Drafting Failure: Lessons in Business Planning

But caligater, didn’t you just write about Failing with Finesse?! Yes, yes I did. I was prompted and inspired by Jason Markow’s latest Think (here) project to write more about my failures. His project, FAILweek, is an event “designed to showcase and celebrate failure.”

Visit Welcome to #FAILweek for an intro to Jason’s project. Think (here) is where it’s at.

I failed at writing the first draft of my business plan.

Two things are (potentially) annoying to some of you in this statement:

  1. To some, business plans are worthless exercises in shuffling paper and creating vapid, useless documents for potential investors and venture capitalists.
  2. If it’s a first draft, who cares if it’s a failure?

I’ll respond to these two annoyances in just a moment. But first: the stage, fireball and lessons of this failure.

The Stage

In my Master of Social Science program, I had the opportunity to take the course Business Plan Writing for Social Entrepreneurs. The end product was going to be the real deal—not an outline, not an executive summary—a business plan. My academic work would launch me into my career after grad school.

Guided by an excellent instructor and surrounded by experienced and driven classmates, I began the semester knowing I was set up to hit my plan out of the park.

I rode on my excitement and intellectual momentum for the first two months of the semester. I already had quite a bit of initial marketplace research and competitive analysis completed, as the business plan I was writing was born several months earlier. I had inertia to dive headfirst into the plan. And dive I did.

The Fireball

Simultaneously, my non-school life began to take new shape (in fact, I was conscientiously changing that life-shape when I quit my good job and simplified my priorities). Although my decisions were meant to give me unbridled time to focus on school, so much disruption in my life actually took away focus on my schoolwork.

I lost momentum. Although I reprioritized my responsibilities, it happened too late in the semester. I struggled to complete the business plan—including scrutinizing cost models and how to make my business profitable; fleshing out my marketing plan based on that cost model; and exploring the best organizational structure. {HELLO—the critical parts of the plan!}

I realized I wasn’t going to hit my business plan out of the park. In fact, I knew that it was going to be disjointed and weak.

I grudgingly turned in my plan, deeply ashamed that it wasn’t my best work. And as fair and supportive as my instructor was, I received the grade I had earned. It wasn’t a good grade.

I actually cried.

The Lessons

The poor grade meant that I had disappointed my instructor and myself. It meant I had failed at creating a piece of work important to my future (and beyond the grade or the class). Though not all of the factors that contributed to my failure in drafting a business plan could easily have been changed, there were some areas for improvement. Next draft I’m going to remember some of my lessons of failure:

  • Make use of resources – I was surrounded by really smart people in my class. And if I had asked, I imagine several of them would have helped me. Duh!
  • Aim for consistency – I should have set aside 3+ hours each and every weekday to work on the plan. At least.
  • Be (mentally) prepared for obstacles – I spent the semester reading/talking/hearing about the need for entrepreneurs to be ready for unanticipated consequences. I didn’t consider that I would encounter obstacles while writing the plan. Low and behold—the plan-writing is part of the entrepreneurial process! Duh x 2!

…Back to the two annoying things:

1)   For me, a business plan is a framework, a way to organize my thinking, prepare, mitigate risks, and build an intellectual—and tangible—launching pad. I’m not writing my plan for a venture capitalist. I’m writing it for me.

2)   The failure of my first draft was like getting sucker punched as soon as I stepped into the ring. I’m going to get back up, but that first blow did sting.

The entrepreneurial horizon looks expansive and fertile from where I’m standing. As much as I drafted failure, I am moving forward in drafting success.

  • Business plans should be used to organize thoughts and to acquire financial backing. Other than that, Insult the Comic Dog would say they are, “to poop on.” I’ve written them, discussed them, planned them, and ultimately decided that to make a business successful, you MUST be passionate about it. Owning a business is such a dichotomy. On one hand, there is a level of pride in “owning your own business”, but ultimately it sometimes feels like the business owns you.

    I have failed at every business I have ever owned, and fail daily in my current one. Failure *is* an option. Failure keeps you strong. Failure is empowering. How you fail and what you do with the experience of the failure is key. The only failure that isn’t productive is the failure to learn from the event and make a positive change.

    Business is really easy. 1) Be passionate, 2) Learn to sell, 3) Set clear expectations. If you can do those, you will never fail for long.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Michael. You’re absolutely right. Recalling the discussion (albeit brief!) that we had, now I’m glad I didn’t show you my biz plan. ;) Only for the reason that I KNEW it wasn’t solid. Though I still would like to bounce ideas off of you because I respect how straight-forward and acute you are.

      And the last three points? YES! That shall become my new business mantra.

