Do Business Plans Make No Difference In The Real World? A Study Of 117 New Ventures

Julian. E. Lange, Babson College, Wellesley, MA
William D. Bygrave, Babson College, Wellesley, MA
Aleksandar Mollov, Babson College, Wellesley, MA
Michael Pearlmutter, Babson College, Wellesley, MA
Sunil Singh, Babson College, Wellesley, MA

Abstract

This pioneering study examined whether writing a business plan before launching a new venture affects the subsequent performance of the venture. The data set comprised new ventures started by Babson College alums who graduated between 1985 and 2003. The analysis revealed that there was no difference between the performance of new businesses launched with or without written business plans. It also showed that businesses with male founders outperformed those with females, and that businesses started by alums with only BS degrees outperformed those with MBA degrees. The findings suggest that unless a would-be entrepreneur needs to raise substantial startup capital from institutional investors or business angels, there is no compelling reason to write a detailed business plan before opening a new business.

Introduction

The most widely dispensed advice for would-be entrepreneurs is that they should write a business plan before they launch their new ventures. The world of entrepreneurship is awash with information on business plans. For example, a simple Google™ search shows 199 million hits for business plans and 24.5 million hits for writing business plans. Business plan contests are so ubiquitous that a search for business plan competitions reveals 27.6 million hits. No doubt about it, business plans are now deeply entrenched as a key, perhaps even crucial, component of the aspiring entrepreneur’s toolkit. The field has come a long way since the pioneers of entrepreneurship training put writing a business plan at the core of their programs in the 1970s.

Writing a business plan is a laborious task, which according to some gurus takes 200 or more hours. Granted, careful preparation of a business plan provides an entrepreneur with an opportunity to pull together all facets of a new venture, to examine the consequences of different strategies and tactics, and to determine the human and financial requirements for launching and building an idea into a viable venture (Timmons et al., 1985). But is it worth the effort? For budding entrepreneurs raring to implement their ideas, writing a business plan often seems to be an unnecessary academic exercise standing in the way of what is really important to them, which is opening their doors for business. After all, some of the heroes of today’s would-be entrepreneurs, such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Michael Dell, did not have business plans in hand when they embarked on ventures that changed the world.2

A business plan is arguably the most widely used screening device for investors and -bankers. But is a written plan necessary for entrepreneurs bootstrapping their businesses with their own savings, augmented in some instances with money from family members and close friends? Looked at another way, even if entrepreneurs do not need to raise money from formal sources including business angels, venture capitalists, bankers, and corporate strategic partners, should they nonetheless write a business plan at the outset? In the academic literature there is scant empirical evidence either to support or contradict the prescriptive wisdom that new ventures started with a written business plan perform better than those without one. There are, however, recent studies that found that early business planning reduced the chances of nascent ventures being disbanded and enhanced their chances of becoming operational (Delmar and Shane, 2002; 2003; Shane and Delmar, 2004).

In the research described in this paper, we set out to answer the question: Do business plans written before a new venture starts operating make a difference to its subsequent performance?

Literature Review

Because there is a dearth of descriptive statistics in the scholarly research literature on writing business plans, we will start with the evidence from a trade magazine. Every year, Inc. magazine publishes a special issue, Inc. 500, which contains details of “America’s [500] Fastest-Growing Private Companies.” For the most part, they are relatively young companies; for instance, of the 2004 group, 48% were founded since 1998, and 84% were less than 10 years old (Inc. 500, 2004). In a survey of the Inc. 500 in 2002, founders were asked whether they had written a formal business plan before they launched their ventures. Bartlett (2002) writing in Inc. reported that “Only 40% said yes. Of those, 65% said they had strayed significantly from their original conception, adapting their plans as they went along. In a similar vein, only 12% of this year’s [2002] Inc. 500 group said they’d done formal market research before starting their companies.” According to Bhidé (2002), that finding is consistent with his analysis of the Inc. 500 in 1989 when “41% of the founders had no business plan at all, 26% had a rudimentary plan, and only 28% had a formal business plan.” A study of Harvard Business School alums that had started businesses discovered that no more than a third had written detailed business plans. Bhidé (2002), the author of the Harvard study, commenting on his findings and those of Inc. stated, “It’s a pretty universal distribution.” Put another way, only a minority of entrepreneurs, including even MBAs from a preeminent business school, started their ventures with a formal written business plan.

