Tag Archives: Business Strategy Planning Advice

Approaching the Venture Capital Market

Many of today’s new ventures, particularly Internet startups with their enormous cash requirements, high risk, and high potential return, require approaching the venture capital marketplace.

What Venture Capital Firms Look For

One way of explaining the different ways in which banks and venture capital firms evaluate a small business seeking funds, is expressed by LaRue Hosmer as: “Banks look at its immediate future, but are most heavily influenced by its past. Venture capitalists look to its longer run future.”

Venture capital firms and individuals are interested in many of the same factors that influence bankers in their analysis of loan applications from smaller companies. All financial people want to know the results and ratios of past operations, the amount and intended use of the needed funds, and the earnings and financial condition of future projections.

Banks are creditors. They look for assurance that the business service or product can provide steady sales and generate sufficient cash flow to repay a loan. Venture capital firms are owners. They hold stock in the company, investing only in firms they believe can rapidly increase sales and generate substantial profits.

Venture capital is a risky business, because it’s difficult to judge the worth of early stage companies. So most venture capital firms set rigorous policies for venture proposal size, maturity of the seeking company, requirements and evaluation procedures to reduce risks, since their investments are unprotected in the event of failure.

Size of the Venture Proposal

Few venture capital firms are interested in investment projects of less than $1,000,000, and this threshold is even higher for the major firms. Projects requiring less are of limited interest because of the high cost of investigation and administration.

The typical VC firm will quickly reject on the order of 90% of the proposals received, because they don’t fit the established geographical, technical, or market area policies of the firm, or because they have been poorly prepared. The remaining plans are investigated with care. These investigations are costly, and generally reduce the candidate pool even further.

Maturity of the Firm Making the Proposal.

Most venture capital firms’ investment interest is limited to projects proposed by companies with some operating history, even though they may not yet have shown a profit. Companies that can expand into a new product line or a new market with additional funds are particularly interesting.

Companies that are just starting or that have serious financial difficulties may interest some venture capitalists, if the potential for significant gain over the long run can be identified and assessed. If the venture firm already has a large risk concentration, they may be reluctant to invest in these areas.

A small number of venture firms specialize in “start-up” financing. The small firm that has a well thought-out plan and can demonstrate that its management group has an outstanding record (even if it is with other companies) has a decided edge in acquiring this kind of seed capital.

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D has over 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.

Applying for a Loan

In making loan requests, entrepreneurs tend to be confident that they will meet or exceed what they consider conservative financial projections. They then have trouble understanding when they receive a less than enthusiastic response. To complete the picture, however, we need to look at the process from the banker’s perspective.

“What bankers view as a good loan application is at times different from what applicants think,” says Ray Fincken, vice president of HSBC Bank USA in New York. “Applicants know the bank needs information about their company to process the loan. So in the first interview they often describe all the good things happening within their company — focusing mainly on marketing and sales.

“However, bankers are usually more interested in assessing risk and consequently learning that the company has a good core foundation. Does the company have experienced management? Do these managers have various talents and experiences to guide the company through good times and bad?”

Given confidence in the management team, the bank must look at the elements of the business plan from a more objective standpoint than the entrepreneur ever can. The critical consideration is whether the company’s major products or services provide sufficient profitability and cash flow to meet all its financial obligations, particularly payments to service the debt under consideration.

If the company is a startup, the best indicators are often the norms for the business in which the company will be competing. Are projected margins and ratios in line with others in their industry? The bank will also look at credit reports and tax returns on the key individuals involved in the startup.

If the company has some financial and credit history, the bank will check corporate tax returns and financial statements, individual financial statements, liens, litigation, agency reports such as Dun and Bradstreet, etc. To ensure finances are in order, Ray recommends receiving your personal and business credit reports prior to seeking a loan to make sure the information is correct before going through this process. Misinformation or old loans and liens may erroneously still be on the report. Taking care of these errors prior to applying for a loan can streamline the process.

