Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Worst Business Plan Opening Lines

Each year, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University, challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.

Garrison Spik was the 2008 winner, offering this gem: “Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city, their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped ‘Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.’”

Or, as Dan McKay wrote in 2005: “As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.”

You get the idea.

(I had a friend not so long ago tell me that he thought one of the best openings to a novel was found in William Gibson’s Neuromancer: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” I agree, though it's hard to top John Varley in another classic scifi, Steel Beach: "'In five years the penis will be obsolete,' said the salesman." Would that get you to read the second sentence? By the way, there is such a thing--if you enjoyed that second example--as a “bad sex award” in writing; see here. It'll make you wince.)

All of which brings us to the notorious business plan, just another form of communications whose opening line, rhetorically speaking, can be botched as badly as any atrocious novel.
And, while you may never write a novel, if you work long enough, you’re going to end up writing a business plan. It’s an entrepreneurial right-of-passage, and, for serial entrepreneurs, perhaps even a right-of-endurance.

There might be a million lines written about what makes a good business plan. But they all boil down, in my estimation, to intent; if you write a business plan for the right reason, everything falls into the place. And that reason must be: You want to convince yourself and your team, through a fact-based, well-reasoned argument, that what you are about to do (with your time, money, and sweat) solves a real problem in a real and compelling way.

That means you do the hard digging, visit the potential customers, and network through to real experts and real data required to convince you and your team that it’s all worth the pain of launching a business.

Compare that to the much more typical reason for writing a plan: You’re excited about your idea/technology/opportunity, have had a little success, and now need to raise capital. From that premise, you rely on secondary information, elaborate spreadsheets, anecdotal information, team resumes, and often end up with the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.

“You’ll love our team, and I can’t wait to write all about them—especially me.”

Or, “You’ll love our cool technology; in fact, we’re going to spend 90% of the plan (including lots of pictures and exciting flowcharts) describing it.” (And when we meet you, we won’t be able to shut up about it.)

John W. Mullins had an excellent article in the June 22, 2009 Wall Street Journal entitled “Why Business Plans Don’t Deliver.” In it, he touches on many of the points above, as well as a few others. See here.

Mullins reminds us:
A good business plan starts with a clearly defined problem—something that’s really troubling or compelling—supported by evidence from marketing research, testimonials, letters of intent, or whatever, that the pain is real. If you can convince your readers that this problem is real, they’ll be hooked, at least for a while, as they read on to see whether you’ve found a solution that can resolve the pain. If the pain isn’t real, stop writing. There’s no need for a solution.
If you’re starting a business plan from ground zero, you might check Jack Derby’s site for good advice, or Guy Kawasaki’s “Zen” article.

By the way, if you ever find yourself writing something like, “The market size for my idea is $10 billion, so all we need is a .1% share and we’ll all be rich,” stop. You’ll do better launching a business plan with the opening line, "In five years, we expect to obsolete the penis."  At least it will get the reader to line two of the plan.

Just don't quit your day job.