Business Plan In A Can

Moving out to Silicon Valley without a business plan is like going to the beach without a swimsuit. While all your friends are whooping it up in the surging tides of the New Economy, you're stuck on dry land with nothing to talk about over the wine and cheese. The upshot: get an idea, fast. Of course, few of us have M.B.A.s to help us when the light bulb clicks. Which is why PlanWrite Business Plan Writer Deluxe ($99.95; 800-395-6682), a program that helps you crank out your own customized investment pitch, got our attention. "Say goodbye to writer's block!" the box proclaims, promising "pre-written text that you can often use without editing." Sample plans include "cookie shop," "microbrewery" and "graffiti removal service."

For my exercise, I chose "consultant." Not that I have any special skills to impart. But it seems easy enough: most of my buddies are consultants of one kind or another, despite the fact that they're all fresh out of school. So I put together a mock plan. The first step was testing my idea: to offer writing and editing help to small businesses. The program provided a link to a Web site that asked 30 multiple-choice questions about the business, and then offered an instant analysis. It didn't mince words. "You will be selling a technically non-unique, low maintenance service that is viewed with skepticism by the scientific community," the site warned. My long-term profit potential was evaluated to be "negative," and my probability of success was judged to be 38 percent.

I liked those odds. So I moved on to the next phase, answering a series of fill-in-the-blank questions from the "Plan Wizard," which helped to build my plan's outline. This section is no sweat. But then comes the hard part--actually writing the thing. The software walks you through each stage of your outline, and prompts you to enter information about your business. Of course, if you actually have a good idea, this is the part where you can really show your stuff--and the program could be a powerful tool. But if you have a lousy idea like mine, this is the part where you prove the software adage: "garbage in, garbage out."

The last step is publishing your plan. You can print it out or post it on the Internet. I e-mailed mine to a bona fide Silicon Valley venture capitalist. His evaluation began politely. "Since I know you, I'll be honest with you," he said. "This plan is what we call a 'nonstarter'." Then he let loose, the years of unsolicited business plans taking their toll. "You have a better chance of winning an Olympic gold medal than raising one dime of venture capital," he joked. "I would rather buy Firestone tires than shares in your company." I got the message: keep the day job. Now all I need is a program called Magazine Article Writer.

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