THE BLOG

15
Apr

Business Planning Without Business Plans

I recently ran a couple of business planning seminars at the 5th Annual Inventing the Future Conference put on by Young Inventors

. Since it was a no Powerpoint affair (yeah!) I have no slides to share but here is a quick summary:

Business Plans DO NOT EQUAL Business Planning

By The Scott (Creative Commons)

By The Scott (Creative Commons)

It’s amazing how much stock we put in business plans considering they are works of fiction. Few startups really know their precise target market, product, pricing or cost structure. How could they? I guess writing a business plan is a good exercise in research and discipline but only if it doesn’t distract you from real business planning. My personal favorite is figuring out the size of a market. Any time there is 3rd party research on market size your product is probably too late. You can’t really size a market you’re creating from scratch so don’t sweat the details. Just show an intelligent attempt and that will be impressive enough. A recent WSJ article claims that Business Plans Don’t Matter to VCs (though not all agree).

All Customers Are Not Created Equal

There’s not much I can write about targeting specific customers that hasn’t been covered by Geoffrey A. Moore in Crossing the Chasm

. If you haven’t read it please stop reading this blog and buy the book! If you have, a re-read will remind you how it still holds true in so many cases. Startups should realize that there is no such thing as a generic customer. When you’re planning, it’s important to find a niche where you can find customers with specific pain points. Even within this niche you have to figure out how to target early adopters, i.e. people who are willing to take a risk on a startup. Targeting the early majority (i.e. more practically-minded people who need proof before they buy) is a waste of time until you have bona fides with early adopters.

From Wikimedia Commons

From Wikimedia Commons

Real-world planning tip: Create fictional caricatures of your customers (e.g. “Joe the plumber”, or more precisely “Joe the small residential plumber looking for ways to level the playing field against bigger rivals”). You should have one caricature for each of your customer types. Then keep these ‘people’ in mind every time you make a strategic decision in your company.

Find The Value

Business plans make us believe that commercializing new products is a linear progress of steps leading outwards from the original idea. Reality is a lot less linear. Sure you may have a breakthrough technology or a wonderful idea and have a great plan to push it to market, but it has to pass the “Who Cares?” test first. It’s easy to convince yourself that people (especially generic people…) will buy your product. It’s a lot harder to go out and talk to them. I always ask entrepreneurs if they’ve talked to 100 prospective customers of their products. This actually takes less time than writing a business plan!

Real-world planning tip: Get to the core of your idea by figuring out if you have a vitamin or a painkiller. The good news is that this early in the game it’s not expensive to start over.

Real-world planning tip: Since Frederick Winslow Taylor invented time and motion studies people have been measuring and analyzing user behavior. Though I’m not recommending startups take up cameras and stopwatches, I am recommending you quantify the value you purportedly add. Think your solution saves time? Detail exactly how much time, in minutes or seconds. This presumes you know what your customers were doing before they bought your product. Once you have a convincing argument bring it to a customer and try to convince them. Then on to 99 more.

Write Once, Don’t-Survive-Battlefield Everywhere

To summarize, I’m not saying that business plans are evil. Sometimes it’s good for entrepreneurs to work out ideas on paper before committing time and capital to them. Other times you have no choice, e.g. for banks or VCs. But don’t confuse writing a plan with real business planning. A plan is something you write, print, file away and celebrate with a pint. Business planning is a continuous discpline you’ll use throughout the life of your business.

13
Apr

Students Invent the Future at Young Inventors Conference

Nobody needs to be reminded how important students are to our startup ecosystem. I started my first Web consulting company in the McGill Music computer lab (which was probably against the rules!) along with two friends who were also students. Yet most universities privately admit they’re not doing a great job turning research projects into commercial products or students into CEOs.

It always surprises me that we see so few students at startup events. There are some but just not very many. At ConnectMcGill, a recent student event in Montreal, most students had never heard of the meetups, mixers and startups surrounding them. We need to do something about this!

One group that’s actively helping young entrepreneurs and inventors is Young Inventors International

. Founded by Anne Swift, YII’s mission is…

…to work with leading universities, organizations, and entrepreneurs around the world to educate student inventors and entrepreneurs on how to create new ventures and social enterprises, build intellectual property portfolios, and acquire transferable professional skills. With more than 2,000 members who own almost 700 patented and patent-pending technologies, YII is the leading not-for-profit organization providing a comprehensive network for education and skill training specifically for student innovators and entrepreneurs in North America.

I ran a business planning session at their 5th annual Inventing the Future conference held recently in Pittsburgh at Carnegie-Mellon University. 120 students took part in a gruelling (ok, probably not that gruelling) “commercialisation marathon” that was kicked off by Regis McKenna

of Kleiner Perkins fame. You can see some pictures and videos on the YII blog.

One of the highlights for me was something called BrainBuzz(tm) which was a 3-hour intensive brainstorming session. Small teams were formed and each tackled problems e.g. how to design a more effective passive solar energy collector or how to market a dancing robot (click the link, trust me). What’s amazing is the quality of ideas that flow, even from people without training in a particular field. BrainBuzz not only gives students confidence in their ideas but gives them a taste of the idea generation “buzz” that all startup entrepreneurs feel. That’s one way to get them hooked on becoming entrepreneurs.

If you are (or know) a student thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, I highly recommend you join Young Inventors and get involved. You’ll be joining a community already over 2000 strong, and growing.

30
Mar

Flow Ventures Announces Investment in Symtext

We’re happy to announce that we’ve made an investment in Symtext, a Toronto-based startup. Led by digital media industry veteran Ian Barker, Symtext has created a platform for building “liquid textbooks” which combine content from e-books and other digital content into unique learning tools. Containing both licensed works and royalty-free works, Symtext allows professors to create unique liquid textbooks for their courses and provides students with an interactive learning experience that goes beyond traditional textbooks.

Symtext has made great progress and is already working with recognized learning establishments such as Athabasca University and the Queen’s School of Business

. It is also working with several major publishers (more announcements to come).

Flow Ventures has a unique investment model that combines Angel-level financing with strategic services including interim management and direct operational support. We look for opportunities where we can accelerate the development of a startup using our experience as technology entrepreneurs.

Keep an eye out for more Symtext announcements to come, as well as more from Flow Ventures. If you are a professor interested in using Symtext in your course, contact Ian Barker for details.

27
Mar

Students to Startups: A great kick-off event at McGill

ConnectMcGill

, the inaugural tech entrepreneurship event at McGill was a huge success. Two computer science students, Nicolae Rusan and Ladan Mahabadi, had the idea of organizing an on-campus meetup for students interested in entrepreneurship. I was immediately interested in getting involved, especially to try to help bring people from the startup scene to mingle with students. We had over 80 participants and a lot of enthusiasm for making this a regular event.

James Duncan (from Joyent

) and I gave brief presentations on getting started in entrepreneurship but the real highlight of the event was seeing students mingling with Montreal startup folks. I believe that one of the most important things you can do to encourage students to become entrepreneurs is to give them access to people who are actually doing it. Half an hour spent chatting with a startup CEO is worth 40 hours plugging away at a business plan, in my opinion.

We’ll be organizing our next event with the involvement of students from the other Montreal universities as well. If you are a student, a startup, an investor or a mentor, contact me and we’ll get you involved.

23
Mar

Reminder: Startup Drinks this Wednesday!

Mark it in your calendar folks:  Startup Drinks month at Brutopia (Crescent St, just south of Ste-Catherine), on March 25 from 5:30pm.  Look forward to seeing you there!

Register now at TechEntreprise!