Are you preparing to start your own business but uncertain about how to get started? A business plan ought to be one of the first steps in your entrepreneurial journey because it will organize the ideas that have been spinning around in your brain and prepare you to seek funding, partners, and more.
What is a business plan?
A business plan is a detailed document that outlines a company's goals and how the business, well, plans to achieve those goals over the next three or more years. It helps define expected profits and challenges, providing a road map that will help you avoid bumps in the road.
Stever Robbins writes in an Entrepreneur article titled, "Why You Must Have a Business Plan," that a business plan "is a tool for understanding how your business is put together…. Writing out your business plan forces you to review everything at once: your value proposition, marketing assumptions, operations plan, financial plan, and staffing plan." But, a business plan is about more than just reviewing the past state of your business or even what your business looks like today.
Robbins writes that a well-written business plan will help you drive the future by "laying out targets in all major areas: sales, expense items, hiring positions, and financing goals. Once laid out, the targets become performance goals."
The business plan can help your company attract talent and funding because when prospects ask about your business, you already have an articulated overview to offer them. How they react
can allow you to quickly understand how others see your business and pivot if necessary.
What should you do before you write your business plan?
It might sound redundant, but you actually need to plan your business plan. Business plans can be complicated, and you'll be held accountable for the goals you set. For example, if you plan to open five locations of your business within the first two years, your investors might get angry if you only manage to open two.
That's why it's essential that, before writing your business plan, you spend some time determining exactly which objectives are essential to your business. If you're struggling to come up with a list of goals on your own, Entrepreneur's article "Plan Your Business Plan" offers some questions you can ask yourself to spark some inspiration.
How determined am I to see this venture succeed?
Am I willing to invest my own money and work long hours for no pay, sacrificing personal time and lifestyle, maybe for years?
What's going to happen to me if this venture doesn't work out?
If it does succeed, how many employees will this company eventually have?
What will be the business's annual revenue in a year? What about in five years?
What will be the company's market share in that amount of time?
Will the business have a niche market, or will it sell a broad spectrum of goods and services?
What are my plans for geographic expansion? Should it be local or national? Can it be global?
Am I going to be a hands-on manager, or will I delegate a large proportion of tasks to others?
If I delegate, what sorts of tasks will I share? Will it be sales, technical work, or something else?
How comfortable am I taking direction from others? Can I work with partners or investors who demand input into the company's management?
Is the business going to remain independent and privately owned, or will it eventually be acquired or go public?
It's also essential to consider your financial goals. Your business might not require a massive financial commitment upfront, but it probably will if you're envisioning rapid growth. Unless you're making your product or service from scratch, you'll have to pay your suppliers before your customers can pay you, and as "Plan Your Business Plan" points out, "this cash flow conundrum is the reason so many fast-growing companies have to seek bank financing or equity sales to finance their growth. They are literally growing faster than they can afford."
How much financing will you need to start your business? What will you be willing to accept? If you're desperate for that first influx of cash, you might be tempted to accept any offer, but doing so might force you to either surrender too much control or ask investors for a number that's not quite right for either side.
These eight questions can help you determine a few financial aspects of your planning stages:
What initial investment will the business require?
How much control of the business are you willing to relinquish to investors?
When will the business turn a profit?
When can investors, including you, expect a return on investment?
What are the business's projected profits over time?
Will you be able to devote yourself full-time to the business?
What kind of salary or profit distribution can you expect to take home?
What are the chances the business will fail, and what will happen if it does?
You should also consider who, primarily, is going to be reading your business plan, and how you plan to use it. Is it a means of raising money or attracting employees? Will suppliers see it?
Lastly, you need to assess the likelihood of whether you actually have the time and resources to see your plan through. It might hurt to realize the assumptions you've made so far don't actually make a successful business, but it's best to know early on before you make further commitments.
