“LivePlan is the process. It's the process of walking you through every step and emphasizing that it's not what you know, it's what you don't know.”

It's the last night of class for Roger Wong's SBDC Business Plan Accelerator course at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. Students are getting ready to deliver their pitch to a panel of local business people—a banker, a lawyer, the CEO of a local business, and their classmates. It's good practice for those who will pitch for funding for their companies, and sometimes students leave with new connections—like mentors or potential investors.

“The students see that the program doesn't end with the work they just did,” says Peter Thorsson of Palo Alto Software, who developed the course with Roger. “The program continues as long as you're trying to pursue this business idea, and into any future business ideas you'll ever have. This is the start—and you may need somebody who might help you on that journey.”

The course is a five-session business planning program that Peter and Roger developed, built using LivePlan as the foundation. “Both Peter and I talk to the class and present, and then they get to get time to work on their plan,” explains Roger. “Once they have access to their own LivePlan account, they can work on it during class, and I am invited in as an observer in their plan so I can see their progress.”

Jessica Champion, a former student of Roger's, successfully started her own family therapy clinic.
Jessica Champion, a former student of Roger's, successfully started her own family therapy clinic.

Helping business owners every step of the way

The SBDC and Lane Community College Business Plan Accelerator course usually includes a mix of students whose businesses are in various stages of development. Some students are up and running, and want a business plan to get funding or track their growth. Others are still in the early stages and hoping to figure out if their idea is viable. “It's pretty much all spread over the board,” says Roger. “We have folks that are just thinking about ideas. Then we have folks that are in it.”

This creates a great balance; students with less experience can learn from those who are already up and running, and those with existing businesses benefit from exposure to the idea validation process.

Not only that, but former students like Jessica Champion are invited back to share their experience and insight with current students.

“In Jessica's case, she had written the plan, used the plan, and got her financing. That's an invaluable experience to share with the class.”

Jessica says: “You know, when I first started in the class and was working through LivePlan, I didn't even really know what accounts receivable and accounts payable meant. I didn't even really know what cash flow was, or what a profit and loss would look like, or how that's calculated.”

She quickly picked up new skills, and with Roger's guidance, she used LivePlan to help her validate her business idea.

“I wanted to know how long it would take, what the biggest pitfalls are, and what my biggest expenses would be. I really wanted to understand, from a budget perspective, what it would take on a month to month basis,” Jessica says.

Since the class, Jessica has used her completed business plan to instill confidence in investors, and she's shared it with potential new hires during the recruitment process.

“In Jessica's case, she had written the plan, used the plan, and got her financing,” says Roger. “That's an invaluable experience to share with the class. It just gives so much more credence, and students will say, ‘Wow! This is what we really need to do in the real world, not just think about it.’”

Students get a chance to practice pitching their businesses, with help from Peter and Roger.
Students get a chance to practice pitching their businesses, with help from Peter and Roger.

Using LivePlan to learn the process of business planning

Roger built the Business Plan Accelerator course around LivePlan, and considers it an integral part of the course itself. Not only did he want to give students a simple way to create a beautiful, professional business plan document, but he wanted a way to teach students about business planning as a process.

“I always start my class with a quote: ‘Everybody wants to jump in and do something. But they always want to start and go to the end, and they never do the middle,’” says Roger.

“LivePlan is the process. It's the process of walking you through every step and emphasizing that it's not what you know, it's what you don't know.”

“So, LivePlan is the process. It's the process of walking you through every step and emphasizing that it's not what you know, it's what you don't know. Or maybe what you think you know, but you actually don't know enough.”

While students will be able to produce a finished business plan at the end of the Business Plan Accelerator course, they are also learning how to make educated guesses.

“One of the main processes that we're teaching, is that you don't know enough to make a really good guess right now, but you will know more. Your guess will get better,” says Peter.

“That core fact is true for every learner. It really doesn't matter where you're starting or where you're ending, as long as you're making progress during the course. I think that's key. And again, to me, that's the core of what LivePlan calls the Lean Planning process.”

Peter shows students how to use LivePlan to plan for success.
Peter shows students how to use LivePlan to plan for success.

Validating ideas and failing fast

There's an important benefit that the Business Plan Accelerator course provides, beyond teaching students how to write a business plan: it gives would-be small business owners a chance to validate their ideas.

Students use LivePlan to test out scenarios and practice their pitching skills, while Roger offers expert mentorship and guidance. It's an ideal opportunity for students who need to figure out if their new business idea will actually work.

