Published in the Telegraph-Journal 19th April 2013
In a province where traditional industries have been in decline, substantial reliance has been placed on new business formation to support New Brunswick‘s economic growth. But entrepreneurship has always been a risky proposition. Whether launching a tech start-up, a small business, or an initiative within a large corporation, the odds are overwhelmingly against the entrepreneur. Harvard Business School researchers have recently estimated that more than 75 per cent of all start-ups fail.
For decades, business founders had been taught that success involves writing a business plan, pitching it to investors, assembling a team, introducing a product and selling it as aggressively as possible. This is the conventional approach and prevailing wisdom of business schools, government economic development agencies, financial institutions and investors.
But recently an new methodology has called into question the logic of business planning and discarded much of what we thought we knew about the process of starting a company. Called the “lean start-up“, this new methodology favours “experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional “big design up front” development“.
One of the forces behind this new methodology is Steve Blank, a consulting associate professor at Stanford University, National Science Foundation principal investigator at the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University and extremely successful founder of numerous high-tech start-ups.
Blank holds that business plans are one of the fundamental reasons why failure rates among start-ups are so high. The traditional business plan typically includes a five-year forecast for income, profits and cash flow. The assumption behind writing a business plan is that it is possible to figure out most of the unknowns of a business in advance, before funding is raised and the idea is actually executed.
According to Blank, “no one besides venture capitalists and the late Soviet Union requires five-year plans to forecast complete unknowns. These plans are generally fiction, and dreaming them up is almost always a waste of time.”
Conventional business plans contribute to the likelihood that entrepreneurs who can convince investors to fund them then begin to build the product in isolation from their markets, with little if any customer input. Too often, after months or even years of development, entrepreneurs learn the hard way that customers neither need nor want most of the product’s features. And in today’s fast-moving markets, even good ideas can be made obsolete very quickly.
Blank concedes that business success is predicated on too many factors for one methodology to virtually guarantee that any single start-up will be a winner. But on the basis of hundreds of start-ups, in university programs that teach lean principles, the more important claim can be made that using lean methods across a portfolio of start-ups will result in significantly fewer failures than using traditional methods. In the last five years alone, more than three dozen universities have begun to incorporate the lean start-up methodology in their program portfolios, with immediate and documented success.
A lower start-up failure rate would have profound economic consequences in New Brunswick. The province’s economy increasingly is being buffeted by the forces of globalization and disruption. Its traditional industries are rapidly losing jobs, many of which will never return. To ensure economic viability in the long term, the province must rely on successful entrepreneurship. The growth of jobs across the province will need to come from new ventures, and all New Brunswickers have a vested interest in fostering an environment that helps them succeed, grow and hire more workers. The rapid expansion of start-ups is critical to supporting the transformation to an innovation economy. Universities, government, financial institutions and investors each have a key role to play.