How to Write a Business Plan
Once you've worked out all the questions above and you know exactly what goals you have for your business plan, the next step is to actually write the darn thing. A typical business plan runs 15 to 20 pages but can be longer or shorter, depending on the complexity of the business and the needs of your venture. Regardless of whether you intend to use the business plan for self-evaluation or to seek a seven-figure investment, it should include nine key components, many of which are outlined in Entrepreneur's introduction to business plans:
1. Title page and contents
Presentation is important, and a business plan should be presented in a binder with a cover that lists the business's name, the principals' names, and other relevant information like a working address, phone number, email and web address, and date. Write the information in a font that's easy to read and include it on the title page inside, too. Add in the company logo and a table of contents that follows the executive summary.
2. Executive summary
Think of the executive summary as the SparkNotes version of your business plan. It should tell the reader in as few words as possible what your business wants and why. The executive summary should address these nine things:
The business idea and why it is necessary. (What problem does it solve?)
How much will it cost, and how much financing are you seeking?
What will the return be to the investor? Over what length of time?
What is the perceived risk level?
Where does your idea fit into the marketplace?
What is the management team?
What are the product and competitive strategies?
What is your marketing plan?
What is your exit strategy?
When writing the executive summary, remember that it should be somewhere between one-half page to a full page. Anything longer, and you risk losing your reader's attention before they can dig into your business plan. Try to answer each of the questions above in two or three sentences, and you'll wind up with an executive summary that's about the right length.
3. Business description
You can fill anywhere from a few paragraphs to a few pages when writing your business description but try again to keep it short, with the understanding that more sections will follow.
The business description typically starts with a short explanation of your chosen industry, including its present outlook and future possibilities. Use data and sources (with proper footnotes) to explain the markets the industry offers, along with the developments that will affect your business. That way, everyone who reads the business description, particularly investors, will see that they can trust the various information contained within your business plan.
When you pivot to speaking of your business, start with its structure. How does your business work? Is it retail, service-oriented or wholesale? Is the business new or established? Is the company a sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation? Who are the principals and who are your customers? What do the distribution channels look like, and how can you support sales?
Next, break down your business's offerings. Are you selling a physical product, SaaS, or a service? Explain it in a way that a reader knows what you're planning to sell and how it differentiates itself from the competition (investors call this a Unique Selling Proposition or USP, and it's important that you find yours). Whether it's a trade secret or a patent, you should be specific about your competitive advantage and why your business is going to be profitable. If you plan to use your business plan for fundraising, you can use the business description section to explain why new investments will help make the business even more profitable.
This, like everything else, can be brief, but you can tell the reader about your business's efficiency or workflow. You can write about other key people within the business or cite industry experts' support of your idea, as well as your base of operations and reasons for starting in the first place.
4. Market strategies
Paint a picture about your market by remembering the four Ps: product, price, place, and promotion.
Start this section by defining the market's size, structure, and sales potential. What are the market's growth prospects? What do the demographics and trends look like right now?
Next, outline the frequency at which your product or service will be purchased by the target market and the potential annual purchase. What market share can you possibly expect to win? Try to be realistic here, and keep in mind that even a number like 25% might be a dominant share.
Next, break down your business's plan for positioning, which relates to the market niche your product or service can fill. Who is your target market, how will you reach them and what are they buying from you? Who are your competitors, and what is your USP?
The positioning statement within your business plan should be short and to the point, but make sure you answer each of those questions before you move on to, perhaps, the most difficult and important aspect of your market strategy: pricing.
In fact, settling on a price for your product or service is one of the most important decisions you have to make in the entire business plan. Pricing will directly determine essential aspects of your business, like profit margin and sales volume. It will influence all sorts of areas, too, from marketing to target consumers.
There are two primary ways to determine your price: The first is to look inward, adding up the costs of offering your product or service, and then adding in a profit margin to find your number.
The second is called competitive pricing, and it involves research into how your competitors will either price their products or services now or in the future. The difficult aspect of this second pricing method is that it often sets a ceiling on pricing, which, in turn, could force you to adjust your costs.
