Q: Do you think presenting your business plan on the Internet is safe and effective?
A: That depends on what you're trying to achieve. If you want an easy way to distribute the plan, the Internet definitely fits the bill. But there are many ways to present something on the Internet, each of which has its pros and cons.
I've seen businesses put their business plans on their Web site in plain text. Google or Yahoo! comes along and indexes the page, and from there on in, anyone wanting details about the company's strategy can visit a search engine and end up reading the business plan. If it's a competitor wanting details on how to squash you, you just handed them a very big hammer.
Furthermore, many times you're required to track your plans carefully, depending on the legal circumstances surrounding your offering. Publishing your plan to the world may not satisfy those tracking requirements.
One solution that lets you publish conveniently is to password-protect the file on your Web site. Have your webmaster require a password to get to the page where the file is kept. That way, only people with your explicit permission can access your plan.
That still doesn't satisfy the tracking requirement, however. Nor does it protect the plan once someone downloads it. After all, they might change the document once they've downloaded it, duplicate it, etc. You need something stronger to make sure the plan is fully protected.
One way to detect a changed document is by using a digital signature. One of the most easily accessible programs for generating digital signatures and signing documents is PGP, downloadable at www.pgp.com. You can sign any document with PGP and generate a file that contains the signature. If the document is later modified, PGP will tell you the signature no longer matches the document.
Many file formats also let you designate a file as "read only." In Microsoft Word, for example, you can use "Save As" and set a password needed to open or modify the file.
Adobe Acrobatis the only way I know to handle everything at once. If you use Acrobat to create a .pdf file of your business plan, you can sign the file with a digital signature. You can also lock the file so it can't be modified, printed, or changed without a password.
Tracking who has the document is more difficult. You either need to create a new copy of the document for each person you want, customized to that person, or have a more elaborate scheme on your Web site to track who is doing the downloads.
If you are willing to create a new file for each person who plans to read the plan, you might want to set the file's password to that person's name. So if you were to send me a copy of your plan, you would send it as a .pdf file that requires the password "steverrobbins" to open. Then, if I give the plan to anyone else, at the very least, every time they open the file, they are reminded that the file was not intended for them.
Of course, you can always fall back to the low-tech solution: print up several copies, number them physically and just send them out in the mail.
As an entrepreneur, technologist, advisor and coach, Stever Robbins seeks out and identifies high-potential start-ups to help them develop the skills, attitudes and capabilities they need to succeed. He has been involved with start-up companies since 1978 and is currently an investor or advisor to several technology and Internet companies including ZEFER Corp., University Access Inc., RenalTech, Crimson Soutions and PrimeSource. He has been using the Internet since 1977, was a co-founder of FTP Software in 1986, and worked on the design team of Harvard Business School's "Foundations" program. Stever holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a computer science degree from MIT. His Web site is a http://www.venturecoach.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.