Operations planning for startups

You would have often heard VCs and experienced entrepreneurs say “Ideas don’t mean anything. It is the execution of that plan which makes a good business case.”. Hence, often VCs will be willing to invest in a simple concept with high-quality teams with great implementation plan, rather than weak teams even if they have a great plan.

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Good execution and operations management is a lot about making sure that the many moving parts of the business are in sync with each other.

Most entrepreneurs underestimate the competencies and skill sets required for a venture to be implemented. They detail out the product/concept/service but do not spend adequate time in detailing out the operations plan. It is critical for the entrepreneurs, or the people planning the operations for the startup, identify, discuss and debate every single aspect that will need to be planned for  good implementation.

For example: A startup planning a chain of coffee shops across the country does not need just great coffee and snacks making skills. In fact, that may be the least of the worries in creating a great coffee shops chain.Creating a coffee shops chain will require the following competencies.
  • Real estate management
  • Franchising
  • Brand identity
  • Pricing strategy
  • Marketing
  • Supply chain
  • HR, legal, finance
  • Training
  • MIS
  • Cash management
  • ROI & capacity utilization
  • Facilities management
  • Processes
  • Standardization
  • Org structure
  • Vendors

Admittedly, startups are unlikely to have the full team to manage operations efficiently. However, planning does not require resources…. Investors invest, based on your PLANS for the future, whilst understanding that your current mode of operating is only due to resource constraints.

Especially for startups with a B2C concept, which could have rapid growth, it is important to plan for scale BEFORE the venture is ready for scale. It is almost always impossible to hack together the resources, processes, infrastructure and other elements to scale up quickly… these have to be built well in advance in most cases to be able to scale up smoothly.

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What do you prove in pilot phase?

At the pilot phase, or a concept test phase, it is critical to define very clear what is going to be tested and what the parameters of measurement would be. Many of the parameters could be qualitative as there may not be enough data to do a quantitative analysis. But identifying what and how it is going to be measured is critical.

Below are a few things that are tested in a concept test stage/pilot phase:

  • The concept – the power of the idea itself: One of the key things to evaluate in the pilot phase is whether the idea or concept has appeal among the target audience. While research is one way of gauging customer/consumer acceptance of the concept, customers or consumers actually buying/using is a stronger demonstration of the appeal of the concept e.g. for an e-commerce venture selling real gold & diamonds jewellery online, the pilot phase may want to check if customers actually buy jewellery online
  • The business model: Even if the concept rocks, how good and practical the business is will make or break the business case. In many cases, it may not be possible to check the business model in its entirety in the pilot phase. But at least it would give some indicators. E.g. for a company creating advertising platforms on college campuses, the pilot phase may check on whether the revenue split between the company and the colleges is being accepted as they had anticipated or are colleges asking for more or are they not allowing advertising on the campus. Also, things around the business model could be tested in this phase e.g. ‘How long does it take to close a sale? Who decides the pricing – the college, the advertiser or the company?’
  • The assumptions: How good your business case is and how close to reality it is will be entirely dependent on the quality of your assumptions. One of the critical things to test at pilot phase are the assumptions. e.g. For an e-commerce company, the assumptions around conversions from clicks, cost of customer acquisition, average ticket size, repeat purchase rates, etc. are critical factors to be tested.
  • Understanding operational challenges: Actually implementing on the ground highlights some challenges that you would not have anticipated in your planning. These learnings are critical as they help plan resources, processes and infrastructure that would be required to manage the operations. 
  • Testing processes and operational capabilities: As the startup scales up, the dependence on processes will increase. Else scaling up will either not be possible, or will be inefficient. A pilot phase is a good time to draw some basic processes and observe the operations to understand what these basic processes should evolve to.

How important are processes for a startup?

Processes are important even in a startup. However, many entrepreneurs tend to begin operations without even the basic processes, with the assumption that as they learn the dynamics of the business, processes can be formed. In fact, many entrepreneurs feel that processes are too restrictive and are meant only for larger, complex organizations.

However, process need not be complex. Processes are nothing but a standardized way of doing a particular activity or handling a particular situation. In fact, rather than slowing down an organization, processes actually help the startup become more efficient as the basis of decision making is pre-decided as a process. Once some effort has been put into creating and defining processes, founders or leadership team then does not have to get involved in the day-to-day operational level decision making as these can be easily be delegated to the team and monitored through clear measurable goals, milestones and reviews.

In fact, it is at the beginning of the journey that entrepreneurs are likely to find some time to think through the processes. If the startup starts picking up speed and growing, it is always almost impossible to ‘make’ time to invest in processes as at a growth stage there are too many other tempting aspects of managing growth that seem more important.

When you company is growing is almost always the wrong time to plan for growth. You have to plan for growth to the next level when you are at a level below. Else, you will always be in the operational challenge of managing operations instead of driving growth.

Does having a good office help in the early stages of a company?

In my view, having a decent office does play a very important role in the early stages of a company.

Here are some of my observations on this subject: Working out of home in the initial phases does not help No matter how serious and committed you are to your venture, working out of a ‘non-office environment’ [i.e. home or Cafe Coffee Day type outlet] just cuts down on your productivity. It is not just about inadequate infrastructure and support system, an office environment and the people around you just add to the feeling of being a real company.

It is very difficult to recruit talent without a good office Perhaps rightly so, people create perceptions and first opinions about a company by looking at the office. In our case, we have been particularly lucky to have received the generous support of our ex-bosses who kindly accommodated us in their offices and thus allowed us to attract high-quality talent which perhaps otherwise would have been difficult to do.

Without an office, business plans tend to get restricted by space available Inadequate or no office space and working out of coffee shops does leave you vulnerable to taking decisions based on restrictions of space.

Facebook apps: How do you estimate the market potential?

Revenue projections for a Facebook app should be done like you would for any product, say a refrigerator, or service. Here are a few steps you could consider:
  • You need to first define your target audience, then estimate how many people from your target audience are already active on the platform [e.g. Facebook] and in the geography you are targeting [i.e. the markets you are addressing].
  • Once you have the number, you need to calculate the number of people you CAN reach through your media spends and the activities that are within your control ( e.g – ads in the press or online) and your distribution channels (e.g. if the product/app is bundled with another existing brand or sold through app stores, etc). Remember, just because your app is on Facebook does not  mean that your marketing & advertising channel should also be Facebook. E.g. you could put efforts on PR – get a few TV interviews, press articles, etc. – and you could probably reach a much larger audience with your limited budgets.
  • Then you make some assumptions on how many additional people in your target audience can be reached through means like PR, viral effect, etc.
  • Once you have these numbers, you make assumptions on the percentage of people who are likely to buy/download your app.
  • If your revenue is based on buying/subscriptions, you estimate how many people X how much per download. If your revenue is advertising, you estimate how many impressions, and use existing media rates to estimate your revenues.

Now, to extrapolate this to the future, you make various assumptions on the base target audience size. You can use various media reports on where the target audience numbers are likely to go on the platforms you choose to be on.