Then, pivot the market strategies section toward your distribution process and how it relates to your competitors' channels. How, exactly, are you going to get your offerings from one place to the next? Walk the reader step by step through your process. Do you want to use the same strategy or something else that might give you an advantage?
Last, explain your promotion strategy. How are you going to communicate with your potential customers? This part should talk about not only marketing or advertising, but also packaging, public relations, and sales promotions.
5. Competitive analysis
The next section in your business plan should be the competitive analysis, which helps explain the differences between you and your competitors … and how you can keep it that way. If you can start with an honest evaluation of your competitor's strengths and weaknesses within the marketplace, you can also provide the reader with a clear analysis of your advantage and the barriers that either already exists or can be developed to keep your business ahead of the pack. Are there weaknesses within the marketplace, and if so, how can you exploit them?
Remember to consider both your direct competition and your indirect competition, with both a short-term and long-term view.
6. Design and development plan
If you plan to sell a product, it's smart to add a design and development section to your business plan. This part should help your readers understand the background of that product. How have the production, marketing, and company developed over time? What is your developmental budget?
For the sake of organization, consider these three aspects of the design and development plan:
Start by establishing your development goals, which should logically follow your evaluation of the market and your competition. Make these goals feasible and quantifiable, and be sure to establish timelines that allow your readers to see your vision. The goals should address both technical and marketing aspects.
Once the reader has a clear idea of your development goals, explain the procedures you'll develop to reach them. How will you allocate your resources, and who is in charge of accomplishing each goal?
The Entrepreneur guide to design and development plans offers this example of the steps of producing a recipe for a premium lager beer:
Determine optimum malting process.
Gauge mashing temperature.
Boil wort and evaluate which hops provide the best flavor.
Determine yeast amounts and fermentation period.
Determine the aging period.
Carbonate the beer.
Decide whether or not to pasteurize the beer.
Make sure to also talk about scheduling. What checkpoints will the product need to pass to reach a customer? Establish timeframes for each step of the process. Create a chart with a column for each task, how long that task will take, and when the task will start and end.
Next, consider the costs of developing your product, breaking down the costs of these aspects:
General and administrative (G&A) costs
Marketing and sales
Professional services, like lawyers or accountants
The next section should be about the personnel you either have or plan to hire for that development. If you already have the right person in place, this part should be easy. If not, then this part of the business plan can help you create a detailed description of exactly what you need. This process can also help you formalize the hierarchy of your team's positions so that everyone knows their roles and responsibilities.
Finish the development and design section of your business plan by addressing the risks in developing the product and how you're going to address those risks. Could there be technical difficulties? Are you having trouble finding the right person to lead the development? Does your financial situation limit your ability to develop the product? Being honest about your problems and solutions can help answer some of your readers' questions before they ask them.
7. Operations and management plan
Want to learn everything you'll ever need to know about the operations and management section of your business plan, and read a real, actual web article from 1997? Check out our guide titled, "Writing A Business Plan: Operations And Management."
Here, we'll more briefly summarize the two areas that need to be covered within your operations and management plan: the organizational structure is first, and the capital requirement for the operation is second.
The organizational structure detailed within your business plan will establish the basis for your operating expenses, which will provide essential information for the next part of the business plan: your financial statements. Investors will look closely at the financial statements, so it's important to start with a solid foundation and a realistic framework. You can start by dividing your organizational structure into these four sections:
Marketing and sales (including customer relations and service)
Production (including quality assurance)
Research and development
After you've broken down the organization's operations within your business plan, you can look at the expenses, or overhead. Divide them into fixed expenses, which typically remain constant, and variable, which will change according to the volume of business. Here are some examples of overhead expenses:
Maintenance and repair
Advertising and promotion
Packaging and shipping
Payroll taxes and benefits
Have difficulty calculating what some of those expenses might be for your business? Try using the simple formulas in "Writing A Business Plan: Operations And Management."
8. Financial factors
The last piece of the business plan that you definitely need to have covered is the business's finances. Specifically, three financial statements will form the backbone of your business plan: the income statement, the cash-flow statement, and the balance sheet. Let's go through them one by one.