Fincken says: “We look for consistent, sound cash flow from operations and good, quality assets. We look at these because they are the primary sources of repayment. We then analyze this information and compare it to other similar businesses as a guide.”

Once the records are in order, the next step is the bank’s formal application process. “Planning ahead will help you increase your chances of receiving a loan as well as streamline the loan timeline,” Fincken advises. “Put together a business plan and description of why you need financing; include three years of financial statements or projections.”

Expect to be asked, and prepare your answers to the following questions:

• How much money is needed?

• What is the purpose of the loan?

• How long do you anticipate using the money?

• How will the company be able to pay back the loan?

• How will the bank get paid if something goes wrong?

Here is a list of the most common reasons for loan denials:

• The company is deemed unable to repay the loan

• There is inadequate financial information

• The financial statements are unprofessionally prepared

• There are perceived critical weaknesses in management

• Applicants fail to demonstrate their ability to implement sound accounting and management information systems.

You would certainly be reluctant to extend credit to a prospective customer where you had significant doubt of their ability to pay. Remember that the bank’s business is to lend money, and that they must apply the same discretion to your request.

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D has over 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.

Business Structure and Financing

The most common business structures are proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations. A proprietorship is simply a one-owner business. It is the most prevalent form (on the order of 70% of all businesses) because it is the simplest and least expensive to start.

A partnership is basically a proprietorship for multiple owners. Most are general partnerships, where each partner is held liable for the acts of the other partners. A limited partnership allows for general and limited partners; limited partners’ liability is limited to their contributed capital.

If you choose to go into business with a partner, be sure to prepare a formal, written partnership agreement. This should address the contribution each will make to the partnership, financial and personal; how business profits and losses will be apportioned; the salaries, and financial rights of each partner, and; provisions for changes in ownership, such as a sale, succession, or desire to bring in a new partner.

The corporation is a legal entity, separate from its owners. It is a more secure and better-defined form for prospective lenders/investors. Incorporation is perceived as limiting the owner’s liability, but personal guarantees are generally required whenever there is liability exposure.

The traditional form is called the C-Corporation. An S-Corporation is frequently preferable as a start-up form, since the losses expected in the early stages of the business may be applied to the owner’s personal tax return. Other forms include the LLC, or Limited Liability Corporation; Trusts, often for a specific time frame or purpose, and; combinations of legal entities such as “CoOps” and joint ventures.

Enlist the legal and tax advice of the professionals as to which form suits your venture best.

Ownership Structure and Capitalization

Once the legal structure is decided upon, issues of distribution of ownership, and distribution of risks and benefits may be addressed. The primary decision to be made is whether the entrepreneur will finance the venture or whether there is a need for other stakeholders, and whether these stakeholders will be investors or lenders or some combination thereof.

Financing our venture by borrowing adds to our fixed costs, but makes no claim beyond the amount of the debt no matter how great our success. Standards for debt financing are generally very difficult for startups to meet; lenders are not generally willing to share the risk with you. If a lender turns you down, ask them for specific reasons. If the reasons cannot be countered with this lender, the insight gained can be used to strengthen the presentation to the next.

The advantage of selling shares of ownership to raise capital, referred to as equity financing, is that the investor is sharing the risks of the venture; this lowers expenses since there is no debt service to be paid. The investor also shares the rewards, however, and the entrepreneur must be careful not to sell the equity too cheaply.

What do we have to offer prospective investors? For most, their primary interest is in a high return on their investment, through dividends and appreciation. There is little appeal to most investors in being a long-term minority owner in a closely-held business, so some way of “cashing out,” must be offered, such as a provision for company buy-back or a public offering.

Venture capitalists look for generally larger deals and impressive returns. Many fund projects only in specific industries; some work only from referrals from within their “network.” Carol Steinberg, in “Success Selling,” puts the odds of receiving venture capital funding in perspective: “Each year a venture capitalist fields 400 to 500 deals, seriously reviews 40 or 50, and funds only 4 or 5.”

