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Let's Talk About Risk

It's the least sexy part of your biz plan, but risk presentation know-how can help deliver the funding you need.

When writing a business plan, do you need to include a risk analysis? Any startup idea will have enough risk to fill a dozen business plans. No investor expects a risk-free plan. Angels and VCs know startups are incredibly risky. If they don't, don't take their money-they don't know what they're doing! Most projects fail for reasons that could have been (and sometimes were) predicted far in advance. Since entrepreneurs are optimistic folks by nature: They tend to brush off predictions of doom and charge ahead assuming they will find a way to overcome. You can often avoid the most dire scenarios with intelligent upfront risk planning.

The risk analysis in your plan is to show that you've thought through risks, that you know how to plan for probable risks, and that your plan can survive when things go wrong.

Your plan can address several kinds of risk. You don't need to address every kind of risk in the book, but pick the risk categories that are most relevant to your company and include a paragraph or two about each:

  • Product risk is the risk that the product can't be created. Biotech firms often have a high degree of product risk. They never know for sure they can produce the drug they are hoping to produce.
  • Market risk is the risk that the market will develop differently than expected. Sometimes markets take too long to develop, and cash runs out while a company is waiting for customers.
  • People risk is big in companies that depend on having certain employees or certain kinds of employees. I was with a company that had hired one of the world experts in a certain type of 3-D modeling. It was possible that without this man on board and happy, the company wouldn't be able to create their product.
  • Financial risk is the risk that a company will run out of money or mismanage their money in some way. Finance companies may have huge financial risk, since bad lending policies combined with poor investment policies can sink them.
  • Competitive risk is the risk that a competing product or service will be able to win. Many web-based businesses have high competitive risk since they can be started with little money and have no way of locking in customers.

What investors want is to know that you are prepared to respond to risks. To the extent possible, outline what your response is to the risk you anticipate. After all, assuming you get funding, those risks may really come to pass. And you will really have to do something about it. By showing investors some of the alternatives you've thought through, you raise their confidence that you'll be able to deal if things don't go according to plan.

For example, consider the risk to a restaurant that people won't come back. What are the reasons you believe that would happen? What can you do to keep that from happening in the first place? It amazes me how many restaurants have a lousy menu selection or bad food and go under without ever asking customers, "Did you enjoy your meal? What could we do to make it better?" An at-the-table survey may be how you propose to avoid having the wrong menu. If things go wrong, you may decide to proactively invite critics to the restaurant for specific feedback on how to make the experience better.

The key is acknowledging that things can go wrong and demonstrating some creativity in finding a solution. You certainly needn't respond to every risk imaginable. Your goal is to provide enough to help your investors feel secure that you have anticipated and dealt with major risks, and they can count on you to handle things that come up once the business is under way.

Stever Robbins is a venture coach, helping entrepreneurs and early-stage companies develop the attitudes, skills and capabilities needed to succeed. He brings to bear skills as an entrepreneur, teacher and technologist in helping others create successful ventures.


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.

Stever Robbins is a venture coach, helping entrepreneurs and early-stage companies develop the attitudes, skills and capabilities needed to succeed. He brings to bear skills as an entrepreneur, teacher and technologist in helping others create successful ventures.

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