Cooperatives: A Tool for Community Economic Development
Conducting a Feasibility Study
Feasibility studies and business plans are identified in Chapter
4 as key steps to starting a cooperative. This section explains two
vital issues: how to conduct a feasibility study and how to do market
research. First, some definitions.
What is a Feasibility Study?
A feasibility study is designed to provide an overview of the primary issues related to a business idea. The purpose is to identify any “make or break” issues that would prevent your business from being successful in the marketplace. In other words, a feasibility study determines whether the business idea makes sense.
A thorough feasibility analysis provides a lot of information necessary for the business plan. For example, a good market analysis is necessary in order to determine the project’s feasibility. This information provides the basis for the market section of the business plan.
Because putting together a business plan is a significant investment of time and money, you want to make sure that there are no major roadblocks facing your business idea before you make that investment. Identifying such roadblocks is the purpose of a feasibility study.
A feasibility study looks at three major areas:
Again, this is meant to be a “first cut” look at these issues.
For example, a feasibility study should not do in-depth long-term financial
projections, but it should do a basic break-even analysis to see how much
revenue would be necessary to meet your operating expenses.
What is a Business Plan?
If the feasibility study indicates that your business idea is sound, the next step is a business plan. The business plan continues the analysis at a deeper and more complex level, building on the foundation created by the feasibility study. For example, the financial section of the plan would include pro forma (estimated) financial statements and 2-3 years of financial projections.
A business plan gives you an opportunity to find any weaknesses and reveal any hidden problems ahead of time. It serves two purposes: first, it is an analysis of how well the business will work; and second, it is a written document necessary to obtain a loan.
Although business plans are often submitted to a bank as part of a loan request, that’s not the most important thing about them. The really important thing about this process is that it forces you to think.
A business plan is sometimes described as a document of your thought processes as you analyze your competition, the market, your operating expenses, management and staffing needs, manufacturing process, etc. It forces you to clarify your goals and objectives. Therefore, the feasibility study and business plan are more important for the company’s owners than for anyone else, including loan officers.
Planning, however, won’t guarantee success in business. The plan must be realistic and based on valid assumptions. Most people have to work at retaining their objectivity if they are doing the feasibility study and/or business plan themselves. After all, if you are closely involved in organizing this business, you probably have some emotional investment in it. It is easy for people in this position to overlook or minimize potential problems or hazards. Remember that planning, no matter how good it is, will never make a bad business idea feasible.
Conducting a Feasibility Study
As noted above, the feasibility study is organized into three major
sections (market analysis, organizational/technical analysis, and financial
analysis). Each section below discusses the key questions which must
be addressed in the plan.
1. Market Analysis Research
The key questions that should be answered in the Market Analysis section of the feasibility study are presented below. In nearly all cases, research is required in order to obtain enough information to answer the questions. See p. 7 of this chapter for techniques for conducting market research. If these questions cannot be answered adequately, the project is not feasible.
a. What is the current or projected demand for your proposed products or services? In other words, how many units can you reasonably expect to sell each month?
b. What are the target markets for this product or service? What demographic characteristics do these potential customers have in common? How many of them are there?
c. What is the projected supply in your area of the products or services needed for your project?
d. What competition exists in this market? Can you establish a market niche which will enable you to compete effectively with others providing this product or service?
e. Is the location of your proposed business or project likely to affect its success? If so, is the identified site the most appropriate one available?
The market analysis should be conducted first because it is critical
to the success of the business. If you cannot substantiate through
research that adequate demand for your product or service exists, or if
you cannot obtain sufficient quantity to meet expected demand, then your
project is not feasible. You should not continue to the next step
in the feasibility study.
2. Key Organizational and Technological Issues
Once market issues have been addressed, it is time to take a look at key organizational and technology issues that are relevant to your project.
a. What organizational structure is the right one for your project?