Less visible as a source of startup capital are individual investors, known as “angels,” who typically invest $50,000 to $250,000 in private companies. While we must generally “recruit” such investors ourselves, angels are thought to represent a significant pool of risk capital.

While stakeholders are hard to find at startup, sources of assistance are available. A good starting point is the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Their Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) program allows private investment partnerships, or SBICs, to leverage their own capital using SBA guarantees.

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D has over 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.

The Strategic Plan

Small businesses are not scale models of big businesses; they are characterized by resource poverty and dependence on a fairly localized market. Their greater vulnerability to the consequences of a lack of focus stresses the importance of their strategic plan.

The strategic plan defines the company’s “competitive edge,” that collection of factors that sets the business apart from its competitors and promotes its chances for success. It requires a clear evaluation of the competitive business climate and an intimate knowledge of the market for the entrepreneur’s product.

The foundation for the strategic plan is a clear mission statement for the venture. Addressing the following questions can assist in developing this statement:

What business am I in? The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems. A good example of an industry group that failed to take a broader view is the railroads. If they had viewed their business as transportation rather than trains-and-tracks, then the airlines would be named Union Pacific and Illinois Central.

Who is our product intended to satisfy? What customer needs are being satisfied? How are these needs being satisfied, that is, by which of our methods or products?

An important strategic option is in how we price our product (as a price leader, value leader, or prestige product). Other options include the way in which we differentiate ourselves from the competition and the particular “niche,” or subset of the market, we seek to serve.

Once we have set internal objectives, we must examine the external and competitive environments in which we will be trying to achieve them.

The external environment consists of those factors that are largely outside our control, but affect the market for our product. Examples of these factors include general economic conditions, regulations, technological developments, and consumer demographics and attitudes. This environment is very dynamic, but some attempt must be made at projecting its changes.

Analysis of the competitive environment must begin with consideration of whether there are any barriers to the entry of a new competitor into the market. How strong is consumer loyalty to existing brands? How important are economies of scale; can a small independent firm compete? Are capital requirements prohibitive? Is there some proprietary technology that puts prospective entrants in a serious competitive disadvantage? Is access to raw materials or to distribution channels limited in some way? Are new entrants limited by permit restrictions or regulations?

The competitive structure of the industry is another important consideration. Are there a few dominant firms, or is the industry fairly fragmented? Will current competitors attempt to “punish” new entrants, such as through a price war, heavy advertising, or exercising their clout with key suppliers? Is there some geographic niche we can serve? What factors create cost advantages or disadvantages? How important is a firm’s position on the learning and experience curves? How are prices set? Is demand rising, even, or falling? Are there exit barriers that raise the risk of entry?

Relative strengths of our strategic partners must also be considered. What is the bargaining power of suppliers? How wide is our choice of suppliers? Is it costly for us to switch? Can our suppliers compete with us for the same customers? How important is our industry to our suppliers?

Do buyers have a wide choice of vendors? Can they make our product themselves? Are there less expensive or superior substitutes to our product in some segments of the market?

These are certainly not easy questions to answer, but performing the research to make better informed decisions, and addressing these questions “head-on” can improve our chances of success.

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D has over 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.

Buying an Existing Business

One alternative to starting a business “from scratch” is to buy an existing business. To some extent, buying a business is less risky because its operating history provides meaningful data on its chances of success under our concept. We must, however, balance the acquisition cost against what the cost of a startup might have been.

Small-business sales are generally (on the order of 94%) sales of assets, with no assumption of liabilities; only about 6% are sales of company stock. Often the seller finances part of the purchase; typically the buyer makes a down payment on the order of one-third of the sales price, with repayment terms of five years at market rates. Do you see any danger for the seller in financing the sale?

