Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…

Archive for the ‘Business Plans’ Category

Fake pitches and real startups…

I had a nice coffee today with an old friend from my schooldays who sold his decent-sized company not so long ago: it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to business angels and pitch meetings, something which we both have had a lot of exposure to (though largely on opposite sides of the same wonky-legged table).

On the one hand, in order for startups to get past angel gatekeepers to pitch, they have to kid both themselves and others that in 3-5 years’ time they will multiply an given investor’s stake by at least 10x: this is the modern pitch template, the model that startups are required to replicate in order to be considered “credible” (But of course nobody has that kind of control over the future, however smart you are).

Yet on the other hand, my experience of rapidly growing companies is that they are structured in an open way to allow external serendipity to play a very significant (if not actually a near-majority) part. In fact, I suspect the real growth of such companies would best be charted in a bar graph with “Years” along the bottom and “Lucky Breaks” up the side. (Note that I don’t believe anyone has ever put such a graph up in front of potential investors, except perhaps with some kind of satirical point in mind.)

What struck me most forcefully was the sharp contrast between these two startup “models” – between the PowerPointy pretence of control and the (actual) near-total absence of control. The whole startup discourse has become a slave to the MBA-ified cult of the jut-jawed CEO hero making dramatic bets against the market’s groupthink, all the while the realpolitik of business has grown more diffuse and collaborative, where opportunities more often arrive as partnership outcomes than as snatched moments of solo market brio.

I don’t know: as I’m typing this, I’m feeling the hopelessness of the whole situation – as though angel investors and their groups have, by steering the ‘model’ to such foolish extremes, become 10x more of a hindrance than a genuine help to the whole sector. Add in the triple-whammy cargo cults of the ‘killer deck’, ‘elevator pitch’, and ‘executive summary’, and you have a pervasively dysfunctional setup to deal with.

Right now, I have this huge urge to stand in front of a room of business angels and just, I don’t know, tell them the goddamn truth. You know, that business is hard, arbitrary, strange, but collaborative; that what genuinely differentiates proper startups from, say, window cleaners is they take a certain combination of ambition, drive and scalability and aim it all at a fat (but wobbly) market; and that if I could tell the future as well as angels apparently need me to, I’d be betting on Lucky Boy in the 2.30 at Haydock Park, not standing in front of them.

But most importantly I want to tell them that it is their shared model that is killing startups: that if they had the guts to invest in startups without having them go through that stupid ritual of pretending to have sufficient omniscience, omnipotence, and precognition to guarantee insanely good ROI, then maybe they’d get the kind of returns on their investment they wanted.

Really, do I honestly think there’s even a 1% chance many will stop punting their miserable pin-money stakes into social me2dia shutdowns (i.e. the opposite of startups) anytime soon? No, of course not, not a hope. But that’s the view I get from here, make of it all what you will.

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Hot news: relatively speaking, VCs don’t actually suck…

I just read a clip-quotes-together-and-number-them article supposedly on why the VC model sucks. It annoyed me enough to want to answer my own question: right now, what in Startup Land really sucks?

elephant-cropped

Well… Venture Captal as an asset class does indeed currently suck, it’s quite true.

But the way that wannabe entrepreneurs flood VCs with pathetic app-centric slideware designed more to wrap around the VC business model than around real customer needs, that also sucks.

And the ridiculous way that journalists and bloggers write about VCs and startups sucks too. I mean, what is the point of reading an article in TechCrunch about how insanely clever startup X’s founder is to have got VC funding, when the odds are at least 9:1 that it’ll all turn brown and runny inside 12 months?

Oh, and the way that business angels claim to be liquid (when nearly all their actual worth is tied up in a whole myriad of tax avoidance schemes): and so spend most of their time wasting entrepreneurs’ time doing meetings when they have an actual business to run: that sucks as well.

And really, don’t get me started on how ridiculous cargo cults such as The Lean Startup waste startups’, angels’, and VCs’ time by encouraging entrepreneurs to design their companies around processes that can almost never be funded or scaled. Because that sucks.

Even so, despite all that pathetic sucking, right now the maximal suckage in the whole train-wreck startup ecosystem is simply this: 95 or more out of every 100 people who currently want to be an entrepreneur are just f^&king kidding themselves.

Jeeez, so you lost your job as a mid-ranking software project manager at Acme Corp: does that automatically make you an entrepreneur? No. So you think you’d like to write a cool app, does that make you an entrepreneur either? No. In fact, do just about any of the half-baked excuses people put about for being an entrepreneur actually make you an entrepreneur? No, they don’t. They really, honestly don’t. And the more I hear them, the sadder it makes me.