Why is it that only a minority of the cream of the crop of entrepreneurs—the Inc. 500—wrote formal business plans before they launched their ventures? The answer may be found in the -reason for writing a plan, which Shuman, Shaw et al. (1985) reported was mainly to raise funds. In a similar vein, Zacharakis and Meyer (2000) stated that a business plan is the primary source of information for the investment screening decision. This reinforces Hindle’s (1997) claim that information in a business plan is used by readers to support their decisions about “provisions of resources to the venture.” Similarly, Mahdjoubi (2004) found that 90 percent of venture capital funded companies used their business plans for external communication with third parties, essentially for financing purposes.

A written business plan is virtually a universal requirement for entrepreneurs who are seeking formal venture capital. However, very few entrepreneurs ever have formal venture capital in hand at the moment they start their ventures—Bygrave (2004), for example, estimated that fewer than 1 in 10,000 new ventures are funded at the outset with formal venture capital. Thus it is puzzling why so many entrepreneurs bother to write business plans if the principal purpose of a plan is to raise venture capital, because in almost every case they come up empty handed. Part of the explanation may be that there are other financing sources, such as angels, bankers, and corporate strategic partners that require written business plans from entrepreneurs.

It seems unlikely that the pursuit of financing is the sole justification for writing a formal business plan. Timmons et al. (1985) in successive editions of New Venture Creation: A Guide To Entrepreneurship and in a Harvard Business Review article (Timmons, 1980) argue that a business plan is much more than a fund-raising device. It has intrinsic value in articulating “what the opportunity conditions are, why the opportunity exists, the entry and growth strategy to seize it, and why you and your team have what it takes to execute the plan.” In a study of 65 participants who completed a business plan, Wyckham and Wedley (1990) found that 46 used it as an internal planning document, 32 used it as a marketing plan, 27 to get financing, and 12 to attract a partner. Many used it for more than one purpose. Mahdjoubi (2004) supports this notion when he contends that business planning is valuable in helping clear a number of problem hurdles before starting up, but goes on to report that the plan after being formalized was never read in many cases.

Since New Venture Creation first appeared in 1977, the Timmons Entrepreneurs-Opportunity-Resources model with the Business Plan at its center has become the core framework for the basic course in many undergraduate and MBA entrepreneurship curricula. It’s no surprise that generations of entrepreneurship students have been schooled to regard the business plan as the foundation on which to build their new ventures. Business plans per se have almost become a new industry sector with consultants, accountants, lawyers, professors, business competition organizers, hard-copy publishers, online publishers, financiers, investors, and bankers all vying for part of the action. We even know of students and alums who have almost made a career of competing in business plan competitions. In one case, the entrepreneur won more than $100,000 in at least four business plan competitions, but three years after the company was founded it had no significant revenue.

David Gumpert, who with the late Stanley Rich, wrote one of the pioneering books, Business Plans That Win $$$: Lessons from the MIT Enterprise Forum, (Gumpert and Rich, 1987) and followed it up with How to Really Create a Successful Business Plan (Gumpert, 2003A) has grown increasingly skeptical about the value of business plans. His skepticism is fueled by a concern that too many would-be entrepreneurs are spending far too much time writing and polishing their business plans instead of getting on with actually implementing their business plans. The title of his latest book, Burn Your Business Plan! What Investors Really Want from Entrepreneurs, says it all (Gumpert, 2003B).

Amar Bhidé, a professor of entrepreneurship at Columbia University, expresses his reservations about business plans as follows:

It seems as if people who are trying anything, whether it’s playing tennis or starting a business, want — and should want — to collect as much knowledge as is available about what it is they’re trying to do. And since we haven’t collected much systematic knowledge about starting new businesses, instruction on how to write a plan becomes a crutch. And for sure, there’s some 10% to 15% of plausible businesses for which writing a plan does make sense. But not for the great many. You’re required to teach entrepreneurship, and there’s a great student demand for instruction on how to write a business plan. You have to generate courses, and it’s an easy course to generate. (Bhidé, 2002)

What are would-be entrepreneurs to make of all this conflicting advice? Or more to the point, what should we academics tell them? Ideally, we would like to be able to show them convincing evidence that ventures launched by entrepreneurs with a business plan subsequently outperformed those without one. But on this important question the scholarly literature comes up short. The next section shows that the empirical evidence is scarce, and what little there is tends to be scanty and conflicting.

