Business Plan Mistakes
The importance of business planning is widely documented; however, guidance as to what constitutes good business planning is less clearly defined. This article aims to redress that imbalance by describing 10 of the most common mistakes that occur in business plans.
While the business-planning process is in itself a very worthwhile pursuit, most business plans are produced for a specific purpose. The plan is used as a means to convey an idea with a view to achieving a specific goal, e.g. securing funding. Hence the plan needs to be tailored with the audience in mind, and good knowledge of their requirements will help shape a winning plan.
For example, the requirements a Venture Capitalist will have in assessing a plan seeking to secure a million-pound investment will differ considerably from those of a local bank manager who needs a plan to support a small-loan application. While the former will be primarily looking for capital growth, the latter will be more concerned with security. Regardless of the specific purpose of the plan, these following business plan lessons will apply.
1. Incredible financial projections
One of the key areas business plan readers will focus on will be ‘the numbers’. Specifically, they will concentrate on the projected Income Statement or Profit & Loss. The fact that numbers are projected does not mean that those figures can be included without due rigour or process. They need to be credible, defensible and consistent. Of course forecasting is not an exact science, and the use of proxies can help the author ensure that the figures included are plausible and consistent with the story being told in the other areas of the business plan. The figures must also show an ability of the company to generate free cash flows so that the business can be run profitably while satisfactorily servicing their debts at the same time.
All costs should be recorded including salaries to owner managers who run the company. It is not credible to generate P&L projections where expenses such as salaries are omitted to demonstrate managerial commitment or to artificially reduce losses, etc. By the same token, no investor will be prepared to fund a business where the projected salary payments are excessive. While dealing with finances is not everyone’s strong point, there has to be someone on the management team who is cognizant with the maths. A business plan will need to include everything from break-even projections to proposed return on investments to cash flow forecasts, and one of the key players will have to converse on these subjects in a convincing manner. They will also need to justify the numbers.
2. Lack of a viable opportunity
A business plan needs to not only describe an opportunity, it must also detail how the opportunity can be exploited profitably and demonstrate the company’s ability to deliver what is required. In recent years there has been a significant increase in plans that are inaccessible to the average reader because they are couched in technical jargon and unfamiliar terms. If the reader of the plan cannot fully grasp who the prospective customer is, how that customer will be targeted, and the prospective benefits from the proposed solution, the reader will not invest. In an increasingly time-pressed world, people crave simplicity. Many business plan recipients will only scrutinize the Executive Summary and the financials, using these as the decision points as to whether to read further or not. Hence it is of paramount importance that both the executive summary and the wider plan describes the opportunity in readily understood terms, such as:
- What is the issue or pain point?
- What is the proposed solution?
- What are the benefits of the solution?
- Why are these benefits compelling?
- Who will benefit the most from these?
Once these are detailed, there will be greater transparency regarding the viability, or otherwise, of the proposed opportunity in terms of the company’s ability to profitably serve the target market.
3. No clear route to market
All opportunities are only prospective ones without evidence that the target market can be accessed profitably. Many entrepreneurs are inherently product focused, concentrating their energies on ‘the idea’ to the exclusion of many other important elements such as how they intend to access their customer base. The growth in popularity of the Internet has certainly helped niche producers find geographically dispersed customers, making many more ideas commercially viable. However, it does not come without its challenges, as creating awareness online is both costly and intensely competitive. The business plan must include a comprehensive and credible analysis of how the company intends to secure access to their target market in a cost-effective manner. The low cost and barriers to entry for websites have resulted in the creation of hundreds of thousands of sites. Ensuring that a site stands out from the crowd is easier said than done. Knowledge of who the customer is and how they buy is very important, but identifying them and accessing them on an individual basis is much more challenging and costly.
4. Overestimation of revenues
Another key element of the plan will relate to the size and value of the opportunity. Does the business plan describe a small local business-to-business opportunity with limited scalability/ return or is it a concept with widespread or even potentially global consumer appeal? While the description of the market opportunity will undoubtedly be couched in positive terms, an obvious danger relates to the innate optimism of entrepreneurs and their tendency to exaggerate every business opportunity. Hence the general interpretation of sales forecasts is that they will be optimistic but not excessively optimistic. Admittedly what constitutes ‘excessive’ is subjective, but the numbers will need to be justified and if it emerges that the figures are mere fantasy, the author will lose all credibility and it will significantly undermine any confidence the potential investor might have in the plan.
It is important to guard against this by use of proxies and conservatism when it comes to sales projections. Placing some rigor around the process of deriving credible revenue figures also serves the entrepreneur well by enhancing their awareness of some of the key drivers for revenue growth in their business. It will also help them to produce a more plausible business plan and will ensure that the author is confidently able to answer questions regarding the market opportunity – questions that will top the list of any prospective investor or bank manager. Statements like “the Market is worth £10 billion and growing and we are focusing on capturing just 1% of it” set off alarm bells in the minds of prospective investors.
A more appropriate method is to calculate the number of customers the business intends to capture and their average revenues. These two inputs are easier to calculate and also to justify in a wider discussion. For example, a restaurant can easily use comparables from other restaurants as reference points to calculate average spend per person. Hence the focus turns to predicting the number of covers likely per week which can then be scaled up to obtain projected monthly revenue figures.
5. Lack of appreciation of the importance of good cash flow management
A critical subtlety of any new business is the ability of the entrepreneur to understand the differences between cash and profits and to accept the fact that insolvency is probably the most significant threat to a business. Many businesses fail, not because they are unprofitable, but because they ultimately become insolvent (i.e., are unable to pay their debts as they fall due).
