A Future Plan for Business: Think Ahead & Build Profits

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Zero To One" by Peter Thiel. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What makes a strong future plan for business? How do you form a future plan?

A future plan for business is exactly what it sounds like—creating a path forward for your business. But a future plan for business requires careful thought and planning, and you need to consider both short and long term goals.

Success Comes From a Strong Future Plan for Business

A future plan for business can be hard to create, since you don’t always know what drives success. Businesspeople debate whether success comes from luck or design. Some popular writers and leaders emphasize luck and downplay the importance of design or planning in contributing to success. This makes many people think planning—trying to shape the future—is pointless.

For instance, author Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers that success results from “lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages.” Warren Buffett notes that he was lucky to be born with certain qualities. Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates both claim luck played a role in their success.

It’s possible luck could play a role in an individual success, but luck isn’t sufficient to explain how the same person—for instance, Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, Steve Jobs—could achieve a series of extraordinary, multibillion-dollar successes.

When Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, tweeted in 2013 that “Success is never an accident,” most of the responses were dismissive, citing white male privilege over intelligent planning as the biggest factor in success. However, while connections, wealth, and experience—and luck—can be factors, in recent years, we’ve tended to ignore or overlook the importance of planning and forming a comprehensive company future plan.

In the past, people thought differently. From the Renaissance and the Enlightenment into the 20th century, people believed you made your own luck by working hard. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances … strong men believe in cause and effect.” 

Today, your future business plan, and whether you think of the future as determined by chance or design, affects how you act in the present and whether you ultimately succeed.

A Future Plan for Business Builds Strong Profits

How do you create a future plan for business? One way is figuring out how to form a monopoly.

A monopoly by definition has avoided competition, but to be a great business, there’s more: it must last into the future.

A monopoly can be a part of building your company future plan. To understand how this works, compare the New York Times Company with Twitter. Each employs thousands of people and delivers news to millions. However, in 2013, Twitter was valued at  $24 billion, which was 12 times the Times’ market capitalization. Yet the Times earned $133 million in 2012, while Twitter lost money. How could the money-losing Twitter be worth more than the money-gaining Times? (Shortform note: market capitalization is the total value of a company’s shares of stock.)

The reason for the dramatic difference in value is cash flow—the hallmark of a great business is its ability to generate future cash flow. Investors expected Twitter to generate monopoly profits for the next 10 years, while investors believed the New York Times lacked that ability.

A business’s current value is the sum of the profits it will earn throughout its lifetime. Low-growth businesses are those like newspapers that aren’t expected to grow dramatically in the future—most of their value is near-term. They might retain their value and keep current cash flows for a few years, but competition will erode it in the future. A successful restaurant might be profitable today, but cash flows will dwindle in a few years as new restaurants open.

The pattern is the opposite for tech companies—they often lose money initially and require time to build value. Most of a tech startup’s value will be a decade or more in coming, which needs to be considered in your future business plan.

For example, by March 2001, PayPal hadn’t made a profit, but revenues were growing 100% year over year. Thiel calculated that 75% of the company’s current value would come from profits generated in 2011 and thereafter. However, he underestimated. At the time of this book’s publication in 2014, it appeared most of the company’s value would come from 2020 and beyond.

The Allure of Short-Term Profits

To be valuable, a company has to both grow and persevere. However, many entrepreneurs overemphasize short-term growth because it’s easier to measure than long-term potential. Focusing on short-term metrics, such as user statistics and revenue targets, can keep you from noticing issues affecting future viability. This also makes it difficult to develop a realistic company future plan.

For example, initial rapid growth at Zynga and Groupon distracted managers and investors from long-term challenges. While Zynga did well with the game Farmville at first, the company lacked the ability to produce a consistent stream of entertainment content. Groupon’s online deal website also grew initially as local businesses tried the product, but the company struggled to convert them into repeat customers.

In addition to short-term growth, entrepreneurs must build the business to ensure it will last for a decade or more.

Be a ‘Last Mover’

The “first mover advantage” means getting into a new market first and gaining a substantial share of the market before anyone else gets there.

But moving first is a tactic, not a goal, and should factor into your future business plan. ” Your goal is to generate cash flows for the future. You do this by starting with a small slice of the market (being the first mover) and gradually expanding, dominating each new slice until you own the ultimate market for your product. You want to be the last mover—the one who makes the last spectacular improvement in a market that ensures years of monopoly profits. 

Being a first mover puts you in position to be the last mover.

A future plan for business should cover your plans to maintain profit and to expand. In your future plan for business, you have to establish your goals and your existing business principles.

A Future Plan for Business: Think Ahead & Build Profits

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  • Why some companies genuinely move the world forward when most don't
  • How to build a company that becomes a monopoly (and why monopolies aren't bad)
  • Silicon Valley secrets to selling products and building rockstar teams

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