Hypotheses

Some studies have found that early-stage companies that completed formal business plans failed to outperform those that didn’t do so (Lumpkin et al.1998; Miller and Cardinal 1994). According to some scholars, planning imposes too much rigidity on young businesses in their early stages, when they would be better off emphasizing action as opposed to mere planning. For example Carter, et al. (1995) found that among a group of would-be entrepreneurs, those who actually started a business “put themselves into the day-to-day process of running an ongoing business as quickly as they could, and these activities resulted in starting firms that generated sales (94% of the entrepreneurs) and positive cash flow (50% of the entrepreneurs)”. Those who were “still trying” tended to be more involved in internal activities such as saving money and preparing a business plan. Likewise, Keeley and Kapp (1994) discovered that “high performing” companies focused primarily on action rather than planning. They “did not systematically search for a business idea, and did not develop a detailed business plan.” Others have also failed to find any association between business planning and business success (Robinson & Pearce, 1983; Boyd, 1991). Honig, et.al. (2004) make the argument that there is no significant evidence to support positive outcomes in terms of profitability for those nascent organizations that produced business plans during a two-year initial period. And Sahlman (1997) bluntly states that a business plan doesn’t rate higher than two on a ten-point scale as a predictor of a new venture’s success.

On the other hand, some studies have shown that planning assists with the overall growth and success of new firms (Bracker, Keats & Pearson 1998; Schwenk & Shrader 1993). In their study of selected U.S nascent entrepreneurs, Ford, Matthews and Baucus (2003) found that business plan formality in year zero of nascent businesses had a significant and positive correlation to the actual and expected revenue in year zero. Time, however, lessened the relationship between planning in year zero and the financial outcomes in year two, suggesting that business planning appears to improve performance in the short term and needs to be updated to optimize its impact. Delmar and Shane (2002) examined 223 Swedish new firms over the first 30 months after conception and found that companies that engaged in planning activities early in the organization process had a higher survival rate than those that did not. In a later article based on the same data set, they reported that when a business plan preceded contacting a customer or initiating marketing and promotion, a nascent was less likely to be disbanded (Shane and Delmar, 2004). .

The above evidence suggests the following:

Hypothesis 1: All other things being equal, new ventures that are launched with formal -written business plans do not outperform ones launched without them.

But of course all other things are not equal. In the kind of data that can be collected from actual businesses, there are factors that are likely to affect the outcome, among them are age of the business, amount of initial capital, industry sector, business model (not to be confused with business plan), location, and experience, education, gender, and age of the founder. Considering all the complicating factors that have to be controlled, it is not surprising that there is a dearth of studies on the effects of business plans.

Method

Research Design and Sample

At BKERC2004, Bygrave, Lange, and Evans (2004) reported on a study of 1,971 Babson BS and MBA alums who graduated between 1985 and 2003. In that study, 35.2% of the respondents were entrepreneurs who had started at least one full-time business since graduating. For the research reported in this paper, we emailed to that set of entrepreneurs an online questionnaire seeking intimate details about their businesses. Questions dealt with personal information on the founders, their businesses, business plans, business models, changes to their business models, initial financing, and performance.3 Three hundred and thirty valid replies (response rate 48.9%) were received.

We acknowledge that by surveying only Babson alums we might be criticized for not having a broader-based data set. However, there are considerable benefits from this bounded data set: The respondents have similar educations. There is probably no group of alums anywhere in the world who have been exposed to as much information about entrepreneurship and business plans while they were earning their degrees. Furthermore, because they are business school graduates, they are able to understand and reply correctly to somewhat complex questions. Their replies were not anonymous; respondents were asked to provide names and addresses of themselves and their companies. We guaranteed them confidentiality because some of the key information that they were asked to provide was very sensitive. We believe that because they are Babson alums they were more likely to trust the Babson professors conducting the research and therefore be more forthcoming with sensitive information than a random group of anonymous entrepreneurs would have been.

