Why the numbers in your operating plan are wrong

Startup companies begin life with operating plans – the spreadsheets that outline how revenue will be generated and expenses will be allocated. But in the end it’s all a very well calculated guess. So much is unknown.

A phrase I use a lot when I meet with startup companies is “the only thing we know for certain about your plan is that the numbers in it are wrong”.   It’s a disarming statement, it generally sets everyone at ease.  How could you possibly know what your revenue will be in month 33, when you haven’t even shipped your first product?

And it’s true, in a good way. It’s not the values in the cells that are important, but the set of assumptions and principles that underpin the numbers in the cells that are. I mentioned this in my first post. It sounds and is obvious.

Why bother with the plan? Some CEOs I meet take this path, and use their operating plan as a “check off the box” deliverable on the way to getting funded. But if you go there I think you blow right by critical insight about your business. You need that plan, even when you are far off it, to help you understand which assumptions are still valid, and which may need to change.

An example of an assumptions is “we’ll have larger companies distribute our product for us, and each company will deliver 50,000 end users to us”. That’s important to remember, especially if after six months, they’re only delivering 5,000 users.  It’s even more important to understand if this is just a factor of how long it takes to ramp demand (in which case that assumption needs scrutiny) or of it’s because that’s all the demand these companies can produce for you (ditto).

Your plan is a tool that has a limited useful life, at some point your business (and assumptions) change so much you need to pull out (or rather create) a new one. The right tool, for the right circumstances matters, a lot.

If the right tool is critical, the right mindset produces it. Successfully running a startup requires a resilient open mind and cultivating a sense of intellectually curiosity. You need to want to understand the “why” and “how” the numbers in the cells fail to match reality.

So, examining the failure of your plan, and finding the meaning in the failure, enables you to construct new, more valid assumptions, so you can discard the old plan and create a new one. This can be harder than you think, the plan you have now is was slaved over, polished, and is so “done”. But this new plan has a clearly defined lineage connecting it to the old one, and is the new “right tool” for your business.

Missing your plan is different. Plan “failure” is fundamentally different from missing your plan. Missing your plan comes from poor execution, poor discipline and poor vigilance about understanding why you’re not performing to your plan.  It’s still failure, but failure where no meaning has been examined or made use of.  It’s where you end up using the wrong tool, and not understanding, or even knowing, why you need a new one.

Missing your plan is like trying real hard to use that shovel that worked so well to dig the foundation of a house you’re building to hammer the nails into the framing. Sure it might work, for a while, but over time it’s just not going to do the job you need done. Missing your plan is insisting that you just hit the nails harder and faster with the shovel, and not realizing you hold the wrong tool to begin with.

This is why one of my partners coined the phrase “teams that miss plans generally continue to miss plans”. It’s because they don’t realize its their tool that’s wrong, not their intentions or efforts.

The best CEOs I work with are wonderfully disciplined about creating and appropriately discarding their plans. They measure their performance relative to their plan, and they’re vigilant about clearly delineating the key assumptions supporting the plan. When they’ve measured enough to know the assumptions are no longer valid, they revise their plan, and gladly leave that old plan behind. It becomes all about their new plan, and new tool.

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7 Responses to “Why the numbers in your operating plan are wrong”

  1. John Says:

    You have to constantly evaluate and adapt…no plan is ever going to be perfect.


  2. fred wilson Says:

    i like the idea that a plan is designed to be changed

    it’s the process not the resulting product (the plan itself) that is the most important


    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      That’s exactly right, Fred. The process, both literally (the document, the reviews and assessments that produce the document, but the process “mentally”. It’s the open mind and intellectual curiosity that enables the team and the board to embrace the new direction and execute the plan crisply.


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