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How To Write A Business Plan: Interview with Lynley Sides

The “How To Write A Business Plan” site is about a lot more than business plans – it’s chock full of insights, experiences, and advice from entrepreneurs around the globe, including some of the most successful ones in recent years. I recently contributed an interview and am reproducing it here in case there’s something valuable to any entrepreneurs or potential future entrepreneurs among our followers. Let me know what you think.

The Interview

Recently we caught up with Lynley Sides, Co-Founder and CEO of The Glue Network. This is a one of those really great interviews, where the founder digs deep into their experiences as an entrepreneur to provide some really good advice.

What is The Glue Network all about

The Glue Network drives business results for companies from their social responsibility efforts. On the Glue platform, companies engage their customers and other constituents in giving and inspire them to advocate for the company on social media – building loyalty, strengthening the brand, and expanding the company’s customer base.

Glue programs come in 2 forms:

1) Glue Gift Cards: alternatives to traditional gifts and give-away items for companies of all sizes. Instead of giving items that often wind up in landfills, the company gives customized charitable gift cards. Their giftees direct the company’s dollars to nonprofit projects and then share posts about the good the company is doing. Good for the world, meaningful to the recipient, goodwill and new customers for the company, same cost. Every company should be doing this!

2) White Labeled Platform: the Glue platform is customized for the company to facilitate and turbo-charge its giving, cause marketing, or social responsibility programs — so they do the most good for the world and for business.

How did you come up with the idea for The Glue Network?

When Scott Hancock was organizing events that engaged individuals in music, arts, sports and culture, benefited good causes and were sponsored by brands, he had the idea to scale that model using the web and social media.

As an entrepreneur and tech marketer, when I heard Scott’s idea, I already believed that, solving the massive, unacceptable social issues in the world – human slavery, infant mortality, education, access to clean water, hunger… requires far greater contribution from companies of all sizes. But for businesses to spend more to do good, it has to make economic sense. We saw companies increasing their giving, through cause marketing and social responsibility spending. But these efforts have traditionally been less impactful and quantifiable, and difficult for small businesses, so the dollars have remained low overall.

So the idea became – if we could enable businesses to measurably improve their bottom lines through giving programs that were engaging and social, they would spend more that way and less on banner ads, branded gifts and traditional programs. So we built a platform that enables just that and have proven, in the first year since we launched, that doing good can be both good for the world and good for business.

What were some of the challenges that you faced starting a company?

Entering a market that’s rapidly growing means both opportunity and rapid change. When you’ve thrown yourself completely into building and fundraising for a business, it’s challenging to keep a constant eye on the market and the forces impacting it and rapidly incorporate that information into your plans and actions. We had to develop the skills to plan >> act >> learn >> adjust the team’s actions and our pitch.

It’s one thing for your market to say they like what you’re building, another for them to buy it. Market research around a concept can yield valuable input and you have to do this. But then it’s critical to get to a prototype, receive feedback from actual potential customers, and put what they say they’ll pay for to the test. We went too far down the path of developing the platform before doing this which cost us some time and rework.

By definition, you have way too few resources and everyone’s wearing multiple hats. The key is to know what you’re good at, surround yourself with people who are really smart, able to play multiple roles, adaptable, and willing to do what it takes. It’s normally worth paying for great talent, but that’s often not feasible for a cash-strapped startup. If you have a compelling, high potential idea and are making it happen, you can benefit from great talent without paying market rates.

Pay people with equity, find low cost developers for simpler work, ask advisors and board members to roll up their sleeves, find students who will work for class credit, enlist volunteers (realistic if you have a strong social mission) or inexpensive interns. Look realistically at your needs and be scrappy in finding all potential sources to fill them.

Recently you raised a round of angel funding. What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs looking to raise their first round of funding?

Unless you’re a serial entrepreneur with a notable success behind you, it’s much easier to raise seed money from individuals in your network than from people you’ve just met. Our investors are all individuals a Glue team member knows personally. It makes sense to focus your efforts on your immediate network first.

VCs are often willing to meet when you’re too early for them to invest. These meetings can provide valuable 2-way learning but can also burn a lot of time so be clear and realistic about the outcomes you expect, ask a lot of questions, and plan these selectively.

A compelling elevator pitch is essential as you never know when you may meet a potential investor. I described Glue to Dad at my son’s baseball game, not knowing he was a successful entrepreneur and investor, and he later invested in us.

