In more than 30 years with business planning, my worst-ever business plan consulting engagement was for a startup that should have been funded but wasn’t. It was a good business plan. But the business plan process became the fatal flaw.
A good plan, excellent team, good startup
I learned this lesson while sitting in a series of meetings, sitting in venture capital offices at 300 Sand Hill Drive, Menlo Park, CA. That office complex has been the epicenter of venture capital for four decades. It’s a rangy maze of stylish and expensive two-story office complexes. I was the business plan writer for a startup looking for funding. It was a long time ago, in Silicon Valley, in the early 1980s.
The three startup founders formed an excellent startup team. All three were Silicon Valley veterans. One was a marketing guy, another a technical guy, and the third a deal-maker salesman. 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.
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.
My three clients had good connections and managed to get meetings with several leading venture capital (VC) firms in the Sand Hill Drive offices in Menlo Park, just outside of Stanford. in the heart of Silicon Valley.
But there was a problem with business plan consulting
In meeting after meeting, at key moments, as the venture capital partners asked critical questions, 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. And the meetings made that obvious.
The three of them never really got into the plan. They thought of the business plan as a hurdle; and they paid me to jump that hurdle. 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 I did the financial projections alone, 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 big picture, 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.
And time after time, when questions came, I was the only one with answers. It was my plan, not their plan.
They never got funded
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.
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.
How to work with a business plan 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. 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.
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.
(Note: this is rewritten from a post I wrote in 2007)
As a strategic planning consultant for nonprofit arts organizations, I would have to say that at that time you were not hired as a consultant but as a contractor. It’s important for clients (or potential clients) to know that your role as consultant is to facilitate their process and provide them with tools and resources to complete a plan they can implement. You’re right, the plan they wanted from you was about checking off a box. Their arrogance mixed with what I gather is some inexperience on your part (at that point in your career) was a bad combination. Great lesson learned though.
@vps yes, thanks, it was my first engagement as consultant in business planning, and you’re right about the phenomenon of checking off the box. It happens way too often with business plans, more so I suspect than many other kinds of consulting. This is people thinking of the business plan as a hurdle (exactly as you suggest with checking off a box), something you can have done by an outsider because it’s content doesn’t matter and it won’t have to change. As if you needed to have written a novel and you can hire somebody to write it in your name. The phenomenon of ‘business plan writer’ suffers from this general misunderstanding too.