      I really appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Business plans should be used to organize thoughts and to acquire financial backing. Other than that, Insult the Comic Dog would say they are, “to poop on.” I’ve written them, discussed them, planned them, and ultimately decided that to make a business successful, you MUST be passionate about it. Owning a business is such a dichotomy. On one hand, there is a level of pride in “owning your own business”, but ultimately it sometimes feels like the business owns you.

    I have failed at every business I have ever owned, and fail daily in my current one. Failure *is* an option. Failure keeps you strong. Failure is empowering. How you fail and what you do with the experience of the failure is key. The only failure that isn’t productive is the failure to learn from the event and make a positive change.

    Business is really easy. 1) Be passionate, 2) Learn to sell, 3) Set clear expectations. If you can do those, you will never fail for long.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Michael. You’re absolutely right. Recalling the discussion (albeit brief!) that we had, now I’m glad I didn’t show you my biz plan. ;) Only for the reason that I KNEW it wasn’t solid. Though I still would like to bounce ideas off of you because I respect how straight-forward and acute you are.

      And the last three points? YES! That shall become my new business mantra.

      I really appreciate your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Cali, you illustrate some great points here. A few of them I’m guessing are unintentional. First, the real fail here is a failure of business schools. As institutions they should recognize the power of failure and find ways in their models to reward it, not just teach it. Also, as someone who has gone through the exercise of creating a business plan *twice* for business school courses, I can say that the assignment itself is nearly fruitless. For one important reason:

    Mid course corrections are what business plans are all about. You set out to determine if an idea is viable, do your research, and adjust. You’d be stupid not to change your direction once the data is in. And in a time-constrained environment like a semester or a class, it’s simply too much to ask to start over. There’s no time. So you’re forced to stick with the original idea even when it doesn’t make sense to do so.

    It sounds like this isn’t exactly what happened to you, but I’m wondering it played a part.

    • Aaron, thank you for your insight.

      You know, I wanted to make this already-too-long post MUCH longer to include more of the nuances of my experience, but I had to cut a lot out for sake of boring people. ;)

      You’re right–mid-course corrections are an inherent part of the process, and not being adaptable is completely, wholly absurd. The actual process of writing the plan necessitates making smart decisions using the research and data collected. Thus the point of writing a plan (versus jumping in headfirst and naked).

      In fact, my instructor was very aware that a 16-week semester wouldn’t be “enough” for most of us and that there would be MANY revisions throughout the writing process. She did a thorough job of preparing us for the process. I was fortunate to be in a business school course that was entirely practical–there was always emphasis on the real-world, down-in-the-trenches aspects of planning. I don’t blame the program nor the course; this really was on ME. Between managing my time (and I had a TON of it) poorly, pushing off quite a bit of vital work until the last minute, and thinking I could go it alone (without asking for help), I really did seal my own entrepreneurial fate.

      Now I’m no longer constrained by a semester or a grade…I can work on the plan as much as I want. Exciting and nerve-wracking all at once. But mostly exciting. :)

      Thanks again for taking time to share–it really means the world to me.

      And you’re in Denver! Hopefully we’ll have the chance to meet sometime.

  • Cali, you illustrate some great points here. A few of them I’m guessing are unintentional. First, the real fail here is a failure of business schools. As institutions they should recognize the power of failure and find ways in their models to reward it, not just teach it. Also, as someone who has gone through the exercise of creating a business plan *twice* for business school courses, I can say that the assignment itself is nearly fruitless. For one important reason:

    Mid course corrections are what business plans are all about. You set out to determine if an idea is viable, do your research, and adjust. You’d be stupid not to change your direction once the data is in. And in a time-constrained environment like a semester or a class, it’s simply too much to ask to start over. There’s no time. So you’re forced to stick with the original idea even when it doesn’t make sense to do so.

    It sounds like this isn’t exactly what happened to you, but I’m wondering it played a part.

    • Aaron, thank you for your insight.

      You know, I wanted to make this already-too-long post MUCH longer to include more of the nuances of my experience, but I had to cut a lot out for sake of boring people. ;)

      You’re right–mid-course corrections are an inherent part of the process, and not being adaptable is completely, wholly absurd. The actual process of writing the plan necessitates making smart decisions using the research and data collected. Thus the point of writing a plan (versus jumping in headfirst and naked).

      In fact, my instructor was very aware that a 16-week semester wouldn’t be “enough” for most of us and that there would be MANY revisions throughout the writing process. She did a thorough job of preparing us for the process. I was fortunate to be in a business school course that was entirely practical–there was always emphasis on the real-world, down-in-the-trenches aspects of planning. I don’t blame the program nor the course; this really was on ME. Between managing my time (and I had a TON of it) poorly, pushing off quite a bit of vital work until the last minute, and thinking I could go it alone (without asking for help), I really did seal my own entrepreneurial fate.

      Now I’m no longer constrained by a semester or a grade…I can work on the plan as much as I want. Exciting and nerve-wracking all at once. But mostly exciting. :)

      Thanks again for taking time to share–it really means the world to me.

      And you’re in Denver! Hopefully we’ll have the chance to meet sometime.

  • Yes – us Denverites have to stick together. Looking forward to meeting you.

    Something that wasn’t emphasized enough in my courses (maybe they were in yours): a business plan (much like a website or a blog post) should never be complete. It’s a living document. Use it as you need it, dial it in when you need to (like when you need funding).

    Just more of my $.02.

    • Living document —> absolutely.

      Thanks for your $.02…keep on throwin’ it into the pot! :)

  • Yes – us Denverites have to stick together. Looking forward to meeting you.

    Something that wasn’t emphasized enough in my courses (maybe they were in yours): a business plan (much like a website or a blog post) should never be complete. It’s a living document. Use it as you need it, dial it in when you need to (like when you need funding).

    Just more of my $.02.

    • Living document —> absolutely.

      Thanks for your $.02…keep on throwin’ it into the pot! :)

  • Been there, done that. I want to say that I have only been in this position (delivering less than my best) no more than a handful of times, but I may be forgetting some. What I did not forget about all the experiences is that not once did I feel good about it, not once did I “pull the wool over their eyes”, and not once did I fail to redeem myself if the opportunity presented itself.

    Your head is in the right place. Here is to drafting to success!

    t(h)ink on.

    Jason

    • Thanks, Jason. I am so grateful you included me in your celebrating failure project.

      I’ve been in this space only a few times, as well. It does NOT feel good. But you make an excellent point (as always!): redeeming yourself if the opportunity is there (or creating that opportunity) is critical.

  • Been there, done that. I want to say that I have only been in this position (delivering less than my best) no more than a handful of times, but I may be forgetting some. What I did not forget about all the experiences is that not once did I feel good about it, not once did I “pull the wool over their eyes”, and not once did I fail to redeem myself if the opportunity presented itself.

    Your head is in the right place. Here is to drafting to success!

    t(h)ink on.

    Jason

    • Thanks, Jason. I am so grateful you included me in your celebrating failure project.

      I’ve been in this space only a few times, as well. It does NOT feel good. But you make an excellent point (as always!): redeeming yourself if the opportunity is there (or creating that opportunity) is critical.

  • Susan Passmore

    I made a mid-course correction in my business plan class (two weeks into a summer quarter). Fortunately for the procrastinator in me, our professor required everyone to turn in a draft section or two of the plan every week. Still, there was always the possibility of getting through all the research and analysis and finding out your plan was not viable. For me, it was/is a fluid document — and a helpful process to come back to for applying discipline to dreams.

    Good luck!

    • Hi Susan – thank you so much for stopping by. I’m right there with you, and I was prepared for the possibility that my plan not might be viable. Business-planning certainly is growth-filled process. To say the least. :)

      “Applying discipline to dreams” Wow…that’s a beautiful thing to remember. Thank you for your well wishes and thoughts!

  • Susan Passmore

    I made a mid-course correction in my business plan class (two weeks into a summer quarter). Fortunately for the procrastinator in me, our professor required everyone to turn in a draft section or two of the plan every week. Still, there was always the possibility of getting through all the research and analysis and finding out your plan was not viable. For me, it was/is a fluid document — and a helpful process to come back to for applying discipline to dreams.

    Good luck!

    • Hi Susan – thank you so much for stopping by. I’m right there with you, and I was prepared for the possibility that my plan not might be viable. Business-planning certainly is growth-filled process. To say the least. :)

      “Applying discipline to dreams” Wow…that’s a beautiful thing to remember. Thank you for your well wishes and thoughts!

  • Cali,
    Great failure! I hear you on turning in your not-the-best work. It’s hard to do great work.

    I appreciate your lessons. It’s easy to try and do everything on our own. Good (duh) reminder on asking people around us for help.

    Thanks for sharing your story!
    Tim

    • Thanks much, Tim.

      I’m learning about not being a lone wolf. :)

      Enjoyed reading your FAILweek post, too. In fact, I really enjoy your blog. Just subscribed to it.

  • Cali,
    Great failure! I hear you on turning in your not-the-best work. It’s hard to do great work.

    I appreciate your lessons. It’s easy to try and do everything on our own. Good (duh) reminder on asking people around us for help.

    Thanks for sharing your story!
    Tim

    • Thanks much, Tim.

      I’m learning about not being a lone wolf. :)

      Enjoyed reading your FAILweek post, too. In fact, I really enjoy your blog. Just subscribed to it.