Good cash flow management is vital when businesses pursue investment opportunities where there are significant cash flows out, in advance of the cash flows coming in. The start-up phase of a business is an obvious time when cash flow is under stress with uncertain income streams sitting alongside a raft of certain and often overdue bills. This tension is exacerbated if there are delays to the income streams, e.g. if a restaurant fails to open on time.
Once up and running a company can bank the income immediately if they are a ‘cash-only’ business; however, if they sell on credit, they receive the cash in the future and hence may need to pay some of their own expenses before that income hits their account. This will put a further strain on the company’s solvency. A well structured business plan needs to reflect reality with likely losses in the first months of trading being expected and with financing provisions, e.g. overdraft limits, being put in place in advance of the predictable cash squeeze. A contingency figure should also be added as it is important to leave breathing space for the unexpected costs and overspends that always occur when least expected.
6. No clear objective
What is the main purpose of the plan? If it is to seek investment in the business, it is important to clearly describe the investment opportunity. As mentioned previously there is a tendency amongst entrepreneurs to focus myopically on ‘the product‘ or ‘the idea‘. This is where they expend most energy but alas that is only one part of the process. While the plan describes the concept in detail, it must also address the purpose of the plan. If it is to secure investment, one needs to recognize that investing is the investor’s area of expertise and they will be seeking an appropriate risk/ return for their investment. Their primary interest will quickly shift from the product once they ‘get it‘ and ‘like it‘ to assessing the ability of the company (including management) to generate free cash flows to enable the business to grow while also returning cash to them. They will also seek to understand:
- Why they would be better off investing in this business rather than leaving money in other asset classes?
- When will they recoup their initial investment?
- What is their expected return on investment?
- Is the investment merely cash or do they need to bring additional things to the table?
Once the primary objective of the plan is clear, the author will be able to ensure that the key requirements of the reader are met.
7. No evidence of real demand
Another main area of interest when planning (linked to Point 4) is justifying the sales forecast or demand levels for the product or service. There are two main elements to forecasting – the use of facts and the use of subjective assessment/ judgment. However, no matter how unique a concept is, if the market is defined widely enough, it is likely that figures from alternative offerings (facts) can be used to help assess likely demand levels (judgment). The aim of sales forecasting is to come up with some revenue figures that can be considered to be credible in the wider context. While earlier we countenanced against excessively optimistic estimates, here we are delving deeper to ensure there is, in fact, real demand for the offering. Prospective investors will not want to invest at the very start where the risk is highest. Is there poof of concept in the guise of sales or firm orders? Have some sales occurred already? If not, why not?
Unless there is verifiable demand for the idea, the risks grow out of all proportion, particularly if the initial start-up or investment costs are high. Is it possible to test the idea in real time, either by identifying comparables in other geographic areas or analyzing Google search logs or selling via eBay? Again the business plan has to convincingly address the issue of demand rather than concentrate in isolation on ‘the idea’. For some investors, firm orders or evidence of sales will be the level of proof required and allusions to proxies or comparables will not be sufficient. Conversely if there are already strong sales volumes of the product and the company is facing financing or resource constraints which have forced them to seek investment, then the power shifts from the investor to the plan author.
8. Business plan inconsistencies
A business plan needs to be consistent throughout as all the various strands are brought together into one single entity – the plan. If there are multiple authors of the plan the risks increase that certain inconsistencies will emerge. Similarly any presenters of the plan must be fully cognizant of all facts and stay ‘on script’ so as to ensure that a cohesive story is being told. The numbers must also be consistent with the broader content so that there are no contradictions between them.
9. Playing down the competition
There is always competition. Yet the number of times the phrase “there are no main competitors” appears in plans is considerable. No matter how unique the proposition, there will also be some other business competing for the same scarce resource, i.e., people’s money. While competitors may not always be obvious in product terms, competitors emerge upon assessment of the key needs the product fulfills. By broadening the definition of the market, substitute products emerge as ultimately all products and services serve to satiate a defined set of needs, be they physical or emotional. If competitors can not be identified then the search has simply not been diligent enough. Finally it is also important to consider the threat of entry. What will the competitive landscape look like in a few years? Are there significant barriers to entry, or is it likely that a successful entry will be followed by better-placed competitors with greater resources, etc. What will emerge as the bases for competition and will the company be well placed to compete on these bases?
10. Rushing the output
The plan needs to be right the first time and the content needs to be accurate, clear and also without spelling or grammatical mistakes. More often than not business plans need to be completed by a certain date and hence the final stages can be rushed. Consequently, in many instances the final output does not do justice to the plan. Attention to detail at the end is vital, so it is important to ensure the following:
- The plan is printed on good quality paper and bound where appropriate.
- Tables and Charts have been edited to ensure they are formatted correctly.
- Content of the plan has been edited down to a digestible size (Addendum can be provided on request).
- Someone removed from the process has independently proofed the plan.
- If a presentation is part of the process, it should reflect the Executive Summary.
Summary and conclusion
In summary, business plans generally have a purpose of communicating a course of action so as to garner support for the plan. Support inevitably means resources with the primary aim of the plan often being to secure financial investment. With this comes a certain obligation on the business plan author to ensure that the plan is prepared in as thorough a manner as is possible. By ensuring the above lessons are adhered to, the chances of the plan objectives being met increase substantially.