Having a road map helps you reach your journey’s end successfully. Business plans do the same for small businesses. They lay out the milestones you need to reach to build a profitable small business. They are also essential for identifying and overcoming obstacles along the way. Each part of a business plan helps you reach your goals, including the financial aspects, marketing, operations and sales.
Plenty of online business plan templates are available to take some of the pain out of the plan-writing process. You may benefit from simple, easy-to-follow business plan tools so you spend less time writing and more time launching your venture.
With most great business ideas, the best way to execute them is to have a plan. A business plan is a written outline that you present to others, such as investors, whom you want to recruit into your venture. It’s your pitch to your investors, sharing with them what the goals of your startup are and how you expect to be profitable.
It also serves as your company’s road map, keeping your business on track and ensuring your operations grow and evolve to meet the goals outlined in your plan. As circumstances change, a business plan can serve as a living document but it should always include the core goals of your business.
Starting a new business comes with challenges. Being prepared for those challenges can decrease their impact on your business greatly. One important step in preparing for the challenges your startup may face is writing a solid business plan.
Writing a business plan helps you understand more clearly what you need to do to reach your goals. The finished business plan also serves as a reminder to you of these goals. It’s a valuable tool that you can refer back to, helping you stay focused and on track.
Before you write your business plan, it’s important to understand the purpose of creating it in the first place. These are the three main reasons you should have a business plan:
Your business plan can be written as a document or designed as a slideshow, such as a PowerPoint presentation. It may be beneficial to create both versions. For example, the PowerPoint can be used to pull people in, and the document version that contains more detail can be given to viewers as a follow-up.
There are two main types of business plans: lean startup and traditional. Traditional business plans are long, detailed plans that expound on both short-term and long-term objectives. In comparison, a lean startup business plan focuses on a high-level summary with a few key metrics in concise detail to quickly share data with investors.
Business model expert Ash Maurya has developed a basic type of business plan called a lean canvas. The model, which was developed in 2010, is still one of the most popular types of business plans emulated today.
A lean canvas comprises nine sections, with each part of the plan containing high-value information and metrics to attract investors. This lean business plan often consists of a single page of information with the following listed:
Traditional plans are lengthy documents, sometimes as long as 30 or 40 pages. A traditional business plan acts as a blueprint of a new business, detailing its progress from the time it launches to several years in the future when the startup is an established business. The following areas are covered in a traditional business plan:
The executive summary is the most important section of your business plan because it needs to draw your readers into your plan and entice them to continue reading. If your executive summary doesn’t capture the reader’s attention, they won’t read further and their interest in your business won’t be piqued.
Even though the executive summary is the first section of your business plan, you should write it last. When you are ready to write this section, we recommend that you summarize the problem (or market need) you aim to solve, your solution for consumers, an overview of the founders and/or owners and key financial details. Knowing the alternate solutions that currently exist for the problem/market need will highlight to a potential investor how well you know the market. The key to this section is to be brief yet engaging.
This section is an overview of your entire business. Make sure you include basic information, such as when your company was founded, the type of business entity it is ― limited liability company, sole proprietorship, partnership, C corporation or S corporation ― and the state in which it is registered. If you plan to do business in a state other than the one you have registered in, be sure to highlight which states. Provide a summary of your company’s history to give the readers a solid understanding of its foundation. Learn more about articles of incorporation and what you need to know to start a business.
Next, describe the products and/or services your business provides. Focus on your customers’ perspective ― and needs ― by demonstrating the problem you are trying to solve by providing this product or service. The goal of this section is to prove that your business fills a bona fide market need and will remain viable for the foreseeable future.
In this section, clearly define who your target audience is, where you will find customers, how you will reach them and, most importantly, how you will deliver your product or service to them. Provide a deep analysis of your ideal customer and how your business provides a solution for them.
You should also include your competitors in this section and illustrate how your business is uniquely different from the established companies in the industry or market. What are their strengths and weaknesses and how will you differentiate yourself from the pack?
