Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Investors Want from a Business Plan

by Tim Berry

As I write this post I’m putting on my angel investor persona, as 2010 investor chair of the Willamette Angel Conference (WAC), a group of local-to-me angel investors that makes one six-figure investment per year. I’m new to investing, I’m a small player, and I do it in a group. Furthermore, my opinions here are my own, not those of the group.

Here are some things that I want to see in a business plan submitted to our group for consideration for investment. And this is more-or-less in order of importance, but that order is not as rigorous as a numbered list might imply.

1. Experienced team

I want people who have done startups before. They tend to know what they’re doing and where they’re going much better once they’ve been through that process. I don’t mind that much if they weren’t the leader before, and not even that the previous startups failed. I’d like them to know the territory because it reduces risk.

I like a team more than the single entrepreneur. Building a business takes different skills, so ideally a team has people with diverse experience around different functions of the business: Sales, marketing, administration, and so forth.

2. Believable exits

There’s some irony here, because we built our business without caring a bit about exits, but when I think like an investor, I want to know that the money I invest is going to generate money coming out of the company, going back into my bank account, later.

So it’s not just a matter of having a good business. It’s a good business that will grow well and become a business that gets acquired by a larger business in 3-5 years. A lot of good businesses will never be interesting to an acquirer. Is it scalable? Is it defensible? These things make huge differences. It’s surprising to me how many people think they can get investors interested in a people-based service business, for which the assets walk out the door every night. Products are much better for exit than services.

3. Real growth prospects

The key to investment success is making the business worth a lot more later than what it’s worth today. That takes growth. And growth is a matter of scalability and defensibility, which I included above under exits, plus the size of market, the nature of the need, and so forth.

4. Real planning

Like many investors, I can rule out some companies just from reading a summary memo or watching a pitch presentation. But if I’m still interested after hearing the pitch and reading the summary, then I want to see a plan. Pitches without plans are obvious, because they don’t have the potential to drill down into the granularity when questions come up. And of course I like a plan that is easy to decipher and well written, but what I really look for is the pieces coming together. I want to see the conceptual links between product, marketing, sales, and financial plans. Are they aligned with each other? Do they indicate understanding the keys to success? Does this look like a plan that will be managed, that can be reviewed and revised, and will remain flexible? Or is this a plan that was done once and then forgotten. I want to see planning and management, not just a plan.

A final thought

None of this is completely predictable. Good investments will sometimes appear that don’t have all of the characteristics I’ve listed here. Still, all things being equal, this is a good filter to start with.

About the author:

Tim Berry is founder and president of Palo Alto Software and*. He is the author of books and software on business planning including Business Plan Pro and The Plan As You Go Business Plan. He has a Stanford MBA degree. He blogs at

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