If the decision is made that purchase of an existing business could improve our chances for success, we must then evaluate existing businesses to determine whether any are available at a price that is economically more favorable than a new venture. The most difficult issue in small business sales is establishing a selling price. It is an inexact science, characterized by a seller’s too-high expectations, and an overly skeptical prospective buyer.

Due diligence must be performed before a binding offer is made. Is the company’s history and network of business relationships clear? Are their financial statements representative? What do they say about the business? Are there any unstated dangers or risks? Are there any hidden liabilities? Often, a review of the financials by our banker and accountant can be valuable.

Intangible factors must also be considered, such as the seller’s reasons for offering the business for sale. Often these are for personal and career reasons, such as a readiness to retire with the absence of a successor, or another opportunity perceived as a better fit. Business reasons might include personnel problems, or a weak competitive position. Where business reasons predominate, we must decide whether all that is missing is a quality of management that we can provide, or whether there are some changes that we can make in the way the business is operated that will make the difference.

How “good” an organization is it? How do its customers and suppliers perceive it? If we do not buy it, how tough a competitor will it be? What will be the effect of an ownership change on the customer base, supplier relations, etc.? How much customer loyalty is to the business, and how much to the current owner?

Does the company have a “niche?” Is it the one in which you want to operate? Is there a competitive advantage to the operation that is sustainable? Are its assets useful to you? Will key personnel remain with the business?

Once we have gathered the necessary information, we may decide to extend a purchase offer. We should decide on a bargaining range before we go into any negotiating session. If we cannot meet on price, perhaps concessions on payment terms could make up the difference. We should know the tax and legal consequences of our options. If the discussion takes us outside our range, we should schedule another session, and reanalyze the data. We must allow for the possibility that the deal cannot be made.

Ultimately we must decide whether the purchase, at a price that the seller will accept, gives us a better chance of success than starting from scratch in competition with the business. Perhaps the seller’s errors would start us in a deficit position; we might prefer creating our own corporate culture and customer relationships; maybe we can find a better location, facility, newer equipment, etc. On the other hand, the cost of taking sufficient business away from existing firms could be ruinous.

It must be emphasized that there is no one correct value for a business. Any valuation is based on assumptions, and projections of future performance. Discomfort about basing financial decisions on assumptions and projections is natural. Entrepreneurship requires exploring uncharted territory, and operating in an environment of uncertainty. Success depends on applying our best judgment to reducing that uncertainty.

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D has over 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.

Taking Stock

Back when I owned an inventory-based business, one of my better customers had a clever barb in his repertoire. If we were out of anything he needed in his order, he would say “You know, this would be a great place to open a supply house.”

But supply, we did for 20 years on my watch. We were in a smaller market, handling about 10,000 separate items, so we enjoyed few economies of scale. We competed with some large distributors and did very well largely due to our focus on inventory control.

At the time we used integrated management software that included an inventory control (IC) module. What made our system work so well was our commitment to keeping accurate inventory on a real-time basis, which necessitated “cycle counting.”

Wikipedia.org defines a cycle count as “an inventory management procedure where a small subset of inventory is counted on any given day.” In our case, this meant that, instead of taking a physical inventory once a year, we counted 2% (one-fiftieth) of our inventory each week up to the fiftieth week of the year. Using this method errors are caught more quickly, and extra counts can be performed on error-prone items.

With that introduction, let’s talk about the steps you can take to get your inventory under control:
Evaluate your IC “infrastructure.” Are you ready to automate IC? If you are using a management software package, is the IC module adequate for your needs?

Is your inventory layout conducive to administering a “real-time” IC? Can your staff take on the extra duties involved? While getting such a system going can require a lot of initial attention, IC systems save time, by allowing you to know what’s in stock without having to go to the warehouse, by quickly detecting any possible theft, and by lowering rates of stockout (lost sales) and overstock.

Set a target for customer service level. Measures can include percent of orders filled completely, or percent of items delivered to items ordered. The primary constraint on reducing inventory is, of course, customer service level. What’s an acceptable service level for you? 95%? 99.5%? IC software generally uses such a figure to determine how much “safety stock” you need to meet this objective.

