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In 1987 when I started my first company (Feld Technologies), I wrote a business plan for a course at MIT that I was in called 15.375: New Enterprises. The textbook for the course was Jeffry A. Timmons’ classic book “New Venture Creation” and the course ended with the submission of a written business plan.
I went on to create a company, with my partner Dave Jilk, that bore very little resemblance to that business plan. When I reread the plan several years ago for amusement, it motivated me to go dig up plans for other successful companies that I was a co-founder of or early investor in, including NetGenesis and Harmonix. In each case, the business plans were big, long, serious documents that had only a minor semblance to actual business that got created.
In the 1990s, business plan competitions were all the rage. I was a judge early on at the MIT $10k Competition (now the $100k Competition) and read lots and lots of business plans. By 1997, when I started investing as a venture capital investor, I was no longer reading business plans. And I don’t think I have since then.
Today, it’s clear to me that business plans for startup companies are a historical artifact that represented the best approach at the time to define a business for potential investors. In the past decade, we’ve shifted from a “tell me about it” approach (the business plan) to a “show me” approach (the Lean Startup). Rather than write long exhaustive documents, entrepreneurs can rapidly prototype their product and get immediate user and market feedback. They can use Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad approach to get out of the building and actually incorporate customer development early into the definition of their business. And they can learn the lesson we teach over and over again in TechStars – “show don’t tell.”
While “business plan competitions” are still around, some are rapidly evolving into “business creation competitions.” CU Boulder is at the forefront of this with their New Venture Challenge, which is experimenting with new things each year. And activities like Startup Weekend are teaching a new generation of entrepreneurs how to envision, create, and launch a startup in a weekend, and then incorporating Blank’s Lean LaunchPad into a month-long process called SWNext.
As an entrepreneur, I encourage you to reject the notion of a classical business plan from the 1970′s. You should still thinking deeply about the business you are creating and communicate clearly what you are doing to investors – just use contemporary approaches that are much more deeply incorporated into the actual creation of your product and business.