You Can’t Handle A Business Plan!

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

-Dwight D. Eisenhower (Thirty-fourth President of the USA)

 

Eisenhower was a military leader of renown prior to becoming president.  His comment on the value of planning illustrates a key point that many who disdain planning would do well to heed: a plan is not the goal, but rather the exercise of thinking strategically through one’s options given a defined situation and set of resources at one’s disposal.

Serving entrepreneurs and existing business owners, I have seen the outcome of both lack of planning and belief that planning unto itself is a cure-all for potential challenges that may come the way of the enterprise. Tim Berry, author of Three Weeks to Startup, writes that, “If you’re serious about starting your business — even if you don’t have anything down in writing — you’ve already started to plan.” Yet, starting to plan is not the same as writing a business plan.

There are several planning steps that I would recommend prior to writing a business plan:

  1. Refine your idea. Think through how your business model would affect potential customers. Have a preliminary strategy in mind for each segment of your target audience.
  2. Conceptualize a winning strategy. Think through what is already available in terms of direct and indirect competition. Adjust your approach to the market based on what can win consistently.
  3. Create value before your first sale. Test your hypothetical product features and benefits, along with pricing model and go-to-market system. Secure feedback and revise your offering accordingly.

Once you have thought through these three main ideas, you are then ready to evaluate how best to launch a business. Evaluation is the point at which your first business plan should be written. Berry recommends “Your plan is for you first. Don’t make it for anybody else. Do it because it helps you divide and manage big goals into practical steps. Instead of looking at it as a document, think of your business plan as a place on your computer where you collect ideas, useful stories, lists and numbers. It’s a place where you keep track of the market, your milestones, goals and projections.”

Business planI could not agree more wholeheartedly! A plan is not a monument; it is a living, flexible document that needs to be modified on a recurring basis as long as you are in business. Early on, Berry recommends the following key components of planning:

  • Milestones: What’s supposed to happen, when, and who’s responsible.
  • Basic numbers: Simple spreadsheet projections for sales, costs and expenses.
  • Strategy: Strategy is about deciding how to focus a business offering on a key target market. It can start with just bullet points. I’ve seen it done well with pictures. It’s mostly a reminder for you and your team.
  • Cash flow: Because profits don’t guarantee enough cash to pay your bills, you need to manage cash from the beginning. Month by month, account for what you spend and what you deposit — not profit as it appears on the books, but money as it shows in the bank.
  • Review schedule: Set aside time for a plan verses actual review once a month to compare what you planned would happen in your business to what really happened. Be brief and practical.

Regardless of your market niche, whether you have attended a “hack-a-thon,” or who is on your start-up team, take the time to consider each of these components thoughtfully. Incorporating them into a plan that you are committed to revisiting and continuously improving will enhance your chances of launching a successful new business!

 

 

Do You Understand Which Customers You Want to Develop?

Whenever I have the opportunity to sit down with an entrepreneur to discuss how an idea is going to be commercialized, a hot topic is “who is your buyer, and how will you win them?” Amazingly, many who aspire to start businesses (even some who have been in business) have very little strategic insight into the answer to this question. By going after the universe, in a shotgun method, the business owner shortchanges the enterprise of the opportunity to develop authentic connections with targeted customers who become loyalists. We break the broad question down into tactical components such as how to listen to customer input and revise a product or service offering. Yesterday I read a LinkedIn article by Steve Blank, the author of The Startup Owner’s Manual. Blank wrote about an interaction with a former student who claimed that following Blank’s advice on customer development was causing his company to fail:

We Did Everything Customers Asked For
“We did every thing you said, we got out of the building and talked to potential customers. We surveyed a ton of them online, ran A/B tests, brought a segment of those who used the product in-house for face-to-face meetings. ” Yep, sounds good.

“Next, we built a minimum viable product.” OK, still sounds good.

“And then we built everything our prospective customers asked for.” That took me aback. Everything? I asked? “Yes, we added all their feature requests and we priced the product just like they requested. We had a ton of people come to our website and a healthy number actually activated. .  . everyone uses the product for awhile, but no one is upgrading to our paid product. We spent all this time building what customers asked for. And now most of the early users have stopped coming back.”

Customer developmentWhat’s your business model?
“Business model? I guess I was just trying to get as many people to my site as I could and make them happy. Then I thought I could charge them for something later and sell advertising based on the users I had.”

I pushed a bit harder and said, “Your strategy counted on a freemium-to-paid upgrade path. What experiments did you run that convinced you that this was the right pricing tactic? Your attrition numbers mean users weren’t engaged with the product. What did you do about it? Did you think you were trying to get large networks of engaged users that can disrupt big markets? Large is usually measured in millions of users. What experiments did you run that convinced you could get to that scale?”

I realized by the look in his eyes that none of this was making sense. “Well I got out of the building and listened to customers.”

