Starting and managing a business without a business plan is, like it or not, the same as searching for a buried treasure without a map: Although you know that the gold is in the ground somewhere, you’re wasting an awful lot of time by randomly digging holes in the hope of eventually hitting the jackpot. Without a plan, the odds of success aren’t in your favor.
Why, then, do people resist using this tool? They resist it for two reasons:
Having a plan involves a great deal of work. Don’t despair: You can minimize the amount of work involved, which we get to momentarily.
They don’t understand the importance of having a plan.
To help you overcome your business plan angst, we provide these reasons for having a plan — you can decide whether to take another step without one:
You can more easily secure money. This goal is probably the most common reason for the creation of a business plan. If you decide to ask strangers to lend you money, whether those strangers are bankers or private investors, they want to see a plan. Lenders have a better chance of protecting (and recouping) their investments when a formal strategy documents your projected income and profits. Even if you’re counting on family members for a loan or are using your own funds, having a business plan confirms that you have thought about how to use the money wisely.
A plan creates a vision that gives you a well-defined goal. Coming up with a great idea and transitioning it into a viable business opportunity can be challenging. Having a written plan forces you to fully develop the long-term vision for your product or service. With those clearly defined goals in place, you stand a much better chance of accomplishing your vision.
A plan can provide timeless guidance. Done correctly, this document provides a concrete plan of operation for your business — not only during your start-up phase but also for three to five years down the road. Keep in mind that the plan might need occasional tweaking. However, investing the time now to create a strong foundation ensures that you have a barometer to help you make decisions for managing your company.
Chances are that at least two of the three reasons on this list are valuable to you. Even if you don’t plan to attract investors, you’re already forming a picture about what your company looks like, and you’re setting goals to make sure that you get there. The only remaining step is to make your thoughts more permanent by writing them down in a business plan.
A traditional business plan is sectioned into seven or eight major parts. At first, that number of parts might seem a bit overwhelming. Consider, however, that most experts recommend keeping a finished business plan to fewer than 20 pages. (You can usually get by with many fewer pages.) When you break down that recommendation, each section becomes only 2 or 3 pages long, which translates to 5 or 6 paragraphs per page. It’s not so much after all.
Each part plays a critical role in your overall plan. Although each section can almost stand alone, the sections work together to present a complete picture, or vision, of your business. Don’t even think about omitting one of them.
Depending on your main purpose for having a business plan, you can develop sections with more diligence. For example, if you’re seeking outside funding, make sure that the financials section is as thorough and accurate as possible.
Before you start writing, get a sense of the scope of your plan by reading these brief descriptions of the basic parts you need to cover:
Executive summary: Although this part comes first in your plan, you typically write it last. This brief page does just what it says: It highlights the major points from each of the other parts of the plan. This page is usually the first one that investors and other advisors read, and how well it’s written can determine whether they turn the page or show you the door.
Business or product description: This section provides a detailed description of your overall business and your product or service. You should include a vision statement (or mission statement), which summarizes your goals for the business. When you describe your product or service, don’t forget to pinpoint what makes it a unique and viable contender in the marketplace.
Market analysis: Provide a thorough description of your target market. In this case, discuss both the overall industry in which you’re competing and the specific customers to whom you’re marketing. Don’t forget to include a description of any market research you conducted.
Competitive analysis: In much the same way as you describe your target market in the market analysis, in this section you provide an in-depth view of your competitors in that market. The more detail you can provide, the better, to show exactly how well you understand (and are prepared for dealing with) your competition. Address your competitors’ weaknesses and also state how you can counter their strengths. Don’t double up on your work. Use information you gather during your SWOT analysis and feasibility study. Adapt the research and results of both to include in the market analysis and competitive analysis sections of your business plan.
Management team: Whether you’re flying solo on this operation or working with a team, highlight the expertise that you and your executives bring to the table. Include summaries of your key professional experience, educational and military background, additional certifications and completed training programs, and all other relevant accomplishments. Remember to include a copy of your full resume.
Operations: Here’s where the “rubber meets the road.” Use this section to describe your marketing and operations strategies. Then detail how you plan to implement these strategies in your business. Think of the operations section as your chance to prove that you know how to convert innovative ideas into a successful business.
Financials: Start talking money. In this section, you include projections (or estimates) of how much money the business will earn and your expenses, or costs of doing business. This combination is typically referred to as a profit-and-loss statement. For the first year, break down this information for each month. (This listing demonstrates how far you must proceed into your first year before you start making money and indicates where seasonal slow points might occur, with smaller amounts of income coming in.) After the first year, show your projections annually.
When you’re pursuing outside funding, try to be optimistic about your financial projections. Don’t be unrealistic, but don’t be too conservative, either. If you’re using the plan only internally, you can play it safe and estimate your future profits toward the lower end.
Appendix: Consider this area a catchall for important documents that support portions of your business plan. Place copies of your loan terms, patent or copyright documentation, employee agreements, and any other contracts or legal documents pertaining to your business.
You might wonder whether you can use an easier, or shorter, business plan format with an online business instead of the traditional format. No, not really. As you can see from the descriptions in the preceding list, each part or section of the plan is generic. You can use almost any business plan template, tailor it slightly to your specific type of business, and achieve the same results.