Remember that cooperatives are not the best form of legal business structure for every project. Review Chapter 3 of this Manual to help you evaluate this.
b. Who will serve on the board of directors? What are their qualifications?
c. What qualifications are needed to manage this business?
d. Who will manage the business (if possible)?
e. What other staffing needs does the co-op have? How do you expect staffing needs to change over the next 2-3 years?
Because all subsequent decisions depend on the organization’s legal business structure, the first question is critical and should be answered before you continue with the feasibility analysis. It is an important question and may take some research. Don’t hesitate to call on a qualified attorney or other advisor if necessary.
While you need not know the answers to all the other questions in order
for the business to be feasible, they must all be satisfactorily answered
before you begin operations. This is a good time to begin the process
of identifying appropriate individuals for the board, management
and other staff positions, and to think carefully about what qualifications
are necessary to manage this business.
For example, a service organization, such as a child care center, will have a few equipment and other technology- related issues to address. A manufacturing enterprise, on the other hand, may have a number of complex technology questions to analyze in order to determine whether or not the business is feasible.
Key questions to answer include:
Keep in mind that technology doesn’t necessarily mean complex machinery; if your business simply needs a personal computer, printer, and fax machine, those are your technological needs.
However, making wise decisions on even simple purchases such as office machines may require some research. Obviously there are numerous types of personal computers on the market. You many want to check Consumer Reports for their recommendations, do some comparative shopping, and ask acquaintances about their experiences with different companies. Your cost estimates (question #e) will get plugged into your financial projections.
Naturally, the more complex the technology you need, the more research that will be required to make good decisions about it. Don’t skimp on this foot work; you may regret it.
3. Financial Issues
Once your analyses of marketing, organizational and technology issues have been completed, the third and final step of a feasibility analysis is to take a look at key financial issues. Answer the following questions as well as you can at this point and identify key issues that will require additional research.
Note that some of the questions below -- specifically revenue projections -- are directly based on your market analysis (the first step in the feasibility study), in which you estimated the number of units of product or service you could sell. If you didn’t do that part of the feasibility study thoroughly, you won’t be able to do the financial analysis adequately.
a. Start-Up Costs: These are the costs incurred in starting up a new business, including “capital goods” such as land, buildings, equipment, etc. The business may have to borrow money from a lending institution to cover these costs.
b. Operating Costs: These are the ongoing costs, such as rent, utilities, and wages that are incurred in the everyday operation of a business. The total should include interest and principle payments on any debt for start-up costs.
c. Revenue Projections: How will you price your goods or services? Assess what the estimated monthly revenue will be.
d. Sources of Financing: If your proposed business will need to borrow money from a bank or other lending institution, you may need to research potential lending sources.
e. Profitability Analysis: This is the “bottom line” for the proposed
business. Given the costs and revenue analyses above, will your business
bring in enough revenue to cover operating expenses? Will it break
even, lose money or make a profit? Is there anything you can do to
improve the bottom line?
Your feasibility study should give you a clear idea whether the
proposed co-op is a sound business idea. Some techniques for conducting
the Market Analysis part of the feasibility study are presented on the
Conducting Market Research
Now that you know what questions to ask, exactly how do you go about answering them? This section will explain some of the techniques used to conduct the market analysis research recommended as the first step in a feasibility study. This section reviews the key questions from Step 1 of the feasibility study instructions (p. 4 of this chapter), providing guidelines on how to answer each.
Don’t think of market research as highly sophisticated, expensive and complicated. It can be very much a do-it yourself thing.
Market analysis results in information about the market potential, which provide the basis for accurate sales forecasts and your marketing strategy. Its basic components include:
All this information goes into estimating the sales your company will achieve during its first few years of operation. The rest of the feasibility study and business plan is built upon these estimates. Because it is one of the principal tools for determining whether the business will work, it is worth making an investment in market research. The quality of information in the market analysis is dependent on the amount of energy that went into obtaining it!
You need to be as specific as possible about the dimensions (size, trends)
of the opportunity your business faces. Since a new business doesn’t
have a track record, your research must be thorough to enable you to make
realistic sales estimates.
Existing Demand Adequate?
