10 Common Business Plan Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Business Planning - Strategic ThinkingEvery company needs an up-to-date business plan. Although this is most obvious for start-ups, it applies to established firms, too. A business plan keeps everyone on track in implementing the company’s strategy and reaching its business goals.

There is plenty of information available via books and seminars on how to write a good business plan. And yet, many companies, especially start-ups, make serious mistakes in business plan writing that could have been avoided with more knowledge and effort.

As a business plan contest reviewer, I see a number of typical mistakes coming up again and again. Here are 10 of the most common business plan mistakes I have come across:

1. Boring Executive Summary

Investors, bankers, and other business plan readers usually start looking at the executive summary. It should highlight the most important points of the business plan in a pithy way. The business plan should provide a convincing story on how a a highly competent team will provide products or services to precisely defined target markets based on a consistent strategy. Moreover, it should share the company’s vision on how their products or services will make the world of their customers better in a profitable way.

In reality, many executive summaries are lackluster and incomplete summaries of a business idea whose implementation remains unclear. Sometimes, it is just cut and paste of some sections from the introduction and some other parts.

Losing the busy reader already in this part could mean that investors never care to go through the whole document. They may be missing some hidden gems. However, it is the job of the business plan writer to present these gems convincingly in the executive summary.

2. Lack of Focus

Many business plans are lacking a clear focus in defining their target markets and how the envisage products and services are competitive in serving the market needs better than others. Especially for innovative start-ups there is a risk of not focusing enough on a clearly define product/service segment and target market.

The result are often business plans describing a ‘me too’ business whose reason for existence does not become clear, not to speak of electrifying potential investors or customers.

3. Superficial Definition of Target Customers

Understanding who your target customers are and how your product adds value for them is crucial. That includes a granular segmentation of target customers and how the company’s products and services will satisfy the different needs of these different customer groups.

Many business plans, however, keep the definition of target customers very general. For example, saying that your travel app is aimed for everyone who is traveling may sound great first, because this is a very large number of people. However, different groups of travelers have different needs. Without clearly defining these needs in a differentiated way, the result will either be an app with the lowest common denominator of functionality needed by most, or it may be at risk of becoming overly complex, as it tries to please everyone.

4. Overly Optimistic Evaluation of Market Size and Opportunities

Entrepreneurs need to be optimistic to start a business in the first place. However, there is fine line between being upbeat about your business prospects and presenting a distorted view of the market size which is more driven by dreams than data. It can be related to a superficial definition of the target customers. If you think, for example, that 20% of all travelers worldwide will use your app, you would need to have a lot of supporting evidence to credibly convey how you will achieve that. It is not bad for an entrepreneur to think big. However, if you, for example, overestimate the readiness of people to buy your product, you may end up with dream figures you cannot achieve.

5. Underestimating the Competition

Many start-ups are too much self-centered. Being convinced of your product or service is certainly a good attitude. However, there is risk that this could distort your view of how it matches up against products and services of competitors who have been in the market for some time. In addition, some entrepreneurs also overlook or underestimate the possibility of new entrants who could increase competitive pressure.

6. Underestimating Business Risks

Understandably, entrepreneurs focus on exploiting opportunities. Some, however, underestimate or even neglect serious business risks that could endanger the existence of the company. Ignoring the risks will not make them disappear. Instead, it will leave the company unprepared, if a risk materializes. Apart from risk caused by changing demand trends, increasing competition, or unexpected increase of production there are also political and regulatory risks to be considered. If you have, for example, an export-oriented business, you need to take into account global trends like increasing protectionism and regulatory barriers in your target markets.

7. Too Detailed Description of the Product or Service

Especially innovative technology start-ups, often led by engineers, are really excited about the technical details of their product or service. It is part of a credible story to provide enough details so the reader understands that the product or service is well designed. However, if it drifts into jargon and technical details not relevant for understanding the business impact or innovative edge of a product, then details can become a distraction or even barrier, putting off the reader.

8. Unrealistic Financial Projections

This mistake is related to false assumptions on, for example, market size, competitive pressure, and financial risks. Nobody knows the future, and projections can, thus, not be exact. However, they can be based on real data related to general market trends and past revenue and cost development.

9. Unconvincing Presentation of the Executive Team

Quite often, there are just a couple of portrait photos and CVs pasted into the business plan without explaining to the reader, why exactly this team is complementary in their competencies specifically for running the particular business presented in the plan. Investors can get very critical, if they see that important competencies in an executive team are lacking. For example, if a group of engineers without business experience is launching a start-up, there will be questions on how competence gaps in areas like financial management and marketing will be covered.

10. Lack of Review

A team working enthusiastically on a business plan is at risk of false, overly optimistic assumptions and other mistakes that can easily be overlooked, if you are immersed in the process. Thus, not having a review of the business plan by an experienced consultant or a friendly business partner who has been there can lead to mistakes with detrimental effects. A review can help find flaws in the overall business rationale, market and customer definition, or the financial projections. Even if you are not looking for external funding, not having your business plan reviewed is a serious omission.

How to Avoid Business Plan Mistakes

The simple answer would be to be aware of these mistakes and make sure not to do them. However, it is not that easy. Even if you are aware of potential mistakes, it does not automatically mean you are capable of avoiding them. It is like with people who have bad eating habits. They know all about healthy eating and are fully aware of their mistakes. And yet the still continue making these mistakes.

This is where coaching comes in. You can either try self-coaching in the executive team, which requires a high level of awareness, openness and self-distance. Or you can hire an external coach to help you discover your blind spots, become aware of unproductive habits and attitudes like, e.g., over-optimism, and change them.

I would be interested to receive comments from entrepreneurs on what mistakes they have made in business plan writing and how they fixed them.