Of course, this sometimes means students determine that their business idea isn't actually viable. Peter notes, however, that it's actually a good thing when students learn that their idea would not have made a profitable business.

“One of the main processes that we're teaching, is that you don't know enough to make a really good guess right now, but you will know more. Your guess will get better.”

“We consider it a success if a student comes in with an idea—one that they're willing to bet their whole life on, sell their house to fund, for example—and they find out by the end of the course that that idea would never have been profitable, that it would've never paid them enough to live,” Peter says. “It was a great idea, but it wasn't a business.”

Learning this early on gives students a chance to pivot and change their idea, or come up with something new—without wasting time and money on a business that would have failed.

“It's the Lean Planning idea, to do that right amount of planning so that you get to the point where you can go on to the next step as fast as you possibly can,” says Peter.

Roger's years of experience as an SBDC mentor make him an invaluable mentor.
Roger's years of experience as an SBDC mentor make him an invaluable mentor.

Getting comfortable with the financials

As Jessica mentioned, understanding financials and making good projections is one of the hardest parts of starting and running a business. From the seasoned business owner to those who haven't launched yet, Peter and Roger have found that the financials intimidate everyone. “Nobody feels confident about doing them, so everyone's back at that same level,” says Peter. “Everyone feels the same amount of trepidation or fear.”

The Business Plan Accelerator course helps make it easy. Roger walks students through all their financial statements, and shows how LivePlan can help them master their financials. “Walking students through each of the steps in LivePlan really helps them to understand what goes into each particular item,” says Roger.

“Walking students through each of the steps in LivePlan really helps them to understand what goes into each particular item.”

In addition to learning step by step how to build their financial statements in LivePlan, students also get practice refining their projections over time. Peter explains that by starting with a “very small, very incorrect guess,” students can learn that the numbers aren't actually as intimidating as they imagine, and they can practice refining their guesses “until they hit something that is really true.”

The result? Students feel comfortable making educated guesses, and improving these guesses as time goes on and they learn more. “It's really about getting over some of that writer's block and some of that fear of getting it right the first time,” says Peter. “Once you realize that anything that you write down can be improved in the future in the LivePlan app, then you're willing to just take your best guess.”

“It's amazing, at the end of five classes, when students come out with what is a true, full financial forecast,” says Peter. “They're ready to roll, ready to start managing their business.”

Can business planning be fun? In Roger's class, it certainly appears that way.
Can business planning be fun? In Roger's class, it certainly appears that way.

Building community while learning from others

The Business Plan Accelerator course has grown in popularity since it began, and continues to grow. When Roger first offered the class, it had around five students. A year later, the number had increased to 15, and then 17 the following term. “The class that started on May 1st was already fully booked in January,” says Roger. “The word is spreading out in the community [...] then folks that have heard about it are recommending it. I think that the best testimonial is the oversold capacity every time.”

As the course continues to grow, students are able to network with even more small business owners (and soon-to-be small business owners), and are exposed to real-life business scenarios they would otherwise not have encountered.

“I'd argue that it's beneficial for a really early-stage business to see an up-and-running business struggle writing their own executive summary headline, for example,” says Peter. “Or, to have the same concerns and questions come up from three different industries about the same topic. This means that we can have a discussion and have various different points of view and expertise levels, and then Roger can guide that discussion in the right direction.”

Peter and Roger don't just see it as possible to educate students at varying levels of business experience—they see it as beneficial to all students involved. It's the ideal combination of a hands-on, collaborative learning and expert support and mentorship from Roger and the SBDC. It gives students an opportunity not only to build their own plans and validate their own ideas, but also to see first-hand what it takes to run a successful company in their community.

“LivePlan is not just a way to write a business plan and when you get your financing, you throw it away. With LivePlan, you can take the next step to manage your business.”

“There's a benefit to having students side by side with each other learning along the same lines—frankly, that's how the rest of the world is,” says Peter. “It helps everyone grow and do a better job.”

And, with the introduction to LivePlan, students are equipped not only to start their businesses, but to manage them better as they grow.

“With LivePlan, we talk about how folks have started and operated a business, but they don't know how to manage the business,” says Roger. “That's where we introduce the Benchmarks and then the Dashboard, so they can see that LivePlan is not just a way to write a business plan and when you get your financing, you throw it away. Now, you can take the next step to manage your business.”


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SBDC Business Plan Accelerator

Roger uses LivePlan to teach a business planning course to aspiring small business owners. It integrates with every teaching style.

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