Chinese Math

Posted in Business Plan Tips, Marketing
By David Kaplan -
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At the peak of Silicon Valley ‘s bubble, back in January of 2000, Guy Kawasaki wrote an irreverent article for Forbes Magazine about the poor quality of business plans that inexperienced entrepreneurs were submitting to venture capitalists back in those days.  The article notes a number of common mistakes, most articulated in Guy’s signature tongue-in-cheek style, but none have enjoyed the virtually universal applause and staying power of his admonition against “Chinese math.”  Kawasaki put it this way;

… lose the “Chinese math.” Chinese math is the argument that goes like this: If just 1% of the people in China bought a Macintosh, Apple would be the largest computer company in the world. Many plans cite a study that “proves” that a market will be $20 billion by 2003 and state that all the company needs to do to be profitable is to get 1% of the market.

There are problems with Chinese math: 1) there’s never been a consulting study that didn’t predict a multibillion-dollar market size. (Do you think consulting firms can sell studies that predict small or down markets?) 2) Getting 1% of a market is easier said than done. 3) If you say that you need to get only1%, does this mean you’re conceding the 99% to others? 4) You label yourself a bozo because only bozos would try this line of reasoning on sophisticated investors.

Kawasaki’s reason #1 continues to ring true, especially in emerging markets. Still, let’s focus on reasons #2 and #4.  They are closely related.  Reason #4 warns that if your presentation or business plan relies on Chinese math, sophisticated readers will think you are a bozo.  Why? Because of #2!  Naively taking for granted a 1% (or worse yet a 5%, 10% or more) market share simply sweeps the real world difficulties of marketing and sales under a flimsy statistical rug.  Let’s assume that a reasonable case can be made that your market comprises a million individual buyers. Capturing a mere 1% of that market means selling 10,000 customers.  If you enjoy a typical closing rate around 25%, then closing 10,000 sales requires making 40,000 sales presentations to qualified prospects, i.e., people who need what you sell, have the means to buy it and will give you a reasonable opportunity to sell it to them.  To find 40,000 qualified prospects, you may need to start with 100,000+ leads; that is people who express some kind of interest, such as visitors to your web site. 

These numbers put a little flesh on the bare bones of a 1% market share.  How will you attract all those visitors?  Does your business plan have an adequate marketing budget and strategy to reach them?  Does it describe an efficient means to qualify prospects out of the 100,000 leads?  Who in your company will make the 40,000 sales presentations? If it takes 12 minutes to fill out a sales slip and run a credit card, then the 10,000 sales will require 120,000 minutes or 2000 hours … just to cash out all those customers, to say nothing of selling them!  Investors want to know how you plan to do all these things. They will dismiss  an empty market share forecast that fails to comprehend such challenges.  To run your business, you will need to know the answers.  Consequently if your plan forecasts some small share of a large market, discuss that in terms of the actual numbers and how you will capture and service them.

Neophyte entrepreneurs continue to write business plans containing Chinese math.  They submit them to investors and to potential strategic partners and use them to recruit seasoned managers, executives, board members and advisors.  Many entrepreneurs have no idea what role Chinese math has played in the failure of these important initiatives.

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