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Why Startup Product Plans Make Poor Business Plans

Posted on the 08 May 2016 by Martin Zwilling @StartupPro

loose-leaf-binderMost technical entrepreneurs I know demand the discipline of a product specification or plan, and then assume that their great product will drive a great business. Serious investors, on the other hand, look for a professional business plan or summary first, and hardly ever look at the product plan. Is it any wonder why so few entrepreneurs ever find the professional investors they seek?

Just for clarification, I characterize a product plan as a formal description of your product or service, with a quick business description at the end for effect. A business plan is a careful layout of the business you are building, with a quick product overview in the intro to set the stage. In reality, you need both, to clarify for yourself and team that you have a viable business solution.

A product plan has tremendous value inward facing, telling your product people what to build, while the business plan has maximum value outward facing, explaining to the rest of the world how your new company will survive and prosper. A product plan is never a substitute for a business plan.

Because the product plan is aimed internally, it can assume the reader has the relevant technology and jargon background. Here are the major elements of the best product plans:

  1. Market requirements section. This first section of every product plan defines the market, sizes the opportunity, and discusses individual needs and requirements that will be provided by your product and service. These requirements must be based on market analysis, expert input, and existing customer feedback.

  2. Technology, architecture, and feature descriptions. This section of the product plan details every element of the product or service that is your solution. It allows all members of your team, including marketing, support, and sales, to size and build the business plan processes they need to find customers, deliver, and maintain grow the business.

  3. Development schedule and checkpoints. A product plan must include the timeline and milestones involved in product research and development. Each of these activities should have associated costs and resource requirements. Related activities must be defined, including performance expectations, quality certification, and proof of concept.

  4. Quality testing and approval processes. Product certification or product qualification requirements and processes are a key part of every product plan. This section of the plan would include the definition of specific test processes, how results will be measured, and who has responsibility for execution and approval.

Now let’s talk about the basic components of a business plan. Since this document is outward facing, it is important to keep the terminology and tone consistent with that of your customer set, investors, and business partners. It does need to include a high-level summary of the components in the product plan, with key additional sections as follows:

  1. Definition of customer problem, followed by your solution. The customer pain point must be defined before the solution is presented, so it doesn’t look like you have a solution looking for a problem. Use concrete terms to quantify the value of solution, like twice as fast or half the cost, rather than fuzzy terms, like cheaper and easier to use.

  2. Opportunity segmentation and competitive environment. The market for your solution should be quantified in non-technical terms, with data sourced from professionals in the industry, rather than your own opinion. List key competitors and alternatives, highlighting your sustainable competitive advantages, such as patents and trademarks.

  3. Provide details on the business model. Every business, including non-profits, needs a business model to survive. Providing your product or service free to customers may sound attractive in marketing materials, but you need revenue sources to survive. Free is a dirty word to investors, since it’s hard to get a financial return from free.

  4. Executives, marketing & sales, financial projections, and funding. These are additional critical sections of a business plan to define who is running the business, business strategy activities, and financial expectations. There are many good books and Internet articles describing each of these sections, so I won’t cover the details here.

In principle, there is very little overlap between these two plans, so it never makes sense for an entrepreneur to build one without the other. Yet I’m still often approached by aspiring entrepreneurs who have neither. If you are still in the idea stage, meaning you have nothing but a passionate verbal description of an idea, approaching investors is a waste of time and a recipe for failure.


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