In the Market Analysis section of the feasibility study, we suggested that you determine whether adequate demand exists for your proposed co-op’s products/services. How do you figure this out?
Much of this information can be obtained through secondary research. A lot of the information you need is available to the public, from government statistics, computerized data bases, and the Yellow Pages. And of course the Internet is a potential source of information. Many public libraries now have access to the Internet, if you don’t. A lot of information exists out there; the best place to start is your local library. Talk to the research librarian!
Remember that the government collects a lot of information about you
and others. Use your imagination to find the information you need.
The U.S. Industry Outlook, for example, provides an economic and market
overview of hundreds of industries. Other sources for industry information
are in the sidebar below.
Figures can be obtained for average sales in many industries (except for entirely new products). Robert Morris & Associates publishes an annual survey of major industries, organized by Standard Industry Classification (SIC) number. Using this book, you can look up the average sales of companies in each SIC category.
For example, if you plan to open a convenience store, you can find the annual sales, net margin, and lots of other financial information about retail convenience stores. These can be a very useful starting place for your sales estimates. Use them with some caution, however, as your sales will probably fall below those of more established businesses.
There is a national or regional association for almost every industry
under the sun. Your public library may have a Directory of Associations
in which you can look up the appropriate industry group. These groups
are often a wealth of information, some of it free. Call them and
explain you are considering going into this field, and ask for any information
they may have available. If possible, get their membership list.
The members of the association are doing exactly what you want to do, and
many of them will be glad to talk to you (with the exception of the ones
who will be your local direct competitors). If the association requires
that you join in order to get their information, do so. It could
be the best money you ever spent.
Identifying a target market allows you to focus your efforts on marketing to a distinct class of customers. This is also called market segmentation. It is the act of dividing a large potential market into smaller groups, which are more easily approached.
One of the advantages you gain from targeting a particular niche is the ability to respond quickly when customer tastes and needs change. In order to serve your customers, you have to know who they are, where they live, what their behavioral characteristics are.
Describe your target market in terms of:
If you find that you have more than one target market, you should discuss the relative importance of these target market segments. Do the in-home users generate a higher margin than the small businesses? Is the market among small businesses growing faster than that of home users? Will this relative importance change over the next few years?
What is the projected supply in your area of the products or services needed for your proposed business?
This question should be a little easier to answer than the demand questions. Your projected supply is the amount you can obtain of the goods or the amount of the service(s) you can provide, within a given time period. Limitations on this will include your manufacturing capacity, suppliers’ ability to provide raw materials to you, and your personnel (how many services can your staff realistically provide in one month?).
Many cooperatives obtain supply information directly from the co-op’s
potential membership through a survey (surveys are also useful for collecting
information about the co-ops potential customers). Please see Appendix
E for information about how to conduct a survey.
Identify your 3-4 leading competitors and specifically explain why your company will be able to compete effectively with them. Be as realistic and as specific as possible; stay away from generalizations about your competition. Try to find out what market share each one has of the market. Also write up an assessment of their strengths and weaknesses; and how your product or service stacks up against each.
How crowded is the market? If your market is already crowded with
competitors, what market share would be available to a new company? If
the overall market is growing, then you may be able to capture part of
the new market.
Feasibility studies require a lot of hard work, and the market analysis research is the most difficult part of the process. We hope the questions we’ve identified above and the guidelines for answering them are helpful.
Excerpts from actual feasibility studies are provided in Appendix F.
If the study indicates that your business idea is feasible, the next step is a business plan. The business plan continues the analysis you’ve begun at a deeper and more complex level, building on the foundation created by the feasibility study.
The following chapter provides an outline of a complete business plan.
Gumpert, David E. “How to Really Create a Successful Business
Plan.” Boston: Inc. Magazine Publishing, 1994.
Osgood, William R. “Basics of Successful Business Planning.” American Management Association, 1980.
Pope, Jeffrey L. “Practical Marketing Research.” American Management Association. 1993.
Siegel, Eric S., et al., “The Ernst & Young Business Plan Guide." New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987.