The idea of the tests he ran wasn’t just to get data – it was to get insight. All of those activities – talking to customers, A/B testing, etc. needed to fit into his business model –how his company will find a repeatable and scalable business model and ultimately make money. And this is the step he had missed.

Customer Development = The pursuit of customer understanding
Part of Customer Development is understanding which customers make sense for your business. The goal of listening to customers is not please every one of them. It’s to figure out which customer segment served his needs – both short and long term. And giving your product away, as he was discovering, is often a going out of business strategy.

Blank then shared the lessons learned by his student:

  • Getting out of the building is a great first step
  • Listening to potential customers is even better
  • Getting users to visit your site and try your product feels great
  • Your job is not to make every possible customer happy
  • Pick the customer segments and pricing tactics that drive your business model

Trigger the Response Desired in Business and Otherwise

Many of you may have read Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, in which Gladwell examined why some fads take off and others do not. The basic concept is that an incremental change, done timely, in front of the right target audience can be absolutely revolutionary. Instead of a tipping point, an author whose blog I read recently proposed an alternative, trigger point. No, we’re not talking about a massage therapy or a gun in your back, but what Jonah Berger, author of Contagious, describes as those things that motivate us to change behaviors.

Marty Baker observes that, “One of great revelations of behavioral economics is the study of how people actually behave rather than how we think they should behave. A classic example is shrouded in a term that might make your eyes glaze over  — the theory of relative positioning.   What makes people happiest is increasing their income and wealth relative to other people. We have the same income of $70,000 per year. If my income increases by $10,000 and yours increases by $8,000, this will make me happier than if both our incomes increased by $10,000.   We don’t just want to keep up with the Joneses; we want to do better than the Joneses.”

Baker writes of Contagious that it is an exploration of what makes things popular. Berger tackles questions like:

  • Why do people talk about certain products and ideas more than others?
  • Why are some stories and rumors more infectious? And
  • What makes online content go viral?

dining trayBerger wrote, “Psychologist Gráinne Fitzsimons and I conducted a related study on how to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Promoting healthy eating habits is tough. Most people realize they should eat more fruits and vegetables. Most people will even say that they mean to eat more fruits and vegetables. But somehow when the time comes to put fruits and vegetables into shopping carts or onto dinner plates, people forget. We thought we’d use triggers to help them remember. “

Baker describes Berger’s work with a colleague who asked participants to provide feedback on a public-health slogan targeting college student.  Just to make sure they remembered the slogan, they were shown it more than twenty times, printed in different colors and fonts.

“One group of students saw the slogan “Live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day.” Another group saw “Each and every dining-hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day.” Both slogans encouraged people to eat fruits and vegetables, but the tray slogan did so using a trigger.

The students lived on campus, and many of them ate in dining halls that used trays. So Berger and Fitzsimons wanted to see if they could trigger healthy eating behavior by using the dining room tray to remind students of the slogan.

“Our students didn’t care for the tray slogan. They called it “corny” and rated it as less than half as attractive as the more generic “live healthy” slogan. Further, when asked whether the slogan would influence their own fruit and vegetable consumption, the students who had been shown the “tray” slogan were significantly more likely to say no.”

Berger adds, “But when it came to actual behavior, the effects were striking. Students who had been shown the more generic “live healthy” slogan didn’t change their eating habits. But students who had seen the “tray” slogan and used trays in their cafeterias markedly changed their behavior. The tray reminded them of the slogan and they ate 25 percent more fruits and vegetables as a result. The trigger worked. “

What resonated with me is that the creative solution was creating the right trigger and not the “right slogan.”  A more rigorious test  might have been to see if the more creative slogan and the trigger would have yielded even better results.

How might one apply this in a different environment? Are you too focused on your words rather than understanding what motivates your target buyer? Your boss? Someone who works for or beside you?

 

 

Demand Leadership Innovation Like a SEAL

My son is a senior in high school. He has his mind made up on entering the special forces. His top choice would be the Navy SEALs. Many, many, many of our conversations are about the SEALs these days. Recently, I came across the Navy SEAL Creed: “We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me. My training is never complete.”  

Anyone who knows much about the Navy SEAL job requirements would not be surprised that the training required to be selected is extremely rigorous. Physical and mental training beyond compare prepares one a recruit to join the ranks of the “elite.” However, as former Navy SEAL Brent Gleeson writes, “you realize you are just another new guy in an already well-established organization. And it only gets tougher from there. The training never ends, and every single mission is rehearsed.”

Seal subWell-run businesses are very similar. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Dan Cathy, the current president of Chick-fil-A. Cathy discussed  the extensive training they provide every new hire and how they try to help the employees to anticipate needs rather than simply wait for them to be expressed. 

