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Picture 2The New York Times had an article Wednesday about a new documentary film called Ten9Eight which is about a group of teens competing  in a business plan contest run by the nonprofit group Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE). Filmmaker Mary Mazzio followed twenty-nine aspiring entrepreneurs, ages 13 to 19, all of whom have had to overcome huge obstacles, as they vie for the competitions $10,000 grand prize.

The film brings up the always puzzling question of how and when to teach young people about business and entrepreneurship. NFTE has an admirable mission to provide entrepreneurship education programs to young people from low-income communities. The film opens November 13 in select cities and will likely pop up on cable TV in the future. Check out the trailer here:

Elsewhere on the NY Time Small Business site
As I was perusing the Times’ site for the above post, I came across Bruce Buschel’s refreshingly light-hearted essay about writing business plans. Buschel, a restauranteur in Bridgehampton, NY, says “I believe in plans. I do. They focus the mind and sharpen the concept. I just don’t believe in believing in their predictions. Man plans, God clicks to Comedy Central.”

startRegular readers of Merge will know that I wrestle mightily with this question. I fully acknowledge how much of a buzz kill the planning process can be to the energy and momentum of a start-up concept. This sentiment is well stated in the comment I received after my last “…business plan?” post, by Josh from Cubicle Ninjas:

“I think business plans are a stalling mechanism. Instead of finding one more client, or making one customer extra happy, they’re an excuse to delay what should be done today.”

I think there’s a lot of truth to Josh’s comment. Planning, if undertaken at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and with the wrong purpose can do more harm than good. With that said, I believe that if you strive to build a business with an ambitious vision—one that builds from idea to business to company to movement (as Jim Collins maps out in the INC. Magazine interview I profiled last month)—then you will need to have conversations with people outside your existing network. In order to have those conversations, you need to document your idea, and that document is your plan—in whatever form it takes.

I’ve been rereading Guy Kawasaki’s outstanding The Art of the Start (a must-read for creative entrepreneurs) in which the author takes a refreshing approach to the early stages of business development. “The hardest thing about getting started is getting started,” he states, “no one ever achieved success by planning for gold.”

Instead of laying out a rigid mandate for early business planning, Guy Kawasaki suggests some key questions that you must answer about your business model, most importantly:
Who has your money in their pockets?
How are you going to get it into your pockets?

Ironically, the answers to these questions are integral to any business plan, so I think Kawasaki is—in a rather sneaky way—getting us to begin business planning without getting psyched out about it.

Perhaps the most resonant line regarding planning from The Art of the Start is “good enough is good enough.” Kawasaki insists that there will be “plenty of time for refinement later.” For me, the tension between activating and planning is the pivotal and fascinating issue for creative entrepreneurs…to be continued.

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Picture 3In a follow up to the Firebelly podcast from last week…
I caught an interesting sidebar in the Minneapolis StarTribune this morning about BrandLab, a spin off of Minneapolis agency Olson with a mission to increase the abysmally low levels of kids from diverse cultural/social/economic backgrounds entering the design and ad biz. BrandLab is a non-profit that partners with Minneapolis high schools to bring industry pros into the classroom to connect with this vital student population. I’ll follow up with more on BrandLab in the future—it seems like a Merge kinda concept.

photo1I’m sitting in on Marcia Lausen’s Design Colloquium class at University of Illinois Chicago today as students present their designs for a personal experience mapping project. The students have taken a variety of—mostly mundane—life experiences, from the micro, like “what I do in the morning before school” to the (relatively) macro, like “friends I’ve known over the last ten years” and developed graphic interpretations of them. I’m seeing some outstanding solutions using thoughtful information design and we’re having a vibrant discussion about what lies at the essence of a story—a process which is, of course, at the core of what we do as communication designers.

As you know, I’ve been struggling with how to integrate business planning—on the surface a rigid and mundane process—into the entrepreneurial experience for designers and creative thinkers. Today I’m seeing that experience mapping is part of the solution to this dilemma—I’ll be writing more about this soon.

Here is a selection of designs from the student work:

Detail from "Life in Audio" by Marta Wlodkowska

Detail from "Life in Audio" by Marta Wlodkowska

Detail from "A field of travel" by Eric Cervantes

Detail from "A field of travel" by Eric Cervantes

Detail from "My Morning Flow Chart" by Nicole Stormer

Detail from "My Morning Flow Chart" by Nicole Stormer

Detail from "Why my wrist is broken (again)" by Kuri Alamillo

Detail from "Why is my wrist broken (again)?" by Kuri Alamillo

Detail from "Circle of Design" by Sana Ahmed

Detail from "Circle of Design" by Sana Ahmed

As you know if you’ve read any of my previous posts, I’m a big proponent of the business planning process for entrepreneurial designers. Despite how painful it can be for creative thinkers to complete, the business plan is an absolutely vital tool when, inevitably, we need to pitch our ideas to the non-creative “majority.”  There is no shortage of resources, templates and guides for b-plans, the problem is that most of them are outrageously lame: overly complex, rigid, redundant, and (of course) horribly designed.

I’ll continue to revisit this topic periodically, but for now, I want to point you to Tim Berry, who writes, speaks and blogs extensively about business planning (I referred to him in an earlier post along with Guy Kawasaki). Berry is the founder of Palo Alto Software, which creates Business Plan Pro software (which I have never tried—let me know if you have experience with BPP) and author of many books, most recently The Plan-as-You-Go Business Plan.

