Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

Investors Know A Product Doesn’t Make a Business

Why is it that most of the business plans I see are really product plans? I define a product plan as a detailed description of your product or service, with a bit of business thrown in at the end. A business plan is a detailed description of your business, with a bit of product description thrown in near the front.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely positive to have a product plan. A simple differentiation is that a product plan is designed for internal use, to get the product out. A business plan is an “outward facing” document for external investors, or for C-level executives within your own company.

The product plan tells your developers what to build, and the marketing team what to market. Because it addresses an internal audience, it can use technical jargon and assume the reader understands the technology. Here are the key components of a good product plan:

  • Detailed features. For software, websites, and high-tech products, this is the “meat” of what you intend to build. Enough detail is required so that someone else can build it without you (outsourcing). Equally important, marketing and sales people should be able to identify benefits and marketing strategies, set prices, and validate a business model.
  • Market research. This section defines the market, sizes the opportunity, and discusses the needs and requirements that will be addressed by your product and service. Establishing credibility is key, so this data should come primarily from industry experts, with footnotes to the source, rather than your passion that everyone needs one.
  • Competition analysis. There are always competitors, or alternative ways to get the job done. Here is where you pick a few of these, characterize what they do, and position your own product to show your competitive advantage.
  • Development and rollout. Show the timeline, milestones, costs, and people required to produce the product or service. Address proof of concept, performance considerations, quality certification, and support ramping.

Concurrently, or later, it’s necessary to build a separate business plan. Because this document is “outward facing” the tone and level has to change to be understandable by customers and investors. Here are some key components:

  • Problem statement and solution. Skip the acronyms, write at an eighth-grade level, and talk in terms of “benefits” rather than “features.” Assume readers don’t know or share your vision, knowledge, and passion, so you have to sell them on your plan at all levels.
  • Market research and competition. Reuse the two comparable sections above, making sure you refocus the words for an external audience, and remove the technical jargon. These are the only sections that these two plans have in common.

Actually, it’s most disconcerting when people approach me with neither – just a verbal description of their “idea,” looking for a business assessment of its potential. In frustration, I usually comment to them that ideas are worthless outside the context of a realistic business plan.

I realize that many of you entrepreneurs are technical types, and you feel certain that an exciting product plan will highlight an exciting business opportunity. Instead most investors will see it as a “solution looking for a problem.” That’s a big red flag, and will usually get your plan a quick toss to the circular file.

Written by Martin Zwilling

user Martin Zwilling Founder and CEO,
Startup Professionals

Martin is a veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, and angel investor. He is the Founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners.

prev next

You might also be interested in

Co-founder Equity Split: A New Framework to Objectively Divide Startup Ownership and Get Back to Building a Business

We’ve just released our free Co-founder Equity Split tool. It’ll give you a fair and objective recommendation about how to divide your startup’s ownership, so you and your co-founders will have a sensible, real starting point for this notoriously hard, crucially important conversation.

Many startup founders find themselves lacking clarity and direction when it comes time to divide their

Read more >

From Accelerators to Venture Capital: What is best for your startup?

With startup growth up 61% since 2014 and more investment programs emerging, it can be overwhelming for founders to know just where to jump in. As the most startup-friendly accelerator on the planet, MassChallenge has helped 835 startup companies around the world, who have raised over $1.1 billion in funding and created over 6,500 jobs. We have seen startups at

Read more >

Valuation Part I: Peeling the Onion, or How Top Investors Value the Startups They Invest In

Update 2017: To help you understand how your startup will look to investors according to this methodology, we’ve created a fundraising feedback tool that will give you investor-level insight into your startup’s performance. In just about 15 minutes, it will tell you how much money your startup is likely to raise, where you can find that capital, and what to

Read more >

Starting a Startup as CTO / Head of Product

After less than a year, Glassbreakers is now a team of 10, we have thousands of active users on our free product, we’ve expanded into enterprises with paying customers and raised over a million in seed funding. After a few of my Glassbreaker matches inquired, I started to reflect on what it’s like to build a startup

Read more >

18 Ways to Make Your Financial Model Stand Out to Investors

The median investor looking at your proposal is in her 40s. Her eyes are going, not to mention her brain. I look at a lot of spreadsheets and analytic reports, and way too many are difficult to read and therefore hard to understand.

In an effort to make my life easier, I’ve summarized here the steps that will

Read more >


One thought on “Investors Know A Product Doesn’t Make a Business”

  1. superior marketingllc says:

    I love this blog. Thank you Martin Zwilling