I recently attended a national entrepreneurship conference along with a number of other college instructors and well-known entrepreneurs. I found it interesting that two concurrent sessions offered conflicting points of view on business plans. One session featured a panel of successful entrepreneurs questioning the real world relevance of business plans. The other session focused on teaching students to quickly and correctly develop business plans.
I was intrigued by the panel discussion so that’s the session I attended. None of the entrepreneurs on the panel had ever written a business plan-at least to launch a business-yet they were all extremely successful. The revelation that they did not use written plans is not surprising, most entrepreneurs don’t. One reason given by the panel for forgoing a formal business plan is the natural tendency for entrepreneurs to cling to a business plan they wrote due to the investment in time and effort. The reality, they said, is that things change so much in the real world of business that the assumptions underpinning a business plan must often be altered or even abandoned to allow the business the flexibility necessary to survive. In addition, the entrepreneurs were adamant that a good plan will not make a bad idea work and a great idea probably will not be hampered by a poorly written plan-or no plan. Another concept discussed in the session was that what the entrepreneur is really selling to the venture capitalist or angel investor is the entrepreneur. One of the panelist remarked that, “If the investors believe in you, they will invest in your business.” The consensus from the panelists was that investors look for passion and vision in addition to the idea. They must be convinced that the entrepreneur is capable of persevering and making good decisions and adjustments to keep the business moving forward. Since there were college instructors in attendance, and most entrepreneurship programs require written plans, all entrepreneurs on the panel diplomatically agreed that requiring a business plan as part of a course or program of study was not a waste of time. They concurred that the process itself could offer valuable insight.
As a college entrepreneurship instructor I try to convey as realistically as I can the realities that entrepreneurs face. After attending this conference I realized that students may have difficulty reconciling the two seemingly conflicting points of view presented in the workshops. Certainly my students are aware of the statistics which suggest that most entrepreneurs enter a business without a written plan. To attempt to convince them otherwise would be disingenuous. If the panel was right why bother with a business plan at all? I believe that the answer can be found in the last nugget offered by the panel of entrepreneurs; it is the process that is most beneficial.
The planning process does not begin with the business plan. In fact, it is a mistake to write a plan too early. A feasibility analysis should be conducted prior to writing the plan so that the key assumptions underlying the plan are properly vetted. The research conducted as part of a feasibility analysis can also lead the entrepreneur to better understand their business. For example, if a focus group is used to better understand the target market, new insights can be gained which can lead to the development of a more competitive business model. The results of the feasibility study and the articulation of a compelling and competitive business model are the most critical components of a business plan. Coupled with a cash flow analysis these facts can be critical when procuring the necessary resources to launch a new enterprise.
Another point I like to make with my students is that the importance of a business plan depends on the type of business. A retail store with large capital requirement, inventory, payroll, etc. is completely different than a new venture in a technology driven industry that is rapidly changing and evolving. A business similar to Facebook, for example, has much less need for a formal business plan than the owner of a new sporting goods store.
In addition, the amount of borrowed capital required to launch a business will impact the need for a formal plan. Venture capitalist typically will want to review at least certain sections of a formal plan as part of their due diligence.
I believe that the entrepreneurs had a valid point regarding the tendency for business owners to become too attached to a formal plan. A critical time occurs when the business is launched and the entrepreneur begins receiving real feedback from customers. The decisions made at this juncture can make the difference between the success and failure of the venture. Should the entrepreneur hold to the assumptions of the plan or should minor or major adjustments be made? The entrepreneur needs to remember that the business is not on autopilot just because a polished business plan is in place. Adjustments must be made as conditions warrant.
The panel was not wrong when questioning the necessity of a formal business plan, but the planning process is distinct from the plan. A business plan, whether required or not, will enable the entrepreneur to better articulate their vision which may make writing a plan well worthwhile.