Back here on Planet F^&king Earth, being an entrepreneur actually involves two things: (1) not spending money while still moving forward, and (2) selling like the biggest sales monster ever seen. Almost all of the current demented crop of entrepreneurs act as if these are two skills they can somehow get by without having to acquire or use: but they’re wrong, ridiculously and riotously wrong.

In fact, anyone can knock together a business plan based around spending someone else’s money (a Fantasy Startup game a child could play), but the real world is the cruel antithesis to such self-indulgent reveries. It is the immovable rock on which all such plywood dream ships get brutally shattered. You don’t like this? Well, sorry, but welcome to my world.

So… you want to be an entrepreneur, do you? Ever wondered whether you might actually be part of the problem?

Starting up in 2013…

 

build_your_own_death_ray_or_stop_moaning

Through 2012, you may well have seen a fair number of examples of UK entrepreneurs ably demonstrating two key skills they apparently have in abundance:-

  1. Moaning how US startups are plainly in a vast unsustainable funding bubble (but can we have some of that here, please?)
  2. Moaning how UK startups are plainly in a vast unsustainable non-funding lull (and why-oh-why can’t the government fix it?)

Yet as we move into 2013, both of these are ringing quite hollow. Unless you’re trying to get a refund on an unflattering top from a department store, moaning does not give you any kind of competitive advantage. Moreover, moaning about something that isn’t actually a problem is just pathetic.

For example, the real reason US startups are in a funding bubble is because (a) an unbelievable number of startups try to start up every year in the US, (b) US entrepreneurs are actually quite good at getting startups going, and (c) they genuinely try to create A+ startups with a real possibility of scale, for which ambitious VC-class investment is a sensible path. Contrastall  that with UK startups’ business plans, most of which seem to be based around C-grade social media hacks. Somewhat unpopularly, I would argue that it is UK entrepreneurs’ collective lack of ambition and vision that has made an effective seed-level VC sector pretty much untenable in the UK.

If you want to change this whole game, aim higher, go bigger, and astound the world.

But it is the non-funding lull moaning that makes me even more annoyed. Too many entrepreneurs assume that their only possible way to make a workable company is via a financial leg-up from someone else’s money. Yet the entire business landscape has changed: have they not noticed eBay, Amazon Marketplace, and a hundred other diverse routes to market that have opened up in every crack?

In fact, I would go so far as to say that a 2013 business plan that specifically relies on someone else’s money to make things happen is nothing short of dead in the water. Rather, a workable 2013 business plan says:

  1. Here’s how my company is making money right now in niche sector A
  2. Here’s the size of the much, much larger market B it can address if you come on board with £300K
  3. Let’s get to it…

The most damaging thing about seeking funding is when it absorbs so much of your time and effort that it ends up costing you your company. So don’t do that: the sexiest thing you can put on a whiteboard is ongoing sales. Prove that you can both sell and deliver, and people will want in, big-time. Make that your goal in 2013, OK? 🙂

Influence, sway, pressure, persuasion, control…

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!

What is “strategy”, exactly?

Three wise business monkeys

“Whenever I hear [the word] ‘culture’… I release the safety catch from my Browning!” – Hanns Johst (1933)
“Whenever I hear the word culture, I bring out my checkbook” Jean-Luc Godard in “Le Mépris” (1963)

For many business school professors, the issue of what strategy is (or indeed isn’t) has long been a hot topic. Yet in real world corporate contexts,”strategy” is that thing you try to put together when:

  • Your company has been successful in the past (though nobody actually knows why or how)
  • It still has a reasonable amount of cash in the bank, but…
  • Its #1 cash cow has just died a sudden death (and you can see that #2 & #3 are swaying alarmingly too)

Moreover…

  • Everyone has a radically different opinion on why it’s all gone pear-shaped, but
  • Nobody has any actual idea.
  • In fact, nobody even has any usable data, because the company has relied on vanity metrics since Day One

Basically, the company is staring imminent financial collapse in the face, and it’s a downright ugly sight. Yes, all those carefully-staged sales meetings in Las Vegas (you know, the ones with hot tubs, hotter women, designer Martinis and class-A drugs) will soon be ancient history, and you’ll all be back to wearing cheap suits and working in Basingstoke in some database firm’s middle-management cadre.