Learn industry norms to aid perspective. While it should seldom affect your behavior, it is “nice to know” what the industry norms are for businesses of your size. You can probably get these from your trade association, or go to the “Annual Statement Studies” by the Risk Management Association, or “Industry Norms and Key Business Ratios” by Dun & Bradstreet.
What if the industry norms are 90 days of inventory on-hand, and you only keep 45 days’ worth? What if you keep 120 days’ worth? No action may be necessary, but this gives you a greater context and perspective as you fine-tune your system.

Use “best practices.” Minimum overall inventory is not the end of the story. Ascertain whether a reduction is advisable. Even at a good overall level of stock you may still have many items out of balance, over or under. So our efforts should be about “best practices” that minimize quantities required, while raising the quality of your inventory.
Clean house! In my most recent turnaround consulting appointment, a plumbing wholesaler, we started by identifying all the items that our IC system identified as overstock. We went from thinking we needed more warehouse space to having about a third of existing space available.

Of course, much of it went straight to the trash heap, but some was recent enough to send back to the manufacturer. In between, we sold some at two garage sales we held, and donated the rest to a local housing agency.

Implement “Just-in-Time. “ JIT includes a set of actions that work together to squeeze slack out of your processes. Do you enter received material as soon as it arrives? Can your key suppliers commit to shorter lead times?

Zero-base SKUs. Take a hard look at the realistic contribution of every item in inventory. You may need to keep some losers as “service items,” but you will be amazed at how many of your items are break-even or worse.

Partner strategically. Can you narrow your number of suppliers by getting more items from the “majors?” You may currently split up orders to save a penny here and there, but the vendor left standing would probably meet or beat the other’s prices for a greater share of your business. More from each vendor means more frequent replenishment, and more opportunities for JIT.
These are a few actions that should apply to continuous improvement programs at most inventory-based businesses. As they say, “your mileage may vary.”

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D has over 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.

Evaluating Business Planning Software

Abstract: Once a business idea is selected, it is highly recommended that we sharpen the concept by a detailed planning process. While this may seem a daunting task to first-time entrepreneurs, many “veterans” have found that there are software packages that can help to organize and format the material required for a comprehensive plan.

Once a business idea is selected, it is highly recommended that we sharpen the concept by a detailed planning process. The result of this step is a comprehensive business plan, with its major components being the marketing “mix,” the strategic plan, operational and logistical structures, and the financial proposal. The purpose of the business plan is to recognize and define a business opportunity, describe how that opportunity will be seized by the management team, and to demonstrate that the business is feasible and worth the effort.

While this may seem a daunting task to first-time entrepreneurs, many “veterans” have found that there are software packages that can help to organize and format the material required for a comprehensive plan. These packages are particularly helpful to those who are intimidated by starting from a blank piece of paper.

So is there a downside to purchasing software that has most of the text “in place?” The text is not always well-written, “fill-in the blanks” tends not to produce very fluid copy, and the parts you write may be in a different style than the words surrounding it. Some experts suggest that the real usefulness of such packages lies in the examples, when they are in a business similar to yours.

The sales leader in “plan-ware” is Palo Alto Software’s Business Plan Pro (BPP, paloalto.com). We have tried several packages that are comparable to BPP; you should evaluate a few to find which might fit your unique style best. Figure a price point of about $120 for standard versions of all. Others to consider would be:

 Planware’s PlanWrite (planware.org)

 PlanMagic’s Business (planmagic.com)

In addition to BP software, you may want to consider online services.

 Fundable Plans (fundableplans.com); $40 per use

Some of the factors that you would want to consider in your evaluation are:

User-friendliness – easy to get productive quickly; self-guiding, not having to go back-and-forth with instruction manual or help screens; “wizards available for some functions.

