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Why Creating a Business Plan Is a ‘Waste of Time’

A finely crafted, tightly defined, highly detailed business plan seems like a perfectly rational tool for getting your entrepreneurial ideas off the ground. But Carl Schramm thinks you should burn it. Schramm, an economist, Syracuse University professor and former president of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation — a non-profit that encourages entrepreneurship — says that crafting a business plan is one of the biggest misconceptions about how to start a company on the right footing. His new book, Burn the Business Plan: What Great Entrepreneurs Really Do, says the true blueprint for success requires innovative ideas, real-world experience and keen judgment. Schramm joined the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111, to explain why inventors and entrepreneurs should light a few matches and get on with it. (Listen to the full podcast using the player at the top of this page.)

The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why is a business plan unnecessary?

Carl Schramm: It’s the basis of much of the teaching about how to start a business, and so much of what’s taught is basically conjecture. My book is developed off 10 years of research that we did at the Kauffman Foundation. If you look at all our older major corporations — U.S. Steel, General Electric, IBM, American Airlines — and then you look at our newer companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, none of these companies ever had a business plan before they got started. Empirically, it appears as if you don’t need a business plan.

Second, the business planning process is largely generated as a preview for venture capital. As I show in my book, from empirical studies, much less than 1% of all new startups ever see a venture capitalist. Much less than 1% of all new companies every year have venture backing of any kind. So, I largely view the creation of a business plan as something of a waste of time.

The third problem is that it seems to make starting a business somewhat like a cookbook. If you do this, and then you do this, and then you do this, the cake will come out okay. And that’s really not how it happens.

“Empirically, it appears as if you don’t need a business plan.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s talk about age because many entrepreneurs are in their late 30s or 40s. These are people who made a shift in their career paths.

Schramm: Precisely. It goes to this question of, “What are we doing when we’re trying to teach high school kids?” Even grammar school children get courses and exposure to entrepreneurship. At the university level, it’s now a major in probably 3,000 colleges and universities. And the whole schema, including the notion of a business plan as the formal way to teach how to start a business in a college classroom, is geared to 20-year-olds.

Much of our mythology is that unicorn companies are started by people, like Mark Zuckerberg, who are in their 20s. But the reality is, the vast majority of people who start businesses are middle-career people who have been surprised by the fact that they actually had an idea, and their idea was good enough to build a business around.

Another thing wrong with how we write about entrepreneurship, how it’s taught, is that somehow people set out to be entrepreneurs as if they set out to be a dentist or an accountant. The vast majority of entrepreneurs were really amazed to find out that they became an entrepreneur. In my case, I was a professor at Johns Hopkins for 15 years, and then one day my research sort of slapped me in the face. I said, “Holy smokes, if I want to really make this work and actually change the world, I can’t do it by writing an academic paper. I have to start a business.”

Knowledge@Wharton: How should we teach our kids about entrepreneurship?

Schramm: I don’t think [the current curriculum] can be tweaked. I think it should be abandoned. I think it should be overthrown. Because if you look empirically at where entrepreneurs come from, if they have formal training, it’s not in entrepreneurship. It’s in engineering or the STEM subjects, the technical subjects.

Many, many more entrepreneurs come out of MIT because it’s an engineering and a technical school. Same thing for Caltech. Caltech doesn’t even teach entrepreneurship. At MIT, there’s one professor in the business program there who teaches entrepreneurship. But it doesn’t matter because if they didn’t teach it at all, these schools would be producing many, many new businesses all the time.

Knowledge@Wharton: You said not much funding comes from venture capitalists or angel investors. How are entrepreneurs getting the money they need to execute their ideas?

Schramm: One reason people can become entrepreneurs at midlife is they turn to their own savings, their own assets, to friends and families for loans. By the time you’re 40, which is the average age at which people start businesses, you’ve settled your student debt. You’ve got a house. You’re likely to have a spouse who has a job, which is a huge protection if you start a new company because she or he has health insurance and other benefits. So, most companies are self-funded.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you also talk about the incubator. But you think the incubator isn’t having the desired effect that a lot of people are hoping for. Can you explain?

Schramm: Again, empirically, very few companies come out of these incubators. I was trained as a labor economist. I’m in the middle of writing an essay about incubators, and the premise is that as we turn towards 3% and 4% GDP, and much lower rates of unemployment and much higher demand for well-trained people, no one is going to want to spend time in an incubator. They can get a job. And that’s a really important part of the drama of becoming an entrepreneur.

In the book, I make the case that the most effective place to learn how to be entrepreneurial is to go into a big company. That’s where you see innovation happen. More innovation happens in big companies than, for example, university laboratories. It’s also where you learn all the skills that make a business work, where you’re exposed to what scale looks like in a business. This is critical and this is experiential knowledge. You can’t teach scale in a classroom. It has to be felt. You have to see it, to experience it.

“The vast majority of people who start businesses are middle-career people.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You give real-world examples in the book, including the story about vacuum cleaning company Dyson.

Schramm: Yes, Dyson is a fantastic story. James Dyson was an industrial designer by background, and he came to the view that vacuum cleaners had been a technology that hadn’t moved very far. He was using a vacuum cleaner and noticed that the more you used it, and the dirtier the dustbin got, the less power it had. This became the question that triggered his search.

Dyson built over 1,000 prototypes. He quit his job. His wife was a teacher, and he lived off a much more modest income. His wife did all the money-earning in the family. When he began to push his product out, no companies in the United States or England wanted any part of it. They resisted it because they were making a lot of money on selling paper bags for conventional, old-fashioned vacuum cleaners. He had to take it to Japan. When it became successful in Japan, American and British companies tried to steal his design. He successfully defended against that.