This short video is an interview with Berry that gives a good overview of his thinking.

What I like about Tim Berry is that he is not rigid in his approach to business planning. He offers a basic structure but insists that the plan really needs to work for you, not vice versa, hence there are many forms it can take. His mantra that “business plans are always wrong” is a refreshing approach that highlights the organic nature of the planning process he endorses. This will resonate with designers because it allows us to be creative with the process and format of the plan—essentially, to treat the business plan as a design project (aha! more on this another time).

Here’s a link to Tim Berry’s blog (he blogs for many different outlets, but his own version seems to be the best).

More on business planning to come!

trophybThanks to Gaby Brink at Tomorrow Partners in San Francisco for forwarding this link to the DiabetesMine Design Challenge. DiabetesMine is a respected blog and online community for people living with diabetes. This brings up a topic that I’ve touched on a few times previously in Merge: business competitions.

I wrote in an earlier post about the experience Lisa and I had in the Minnesota Cup, a business competition here in our home state, which was a pivotal experience in the development of HealthSimple. We submitted our business plan in the inaugural Cup in 2005 and were thrilled to be selected as a finalist among 607 business plans that were entered that year—eventually we took the third place prize.

I think these competitions can be a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs, but only in part because of the potential for financial reward. For Lisa and me, the Minnesota Cup introduced us to a network of people in the business world whom we would not otherwise have been exposed to. Among them, lawyers, bankers, publicists and successful entrepreneurs, many of whom became valued advisors as we built our business. Our finalist status also added credibility to HealthSimple as we were trying to establish key partnerships. Additionally, our participation in the Cup forced us to hunker down and write our first formal business plan for HealthSimple—a task we had been avoiding, but which proved to be of undeniable value for us.

(note to Minnesota designers: the 2009 Minnesota Cup is just getting underway—it would be great to see a wave of design-driven business plans in the competition this year)

One important note about business competitions with a design focus: the issue of communication designers providing services on a speculative basis is a very sensitive and complex one in our profession. AIGA has played a strong role in clarifying this issue and providing resources for designers to use in discussing the issue. For the record, I don’t consider the DiabetesMine contest to be a conflict in this way. DiabetesMine is not soliciting designs to be implemented by them for business gain (the way an organization might with a logo competition)—they are merely trying to support and nurture innovation in this important area.

Please send me links to other business competitions and I will post them on Merge.

kiva_logoI first learned about Kiva, the microfinancing organization shortly after their site was launched in 2004. The premise behind microfinancing is that donors can loan as little as $25 directly to an individual entrepreneur in the developing world. A seamstress in Tanzania, for instance, can apply for a loan of up to $1,200—not much by “first world” standards, but enough to launch a successful business in Tanzania. The recipient then repays the loan when they have met their financial goals and contributors are given the chance to reinvest their money with another Kiva recipient.

Microfinancing has been touted as an innovative alternative to large-scale government aid that often never reaches the people most in need. Kiva has been wildly successful, generating nearly $65 million in loans in four years (not to mention a mountain of media coverage). Notably, Kiva reports that the current economic slump has not slowed the pace of contributions to their program; a sign that the microfinancing formula might be sustainable even in the bleakest times.

Now, Kiva has announced plans to loan up to $10,000 apiece to entrepreneurs in the U.S., a risky move that will test the core of the microfinancing concept. Will the model work at this larger scale? Will donors be enticed by businesses in their own backyard the way they have been with those halfway around the world?

I find myself wondering if microfinancing provides a model than can help designers build entrepreneurial businesses. So many great ideas die on the shelf simply because there is no access to the seed money necessary to move them forward. Often times the seed money that is needed is relatively modest and traditional forms of venture funding: bank loans, venture capital, and angel investors can be overkill.

Business Plan competitions like the Minnesota Cup, here in my home state, can offer an option for seed funding, but they’re not a sure thing and the rigid timing doesn’t always favor a time-sensitive concept. Although, I should point out that our participation in the 2005 Minnesota Cup was a pivotal point for Lisa and me in the development of HealthSimple.

I hope to see some design-driven ventures test this new domestic version of Kiva. And perhaps the success of microfinancing will inspire other organizations to develop a model of funding for start-up ventures that is more community-based, participatory, accessible—and design focused.

For most designers and creative thinkers, the idea of writing a formal business plan is about as exciting as root canal. I believe this resistance to doing the “heavy lifting” is a big reason why designers struggle to move their entrepreneurial business ideas forward—I know it was a huge task for Lisa and me to hunker down and write our first business plan for HealthSimple.

Ironically—and not surprisingly—that business plan became one of the most valuable tools we had as we grew the business. A detailed and thorough business plan will contain the answers to many questions you will encounter on the journey to grow your business. And of course, business plans are the “language” that is spoken by the business community—the many advisors, collaborators, and funders you will depend on.

I will be using this blog as a repository for great resources on business plan writing. The problem is, most of the resources out there really stink—they’re confusing, redundant, overly detailed (or not detailed enough), and just plain ugly!!!

One exception that I’ve found is the blog written by Guy Kawasaki. Guy is a venture capitalist and one of the original Apple employees in the mid-80’s. He’s become a guru in the world of entrepreneurship and has written many books on the subject. He’s direct, fresh, and inspiring.

More on business plans to come, but in the meantime, check out this post on Guy Kawasaki’s blog .

Please send me your links to great business plan resources.

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