Interface – the package works with the other software that you will need in the process, such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Support – free technical support by telephone or email; useful help screens; program updates; and, resources such as articles and links that assist in the business planning process.

Features – functions beyond the basic “fill-in-the-blanks” templates, such as PowerPoint templates; market research data; industry codes; lots of rich examples; and, assistance with the more technical aspects of the plan, such as finance and strategy.

One of the dangers of using such packages is that your focus may shift from producing a complete and convincing plan to simply filling out the templates. Their real value lies in their support of getting it in writing.

Many entrepreneurs insist that their business concept is so clear in their heads that the written plan can be produced after start-up; this attitude “short-circuits” one of the major benefits of producing the plan. The discipline of writing a plan forces us to think through the steps we must take to get the business started, and, to “flesh out ideas, to look for weak spots and vulnerabilities,” according to business consultant Eric Siegel.

A well-conceived business plan can serve as a management tool to settle major policy issues, identify “keys to success,” establish goals and check-points, and consider long-term prospects. The plan must realistically assess the skills required for success of the venture, initially and over the long run, and match the skills and interests of the team to these requirements. Test the plan, and an accompanying oral presentation, on friends whose business judgment you value. Let them assume the role of a prospective investor or lender.

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D has over 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.

Venture Research Service Provider

If you are considering buying or selling a service industry business you need to start with an evaluation. This can be very complex and the use of a venture research service provider can often give you a value that you can easily defend. The following article outlines the process, and is extracted from FBB Group Ltd: https://www.fbb.com/company-information/recentarticles/how-to-value-a-service-business.

Service businesses run the gamut, from accounting firms, to drycleaners, to janitorial services, engineering, public relations firms, and many other options. Despite their disparity, they all have one thing in common: offering a service to clients.

Valuing a service business involves many factors – a tidy, one-size-fits-all formula doesn’t exist. That being said, sellers should recognize that buyers will be particularly interested in certain characteristics for most service businesses. This, again, is where a venture research service provider can come in.

Normally, valuation is based on several criteria, including: history of profitability, cash flow, overhead, intellectual property, company reputation, number of years in business, opportunities for further growth and added profits, stability of key employees/management team, and customer diversification.

Crucial areas for valuation include intellectual property, ongoing relationships with clients, and having a good team in place – ensuring the company will retain its competitive edge, even when the seller (who typically drives new and repeat business) leaves.

Without significant capital assets, key customers and employees are critical. A strong management team adds to the value of a service business (often more so than in manufacturing) and, conversely, it can detract from value when there’s a poor or inexperienced team.
Another measure of value may include the amount of market share. Companies that provide a niche service and don’t have much, if any, competition will command higher multiples of value.

Cash flow is “king,” so the primary consideration for bankers is a buyer’s ability to stay current on loans for acquisitions and working capital. Banks focus heavily on reliable cash flow for service businesses, given that there is little, to no, collateral within the service business itself.

Whether you’re in the market to buy or sell, understanding the various considerations of valuation for a service business will make the process smoother and increase the probability of a more successful transaction.

Dr. Vinturella, has over 40 years experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site https://www.jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business. “ See https://www.jbv.com/8steps, available on Amazon.

Entrepreneurial Career Consulting

The following is excerpted from Careers in Entrepreneurship, http://careers-in-business.com/en.htm. If you find it overwhelming, consider entrepreneurial career consulting. There are sources of free consulting such as SCORE, http://www.score.gov.

Entrepreneurs start new businesses and take on the risk and rewards of being an owner. This is the ultimate career in capitalism – putting your idea to work in a competitive economy. Some new ventures generate enormous wealth for the entrepreneur. However, the job of entrepreneur is not for everyone. You need to be hard-working, smart, creative, willing to take risks and good with people. You need to have heart, have motivation and have drive.

There are many industries where wealth creation is possible be it the Internet and IT, personal services, media, engineering or small local business (e.g., dry cleaning, electronics repair, restaurants).

