Editor's Note: This post was originally published in September 2018 and has been updated with new content that highlights the importance of proper business planning in 2021's economy.
What is a business plan? For people who are just starting out and forming their own company, whether it's a small freelance business at home or a new venture with an office and a starting pool of employees, there's a lot of importance to a business plan. It is a road map, an outline, a document that explains what your business is, what the goals of the enterprise are, and how exactly it will set about achieving those goals. So beyond being a document that identifies your business, what else does such a plan do for you?
1. Target Your Problems
The importance of a business plan to an entrepreneur begins by helping you to identify your possible problems and challenges. It's one thing to aim for a goal of being profitable in the first year of operation, but how will you achieve that? A business plan forces you to get realistic and look at your numbers. This document often helps people to see where their real challenges and obstacles lie, making for a more pragmatic approach as the hard facts make their way into the plan.
2. Get Better Advice
The importance of a business plan to entrepreneurship can also be in the way it crystallizes just what kind of help you need. Merely telling a friend or potential business mentor you're aiming to start with ten employees, for example, is not an exceptionally detailed statement. Showing a business plan that outlines the exact duties, salaries, and expectations you have for employees gives far more information for people to provide advice about.
3. Organize Your Resources
A business plan is also essential as the primary guide for how you will structure and allocate your resources. It's here that you will see just how feasible it is to open an office, hire employees, and look at operating costs. The business plan can quickly show you whether you will be making a profit or running at a loss, and it shows how much those losses may be every month.
4. Approach Investors
For some, this may be critical. Investors want to know that you know what you’re doing. A business plan can often be the single most important document you can present to your investors that will provide the structure and confidence that they need to make decisions about funding and supporting your company.
5. Create Milestones
A business plan is also a plan of action. By laying out milestones, you now have targets to shoot for in the short, mid and long term. These goals also mean that you can "course correct" with greater agility if you have targets and realize that you may need to make some changes in order to meet them.
The importance of a business plan can be critical for entrepreneurs. Business may have some artistry to it, but real success comes from having a vision and being organized in the way you strive towards that vision. A business plan will help you immensely and in so many ways!
Template for a Business Plan for Entrepreneurs
To determine whether you have a solid business idea, you will need to do thorough research and create a business plan to see if your idea is feasible. Here is a simple business plan template that is broken into sections that include the key elements for what goes into each step of the process to help get you started.
Section 1: Executive Summary
Write an executive summary. The purpose of the executive summary is to give readers a high-level view of the company and the market before delving into the details. It appears first but is written last and provides a snapshot of your company explaining who you are, what you do, and why. The executive summary provides a short, concise, and optimistic overview of your business to capture the reader's attention and create a need to learn more.
Section 2: Business/Industry Overview
Describe your company and business model by summarizing what your company does, your mission statement, location details, business structure and business owner details, the marketplace needs that your business is trying to meet, and how your products/services meet those needs. Define your business's purpose (mission) and a statement based on your perception of the company's growth potential (vision). Include specific business goals and objectives. Provide background information about the company, including a brief history of the business and a list of fundamental company principles.
Section 3: Market Analysis and Competition
Analyze your market's conditions. The market will ultimately determine how successful your business will be. You will need to demonstrate that you have thoroughly analyzed your target market and have a high-enough demand for your products/services to make your business viable. The competitive analysis should include a comprehensive assessment of your competition and how your business will compete in the sector. Describe the industry within which your business will operate, identify and provide a general profile of your target market, and describe what share of the market you currently have or anticipate. Include both an analysis of research done by others, along with primary research you have collected yourself — whether via customer surveys, interviews, or other methods. Outline the strengths and weaknesses of potential competitors and strategies that will give you a competitive advantage.
Section 4: Sales and Marketing Plan
Design a marketing and sales strategy. Here is where you can plan out your comprehensive marketing and sales strategies to cover how you plan on selling your product. Before working on your marketing and sales plan, you will need to have your market analysis completely fleshed out and choose your target client personas, i.e., your ideal customers. Talk about the competitive landscape. Describe how you intend to entice customers to buy your products or services, including advertising and promotion, sales and distribution, pricing strategy, and post-sales support.
Section 5: Ownership and Management Plan
Outline all operations and management roles. This section describes the ownership, legal structure, and your business's management and staffing requirements. Use this section to outline your company's unique organizational and management structure. Describe how your company is organized, including its legal structure (sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation); identify any special licenses or permits your business operates with; provide a brief bio of key managers within your company; include an organization chart.
