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January 22, 2007

Is a Business Plan Necessary?


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.


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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.

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!

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.

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

You can find additional information on this topic at www.Gadish.com

Business plans will still be needed for banks or investors, and most businesses need to go through that.

But I agree, keep it short (10 pages max) and go straight to the point. It really helps staying on track and don't forget the main objectives.

Reviewing your business plan every three months to adjust priorities is essential as you always have new partners, new competitors or new development that need to be integrated...

Over the years I have done many business plans for one idea or another...most times, if done properly, they turn out to be relevant in that they provide some level of discipline in how the business is planned and executed...

For more information about business plans visit us at www.Gadish.com or call us at 1-310-433-0694

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.
Business Plan

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.

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.

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."

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)

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."

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?

Amish Parashar
Inventure Global, Inc
Small Business Outsourcing Made Easy

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.

-- MV


A couple of business planning methods already take this into account. A good start is the wikipedia article on assumption based planning

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.

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.

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!

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.

Ola Ayeni

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...

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.

True true... it's not an end in itself. but written or not, it's surely helpful :)

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

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