So, things aren’t just bad, they’re baaaaaaaaaaad. Hence it’s plain as day that you all really need to do something, and do it fast. However, the practical problems the company faces are intensely political:

  • You’ve got more Chiefs than Native Americans (is that PC enough for you?)
  • Everyone has been told for years how clever they are for making the investors rich, rich, rich
  • Everyone has somehow come to believe their own stupid hype
  • Nobody wants to lose one iota of their insanely cosseted privileges
  • Everyone knows that something has to give, but
  • Everyone wants the thing that has to give to be someone who isn’t them.

Moreover…

  • Nobody honestly trusts anyone else (which, given what a bunch of sharks they are, is completely justified)
  • There are three or four extraordinarily dysfunctional silos of wickedness actively plotting against each other
  • Anyone trying to change even the smallest thing would end up being kicked around for weeks or indeed months
  • Nothing that happened could have been anyone’s actual fault, everyone is a consummate professional, right?
  • Even though everyone’s about to lose their job, they’re extremely fond of things the way exactly they are.

All in all, this is the real-world context for corporate strategy, because in almost every other case, what will actually get the nod is the default do-nothing position (i.e. “carry on doing what we’ve always done because it’s made us all rich, hasn’t it?“). Really, how hard do you think anyone is going to bother to fight against the (small-c) conservative wisdom of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it“?

So, your company’s stuffed in the short-to-medium term, but what on earth can you actually do about it? Is anyone inside this organization quite so foolish and personally reckless as to stick their stupid necks out by putting a turnaround plan in front of the board? Of course they aren’t, don’t be so utterly ridiculicolous. “I pity the fool”, etc.

This is the precise point in an ossified corporate’s lifecycle that external management consultants get parachuted in to propose an unconvincing MBA turnaround strategy: but in reality, what’s happening behind that whole strategic façade is that

  • Investors are steeling themselves for a big hit on their portfolios
  • Competitors are being sized up to see if they’re fool enough to buy the failing company
  • Everybody is blocking every aspect of the turnaround strategy
  • Everyone comes in every morning expecting to find a lot of blood (possibly theirs) on the carpet
  • Everyone is fleshing out their long-dormant LinkedIn profiles
  • The really proactive principals have already jumped

Needless to say, none of this normally ends well.

So, you could reasonably say that for corporates, “strategy” is essentially a billboard you plaster over a failing and grossly dysfunctional company to make it look good enough for a competitor to take off your investors’ hands.

For startups, though, strategy has a different meaning entirely. The central conceit of the business plan is that you have some kind of control over things, which for startups is almost always utterly false. Startups struggle even to influence buyers, let alone control them. In the same way, the whole (business school) notion of strategy fails abysmally for startups, because almost all are trapped in such a short-term cash-flow-centric view of the world that notions of long-term aspirational / strategic bets are simply out of scale to their cash-poor grimy suburban realities.

The terrible truth, then, is that strategies are like the mythological monkeys, in that there are only three of them: two corporate ones…

  1. Carry on doing the same” (because the company is succeeding)
  2. Pretend to be doing something new” (because the company is failing)

…and one startup one…

  1. Hang in there” (until people start paying you money for what you do)

Business school professors be warned: whenever I hear the word ‘strategy’, I take out my AK47…

Top 10 reasons your business plan blows chunks…

1. You found a business plan checklist on a celebrity VC blogger’s site, and followed it right to the letter.

  • Wrong! VCs almost never invest in startups, so why on earth are you taking their stupid advice?

2. Your plan does exactly what Steve Jobs / Mark Zuckerberg / Alan Sugar / Anita Roddick / etc etc said in his/her book.

  • Wrong! Most super-rich people got there in spite of what they did to get there, not because of it.

3. You’ve got an MBA.

  • Wrong! Make money consulting for clients who have money and no brains, not for entrepreneurs with brains and no money.

4. The plan sells your business on its rational merits and a modest growth projection.

  • Wrong! People will only back your plan if they think it’ll make them stupendously rich, despite all your flaws.

5. It’s a bit of an unsexy industry, but the figures are terrifically strong.

  • Wrong! The cocktail party test = “Hey, Steve, what’s that company you’ve just invested in?”, “Oh, it’s a bit dull but…”

6. We have two patent applications pending, and a really strong IP angle going forward.

  • Wrong! Patents scare the pants off most investors, who worry they will drain the coffers dry before you’ve sold a thing.

7. Though I’m a solo entrepreneur, I have deep experience & a fantastic industry network.

  • Wrong! Angels worry that you’ll turn out to be a deluded nutter from an episode of Dragon’s Den they missed

8. I have a fantastic Advisory Board, including a former government minister & a retired general.

  • Wrong! You gave away points in your business to know-nothing idiots like that? What were you thinking?