A solid, well-practiced 10-slide (+/-) pitch is the must-have. A few specific appendix slides may be important for addressing likely questions. But 40 pages of detail isn’t needed or even meaningful at the seed stage. Instead, polish your short pitch by making sure your story line is clear and compelling, your evidence and rationale airtight, assumptions believable, and your verbal presentation confident and polished. Seek out presentation outlines, feedback, and opportunities to pitch at events – either through an accelerator program, searching online, or asking your network.

You were a part of the Springboard Enterprises accelerator program, what difference do you feel being a part of an accelerator made for your company?

If you have the opportunity to participate in a good accelerator program, do it! Springboard provides selected women entrepreneurs with training, coaching, advice, and assistance attracting funding. The opportunities for exposure and support from seasoned members with various perspectives were incredibly valuable to me and to Glue.

Initially, I had reservations about whether the time would be worthwhile, but based on the strong recommendation of a Springboard alumni, applied. Going in, I focused on a couple of areas where I expected to benefit most, but through the process, discovered several others.

As one example, I thought my pitch was in good shape but, at Springboard bootcamp, I learned otherwise! And that intensive work and practice improved it by leaps and bounds. After bootcamp, the program included several rounds of intensive discussion and feedback on the business and investor presentation from a dedicated group of mentors, culminating in a pitch event in New York. The dedicated time and energy from experienced outsiders helped improve our pitch and contributed to our thinking about the market, our model and our sales approach.

Equally valuable were the connections and learnings that have come from the other entrepreneurs that were a part of my “class,” some of whom had previously founded, grown and sold companies and shifted entire industries. Though Glue did not receive funding directly from the Springboard program, the process contributed to our success attracting investors and building the business to date.

What kind of a role has mentoring played in your success to date?

I’ve been fortunate to work for some truly exceptional people, a few of whom I’ve considered mentors. And looking back, there’s been a strong correlation between times when I’ve had a strong mentor and when I learned and developed the most.

As a first-time CEO, it’s hard to express the value of having Glue’s investor and executive chairman who’s a serial CEO, has grown and sold companies, and taken one public, as a mentor. In areas like managing the board and negotiating terms with investors, where I lacked experience, and also through day-to-day input to thinking, plans and decisions.

The best mentor relationship is 2-way – not just “you ask / they answer” but also where the mentor is involved and aware enough to say “did you think about it this way?” or “what about this approach?” in areas where you might not think to ask. The level of trust and confidence that the person has your best interest at heart are essential to the value this relationship can have for you and for your company.

If you don’t naturally end up with a great mentor but are a first-time CEO, find one! If your current board and network don’t include someone who’s able and motivated to actively support you, identify a successful startup CEO who’s attributes you admire, recruit them for your board or advisory board to align their interests with yours, and actively develop a mentoring relationship.

What advice would you like to give to an entrepreneur thinking about starting a business and writing their first business plan?

A popular answer to this is “just do it” but everyone’s not cut out to be an entrepreneur. Most successful businesses end up there after a harrowing roller coaster ride along the way. And most businesses that fail do so because the founder gives up. So it’s worth thoughtfully considering whether this course is right for you.

A definition of entrepreneurship that I like is “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled” (Stevenson,1983). I would add to this that success requires powerful intent meaning an unshakeable commitment to your vision of the future – not to a specific set of product features or revenue number – but to managing risks, adapting, and making the business successful, persisting despite naysayers, setbacks and unexpected hurdles.

If you believe in the idea and that you’re the right person to lead it, take the plunge, but don’t spend excessive time on the business plan. Do spend some time thinking about each section of a typical plan. Think about what the keys to success will be each area, actions required, and who/how you will accomplish them. Simply taking the time to do this will set you on the right path and align your team’s priorities. But, time spent refining estimates and plans has diminishing returns at this stage when so much remains unknown.

It should also be a working plan – designed to be consulted, questioned, and revised regularly and when things change or new information is discovered. Don’t file it away and forget about it or you’ll lose half its value.

What advice do you have for an entrepreneur who’s already in the process of growing a business?

Every business should have a social mission and the sooner you define one, the better. Customers, investors, and employees, are increasingly demanding this and shifting their dollars and support toward companies that do. Find a way to give back, engage your customers and team in it, and you’ll inspire them to help you grow – by doing exceptional work for you, buying repeatedly, and spreading the word.

A massive thank you to Lynley for taking the time out of her busy schedule to put down some awesome answers to our questions. We look forward to catching back up with The Glue Network next year to see how things have progressed. In the mean time, check outsite! You can also follow them on Twitter!