To Plan or not to Plan: That is the Question!

SignsI have been an executive in startups since the mid-1980’s, and still am. I have always proactively planned every business in detail, but the last “business plan” document per se I wrote was in 2001. How is this possible?

I want to address some basic questions:

  • What is the difference between planning a business and writing a business plan?
  • What should you include in your planning?
  • In what format should you document your plan?
  • How much detail? What is the right time horizon for business planning?
  • Why do you need to plan your business?

What is the difference between planning a business and writing a business plan?

A business plan is a polished, organized, physical document that describes every aspect of your proposed business and its environment. It usually cover 5-7 years from inception, ramp-up, through to exit. Although occasionally requested by investors, these days it is usually requested only by academics in “business plan competitions.”

Business planning, on the other hand, is the activity of lowering your risk by studying and understanding every aspect of your proposed business and its environment.

What should you include in your planning?

At a minimum, you need to thoroughly understand:

  • The macro market, that is, demographics of the general market you are aiming for. If you are creating a fast food restaurant for diabetics, how many diabetics are there? And are their numbers growing or shrinking?If you are creating a company to provide assistance to early-age retirees, how many individuals are retiring early? And are their numbers growing or shrinking?When tracking dimensions of a macro market, you could measure it in terms of number of customers, number of dollars spent for products like yours per year, or number of products like yours sold per year.

    Great demographics for your macro market are helpful to the success of your start-up. However they are neither necessary (after all, Starbucks succeeded quite well in its North America expansion efforts in the early 1990’s even without a dramatic increase in the number of coffee drinkers) nor sufficient (even terrific growth of a market cannot compensate for sheer management incompetence).

  • The micro market. As an entrepreneur, you need to focus on a specific target market that you can penetrate successfully. By aiming for a specific (usually narrow) target market, you can create a marketing campaign aimed directly at that market and its unique pains.Members of that market then quickly see how your solution addresses their pains and become easy converts and thus customers. On the other hand, if you aim for a more general market, your marketing campaign will have to address more general pains by necessity, and will then be successful at converting a lower percentage of leads. You want all odds in your favor when you start a company.Meanwhile, start with just one target market; if you start with two, you’ll double your marketing costs (or you’ll halve the effectiveness of your marketing by watering down the message).

    The research you need to do concerning possible micro (aka target) markets includes characteristics such as size, growth rate, accessibility (i.e., how easily can you find potential customers?), ease of conversion (i.e., do potential customers “feel the pain” vs. do you have to first convince them that they have a pain? how easily can you convince them that your solution to their pain is by far the best solution available?), and so on.

    As a general rule, having an unfavorable micro market is considered by most experts to be a showstopper. If your target market is not already focused on trying to solve the problem that your product solves, you are fighting an uphill battle.

  • Your competition. Almost every prospective entrepreneur I have come across understands the need to identify “the competition,” but many limit themselves to direct competition, i.e., those companies providing products similar to the start-up’s, which address the market’s needs in a similar fashion.Don’t ignore substitute competition, which customers can choose to address their need in an entirely different fashion. For example, in the electronic note taking industry, over 200 small companies compete with 2-3 very large companies for customers. They are all direct competitors.But this industry suffers from substitute competition from at least two sources: (a) pen and paper, and (b) standard word processors on tablets. Business planning for a start-up in the electronic note taking industry must acknowledge the reality that a very large percentage of the total available market will not be purchasing any company’s electronic note taking software product.
  • Threat of entry. Ideally, (a) you want it to be easy for your start-up to enter the industry, and then (b) once you enter, you want it to be incredibly difficult for others to enter and subsequently compete against you.Concerning point b, when planning your business strategy, what can you do now to make it more difficult for others to copy you? For example, do you have intellectual property that you can protect with patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets?Can you enter the market quickly enough so that your large market penetration deters others?

    Can you establish contractual relationships with either suppliers or distributors that make it impossible for them to work with competitors?

    Can you provide such good service that no customer would want to change to a competitor?

  • Your Differentiators. What makes you special? Why is your product better than the competition? Saying that you will have a “better user interface” will not cut it; everybody says that. What specific value does your product provide that the market will appreciate and that the competition does not already provide?Here are some examples:
    • We are the only e-tailer that provides restaurant chef-quality gourmet ingredients to the home chef.
    • We are the only manufacturer of a catheter that C4-C5 quadriplegics can use for self-catheterization.
    • We enable online purchasers to donate to their favorite non-profit at no cost to them.
    • We deliver products to your door using drones within 4-hours of ordering.
    • We provide Wal-Mart prices without the long check-out lines.
  • Your Marketing and Sales Strategy. If you haven’t already done so, read Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup. In it, you will discover only three ways to create revenue:
    • You can pay for new customers. So, how do you plan to make the market aware of your products? How will you convert leads into customers? What will you do explicitly to retain customers?
    • Current customers can refer new customers? So, what will you do to encourage referrals?
    • Current customers can buy more. So, what will you do to encourage customers to increase their purchasing?
  • Pro Forma Financials. Income statement, cash flow statement, and balance sheet. Maintain all your assumptions that drive these financials in a list.
  • Cap Table. Only needed if you are interested in investors.

In what format should you document your plan?