9. I follow Lean Startup principles religiously.

  • Wrong! You’ll obviously believe any fairy-dust solution that drops in your virtual in-tray. Get real, OK?

10. I wrote it with the help of several mentors and a professional business plan writer.

  • Wrong! You’re so anxious to hand your cash to startup parasites that none if it will go towards actually making money.

What Is A Business Plan?

A business plan is a tool you use to persuade somebody to support you in some enterprise. So, it’s not only a sales brochure for what you’re hoping/aiming to do, but also an evangelical gospel for your unique way of seeing things, as well as many other kinds of things simultaneously. Out of all these parallel aspects emerges a “Virtual You” – the self-constructed profile of yourself and your company that you present to potential backers. Remember that to them, you are so inseparable from your plan that, to all intents and purposes, you are your plan.

Yet if you look a little closer at what’s going on, you’ll find that business plans sit awkwardly in a limbo zone between financially-general persuasion tools (such as elevator pitches and executive summaries) that tend to contain few actual figures, and financially-specific persuasion tools (such as financial models, cashflow analyses, and management accounts) that are usually built around more detailed figures. So, which of these are they? The confounding answer often seems to be: both of them and none of them. Yes, it’s a mess.

The fundamental problem with business plans, then, is that nobody really knows what they should aspire to – at heart, should they be general or specific? As a result of this confusion, what usually happens is that they end up being amorphous catch-all documents containing a rag-tag mix of both, and with insufficient genuine focus to satisfy either kind of audience.

Hence if you’re ever told “you need to write a business plan to do [whatever]“, be very wary of what you set out to do! Different kinds of potential backers look for different things at different times: for example, quite a few UK angels (typically accountants and cashed-out Finance Directors) only actually want to see an executive summary and a cashflow analysis, while many others (typically cashed-out financial service professionals) look for a pitch deck and slides from your financial model. But don’t get tied up in the generalizations – everyone is different, and you may well need to prepare a whole raft of documents and presentations to give you a reasonable chance of “hitting the spot” for more than just a handful of them.

Personally, I think that there’s something a bit more subtle going on here, and that we should look more to the psychology of investing for our clues into the kind of sales documents we produce.

Specifically, the more speculative kinds of presentations play to investors’ desire for success, their aspiration, probably even their greed. So if a pitch or exec summary doesn’t leave them downright salivating, it has failed in its job. Similarly, the more detailed, empirical kinds of document are there to overcome technical financial objections, to assuage potential investors’ primal fear of losing their shirt – basically, to dampen down their fear of failure. That leaves a big space in the middle between the two: but what should go in there?

Ultimately, I believe that though they don’t tend to talk (or even think) about it much, business angels tend to be ruled by Two Big Fears – not just fear of business failure, but fear of being led up a bizarre garden path by someone who has become so good at fooling themselves that they end up fooling you too. That’s the whole “delusion” thing that Dragons Den / Shark Tank producers take such delight in foregrounding – is “bone marrow scented shaving foam for dogs” an incredibly brilliant idea or an unbelievably stupid one? Do you really want to invest £50K to find out which?

So having been thinking about this for years, I’ve come to believe that what should primarily be in business plans is simply things to do with the market – both macro-marketing (genuine market research you’ve personally carried out, together with brief analysis) and micro-marketing (genuine opinions of customers within the sector you’re aiming at). Things that validate your claims about what is going on in the big wide world. Things that ground your high-concept presentations and pitches in reality. Things that mean you’ve probably taken a bet against the market that is going to pay off.

Really, whatever the merry band of semi-retired forensic accountants posing as UK business angels may think, few startups have genuinely enough historical data to genuinely produce workable financial models, cashflow analyses or indeed management accounts. (I suspect that most of the time angels use these as a way of getting entrepreneurs to commit to unreachable milestones under impossible conditions… you have been warned.)

Hence the best-case scenario at such an early point in a startup’s history is simply that (a) the principals aren’t spending money very fast, (b) they’ve taken the time and effort to listen to their market first so as not to get taken in by a whimsical delusion, and (c) they have the wit, common sense and practicality to communicate that research to you.

So that, for me, points to what a business plan really is: a means of communicating the genuine market research you’ve carried out to test your ideas about (i) how the world works in your particular corner of it that forms your marketplace; and (ii) how you plan to improve it. Don’t be too general (leave that for your pitch) nor too specific (unless you genuinely happen to have a load of data), but concentrate on the view from the other side of the table – your customers’ side.

Let me know how you get on!