But there is a downside of entrepreneurship too. Your life may lack stability and structure. Your ability to take time off may be highly limited. And you may become stressed as you manage cash flow on the one hand and expansion on the other. Three out of five new businesses in the U.S. fail within 18 months of getting started.

It’s important to be savvy and understand what is and is not realistic. The web is chock-full of come-ons promising to make you rich. Avoid promotions that require you to pay up front to learn some secret to wealth.

Look for inefficiencies in markets. Places where a better idea, a little ingenuity or some aggressive marketing could really make a difference. Think about problems that people would pay to have a solution to. It helps to know finance. It’s a must to really know your product area well. What do consumers want? What differentiates you from the competition? How do you market this product?

A formal business plan is not essential, but is normally a great help in thinking through the case for a new business. You’ll be investing more in it than anyone else, so treat yourself like a smart, skeptical investor who needs to be convinced that the math adds up for the business you propose starting.

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D. has over 40 years’ experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, and college professor. He is a principal in the business opportunity site jbv.com and its associated blog. John recently released his latest book, “8 Steps to Starting a Business,” available on Amazon.

Business Strategy Planning Advice

The following is excerpted from “Tips for Better Strategic Planning,” By Erica Olsen. It is part of the Strategic Planning Kit For Dummies Cheat Sheet, http://www.dummies.com/business/strategic-planning-kit-for-dummies-cheat-sheet/

Before you get too far into your strategic planning process, check out the following tips — your quick guide to getting the most out of your strategic planning process:

• Pull together a diverse, yet appropriate group of people to make up your planning team. Diversity leads to a better strategy. Bring together a small core team — between six and ten people — of leaders and managers who represent every area of the company.

• Allow time for big-picture, strategic thinking. People tend to try to squeeze strategic planning discussions in between putting out fires and going on much needed vacations. But to create a strategic plan, your team needs time to think big. Do whatever it takes to allow that time for big-picture thinking (including taking your team off-site).

• Get full commitment from key people in your organization. You can’t do it alone. If your team doesn’t buy in to the planning process and the resulting strategic plan, you’re dead in the water. Encourage the key people to interact with your customers about their perception of your future and bring those views to the table.

• Allow for open and free discussion regardless of each person’s position within the organization. (This tip includes you.) Don’t lead the planning sessions. Hire an outside facilitator, someone who doesn’t have any stake in your success, which can free up the conversation. Encourage active participation, but don’t let any one person dominate the session.

• Think about execution before you start. It doesn’t matter how good the plan is if it isn’t executed. Implementation is the phase that turns strategies and plans into actions in order to accomplish strategic objectives and goals. The critical actions move a strategic plan from a document that sits on the shelf to actions that drive business growth.

• Use a facilitator, if your budget allows. Hire a trained professional who has no emotional investment in the outcome of the plan. An impartial third party can concentrate on the process instead of the end result and can ask the tough questions that others may fear to ask.

• Make your plan actionable. To have any chance at implementation, the plan must clearly articulate goals, action steps, responsibilities, account abilities, and specific deadlines. And everyone must understand the plan and his individual role in it.

• Don’t write your plan in stone. Good strategic plans are fluid, not rigid and unbending. They allow you to adapt to changes in the marketplace. Don’t be afraid to change your plan as necessary.

• Clearly articulate next steps after every session. Before closing the strategic planning session, clearly explain what comes next and who’s responsible for what. When you walk out of the room, everyone must fully understand what he’s responsible for and when to meet deadlines.

• Make strategy a habit, not just a retreat. Review the strategic plan for performance achievement no less than quarterly and as often as monthly or weekly. Focus on accountability for results and have clear and compelling consequences for unapproved missed deadlines.

• Check out examples. Although you can’t borrow someone else’s strategy, you can find inspiration and ideas from the examples of others. Here is one website with a catalog of example strategic plans by industry: OnStrategy, http://onstrategyhq.com/samples/ . Check it out for quick access to ideas.