You will also need to write a marketing plan based on the context of your business. For example, if you’re a small local business, you’ll want to analyze your competitors who are located nearby. Franchises need to conduct a large-scale analysis, potentially on a national level. Competitor data helps you know the current trends in your target industry and the growth potential. These details also prove to investors that you’re very familiar with the industry.
For this section, the listed target market paints a picture of what your ideal customer looks like. Data to include may be the age range, gender, income levels, location, marital status and geographical regions of target consumers.
A SWOT analysis is a common tool entrepreneurs use to bring all collected data together in a market analysis. “SWOT” stands for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.” Strengths and weaknesses analyze the advantages and disadvantages unique to your company, while opportunities and threats analyze the current market risks and rewards.
Before anyone invests in your business, they’ll want a complete understanding of the potential investment. This section should illustrate how your business is organized. It should list key members of the management team, the founders/owners, board members, advisors and more.
As you list each individual, provide a summary of their experience and their role within your company. Treat this section as a series of mini resumes and consider adding full-length resumes to the appendix of your business plan.
The financial plan should include a detailed overview of your finances. At the very least, you should include cash flow statements and profit and loss projections over the next three to five years. You can also include historical financial data from the past few years, your sales forecast and balance sheet. Consider these items to include:
Make sure this section is precise and accurate. It’s often best to create this section with a professional accountant. If you’re seeking outside funding for your business, highlight why you’re seeking financing, how you will use that money and when investors can expect a return on investment.
If you want to master your financial plan, Jennifer Spaziano, vice president of business development at ACCION, offers these helpful tips:
The operational plan section details the physical needs of your business. This section discusses the location of the business, as well as required equipment or critical facilities needed to make your products. Some companies ― depending on their business type ― may also need to detail their inventory needs, including information about suppliers. For manufacturing companies, all processing details are spelled out in the operational plan section.
For startups, you want to divide the operational plan into two distinct phases: the developmental plan and the production plan:
The appendices will contain all the extra information that is not immediately necessary to the business plan but helpful to have. Resumes of the management team usually are provided here as well as long-term financial projections. This section can be as long or short as you want it to be. Most business plans will have something in the appendix, which is referred to in the main section of the business plan.
The challenges of writing a business plan vary. Do you have all the information about your business that you need? Does your industry have strict guidelines that you must adhere to?
Writing a business plan will prompt you to evolve your business idea into a blueprint that you can follow. Challenges will come if you have not fully considered all the aspects of a business idea, such as the location to sell your product or the marketing you will do to help bring in business. Writing a good business plan will have you thinking about the “what if” to your business and allow you to come up with strong answers to address those questions.
However, certain challenges may prove more difficult to answer than others. If you aren’t familiar with certain terminologies or have trouble using spreadsheet processing software, you might have difficulty answering cash flow or financial projections. Especially if you have a new product or service to address a problem in the market, you might have no clear road map on how to market this new product which has never been thought of before.
To help you prepare, we identified 10 of the most common issues you may face:
Crafting a business plan around these 10 challenges can prepare your business ― and anyone who joins it ― for a prosperous future.
Although you won’t predict everything for your business accurately, you can take preemptive steps to reduce the number of complications that may arise. For example, familiarize yourself with the business plan process by researching business plans and identifying how others executed their plans successfully.
You can use these plans as a basis. However, Rick Cottrell, CEO of Tesseon, recommends taking it one step further: Talk to small business owners and others who have experience.
“The business owner should talk to an accountant, banker and those who deal with these plans on a daily basis and learn how others have done it,” Cottrell said. “They can join startup and investment groups and speak to peers and others who are getting ready to launch a business and gain insights from them. They can seek out capital innovation clubs in their area and get additional expertise.”
If you research how to write a business plan and still don’t feel comfortable writing one, you can always hire a consultant to help you with the process. Guidance is crucial when you don’t know what you don’t know. There are freelancers who will write business plans for you for a small fee which can be a good stepping stone to something more concrete.
