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Sales forecasting for startups

Computer spreadsheets can spew out meaningless sales forecasts!
The computer and sales forecasting

Sales forecasting for startups

I came across this quote the other day, which caused me to reflect on the question of sales forecasting for startups.

“Plan financially for it to take you twice as long to sell half as much as in your original business plan.” (Toby Reid, director of BioCity Nottingham.)

One of my bugbears. is the inability of most new businesses to produce accurate sales forecasts. This is, after all, the most important forecast there is. However, every startup I have been involved with always gets it wrong!

The importance of sales forecasting

Sales are the lifeblood of a business. Nothing is more important. Without sales there is no business.

A business’s operations are planned around the volume of sales it will generate. Sales volume influences everything important that happens in a business. This includes cash (or capital) requirements, office or factory capacity, staffing levels, transport requirements and operational activities.

Sales forecasting is, therefore, the vital ingredient of the business plan.

Established business

To accurately forecast sales in an established business is difficult for many reasons. These include the variations in the economic cycle and unusual events such as a pandemic. Also, more mundane factors (such as increased competition, disruptions to supply and/or manufacture, strikes and staff problems) can make forecasting difficult.

However, with an established business one has historical data to work from. Actual sales from previous years set the benchmark from which estimates of future sales are made. Sensible sales assumptions based on such things as:

  • Expected events within the economy
  • Factors that may effect the business and
  • Probable activity by competitors

Should result in a forecast that is accurate within, perhaps, a ten percent variance.

Sales forecasting is more effective if done in teams.
The sales forecasting team

New business

However, with a new business (or startup) you have none of these benchmarks. To accurately forecast sales here is of a different dimension all together. There is, by definition, no history in a startup: there are no past sales on which to base future sales. Most estimates things are a pure guess.   

Startups in established industries

To help overcome the difficulty of having no history, potential startups in established industries undertake market research. This research attempts to establish such things as the size of the potential market, the activity of competitors and the likely share of the market that the startup is hoping to capture.

Information can also be gathered by:

  • Talking to vendors or wholesalers
  • Studying trade magazines
  • Considering how similar products preform
  • Looking at how rival businesses preform
  • Deciding whether your product is seasonal or not

Established industry forecasts

Using the methods above, startups in established industries can hope to produce sales forecasts that have some credibility. However, they are still usually inaccurate. Without exception they are inaccurate on the upside, plagued by mistakes such as assuming that sales will increase by a set percentage every year and happily feeding this information into the spreadsheet.

The result is a forecast that is not only wildly optimistic about quantum, but also about timing. This is where Toby Reid’s comments above are so relevant.

I used to say to my startup clients: “Estimate the sales numbers, divide them by two, and then divide them by two again and then add a year.” Pessimistic? Maybe but, in the event, usually closer in outcome than the original numbers spewed out by the computer.  

Sales forecasting is an important part of the overall business plan.
The sales forecast is part of the business plan

Startups in a new industry

Occasionally a startup is so innovative it is attempting to create a whole new industry. Although this is rare, it does happen. Where the new business is in this situation (that is, establishing an industry which is itself new), the process of forecasting its sales becomes doubly difficult or, probably, impossible.

The business cannot undertake the research mentioned above because there is no industry, competitor, or existing product information to find out about. Where there are no industry sales statistics (because the industry does not yet exist) it is, of course, impossible to forecast what sales might be using tried and tested (albeit unreliable) methods.  

Forecasting for a new industry

So, what is to be done about sales forecasting in these circumstances? Is there any point in attempting any forecast at all? Or put another way, can one place any credence on these forecasts, or are they just wild guesses?

The first answer is probably yes, you must produce sales forecasts. The second answer is no, you cannot place much credence on them. In these circumstances the startup owners must go on gut feel as much as anything else. The forecasts are probably just wild guesses and more or less useless. Consequently, the business will have to be flexible and nimble and adjust to the sales actually achieved.   

Flexibility in forecasting  

The inaccuracy of forecasting is only one element of a startup’s uncertainty. It is likely that the business will have to undergo numerous changes in its early life, such as adapting or changing its products, its location, its management and its method of sales to survive. This ability to “pivot” (to use Silicon Valley’s jargon) is vital to the continued existence and growth of many startups.

However, in the struggle for survival and emergence as a viable business, the accuracy or otherwise of a startup’s initial sales forecast will have long since been forgotten – a bit like your GCSE results when you are seeking promotion as CEO!

See also:

You can view a useful forecasting toolkit at: