Too often, planning approaches for mature organizations are unnec­essarily applied to seed-stage businesses. The right approach for you will vary depending on where you are in your new venture life cycle. For this purpose, let’s look at typical planning needs at three phases in a typical startup journey.

GESTATION/PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT - Here, you are incubating your startup idea, developing your product or service, learning about your market, and maybe gathering some early customer feedback. Your goal is to build something that meets a market need, one that customers will pay to have resolved. Your most important question is: Do we have a concept that anyone (other than us) cares about? In this phase, planning should focus on how to prove your concept, learn about potential markets, set priorities, and coordinate next steps. You can lay out a low-cost development path and identify key milestones, but some elements of a traditional business plan, such as extensive revenue projections, make little sense. If you don’t yet have a com­pelling product or a workable business model, focus on developing these, instead of guessing how much money you will make. One of the common mistakes of early entrepreneurs, especially those in love with their idea, is behaving as if they have launched a stable business when, in fact, they are still in the cave of gestation.

CONSISTENT REVENUE - Once you have achieved some level of recur­ring sales, everything changes. Early revenue doesn’t always translate into a profitable business, so your key question becomes: Can we ac­tually make money at this, and how? Your sights now shift to the goal of breaking even, the point at which your venture can fund itself. Here is where the development of a clear, compelling math story is invalu­able. The math story, to be outlined in the next section, answers ques­tions such as: What is our business model, our competitive advantage, and our strategy? What is our path to breakeven (including pro forma profit and loss projections)? What are projected cash flows, and how will we manage our burn rate? What control mechanisms do we need in place to manage forward? How much capital will we need to reach profitability?

Whether or not you need a written business plan at this stage de­pends on your financing and communication needs. If you are seeking investors or lenders, you need a high-quality written plan, but be sure to learn what format your target investors require and what aspects of the plan they are most interested in. Even if you are not seeking funding, you may benefit from the discipline and rigor required to de­velop a business plan and find that it helps you communicate with stakeholders of all kinds. On the other hand, if you are working with only a handful of key team members, you can address the above ques­tions and regularly review your key financial metrics without pulling together a formal plan. A decent-sized whiteboard and simplified fi­nancial snapshots will do just fine.

BEYOND BREAKEVEN/GROWTH - Once a business is self-funding, everything changes again. If you want to continue to grow, the oper­ative questions are: Is this business scalable? How can we create significant value over time? Here, you will benefit from a disciplined planning ap­proach that is widely communicated and regularly updated. Once you have found a robust market, scaling your business is all about ex­ecuting. Identifying and coordinating resources, finding ways to grow efficiently, maintaining a hawk-like focus on key growth drivers, and understanding and mitigating risk factors are all critical to scaling a young business. In the growth phase, a well-managed planning process can be the difference between a healthy, thriving venture and one that overreaches, stalls, or flames out.


Resources and Readings

Thanks to Internet search technology and social media interconnec­tivity, answers to most entrepreneurial questions can be found with a few clicks. I have attempted to list sources beyond the usual …

Startup Readiness Tool

This tool can be used to: ■ Evaluate and improve a founding team’s readiness to launch a business ■ Calibrate the timing of a startup effort (accelerate or delay) ■ …


The deepest form of entrepreneurial commitment acknowledges and accepts that there are forces in the marketplace that are beyond the founder’s control, forces that will impact the venture’s destiny for …

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