If you’re thinking about starting a company, please don’t write a business plan. Stop, put the keyboard down, and step back. You’re wasting valuable time.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that you run aimlessly into the startup abyss. What I want you to avoid is the black hole of planning that most entrepreneurs get into when starting a company. They get sucked into a time warp where a formerly great idea gives way to months upon months of “thinking” about the idea instead of just making the damn thing happen.
If Nobody Buys, it’s Not a Business
The first step, before writing a plan, is to validate the concept. If nobody will ever buy your product, it’s unlikely that a business is ever going to form. Focusing on the product first, and more specifically the customer’s willingness to buy that product, is by far the most valuable time you can spend early in your business.
In addition to validating your concept, selling the product early allows you to prove some key assumptions in your plan before you begin writing it. For example, wouldn’t it be helpful to know what someone would pay for your product before you built it? You would be surprised how much information you can gather from potential customers just by asking them what they would pay for a hypothetical product. “If you build it, they will come” might have worked for Kevin Costner in the movie Field of Dreams, but it’s a formula for disaster in a startup.
The Prototype Company
Sometimes finding out early that your idea isn’t as viable as you thought is a blessing. Instead of spending months writing an elaborate business plan on a completely unproven idea, try putting together a “pre-business plan” that consists of only about five pages that quickly communicates your idea and focuses on the key assumptions that drive your business. These key assumptions are often questions like “Will people buy the product as I’ve defined it?”, or “what will they pay?”, or “how much would it cost me to sell this product?”.
Imagine that the first few months of your business are really more like a great big “prototype company”. Focusing strictly on the sale of the product and proving your assumptions, even on a small scale, will allow you to write a far more comprehensive and viable business plan when you are ready to formalize your thoughts. Additionally, you will be able to make much more accurate forecasts on the business when you get a sense for what it really takes to market, sell and deliver the product.
Your Business Plan is Not an Application for Capital
It’s a common misconception that investors want to see a business plan before they will consider investing in a concept. That’s not entirely true. What investors want to see is that you can demonstrate your ability to sell the product to paying customers. Ask anyone (even yourself) who you would rather invest in – a startup company that is making money without a plan or a business plan that isn’t making any money? Writing long, elaborate papers might have impressed your instructors back in college but it won’t win you any points with investors. They want results, not ideas.
Keep the Plan Simple (and listen!)
Despite what you may have heard, most of the best business plans are as simple as possible. It’s far more important for you to demonstrate that you can solve one market need incredibly well than being able to show you’ve thought of every possible market niche and have included it in your plan. Think quality over quantity.
The process of writing your business plan isn’t to show off how much you know about a concept. The most important aspect of writing your plan is to become a voracious listener. Listen to what your potential customers are telling you they want in a product. Listen to what they are not getting from the existing products. Listen to what investors are looking for in the companies they put money into. Your business plan should read more like a record of all the valuable information you have heard, presented in a meaningful way that makes the case for your company’s potential success.
Put Down Your Pen and Pick Up the Phone
You’re much better served to do your business planning by picking up the phone and asking customers to buy than you are