean $371,086, median $97,500 vs. mean $272,952, median $93,000), and more employees (mean 31.80, median 5 vs. mean 9.59, median 3).”
Ok, so you’ve succeeded at getting your company up and running without a plan, but you’re generating 20% of the revenues of the companies that did take the time to plan (albeit at a higher margin – which could have to do with number of employees).
In any case, to leap to the conclusion that it’s better to “Just Do It” than to plan, based on the results of this study, seems irresponsible to me. And, Guy, it also seems it flies in the face of your own Zen of Business Plan approach:
“The [more] relevant and important reason to write is a business plan, whether you are raising money or not, is to force the management team to solidify the objectives (what), strategies (how), and tactics (when, where, who). Even if you have all the capital in the world, you should still write a business plan. Indeed, especially if you have all the capital in the world because too much capital is worse than too little.”
Is business planning obsolete?
Guy Kawasaki writes about a WSJ article about the current use of business plans. He is absolutely correct that a business plan will never be 100% correct. But of course, what is. I’ve been the planning business for a dozen
I’ve only once written a business plan: my business partner (who called me his business “partner” but called himself “president” of the company and made all the final decisions, even after all the “partners” had decided on a different course of action) delegated this critical task to me. I don’t think he felt a business plan was really necessary, he was just humouring me and everyone else who was getting on his case to write one. Trying to write the B.P. entailed discussing key stuff with my boss/partner. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t clear about his real intentions or objectives for the business: he would tell me whatever I wanted to hear at the time, but never seemed to take anything he said as any kind of promise or commitment. My job was to write a business plan so that he could tell people “Yeah, we’ve got a business plan”, but he never intended to follow it. When I (very belatedly) realized this, I bailed out.
I was recently invited to join a project with a friend. Remembering my previous experience, I suggested we write a business plan: “Oh, we really don’t need a business plan: either it’ll work or it won’t!” Oh, god, I thought, another one!
Obviously a business plan shouldn’t take on a life of its own, as Guy says, but I think you need one to convince others that you know what you’re doing, that you’ve done your homework. The fact that neither of my two “partners” think a business plan is really necessary simply told me that they were too lazy to do the homework.
Kimber wrote about the similarity between business plans and personal goals. That reminded me of a blog post I had read recently on David St Lawrence’s blog, Making Ripples, which readers might find of interest.
Agreed a business plan is a very useful and helpful thing before starting any business. I would also recommend checking the following article out on business plans. It is a very good one. I hope you find it as useful as I did. Do check it out.
For more information about business plans visit us at www.Gadish.com or call us at 1-310-433-0694
Business plan ¿Algo absolutamente necesario o una pérdida detiempo?
Una entrada en el blog de Guy Kawasaki habla sobre un tema que se ha puesto de moda: la discusión sobre si los planes de negocio aportan valor o son una pérdida de tiempo.
Mi opinión, que he expresado multitud de veces en este blog y en comentarios…
Don’t Skip the Planning Process
Experts in business planning like Guy Kawasaki, and our own Tim Berry, are all talking about the recent Wall Street Journal article “Enterprise: Do Start-ups Really Need Formal Business Plans.” The article is based on a study conducted by Professor
5 Easy Things You Could Do With Your Business Idea
Do you have one or several business ideas that you have been nursing but just havent been able to take to the next level? Well, you are certainly not alone. I for one (and I am sure there are many like me) find that I cant stop coming up …
You can find additional information on this topic at www.Gadish.com
You really do need a business plan if you really want to build a solid foundation under your business.
The “Working Business Plan” is the best form of business plan to start out with. This plan answers the 5 “W’s” – Who, What, Where, When and Why about your business.
There is no pre-required length that a Working Business Plan should be. Just remember that you aren’t writing to impress, you are writing to address the important issues of starting your business. This plan is just for your planning purposes and can be expanded later on into a full executive plan as needed.
You can read more at Women About Biz
Do you need a strategic plan?
For a while now, strategic planning has been the big rage. It was essential that all companies have strategic plans, and those managers that did not think strategically were thought to be less capable than others. Management consultants c…
I compare preparing a road map to creating a business plan with my clients. Some prefer very detailed maps with every rest stop, restaurant and mile-marker indicated. Others just want a list of directions of when turns or changes in direction are needed. Maps are useful and necessary for long trips, trips into unknown territory, and for newer drivers. Business plans can be simple or complex — it all depends on who is driving and where they want to go.
I really appreciated this post on business planning. It’s something that every entrepreneur should be aware of… we have a large subscriber base and we featured this post on our site under the research and planning category on our content site www.northstarthinktank.com. Thanks again for the useful information!
Nice article and certainly true. I think that no matter how excelent is a business plan or the idea behind it, if you just did not raise any succesfull business previously OR you didnt work for many years for an outstanding company as a manager OR you dont have very important contacts, the plan will be almost useless despite of being able to make the plan happen. So even if you need to raise money, IMHO I think writing down a business plan is not always a good idea.