The income statement explains how the business can make money in a simple way. It draws on financial models already developed and discussed throughout the business plan (revenue, expenses, capital, and cost of goods) and combines those numbers with when sales are made and when expenses are incurred. When the reader finishes going through your income statement, they should understand how much money your company makes or loses by subtracting your costs from your revenue, showing either a loss or a profit. If you like, you or a CPA can add a very short analysis at the end to emphasize some important aspects of the statement.
Second is the cash-flow statement, which explains how much cash your business needs to meet its obligations, as well as when you're going to need it and how you're going to get it. This section shows a profit or loss at the end of each month or year that rolls over to the next time period, which can create a cycle. If your business plan shows that you're consistently operating at a loss that gets bigger as time goes on, this can be a major red flag for both you and potential investors. This part of the business plan should be prepared monthly during your first year in business, quarterly in your second year, and annually after that.
Our guide on cash-flow statements includes 17 items you'll need to add to your cash-flow statement.
Cash. Cash on hand in the business.
Cash sales. Income from sales is paid for by cash.
Receivables. Income from collecting money owed to the business due to sales.
Other income. The liquidation of assets, interest on extended loans, or income from investments are examples.
Total income. The sum of the four items above (total cash, cash sales, receivables, and other income).
Material/merchandise. This will depend on the structure of your business. If you're manufacturing, this will include your raw materials. If you're in retail, count your inventory of merchandise. If you offer a service, consider which supplies are necessary.
Direct labor. What sort of labor do you need to make your product or complete your service?
Overhead. This includes both the variable expenses and fixed expenses for business operations.
Marketing/sales. All salaries, commissions, and other direct costs are associated with the marketing and sales departments.
Research and development. Specifically, the labor expenses required for research and development.
General and administrative expenses. Like the research and development costs, this centers on the labor for G&A functions of the business.
Taxes. This excludes payroll taxes but includes everything else.
Capital. Required capital for necessary equipment.
Loan payments. The total of all payments made to reduce any long-term debts.
Total expenses. The sum of items six through 14 (material/merchandise, direct labor, overhead, marketing/sales, research and development, general and administrative expenses, taxes, capital, and loan payments).
Cash flow. Subtract total expenses from total income. This is how much cash will roll over to the next period.
Cumulative cash flow. Subtract the previous period's cash flow from your current cash flow.
Just like with the income statement, it's a good idea to briefly summarize the figures at the end. Again, consulting with a CPA is probably a good idea.
The last financial statement is the balance sheet. A balance sheet is, as our encyclopedia says, "a financial statement that lists the assets, liabilities, and equity of a company at a specific point in time and is used to calculate the net worth of a business." If you've already started the business, use the balance sheet from your last reporting period. If the business plan you wrote is for a business you hope to start, do your best to protect your assets and liabilities over time. If you want to earn investors, you'll also need to include a personal financial statement. Then, as with the other two sections, add a short analysis that hits the main points.
9. Supporting documents
If you have other documents that your readers need to see, like important contracts, letters of reference, a copy of your lease, or legal documents, you should add them to this section.
What do I do with my business plan after I've written it?
The simplest reason to create a business plan is to help people unfamiliar with your business understand it quickly. While the most obvious use for a document like this is for financing purposes, a business plan can also help you attract talented employees — and, if you share the business plan internally, help your existing employees understand their roles.
But it's also important to do for your own edification, too. It's like the old saying goes, "The best way to learn something is to teach it." Writing down your plans, your goals and the state of your finances helps clarify the thoughts in your own mind. From there, you can more easily lead your business because you'll know whether the business is reaching the checkpoints you set out to begin with. You'll be able to foresee difficulties before they pop up and be able to pivot quickly.
That's why you should continue to update your business plan when the conditions change, either within your business (you might be entering a new period or undergoing a change in management) or within your market (like a new competitor popping up). The key is to keep your business plan ready so that you don't have to get it ready when the opportunity strikes.