The best part of Dyson’s story is he never had outside investors. [Dyson] never wanted to be a public company. It’s a huge company now. He’s like most entrepreneurs. If your idea clicks and you can make it work, and you haven’t taken your company public — that is, you still control it — you’re going to work there for the rest of your life. They become places where your own creativity works, and you can keep at it. You can keep designing. Really, it becomes your life.

It’s an important point, particularly for people who are in higher education. Students in universities are programmed to think that somehow people who work in the government or in nonprofit or NGOs are somehow more creative. They’re like the people who take art and art history and design in college, or people who write music. They’re a different breed, and they’re really geniuses.

The reality is that 95% of kids graduating from college this year are going to work in companies. They’re not not creative. Look at our huge economy. That all happens because of people who are creative and gifted in business and the invention of things that help other people. And [taking] these things to market [requires] very, very creative skills.

Knowledge@Wharton: Would you say that passion and determination are two of the great qualities that a lot of entrepreneurs have?

Schramm: Yes, it’s true. Students in college are told to follow your passion and start a company. But a lot of times, the passion doesn’t make any sense. I’ve seen students who are passionate about having a web app for frying pans. I sort of make fun of it in the book. I’ve judged business plan competitions at the college level and seen the same idea come up five times. Invent a sensor for a frying pan, and it tells you on your phone when your eggs are cooked. Kids are passionate about that, but it’s not an idea that’s ever going to work. They’re making the simplicity of cooking an egg into a complex technical project.

Passion really clicks when you’ve got an idea and it starts to have market feedback. The thrill of it is when other people are saying, “What you came up with is valuable.” What they’re telling you is, “You created something out of your head that makes my life easier, and I value it. So, I’ll give my money to you for your idea.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Is Yeti one of those great ideas?

Schramm: Yeti is a fabulous story. It’s one of those things where those guys didn’t expect to be entrepreneurs. The idea snuck up on then. They love to go fishing, and they fell through regular Igloo boxes because they’re not all that well made. One of the two brothers said, “You know, what we ought to do is make a cooler that’s so sturdy, you could stand on it.” Yeti cooler came out of something just that simple.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are 20-somethings missing to be able to build that great company?

Schramm: They’re missing experience. If you really want to be an entrepreneur and you don’t have a really great idea when you’re 21, getting out of school, don’t fret. Just wait. What shall you do while you wait? Go learn stuff. The stuff you should learn is easiest learned in big businesses because you’ll go out there and watch the innovation process work.

I consult at several companies, and what I’m watching all time is these companies constantly trying to renew themselves with new, better products. They spend a lot of money on research and development. Anybody who’s working in one of these companies can see the constant iterative change that’s taking place. You actually get innovation into your normal daily routine. I think that’s one of the greatest things that you can learn.

The book points to the fact that many new companies come out of old companies. The entrepreneurs see stuff, and two routes are the way this happens. The companies decide that they’re going to stick to their core competency and reject a brand new idea. They often say to people, “if you love this idea so much, go do it with our blessing. You can have the intellectual property.” In some cases, like IBM, they actually finance the startups. That was the case with Cerner, the health care data company.

“More innovation happens in big companies than, for example, university laboratories.”

The other thing is a much more difficult problem. That is, people who go to management and say, “This is the better way to do it,” or “Here’s a new application or a new market, and we have all the technology. If we configure it differently, we can own and capture this market.” MBA-type managers often say, “no, we’re going to stick to our core competency. We don’t know how to do that. It’s not our karma, it’s not our destiny.” And frustrated employees walk out. I interview people like that in the book. They say again and again, “I could have made all this money for my old employer, but they just wouldn’t listen to me.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Are companies wasting their human capital?

Schramm: It’s happening in every single company. You’ve got creative people in there. They might be running a machine. They might be on the production line. They could be any place in your company. They could be at the loading dock. They see things, and they could do things differently.

One of my favorite examples that’s not in the book is container boxes. It’s one of the great logistics revolutions that permits all of our prices for consumer goods to be much, much lower than they would have been. The boxes on the back of a trailer that come off the trailer, go right on a ship.

That was developed by a truck driver in Newark, N.J., In the old days, when trailer trucks were inflexible, they were fixed. Every time you went into a yard or a loading dock, people had to go on the dock, take the stuff off and reload it. He said, “You know, it’s a big steel box. Why don’t you just take the whole box, the whole back end of the truck, and put it on a ship?” This is a truck driver who saw that. He gave us the container revolution that made a world revolution in logistics.

Knowledge@Wharton: There are some very well-known companies like Microsoft and Apple and Facebook that didn’t have a plan at the outset. But now they are working through a variety of plans.

Schramm: That’s right. They went and tried it. We have this drive in our society. I think it’s in human nature. We don’t think that important things happen by chaotic means. If you look around, there are academics and experts who are struggling constantly to make the process of starting a business somehow logical, planned, orderly. These are sort of cookbook approaches.

You don’t have the right answer at the beginning. You never have the right answer. The market changes, technology changes. Your customers’ tastes are changing. Price points change. Your competitors change. You’ve got to be at this all the time. And a lot of times, that’s a hidden assumption in all the advice that’s given to entrepreneurs. If you crack it once, you can go right to the bank. You buy a jet. You’re over with. You do a public offering, and you’re rich and out by 30.

That’s not the case at all. You start a business, that’s only the beginning. And it’s the beginning of trying to make it big because growth is what’s important. Scale is the critical issue. The only way you can get there is constantly reacting to the market and all the signals it’s sending as to what it needs.

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