Planning, Startups, Stories


Tim Berry on business planning, starting and growing your business, and having a life in the meantime.

My Worst-Ever Business Plan Engagement

It’s not for nothing that I always say a business plan has to be your plan and nobody else’s. It can’t be your consultant’s plan. You must know it backwards and forwards and inside out, or it won’t work.

I learned this the hard way, sitting in venture capital offices at 300 Sand Hill Drive, the business plan consultant on the tail end of the new venture team. I had done the plan, built the financial model, written the text, shepherded the document through the painful coil binding and the whole thing, but I wasn’t part of the team. I didn’t want to be. I was still at grad school, getting my MBA, and my part of this venture was writing the plan, period. I needed the money to pay tuition.

In meeting after meeting, at key moments, the VCs would ask critical questions and all heads turned to me. I would answer.  I knew the plan, backwards, forwards, and inside out; but I was the only one who did. It was my plan. iStock_000000316874Small

It was a good founders team. It included three Silicon Valley veterans, a marketing guy, a technical guy, and a deal maker guy.  They had about 40 years of computer company experience between them. They had a good idea and, much more important, a market window, differentiation, and experience to make it happen.

The three of them never really got into the plan. It was a hurdle they paid me to jump for them. Every meeting generated new changes, so I would go back to the basement computer at the business school, and re-run the financial model. The team of three didn’t include a financial person to learn and manage the model, so it was always me, tweaking. Which meant I was the only one who knew the plan. I’d re-run my financial model, edit the text, and publish a new version of the plan. They read paragraphs here and there, glanced at the numbers, but they stayed with the strategy, and left the details to me.

Details that, in fact, they didn’t read. They trusted my faithful recording of their ideas, and my financial modeling. They assumed, I guessed at the time, that these were functions that could always be delegated to somebody with special skills, while they generated high-level strategy.

They did not get financed. I was disappointed. When you develop the plan and revise it dozens of times and support it and defend it through the long series of meetings with supposedly interested investors, you want it to take flight.

And time after time, when questions came, I was the only one with answers. It was my plan, not their plan.

All these years later, memory of that disappointment is still fresh. I did learn my lesson, though, and I changed my strategy as a business plan consultant. From then on I made sure that any plan I worked on belonged — and I’m talking about intellectual ownership here, conceptual ownership — to the real plan owners, not the consultant.

If you have the luxury of a budget to pay an outside expert, consultant, or business plan writer, then maybe you should use them. This might be a good use of division of labor, and perhaps you can lever off somebody else’s experience and expertise (by karaba at dhead). However, that will not work for you unless you always remember that it has to be your plan, not the consultant’s plan. Know everything in it, backwards and forwards, and inside out.

9 responses to “My Worst-Ever Business Plan Engagement”

  1. That’s why I’ve never written a complete in depth business plan. Everything changes too quickly, it is a waste of time to always rewrite it.

    • Tim Berry says:

      Thanks Karen. What I recommend is plan as you go, with short, specific plans that are full of metrics that lead to management. You do always analyze and review and revise your business. A plan is a great way to have concrete specific milestones and metrics to manage. Then manage them. Tim

  2. […] Buying ready-made business plans is another bad idea. You make your own plan; you don’t buy one from a consultant. If you have the budget to work with a consultant, check references first, and make sure that consultant helps you do your plan, rather than doing a plan for you. Here’s some background on that one. […]

  3. Dane Pymble says:

    Hi Tim

    Very useful post, thanks for sharing some of your real world experience. I’m intrigued by a comment in your profile “Business ideas have no value”.

    Would you perhaps be able to elaborate on that and if it is not the idea what is it that creates a business’ value?

  4. […] group was that the business plan document written by an outsider isn’t useful. I referenced my worst-ever consulting engagement, one of my favorite posts on this blog. Everybody in the room agreed that business planning is […]

  5. […] another post on this blog called My Worst-Ever Consulting Engagement,  a true story of how three entrepreneurs thought having a business plan was a problem solved, […]

  6. Prabu says:

    Tim, thanks for the alert.

    What are your responsibilities as a business plan consultant?

    • Tim Berry says:

      Prabu, you’re welcome. Answering your question here might be another blog post for me, rather than in this comment. I think though that if you read between the lines in the post itself you will already have a good feel for what I think a business plan consultant is supposed to do: optimize the planning process for the client, increase the client’s chances for success, share your expertise, do your best, give value for time and money spent. Tim

  7. […] please, by reading about my worst ever consulting engagement. That’s an old story now, about how one startup team misunderstood the place of the plan and the […]

  8. […] Some background here, previously posted on this blog: Sample Business Plans Suck, the Value of the Plan is the Management it Causes, and My Worst Business Plan Engagement. […]

  9. […] facilitated and translated and coached planning. (Unless, of course, you’ve read my post on my worst business plan engagement, in which case you’ll know I’ve used “never” and “always” wrong in the […]

  10. Small Business Owners Should Own Their Marketing Plan

    Over on his Planning, Startups, Stories blog, Tim Berry describes his Worst-Ever Business Plan Engagement in which the founders of a startup business abdicated the responsibility of their business plan to him, an MBA graduate student at the time. Tim’s

  11. Tim says:

    Hi Greg and thanks for a good question. No, those three never got it together. They stayed together trying for about six months, but kept their day jobs, and when the venture didn't get traction they slowly gave up on it. That wasn't optimal for me either, because as they lost interest they still asked me to continue tweaking the alleged plan.

    — Tim

  12. I could not agree more Tim, writing a business plan commits the concepts, ideas, and plans to memory. Great story and insight into a real world situation.

    Did those founders ever move forward with any part of their plan or some other?

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