Section 6: Operating Plan
The operating plan outlines your business's physical requirements, such as office, warehouse, retail space, equipment, inventory and supplies, and labor. For a one-person, home-based consulting firm, the operating plan may be short and straightforward. However, for businesses such as restaurants or manufacturers that require custom facilities, supply chains, multiple employees, and specialized equipment, the operating plan may need to be very detailed.
Section 7: Financial Plan
This section is the most crucial part of the business plan, especially if you need debt financing or want to attract investors. The financial plan must demonstrate your business' growth and profitability potential. To do this, you will need to provide projected income statements, cash flow statements, and balance sheets. For new businesses, these are forecasts. A golden rule of thumb is to underestimate revenues and overestimate expenses. Outline your financial model, including your business costs, revenue projections, and a funding request if you pitch to investors. Your start-up cost refers to the resources you will need to get your business up and running — and an estimate of how much each of those resources will cost.
Section 8: Appendices and Exhibits
Summarize the above with an appendix. The appendices and exhibits section should contain any detailed information needed to support other areas of the plan, including company brochures, resumes of key employees, a list of business equipment, copies of press articles and advertisements, pictures of your business location and products, any applicable information about your industry or products, key business agreements such as lease, and contracts.
Who Needs a Business Plan?
Start-up Businesses: The most classic business planning scenario is for a start-up, for which the plan helps the founders break down uncertainty into meaningful pieces, like the sales projection, expense budget, milestones, and tasks. When you realize you do not know how much money you need or when you need it without first laying out projected sales, costs, expenses, and payment timing, the need becomes apparent. And that is for all start-ups, whether they need to convince investors, banks, or family and friends to part with their money and fund the new venture.
Existing Businesses: Established businesses use business plans to manage and steer their business strategies to address changes in their markets and take advantage of new opportunities. They often use plans to reinforce strategy, establish metrics, track results, manage responsibilities and goals, plan and manage critical resources such as cash flow, and set regular review and revision schedules. Business plans can be a powerful driver of growth for existing businesses.
Finding the Right Plan for You
Considering that business plans serve diverse purposes, it is no surprise that they come in various forms. But before you even start writing your business plan, you need to think about who the audience is and your plan's goals. While there are standard components found in almost every business plan, such as sales forecasts and marketing strategy, business plan formats can differ depending on the audience and business type. For example, if you are building a biotech firm plan, your plan will detail government approval processes. If you are writing a restaurant plan, details about location and renovations might be critical factors. The language you would use in the biotech firm's business plan would be much more technical than the language you would use in the restaurant plan. Plans can also differ significantly in length, detail, and presentation. Those that never leave the office and are used only for internal strategic planning and management may often use more casual language and might not have much visual polish. On the other end of the spectrum, a plan destined for a top venture capitalist's desk will have a high polish and focus on the business' high-growth aspects and the experienced team to deliver desirable results.
Elements of a Business Plan
While the plans may vary by type, certain key elements appear in virtually all business plans. These components include the review schedule, strategy summary, milestones, responsibilities, metrics (numerical goals that can be tracked), and basic projections. The projections include sales, costs, expenses, and cash flow. These core elements grow organically for the actual purpose needed for the business.
Developing a High Power Business Plan
The business plan development process described here can provide the guidance entrepreneurs require for developing a business plan best suited for their needs; a high power business plan.
The Stages of Development
There are six stages involved in developing a high-power business plan.
Essential Initial Research
This stage requires you to analyze the environment in which you anticipate operating at each of the societal, market, industry, and firm levels of analysis. In this planning stage, the essential initial research is a necessary first step for better understanding the trends that affect their business and their decisions to lay the groundwork for and improve their potential for success.
Inherent to any business plan is a description of the entrepreneur's chosen business model that will best ensure success. Based upon your essential initial research of the setting in which you anticipate starting your business (your analysis from stage one), you should determine how each element of your business model might fit together to improve the potential success of your business venture. These elements include their revenue streams, cost structure, customer segments, value propositions, key activities, and key partners.