Gleeson described key characteristics of leaders:

1.     Leaders define the mission. A clearly defined mission starts with the leadership, is ingrained in the team, and is constantly reviewed. Mission success relies more on training than it does on planning. Rarely is a plan executed exactly as it has been laid out, because external forces prevent this. Thus the leadership and team must be ready to adapt. Adaptation requires ability, and ability comes from training.

2.     Leaders set, and reset, the vision. It’s up to leadership to know when shifts in a company’s vision must happen. The organization’s ultimate direction may not change but how you get there most certainly will. That means having a keen understanding of industry trends, economic cycles, and competitive movement. Leaders must be constantly acquiring knowledge and looking to the future.

3.     Leaders build the team. As a company grows it will require different types of talent. If you find the right people and train them accordingly, they will stick around and the business will thrive. It takes good leadership to identify who to hire and the roles to put those people in. This too requires ongoing knowledge development.

4.     Leaders embrace the necessity of growth, both personal and professional. If the mind and body are not in a constant state of growth, eventually things stagnate and progress stalls. Instilling the importance of learning in the team is one thing, but leadership has to embrace this first. Great leaders are always seeking knowledge, developing their minds, and maintaining their bodies. Mental and physical wellness is essential for optimal leadership.

5.     Leaders execute. An organization’s strategic plan means nothing without exceptional execution. As a company grows, the methods of mission execution will change. So will the way in which products and services are provided. The leadership has to build this into the culture, provide the team the proper resources, and remove obstacles. Companies that fail do not fail because the plan wasn’t good enough. They fail because the leaders didn’t execute.

All of these are great guidelines for leaders. What I want to return to from the SEAL Creed is the expectation of innovation. This expectation is something I’d like to see more businesses embrace. The fact that they don’t creates a need for great leaders to champion culture changes. 

 

 

Fly High, Entrepreneur, With 3 Key Skills

There are great minds aplenty when it comes to individual business disciplines (marketing, finance, quality, social media, etc). Rare is the individual whose thought leadership spans effortlessly from one to another. Seth Godin, however, is one of those truly bright minds who “gets it” on many fronts. His Twitter posts are very interesting to read and his books are well respected. Godin’s most recent, The Icarus Deception (Portfolio, 2013), is described below by Amazon.com:

The old rules: Play it safe. Stay in your comfort zone. Find an institution, a job, a set of rules to stick to. Keep your head down. Don’t fly too close to the sun.
 
The new truth: It’s better to be sorry than safe. You need to fly higher than ever.
 
In his bravest and most challenging book yet, Seth Godin shows how we can thrive in an econ­omy that rewards art, not compliance. He explains why true innovators focus on trust, remarkabil­ity, leadership, and stories that spread. And he makes a passionate argument for why you should be treating your work as art.
 
Art is not a gene or a specific talent. It’s an atti­tude, available to anyone who has a vision that others don’t, and the guts to do something about it. Steve Jobs was an artist. So were Henry Ford and Martin Luther King Jr.
 
To work like an artist means investing in the things that scale: creativity, emotional labor, and grit. The path of the artist isn’t for the faint of heart—but Godin shows why it’s your only chance to stand up, stand out, and make a difference.
 
The time to seize new ground and work without a map is now. So what are you going to do?

Fall_of_Icarus_Blondel_decoration_Louvre_INV2624In a blog post last week for Entrepreneur.com,  blogger Bryan Elliott cites three essential skills Godin mentions in the new book as being critical for every great entrepreneur:

1. Quiet your lizard brain.
We all have what Godin refers to as a lizard brain. He says, “The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump called the amygdala near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive.”  

Godin has written a lot about this in previous books including Linchpin and Poke the Box and cites author Steven Pressfield for further explanation — “As Pressfield describes it, the lizard brain is the resistance. The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer’s block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn’t stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door. The resistance grows in strength as we get closer to shipping, as we get closer to an insight, as we get closer to the truth of what we really want. That’s because the lizard hates change and achievement and risk,” Godin says in The Icarus Deception.

2. Think like an artist.
In The Icarus Deception, Godin challenges us to think beyond the norm and become artists. “It’s not art if the world (or at least a tiny portion of it) isn’t transformed in some way. And it’s not art if it’s not generous. And most of all, it’s not art if there’s no risk. The risk isn’t the risk of financial ruin (though that might be part of it). No, the risk is the risk of rejection. Of puzzlement. Of stasis. Art requires the artist to care, and to care enough to do something when he knows it might not work.”

3. Connect the disconnected. 

Godin writes about “The Connected Economy” and explains that the era where we needed to care about catering to the masses is gone. It’s about connecting people who are disconnected — then connection becomes a function of art. The opportunity in the Connection Economy is about finding the problem (where are people disconnected).

Can you make the transition to reduce resistance, seek to transform, and connecting others to solutions? If so, you have assets that will serve you well as an entrepreneur!