This is a matter of taste. I strongly recommend against printing all your plans, polishing them, adding an introduction, table of contents, etc., and binding the document. The problem with this approach is that every one of the planning components is constantly evolving. If you polish and print it, it will be out of date by the following week. This is why I say I am against business plans, although I am for business planning.

Personally, I maintain a series of electronic company folders; each has a corresponding physical notebook containing selected key excerpts. Each folder contains all information I have collected on one aspect of the business. They combine “plan” and “actual” and are:

  • Market and Industry. This folder contains all my macro and micro market analyses and competitive analyses (old as well as latest in chronological order). It also contains copies of any related articles or reports others have written.
  • Marketing and Sales. This contains copies of marketing and sales plans (strategic and tactical). [Once the company starts, I add ad copy, brochures, web page designs, and so on.]
  • Equity. Initially, this contains just the projected cap table. [Once the company launches, it will also have copies of private placement memoranda, investor subscription agreements, accredited investor questionnaire forms, the stock option plan, all stock options granted, updated versions of the cap table, and so on.]
  • Board. Initially, this contains articles of incorporation and the bylaws. [Once the company launches, it will also include updated bylaws, board meeting minutes, and actions by written consent.]
  • Organization. Initially, this contains the organization chart and hiring plan. [Once the company launches, it will also contain employment contracts and updated organization charts and hiring plans.]
  • Financials. This contains pro formas by month and year for 5 years. At the front, I maintain a list of all assumptions, including all expenses (by year and by category), customer acquisition cost, sales cycle, average order size, periodicity (how often each customer will purchase), retention rate, viral coefficient, viral cycle length, and many of the items from the above folders. [Once the company launches, I add actuals.]

I also maintain a 10-minute slide presentation that captures the essence of some of the above.

How much detail? What is the right time horizon for business planning?

You should be as lean as possible without being irresponsible. Here are my thoughts on the specific parts of planning:

  • Analysis of Market. I believe that you must understand your market as thoroughly as possible or you are being foolhardy. The lean community might argue that truly revolutionary products create their own markets and it is impossible to understand the market until you test its behavior with your minimally viable product (MVP) in hand. The right answer lies somewhere between these two extremes.For example, let’s say your idea is to create fast food restaurants for diabetics. I would argue that it is important to fully understand both the demographics and the dietetic needs of diabetics before endeavoring down this path.On the other hand, you will not be able to determine exact recipes or menu items until test marketing (i.e., creating MVPs), and you won’t understand the risks associated with attracting diabetics to your restaurants when their family members are not diabetics without experimenting.
  • Analysis of Competition. Absolutely essential.
  • Threat of Entry. It is never too early to start planning for how you will protect yourself. If you delay, it may be too late.
  • Differentiators. Here, time horizon is important. You have to perform a delicate balancing act between what you believe are long-term differentiators for the majority of the market and what you believe are short-term differentiators for early adopters.The only sensible approach is to build a series of successively larger MVPs, learning as you go, adapting to what the market is telling you. All the time, however, you must acknowledge that you may not know if you are accommodating the needs of just early adopters or if they are indeed representative of the market majority.For planning purposes, do two things:

    (1) define what you believe are long-term differentiators. After all, without these, it is unclear why you should even be in business.

    (2) define a series of experiments to validate which features, delivery mechanisms, prices, promotions, marketing mechanisms, sales techniques, suppliers, and so on (collectively called differentiators), are most effective with the market.

  • Marketing and Sales Strategy. As stated above, you will have three components of your marketing and sales strategy: paid, referrals, and organic. As part of your plan, you should calibrate all three of these components with your goals. See Five Steps to Get and Keep Your Startup on Track. Once the company starts, you will revise these goals with actuals.
  • Financials. You are lean and are taking one step at a time. However, you still have a responsibility to verify that you are stepping in a direction that could yield great financial results. Create your pro forma income statement, cash flow statement, and balance sheet annually for at least 5 years, and monthly for at least the first two years.

Why do you need to plan your business?

The reality is that investors place their bets on startups less than 3% of the time[1]. The other 97% of their money goes to businesses that have already been through rounds of funding and have demonstrated that a market is willing to buy their product.

But when they bet on a startup, they demand a detailed plan for the business.

They won’t necessarily ask for a business plan per se, but they will perform due diligence. And when they do due diligence, they will be asking every possible question about your market, industry, product, marketing and sales, financials, governance, equity structure, intellectual property, and so on, so you need to have all this information somewhere.

If you are not planning on having investor money, why would you do anything less? After all, you are an investor in your own company, with time and money.


Dr. Al Davis has published 100+ articles in journals, conferences and trade press, and lectured 2,000+ times in 28 countries. He is the author of 6 books, including the latest, Will You New Start Up Make Money? He is co-founder and CEO of Offtoa, Inc., an internet company that assists entrepreneurs in crafting their business strategies to optimize financial return for themselves and their investors. Formerly, he was founding member of the board of directors of Requisite, Inc., acquired by Rational Software Corporation in 1997, and subsequently acquired by IBM in 2003; co-founder, chairman and CEO of Omni-Vista, Inc.; and vice president at BTG, Inc., a Virginia-based company that went public in 1995, acquired by Titan in 2001, and subsequently acquired by L-3 Communications in 2003.

If you’d like to learn if your great business idea will make money, take a look at Will Your New Start Up Make Money?