Is Business Planning Gender Specific?

I don’t get it. Why would Business Plan Pro® sell more to men than women? I don’t think women need or want business planning less than men, do they? Is there a gender difference in business planning? Should there be? That doesn’t make sense, does it?

Almost 10 years ago a group of us at Palo Alto Software encountered the fact that our business-planning software sold more to men than women. We hated that fact. We talked about why that would be, how we could change it. Why should business planning be skewed toward men? Aren’t there more women than men starting businesses? Wouldn’t that mean more women than men running businesses, and therefore, more sales of business-planning software to women? Of course there was a history of personal computers being used much more by men than women in the early days of personal computing, back in the late 1970s and 1980s. But this was the late 1990s, and that didn’t explain it.

The data didn’t give us any help. Software companies, (all companies actually) can only know about their customers that which their customers choose to tell them, so they extrapolate from what pieces of information they do get. Gender, however, doesn’t seem like a factor people would hide or manipulate in filling out registration data. The data did tell us that women were buying business-planning software less often than men. It didn’t tell us why.

We tried to find something gender-specific about business planning, but we couldn’t. Somebody suggested something about intuition in planning, but we couldn’t accept that as a factor. First, because it’s just stereotyping in an unproductive way. Second, because planning involves so much educated guessing that is intuitive to some extent, and that’s the same across both genders.

We tried to find something wrong with our messaging and media and channels and the rest of our strategy that might explain the gender imbalance, but we couldn’t. We certainly wanted to correct the imbalance, and not by selling less to men, but obviously by selling more units to women.

The “we” in this story was about half and half men and women. And although the conversations took place almost 10 years ago, most of them are still on the team, although there were only about 10 of us then and there are 40 or so now. And there is still a skew in our customer survey data, meaning today, that many years later, we are still selling more business-planning software to men than to women.

Steve King reminds me of this issue with a post today with SBA Study on Male and Female Entrepreneurs in his Small Biz Labs blog, citing a study just released by the SBA titled Are Male and Female Entrepreneurs Really That Different?.

The answer appears to be no when it comes to performance.  From the study: “When other factors are controlled for, gender does not affect new venture performance.”

The study does point out a number of differences between male and female entrepreneurs.  Most have to do with the motivations and expectations around starting a business.  From the study:

“Male owners were more likely to start a business to make money, had higher expectations for their business, and did more research to identify business opportunities.”

This fits with our research which shows women are more likely than men to start a business as part of a broader work/life balance plan.  Because of this, expectations and motivations are often different.

Our research also shows that men are starting to take more interest in work/life balance, so these differences may narrow over the next few years.

Jeff Cornwall talks about the same study in The Entrepreneurial Mind.

… in most of my conversations with women entrepreneurs I hear that they don’t want to be treated differently — they just want to be treated as entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship researchers also crank out study after study looking for “gender differences” in the entrepreneurial experiences. While some subtle differences can be observed, fundamentally the experiences and issues entrepreneurs face seem to be remarkably similar.

A new study was just released by the SBA on gender differences among entrepreneurs. The authors found differing expectations, reasons for starting a business, motivations, opportunities sought and types of businesses between men and women — and these result in differing outcomes. They go on to recommend that such observations should be taken into account when comparing the outcomes of ventures across genders.

That makes sense, but so does taking into account differences in age, life stage, life style, marital status, rural versus urban location, etc., etc., etc.

Meanwhile, back in the world of business-planning software, we still have a gender imbalance, 10 years later, and we still don’t like it. Why is that? Maybe I’m just too close to it to see it, but I really don’t see any difference in the tool or in business planning as done by men or women. That would lead to looking at our message and media, but it’s hard to find anything there that points to one gender or another in any way. Actually, in the case of Palo Alto Software, we have significantly more women than men on our sales and marketing teams, so it’s hard to think that we’re talking to only one gender on purpose.

Meanwhile we’ve encountered anecdotal evidence that more women than men start their own businesses in the US. This reminded me of the startup phenomenon in the 1990s in Japan, which I had heard of while doing extensive consulting work in Japan from 1990 to 1994: women were much more likely to start businesses in Japan because (anecdotal evidence again, but overwhelming) they were blocked from normal advancements within the male dominated corporate culture.

I have no answers on this one, just questions.



  • christina says:

    Hello. I came across a small feature on www.

    Make Mine A Million is a female entrepreneur program from the creator of Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Maybe a good resource with insight into the gender question?

  • asdf says:

    I don't know if this makes things worse but … in the company I work for, and it's department of business planning … there are more women working than men … a lot more … 🙂

  • Tim Berry says:

    Thanks Julie, I totally agree with you that every business plan should be unique, but please don't assume that business plan software is all fill-in-the-blanks pre-written stuff. The business plan software I work with is a tool to help you keep track of outline, manage the logistics of it, put the financials in standard format, and make the mechanics of it easier. You can add and delete topics in the outline infinitely, and you write your own words and tell your own story and do your own numbers. Delete and add what you want.

    Tools are tools. Is script and screenwriter software stifling creativity because it manages the dialog formats? Are all paintbrushes and canvases paint by numbers?

    I do appreciate the main point, though, that every business plan should be unique, and I totally agree with you on that. And there's no denying that I'm biased about business plan software. I am. It really is not what you think it is.

    Thanks, Tim

  • Julie Lenzer Kirk says:

    I hate to break it to you, but lackluster sales of business planning software does not equate to less women writing business plans. Perhaps women just don't use software to write their business plans!

    In truth, I don't like the idea of using software to write a business plan (and I've written a few) because it feels like it takes away my creativity. Don't get me wrong – it is a great tool to help you think through all of the issues and questions that need to be answered. To get an investor's attention, though, a good business plan should tell your story, not someone else's.

    I really like and appreciate your insight on the planning process – keep inspiring good business!

    Julie Lenzer Kirk
    Author, The ParentPreneur Edge: What Parenting Teaches About Building a Succesful Business (Wiley)

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