From the December 2008 issue of Entrepreneur

Starting a business was the last thing on Sean Hackney's mind when he sat down to write a business plan. Hoping to persuade a soft drink company to hire him, Hackney scripted a plan for taking on his former employer, Red Bull North America Inc. But when he showed it to his corporate attorney father and former Red Bull managing director, "they said, 'Don't send this to Coke or Pepsi. Start the business, and we'll start it with you,'" he recalls.

That was in 2000. Today, the 40-year-old is co-founder and co-owner of Roaring Lion Energy Drink, a $6.2 million company in Sun Valley, California. "We've grown the business from a $62,000 investment to the No. 2 energy drink in bars and nightclubs," Hackney says. The company has 32 employees, and Hackney's erstwhile sounding boards are now his investors and co-managers. The business plan he wrote has been through numerous revisions, and today, a regularly updated marketing plan guides the company. Writing the plan, Hackney says, was "absolutely" worthwhile. "I had a lot of stuff in my head that needed [to be] put on paper."

Clemson University entrepreneurship professor William B. Gartner believes business plans are essential. And the SBA notes on its website: "The importance of a comprehensive, thoughtful business plan cannot be over-emphasized." But lately, questions have arisen.

In 2006, William Bygrave, a professor emeritus at Babson College and longtime entrepreneurship researcher, studied several years' worth of Babson graduates to find out how much better those who started businesses with a formal, written plan did than those who didn't. "We can't find any difference,"?he admits. In other words, Bygrave and his team found that entrepreneurs who began with formal plans had no greater success than those who started without them.

For or Against

That's hardly the final word, however. Gartner also set out to study the idea. "Going into the study, I was very skeptical about the value of business plans," Gartner says. But after he and his colleagues looked at data from the Panal Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics, a national generalizable survey of more than 800 people in the process of starting businesses, he found that writing a plan greatly increased the chances that a person would actually go into business. "You're two and a half times more likely to get into business," he points out. "That's powerful."

Gartner's earlier concerns about the necessity of business plans, he says, were that they were "all talk. Our research shows that business plans are all about walking the walk. People who write business plans also do more stuff." And doing more stuff, such as researching markets and preparing projections, increases the chances an entrepreneur will follow through.

For his part, Bygrave doesn't think his research says business plans are a waste of time. "We're saying that writing a business plan ahead of time, before you open your doors for business, does not appear to help the performance of the business subsequently," he explains.

So what would Bygrave like to see instead of a business plan? Attempts to sell the product to actual customers, even if it doesn't exist yet. "Have you talked to a customer?" he asks. "If not, I don't want to talk to you about the business."

Bygrave still thinks plans help, however. Forty percent of Babson students who have taken the college's business plan writing course go on to start businesses after graduation, twice the rate of those who didn't study plan writing. "Even if they don't write a plan," Bygrave says, "they've had to think about how opportunity recognition fits with marketing, building the right team, making financial projections and so on."

And a wide gulf separates having a formal written plan and having no plan at all. "Every business has to start with a plan," says Bygrave, whether it's a mental construction never committed to paper or a more advanced description jotted down on the back of an envelope.

The Money Factor

Skeptics and fans of business plans agree on one point: Securing funding almost always requires a formal plan. Companies funded by friends and family may not need a plan, Bygrave says, but if you go to venture capitalists, commercial banks, government-backed lenders and most angel investors, you will need a business plan.

That viewpoint gets no traction from Daniel Stewart, co-founder of Port Richey, Florida-based Envala. Stewart and his partner funded the small-business software provider, yet Stew-art still put together a business plan complete with financial projections. "We didn't need to because we're our own invest-ors," says Stewart, 38,"but to be a responsible entrepreneur, you have to see things as they are."

A primary purpose of the plan was to evaluate the feasibility of their proposal to sell online automation software to small businesses. So they created three sets of financial forecasts: a rosy picture, a more reasonable one and a disaster scenario. They also placed extra emphasis on describing the corporate culture mission. "We exist to increase satisfaction, productivity and profitability of small businesses," Stewart says. "It was important for us to establish that [early on] when everything is uncertain."

Planning Trends

Plans today no longer need the 20 to 40 pages prescribed by classic planners. "The shorter [it is], the better chance [it has] of being read," says Bygrave, who recommends devoting no more than five pages to income, cash flow and balance sheets. "And don't have any numbers in [there] you can't explain instantaneously."

As tools such as spreadsheets and plan writing software have grown in importance, some critics say business plans have become overstuffed with complex financials that are often backed up by little more than guesswork. "[These tools have] made it easier to produce a business plan," says Bygrave. "But they've produced page after page of financials that basically came out of thin air." As a result, investors today want fewer and better-documented financials.

"No one's impressed by spreadsheets," agrees Gartner. "[It's] the action behind the spreadsheets." By that, he means investors want to see that an entrepreneur has actually examined the market for a product or service, identified potential customers, assembled a capable team, devised a business model and more.

While investors want to see action, they don't want to work for it. A plan today is more likely to be a modest deck of slick, colorful presentation slides than a thick stack of white paper. Digital slides are easier to distribute to a dispersed audience via e-mail and to present to large groups on an overhead projector.

But limit your presentation to no more slides than you would in a paper plan, meaning 20 or fewer. And don't cram a lot of information on a single slide. "Just put highlights," says Bygrave. "[No] more than six or eight lines on a slide."

Planning for the Future

Whether plans today are long, short, elaborate or simple, they still contain the same basic elements they always have. Typically, most have an executive summary, a marketing plan, a management team description and financials (income, cash-flow and balance sheet projections).

The recent studies are hard to ignore because they're based on reasonable samples and were performed by reputable researchers. But business plans show no sign of going extinct. Business plan competitions and college-level business plan courses are more abundant than ever. "Why do people write business plans?" Bygrave asks. "They've been trained to write business plans, so they do. Another cause is that investors or strategic partners insist on it."

Hackney's experience writing the plan for Roaring Lion convinced him of both the benefits and limitations of business planning. Simply writing a plan helped push him to start a business when he had no intention of doing so. But the plan wasn't nearly as effective when it came to identifying and quantifying the risks and opportunities his company would face.

One problem arose when it became apparent he had overestimated the business's revenue potential by about 500 percent. His company's annual sales are nothing to sneeze at, but they are far less than Hackney expected in his plan.

Among other missteps, he underestimated the actual selling price of the company's products. The economic appeal to customers is still strong, but it's not as strong as he'd hoped. Perhaps most important, his plan didn't recognize the amount of financial capital it would require to grow the company, which has made it difficult for him to reach those early sales forecasts.

Like many entrepreneurs, Hackney learned to write a business plan from a book. That, plus feedback and many hashing-out sessions with his soon-to-be investors and partners, produced a plan that was accurate in its basic aim: to describe a business model that would allow him to build a successful enterprise.

Today, Hackney says he'd definitely write a business plan if he started another business. But he'd be much more conservative with his financial projections and de-emphasize the use of them. "I'd make it much shorter," he adds. "I'd deliver the core principles of what the business is founded on in such a way that the purpose would be finding money."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.