Initial Business Plan Draft
This stage involves taking the knowledge and ideas developed during the first two stages and integrating them into a business plan format. A suggested approach is to create a complete draft of the business plan with all the sections, including the front part with the business description, values, vision, mission, value proposition statement, a preliminary set of goals, table of contents, and lists of tables and figures set up using the software features enabling their automatic generation. Writing all the operations, human resources, marketing, and financial plans as part of the first draft ensures that all these necessary parts can be appropriately integrated. The business plan should tell the story of a planned business start-up in two ways: using primarily words, along with charts and graphs in the operations, human resources, and marketing plans, and through the financial plan. Both approaches must tell the same story.
Making Business Plan Realistic
The first draft of a business plan will seldom be realistic. As you write the plan, it will naturally change as new information is gathered. Another factor that commonly renders the first draft unrealistic is the difficulty in ensuring that the written section—in the front part of the plan and the operations, human resources, and marketing plans—tells the same story as the financial part does. This working stage involves making the necessary adjustments to the plan to make it as realistic as possible.
Making Plan Appeal to Stakeholders and Desirable to the Entrepreneur
A business plan can be realistic without appealing to potential investors or other external stakeholders, such as suppliers, employees, and needed business partners. It may also be realistic and possibly appealing to stakeholders without necessarily being desirable to the entrepreneur. During this stage, try to keep it as realistic as possible when adjusting the plan to appeal to potential investors and yourself.
Finishing the Business Plan
The final stage involves putting all the essential finishing touches on the business plan so it will present well to potential investors and alike. This step involves ensuring that the math and links between the written and financial sections are accurate. It also involves ensuring that all the needed corrections are made to the formatting, spelling, and grammar. The ultimate set of goals should be written to appeal to targeted readers and reflect what the business plan specifies. An executive summary should be written and included as the final step.
FAQs about Business Plans
What are the 4 types of business plans?
1. Mini-plan: A mini-plan may comprise one to 10 pages and include at least cursory attention to such critical matters as business concepts, financing needs, marketing plans, and financial statements, especially cash flow, balance sheet, and income projections. It is a great way to quickly test a business concept or measure the interest of a potential partner or minor investor. It could also serve as a valuable prelude to a full-length plan later on.
2. Working Plan: A working plan is a tool to operate your business. It should be lengthy in detail but may be short on presentation. As with a mini-plan, you can probably afford a somewhat higher degree of candor and informality when preparing a working plan.
3. Presentation Plan: If you take a working plan, with its low stress on cosmetic appeal and impression, and twist the lever to boost the amount of attention paid to its visual appearance, you will end up with a presentation plan. This plan is suitable for showing to financiers, investors, stakeholders, and others outside the company.
4. Electronic Plan: Most business plans are composed on a computer, then printed out and presented in hard copy. However, more and more business information transferred between parties only on paper can now be sent electronically, so you may find it convenient to have an electronic version of your plan available. An electronic plan can be useful for presentations to groups using a computer-driven overhead projector, for instance, or for satisfying the demands of discriminating investors who want to delve deeply into the underpinnings of complex spreadsheets.
What are the 3 main purposes of a business plan?
1. Establish a business focus: The primary purpose of a business plan is to establish your plans for your business's future. These plans should include goals and milestones alongside detailed steps on how the business will reach each step. Creating a roadmap to your goals will help determine your business focus and pursue growth.
2. Secure funding: One of the first things private investors, banks, and other lenders look for before investing in your business is a well-researched business plan. Investors and stakeholders want to know how you operate your business, revenue and expense projections, and how they will receive a return on their investment.
3. Attract executives: As your business grows, you will likely need to add executives to your team. The business plan helps you attract executive talent and determine whether they are a good fit for your company.
What are the 5 elements of a business plan?
1. Business concept: Describes the business, its products/services, and the market it will serve. It should point out exactly what will be sold, to whom, and why your business will hold a competitive advantage.
2. Financial features: Highlights the important financial points of the company, including sales, cash flows, profits, and return on investment.
3. Financial requirements: Clearly state the capital needed to start the business and expand. It should detail how capital will be used and the equity that will be provided for funding. If the loan for initial capital is based on security instead of equity, also specify the source of collateral.
4. Current business position: Furnishes relevant information about the business, its legal form of operation, the principal owners, when it was formed, and key personnel.
5. Major achievements: Details of any developments within the company essential to the business's success. Major achievements include patents, prototypes, location of a facility, any binding contracts that need to be in place for product development, or any test marketing results.
Take your first step to becoming an entrepreneur by downloading our special guide for entrepreneurs.