Variables and Measures

The dependent variables for measuring company performance were revenue, net income, and number of employees at the time the questionnaire was being completed. If the company was no longer operating as an independent company, we asked what its revenue, net income, and number of employees were at its peak. We realized that we were asking for sensitive information from -private companies so it was likely that some entrepreneurs would not give us those three performance measures, and indeed that turned out to be the case. We recognize that there is a never-ending debate about how to measure the performance of private companies; see, for example, Brush and Vanderwerf (1992). We would argue, however, that short of an independent audit of a company’s books, our measures are about as valid and reliable as one can reasonably expect with self-reported data.

As already mentioned, the independent variables were designed to measure factors that we deemed might influence the performance of a company.

Analysis and Results

Our final data set contained only independent, for-profit startups. We culled corporate entrepreneurs, franchisees, family business spin-offs, not-for-profits, etc. from the initial set. Then we narrowed the set down to only those replies that were complete or almost complete. We also removed one outlier because it was so much bigger than the second biggest company. But we hasten to point out that none of the conclusions of the statistical analyses that we report here were changed when we removed that outlier. Our final data set contained 117 cases composed of 95 men and 22 women, 61 MBA’s and 56 BS’s, 65 with and 52 without a written business plan when they launched their businesses.

Variables with skewed distributions were transformed to their log10 values. The best candidates for control variables are shown in the abbreviated Pearson correlation matrix, Table 1. They are the variables that we included in our regression analyses. The data set spans the Internet bubble of 1998-2000 when there was exceptional entrepreneurial activity, so we included a categorical dummy variable for the years 1998, 1999, 2000, but did not find any correlation with the dependent variables at the 0.1 level.

Descriptive Statistics

The descriptive statistics for the variables that we used to build our regression models are shown in Table 2. Both the means and the medians are shown because the distributions are skewed. For the group as a whole, the mean annual revenue was $2.51 million (median $500,000); the mean net income was $427,000 (median $100,000); the mean number of employees was 22 (median 4); the amount of startup money raised before the business was 12 months old was $366,000 (median $40,000); and the mean age of the businesses was 59 months (median 46 months).

When the group is divided into sub groups we found that those with a written business plan at the outset subsequently had more revenue, more net income, more employees, raised more startup money, and were slightly older. However, only log of number of employees was statistically significant, and then only at the 0.1 level.

Businesses with male entrepreneurs outperformed those with females on revenue, net income, number of employees, and amount of startup money, even though businesses with female entrepreneurs were slightly older. Differences between male and female for the log of revenue, net income, and number of employees were significant at the 0.01 level or better, but the differences for log of business age and amount of startup money were not significant. When it comes to the education of the entrepreneur, BS’s outperformed MBA’s on revenue, net income, and number of employees. True, their businesses were older, but they raised less startup money. Differences for the log of revenue, net income, number of employees, and business age were significant at the 0.05 level or better, but the difference for the log of amount of startup money was not significant. We will discuss possible explanations for these differences later in the paper.

Regression Models

The first regression models, 1A, 2A, and 3A (Table 3) had three control variables, gender (female = 0, male = 1), degree (BS = 0, MBA =1), and log (business age). The dependent variables were log (revenue), log (net income), and log (number of employees). All control variables were significant at the 0.05 level or better. The business plan variable (started without business plan = 0, started with business plan = 1) was significant at the 0.05 level in each of the models 1A, 2A, and 3A. Hence if we ignore the amount of startup financing, companies with written business plans at the outset performed better than those without one.

But of course we cannot ignore the amount of startup financing because it seems very likely that the more money that a company raises at the outset, the bigger it will grow during its early life; however, that might not show up in the net income, because a well-financed company intending to grow fast might be more concerned with revenue than income or operating cash flow. So we added log (money raised within 12 months of starting up) and removed the business plan variable in models 1B, 2B, and 3B. The log (money raised) correlated at the 0.01 level with log (revenue) and at the 0.05 level with log (number of employees) but was not significant even at the 0.1 level with log (net income).

