For ever and a day, startups have written business plans – miserable, useless, charm-free slabs of cruft that serve no obvious purpose other than killing trees. Presuming that you did want to kill trees, of course (though personally, I try not to).
And so it should be no great surprise that I hate startup business plans, I really do. And though I have a hundred or more different reasons why this should be, they all boil down to one useless little lie entrepreneurs try to foist upon an disbelieving world: that they can control stuff in the outside world.
But they can’t – in fact, most entrepreneurs can barely control the stuff they’re building and/or doing internally, never mind anything roaming wild far beyond their work desk. Control falls in the realm of persuasion and politics (not in the sense of party politics, but of business politics), and we must have hundreds of ways to describe its shaded variants – influence, sway, pressure, give, push, shove, edge, nudge, wink, pull, yield, desire, want, need, hypnotize, beg, plead, offer, tempt, horsetrade, negotiate, and so forth. If you can’t outright control your customers’ behaviour, how do you plan to influence them? How do you plan to tempt them? How do you plan to sway them? These are things you really need to be honest about (both to potential investors and to yourself), because if you do somehow get funded (despite your rubbish business plan) these form the meat of what you’ll actually be doing for the next five years.
Yet how many times do you see any of these ‘shaded control’ words in a business plan in any way that that goes beyond mere buzzword bingo? Hardly ever, I’ll guess, even though these are arguably the key activities and forces which determine startup success and failure more than anything else. Given that (as I’ve long said) building a startup is a lot like trying to start a social revolution, it should be clear that these activities are in much the same way the basic political tools of the social revolutionary. Come the revolution, all your industry incumbents are like totally dead, mate.
Digging a little bit deeper, the underlying problem here is the (sadly widespread) misconception among tech entrepreneurs that they somehow wouldn’t need to engage with business politics because ‘people’ (some mythical perfect audience that’s never actually specified) will telepathically ‘get’ what they’re doing and start throwing gold coins the minute their crappy MVP website soft-launches in Guatemala. As if!
Recently, I’ve taken to saying that 90% of being an entrepreneur is sales, and that the phrase “tech entrepreneur” shouldn’t somehow fool you into thinking that tech is even 50% of what’s important. (At best, the “tech” part is 50% of the 10% that isn’t sales… i.e. 5%). But from writing all the above, I can see that what I’m reaching towards is more like this: that 90% of being an entrepreneur is business politics, of which sales is merely the most obvious manifestation.
So: while your pitch needs to be pure psychology (a passionate riff on hope, ambition, greed, and profit), your business plan should be pure politics. When will you start using shaded control words in your business plan? That’s almost certainly what it’s missing!