NEW YORK, United States — Early stage entrepreneurs often ask: is a business plan really that important or can you get away without one?
The quick answer is: yes, it’s really that important, and, no, you cannot get away without one. If you’re looking to third parties to raise capital, they’re understandably going to want to see a plan for what you want to do and how their money is going to be spent, with some very specific topics addressed along the way.
Certainly, there are exceptions to the rule. Friends and family sometimes just want to fund your business no matter what, or maybe you’ve found an angel with such an understanding of your concept that a plan isn’t necessary to get the checkbook out. My partners and I at TSM Capital sometimes invested in fashion brands that did not have business plans, but did have management teams with very clear ideas about growing the business. But even in those situations, our first order of business was always to sit down together and map out a plan. A business plan, at its core, forces the entrepreneur to clearly articulate the business in writing so that the entrepreneur, key team members and investors all stay on the same page in terms of product, strategy and financial expectations.
In short, you’re most likely going to need a business plan to get funded. And if you’re lucky enough to get funded without one, you’re still better off having one as it will serve as a roadmap for your early months.
So beyond wanting exceptional management to be pioneering a high margin, scalable business that takes advantage of an exploding industry trend, what else are investors looking for in a business plan? Here are a few general rules to keep in mind in terms of the presentation of the plan itself:
Be brief. Professional investors like short business plans, generally no more than 10 pages and certainly no more than 20. Remember that you are catering to a short attention span, since these people see lots of plans. Get in, make your points and get out. Yes, there can be exceptions: The investor deck for Moda Operandi’s last round of financing crept up to nearly 70 pages, since we had multiple investors with numerous requests, and, thankfully, we ended-up being oversubscribed. But honestly, what do you accomplish with 70 pages that you can’t with 20?
Be visual. If a picture is worth a thousand words, in a business plan, a picture might be worth a million dollars. Your goal is to make sure your potential investor understands and is focused on the beauty of your concept and good graphics help convey good ideas. I learned this the hard way: an ex-lawyer and a McKinsey alum, I drowned M’O’s first business plan in a sea of microscopic data, lists and charts with very few pretty pictures. One investor, gasping for air, (who, fortunately, did come in on our Series A) asked whether I came from McKinsey’s German office! Your business plan needs to let investors breathe so they can digest what is going on. I now always balance key data with gorgeous visuals, and I have a brilliant art director who helps create this precise aesthetic.
Be numerical. As you might imagine, financial investors are particularly focused on — you guessed it — the finances. Not only do they want to see financial projections, they want to see these same financial projections twisted and contorted into a baffling array of numerical analyses: P&L projections, cash flows, unit economic analysis, customer acquisition costs, customer lifetime value analysis, conversion funnels, etc. At the risk of jeopardizing the brevity point: the more numbers, the better.
If you want to stick to the 10 page rule, below is a framework that works for most businesses:
Page 1 – The Team. Either start with “The team” or “The summary of the concept” (see Page 2 below). I like to start with The Team because when you’re presenting to investors in person, it makes sense to introduce everyone at the beginning of the meeting. The goal is to give investors a quick summary of the experience you and your team bring to the table. Don’t spend more than a minute on this when presenting.
Page 2 – Summary of the concept. Here you want to give the big picture about your concept before diving into details. For example, at M’O, this was a description of an “online trunkshow service that sells luxury clothes and accessories to consumers immediately following their presentation during fashion week,” plus a couple of other points.
Page 3 – The problem you are trying to solve. This is critical. Why is there a need for your business? What real problems does it solve? What voids does it fill? Investors are going to love to debate this one with you so make sure you really drill down to the specific value add your business provides. M’O example: “Customers can only purchase a small percentage of a designer’s overall collection at traditional retail and often only in a limited number of sizes.”
Page 4 – Your solution to the problem. What is your solution to the specific problem? How does it benefit the various stakeholders (customers, businesses etc.) M’O example: “M’O consumers can order any item from our designers’ runway collections in any size the designer offers, from the privacy and comfort of home.”
Page 5 – The size of the opportunity. This one is also critical. You want the bread baking in the oven and wafting over to the dinner table. While some investors are willing to invest in strategic but financially “small potatoes” opportunities, most VCs are looking to invest in businesses that have the potential to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. So you need to research and quantify the opportunity and then paint a picture that tells it clearly (and aggressively), i.e. a top down analysis of how big the market is to how big a share your company will take.
Page 6 – Your competitors. Who else has tried to solve the specific problem, or a similar problem, and how have they done it? What makes you unique versus them? How do you position yourself versus them?
Page 7 – Why will your concept succeed. Time to peacock. Why are you good? What is your competitive advantage? What assets — IP, expertise, contractual rights, relationships, technology etc — do you possess that will allow you to demonstrate success? You want to show off here anything that is unique or superior. Don’t be bashful.
Page 8 – Your marketing and customer acquisition plan. Assume in the beginning that you are unlikely to have a significant marketing budget. How are you going to get the word out there about your business without breaking the bank? Think PR, partnerships, customer relationships, social media, etc.
Page 9 – Five year financial projections. Full disclosure: no one has a crystal ball and it is unrealistic to create a perfect (or even near perfect) five year plan for a completely new business. Investors know this, too, but they want to see how YOU think about growing the business; whether you’re really in it to win it. There is no right answer to how you shape these financial projections. Different entrepreneurs have different approaches, ranging from being aggressive (fearing investors will deflate the numbers anyway) to under promising and over delivering (hoping investors will appreciate a conservative tact). Bottom line, the numbers need to look attractive but achievable. You need to show them the money. And if you can’t, then why are you launching this business?
Page 10 – Next steps. Take a deep breath, you’re almost done. Let them know quickly where you are in terms of the product, the team and your timing. “Next steps” is less about what’s on the page and more about how you talk around it: that this is a huge opportunity for investors, that other investors are interested, etc. Remember that fundraising is like dating: honesty is important but go slow. Don’t reveal all of your quirks and flaws on the first date, it is up to the other party to discover those attributes over time. By that point, hopefully both parties will be in love.
Previous articles in the Finding Your MO series:
Áslaug Magnúsdóttir is co-founder and former CEO of Moda Operandi.