Next we added log (money raised) to the original three control variables and reintroduced the business plan variable (models 1C, 2C, and 3C). We were surprised to find that the business plan variable was not correlated even at the 0.1 level with log (revenue), log (net income), and log (number of employees). Thus when the amount of startup capital was taken into account along with company age and gender and degree of the entrepreneur, writing a formal business plan before launching a new venture did not lead to greater revenue, higher net income, or more employees.

We then wanted to see if there was any difference in the performance of businesses that deviated from their original business plan as time went by. We asked entrepreneurs how much their business differed from what they laid out in the original plan. For those companies that set out with business plans, we took our regression models, 1C, 2C, and 3C, removed the business plan variable and replaced it with the following three variables one at a time: change in the business model, change in product/service, and change in top management team. Not one of those three variables was significantly correlated with log (revenue), log (net income), or log (number of employees). Which leads us to conclude that deviating from the initial business plan did not affect subsequent performance.

Discussion

Business Plans

What is the utility of a business plan if, as our results indicate, it does not matter whether or not entrepreneurs have written plans before they launch their ventures? We presented the entrepreneurs with a list of purposes for a business plan and asked them to rate the importance of these purposes in their own plans (1 = extremely important, 4 = not important). Strategic planning ranked first (1.57), followed in order by articulating the business model (1.63), financial planning (1.71), operations planning (1.83), examining critical assumptions (1.91), and fund raising (2.34).

With strategic planning, business model, financial planning, and operations planning being ranked high, it might be expected that those with business plans would outperform those without. But as we have seen that is not the case. Could it be that Shuman, Shaw et al. (1985) were correct and main reason for writing a business plan is to raise money even though our entrepreneurs ranked fundraising as only the sixth most important purpose for a plan? We certainly know that those who wrote a business plan raised substantially more money (mean $581,635, median $60,000) in the first 12 months than those who did not (mean $72,045, median $25,000), Table 2. So, casting statistical tests aside for a moment, it does appear that writing a business plan paid off in terms of fund raising. Furthermore, we also know from Table 2 that if we do not control for any other -factors whatsoever, those companies with a business plan in comparison with those without one had greater revenue (mean $2.77 million, median $650,000 vs. mean $2.18 million, median $350,000), higher net income (mean $549,993, median $100,000 vs. mean $272,952, median $93,000), and more employees (mean 31.78, median 5 vs. mean 9.59, median 3). It would be a small common sense step to conclude that this was because they used their business plan to raise money, and consequently, because they had money, they grew faster. But the statistical analysis does not bear that out because we could not find a statistically significant correlation between writing a business plan and the amount of money raised during the first 12 months.

Gender

Another interesting finding is that companies founded by men substantially outperformed those founded by women (Tables 2 and 3). Here are the numbers: revenue (mean $2.98 million, median $675,000 vs. mean $491,456, median $153,000), net income (mean $504,595, median $100,000 vs. $91,205, median $70,000), number of employees (mean 26.28, median 5 vs. 3.86, median 2). Also men raised more startup money (mean $463,200, median $55,000 vs. mean $42,171, median $27,750). The businesses owned by women were slightly older than those owned by men, so age of the business can be ruled out as an explanation for the differences.

In general terms our finding is consistent with what others have found. For instance, women founded only 8% of the Inc. 500 companies in 2004. Carter (2002) in her study using the Panel Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics (PSED) data found that the median amount of financing expected by men was twice that of women; furthermore men expected to get more financing than women from team partners, family, friends, employers, and institutional sources. Bygrave (2004) in a study of entrepreneurs in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2004 data set found that businesses started by men required more capital than those started by women ($65,010 vs. $33,201). He suggested that a partial explanation is that women are more likely than men to start necessity-pushed businesses rather than opportunity-pulled ventures, which generally require more startup capital. We asked a number of female Babson alums and students for their explanation for the gender difference in our data set and several of them said it was because they chose to stay home and raise a family while at the same time earning money with a home-based business.