“It is simply a time-consuming process that cannot be rushed,” Cottrell added. “Millions of dollars can be at stake and, in many cases, requires a high level of expertise that either needs to be learned or executed in conjunction with an experienced business consultant.”
You have the option of choosing between free and paid business templates. Both come with their own benefits and limitations, so the best one for you will depend on your specific needs and budget. Evaluating the pros and cons of each can help you decide.
The biggest advantage of using a free template is the cost savings it offers to your business. Startups are often strapped for cash, making it a desirable choice for new business owners to access a free template. Although it’s nice to use templates at no cost, there are some drawbacks to free business plan templates ― the biggest one being limited customizability.
“The process of writing a business plan lets you personally find the kinks in your business and work them out,” Attiyya Atkins, founder of A+ Editing, told Business News Daily. “Starting with an online template is a good start, but it needs to be reviewed and targeted to your market. Downloadable business plans may have dated market prices, making the budget inaccurate. If you’re looking to get money from investors, you need a customized business plan with zero errors.”
Janil Jean, head of overseas operations at LogoDesign.net, agreed that free templates offer limited customization, such as the company name and some text. She added that they are often used by a ton of people, so if you use one to secure funds, investors might be tired of seeing that business plan format.
The benefit of paying for business plan templates ― or paying for an expert to review your business plan ― is the accuracy of information and high customization.
“Your audience gets thousands of applications per day. What’s to make your business plan stand out from the crowd when you’re not there in the room when they make the decisions about your enterprise?” Jean said. “Visuals are the best way to impress and get attention. It makes sense to get paid templates that allow you maximum customization through design, images and branding.”
On the contrary, the limitation to using a paid template is the cost. If your startup doesn’t have the funds to pay for a business plan template, it may not be a feasible option.
If you decide to invest in your business plan, there are several great software programs available. Software takes the legwork out of writing a business plan by simplifying the process and eliminating the need to start from scratch. They often include features like step-by-step wizards, templates, financial projection tools, charts and graphs, third-party application integrations, collaboration tools and video tutorials.
After researching and evaluating dozens of business plan software providers, we narrowed down these four of the best options available:
LivePlan is a cloud-hosted software application that provides many tools to create your business plan, including more than 500 templates, a one-page pitch builder, automatic financial statements, full financial forecasting, industry benchmark data and key performance indicators. Monthly plans start at $10 per month.
Bizplan is cloud-hosted software that features a step-by-step builder to walk you through each section of the business plan. Monthly plans start at $29 per month with annual plans starting at $20.75.
GoSmallBiz is a cloud-based service that offers industry-specific templates, a step-by-step wizard that makes creating a detailed business plan easy and video tutorials. Monthly plans start at $409 per month.
Enloop focuses on financial projections. It provides you with everything you need to demonstrate how financially viable your business can be and walks you through the process of generating financial forecasts. Annual plans start at $11 per month.
Business News Daily put together a simple but high-value business plan template to help you create a business plan. The template is completely customizable and can be used to attract investors, secure board members and narrow the scope of your company.
Business plans can be overwhelming to new entrepreneurs, but our template makes it easy to provide all of the details required by financial institutions and private investors. The template has eight main sections, with subsections for each topic. For easy navigation, a table of contents is provided with the template. As you customize each section, you’ll receive tips on how to correctly write the required details.
A business plan is a blueprint for your business idea, which means you will need to add the details to your business plan until you believe it is ready to be acted upon. You may not have all the details to start, but it is important to have enough confidence in starting your business and having a guide to follow as others get involved in your business when you are growing.
Thinking about what problem your business solves, who your suppliers are and what color schemes may be fixed or adjusted over time, but it is important to not only consider those at the beginning but throughout the time you are following your business plan. Once you have your plan in place, you can act on it knowing that you and others can follow that plan. The hardest thing is starting a business plan so start today.
Tejas Vemparala and Sean Peek also contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.