An MBA student asked me to answer some important questions about business plans, so I’m posting the answers on Planning Startups Stories. This is the first of four, reposted here with permission.
What makes a good business plan?
Here’s the hard part, right at the beginning: the value of a business plan is measured in money. That’s hard for me at least, maybe not for you, but for me. As a genuine ex-hippy baby boomer entrepreneur, I like touchy-feely do-gooder measurement systems. But that’s not the real case. Like just about everything else in business, the value is money. Money in the bank.
The actual calculation is pretty hypothetical. You take the money in the bank with the business plan and subtract money in the bank without the business plan, and that’s the value. One of the two is just a guess. But there it is, a cold hard (although hypothetical) number.
With that in mind, here are some of the qualities of a good business plan, in order of importance:
1. It fits the business need
We simply can’t look at business plans as generic. You have to start with whether or not the plan achieved its business purpose. Some plans exist to get investment. Some are supposed to support loan applications. Those are specialty uses, that apply to some business situations, while almost all businesses ought to develop management-oriented business plans that exist to help run the company, not to be presented to outsiders.
Obviously form follows function. The business plan used internally to manage the company doesn’t have to polish and present the company to outsiders, so it probably lives on a network, not on paper. But the plan as part of high-end startup looking for VC or angel investment does, in fact, have to present the business to outsiders. These are very different plans. Some of them have sales objectives, selling an idea, and a team, and a market, to investors. Some have a support objective, reassuring a lender about risk, usually with assets. My favorite business plans are about managing: starting and growing a company. A plan that might be great at selling the company might be bad at supporting a loan application, or for managing a company.
So point one, what makes a good business plan, is that it fits the business need. Does it achieve the business objective?
At this point it’s hard to avoid going into branches. I’m going to resist the temptation to write about what people look for in investment-related plans, and then the plan for lenders, or the operational plan. There are a lot of branches on that tree. Factors like readability and ease of navigation and covering all the main points depend a lot on whether those qualities affect achieving the plan’s business objective.
So it’s entirely possible to have an excellent business plan that’s never been printed, that isn’t edited, that contains only cryptic bullet points that only the internal management team understands.