Degree

We are unable to formulate a convincing explanation why Babson BS alums-founded businesses performed substantially better than those founded by Babson MBAs. This is what we found for BS versus MBA businesses: revenue (mean $3.68 million, median $1.18 million vs. mean $1.41 million, median $400,000), net income (mean $709,496, median $200,000 vs. mean $167,398, median $78,761), number of jobs (mean 34.65, median 5 vs. mean 10.64, median 3). It is true that the BS businesses were older than the MBA ones (mean 67.3 months, median 47 months vs. mean 50.5 months, median 42 months) but that is somewhat offset by the fact that BS businesses raised less startup capital (mean $358,350, median $22,500 vs. mean $370,854, median $57,500). The gender effect is negligible because of the 22 women in the data set, 9 had BS and 13 had MBA degrees. We looked at the industry sectors of businesses started by BS and MBA alums and found no major differences between the two groups. We also found no noticeable difference in the distributions of BS and MBA businesses by the year they were founded.

We have not been able to find other studies that compare the performance of entrepreneurs with BS and MBA degrees. We know that Bhidé (2000) found that an entrepreneur in the Inc. 500 in 1989 was just as likely to have only a high school diploma as an MBA degree. In fact only 15% held MBA degrees compared with 48% with 4-year degrees. But that does not tell us anything about the relative performance of companies started by those with a 4-year degree versus those with an MBA.

Conclusion

We cannot reject our hypothesis that all other things being equal, new ventures that are launched with formal written business plans do not outperform ones launched without them. But it would be much too glib to follow Gumpert’s (2003B) lead and say “Burn that business plan” or perhaps “Forget about business plans.” Here are some of the implications of our research:

Entrepreneurs

This is our advice to an entrepreneur: Unless you need to raise substantial startup capital from institutional sources or business angels, you do not need to write a formal business plan. Instead, do some basic financial planning and launch your business. Later on, if your business grows and needs an infusion of substantial external capital, that will be the time to write a formal business plan. What’s more, your story will then be much more persuasive because you will have products and customers, and you will have proven your entrepreneurial mettle. Remember that some of the most revolutionary businesses such as Apple, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart started without written business plans.

Educators

We need to reevaluate the emphasis on business plans in our entrepreneurship curricula. Are we rewarding students for beautiful conceptual plans rather than for implementing actual businesses? It seems to us that university business plan competitions are being overdone. If we must have new venture competitions, the emphasis should be business implementation. After all, do university athletic departments run play book competitions? No, of course not. They reward the actual winners of the contest on the field of play. Entrepreneurship, just like football, is a contact sport not a classroom intellectual exercise.

Babson College, with Jeff Timmons’ initiative, started one of the first business plan competitions in the world when it announced the Charm Prize competition for undergraduate business plans in 1984. But interestingly enough, Babson has an undergraduate business implementation competition that handily predates its business plan competition and continues to flourish today. What’s more, some of the winners of the implementation award have gone on to become very successful entrepreneurs. For instance, one implementation award winner, Mario Ricciardelli, together with another junior, started a student travel business in 1987 in his dorm room. Later that student venture became StudentCity.com, which Ricciardelli sold in 2004 for $40 million (Bygrave, 2005). However, unlike business plan competitions, which are ubiquitous, business implementation competitions for students are very rare indeed. Let’s follow the example of the football team and celebrate the winners in the entrepreneurial contest that counts, implementation in the real world outside the classroom.

Researchers

There probably is no topic in the field of entrepreneurship that we educators promote more than business plans, nor is there a topic about which we know so little in terms of actual outcomes. The topic cries out for much more research. But it is not an easy topic. Our research started our with an email list of approximately 9,000 Babson alums, and we ended up with a data set of 117 cases.

CONTACT: Julian Lange, Babson College, Wellesley, MA 02457; (T) 781-239-5013; (F) 781-239-4178; langej@babson.edu.

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Footnotes

1 We thank Gene Begin for working with us on the survey instrument and gathering data.

2 42% of the Inc. 500 in 2004 rated Bill Gates as their favorite entrepreneur; Michael Dell was the favorite of 14%.

3 The complete questionnaire is available from the lead author.


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