From the August 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

Starting a new business takes planning. Though many entrepreneurs might begin a business venture without a proper business plan in hand, once they embark upon the task of creating a successful company, most discover they can't get by without having one.

Writing a business plan can be extremely daunting. Consisting of pages of information (from as few as 10 to as many as 50), business plans include critical analysis of where your company is and where it's headed--analysis that is needed to help you obtain financing, whether it's from an investor, bank or government agency. Even if you're not seeking start-up or additional funding, you should consider writing a business plan to help you set goals for your company's future.

Of course, you don't necessarily need a software program to create a business plan--there are hundreds of how-to books on the subject, or you can hire a professional to create a business plan for you. But if you're a hands-on entrepreneur who likes to be in touch with all aspects of your business, you'll benefit greatly from a business planning software program. You still may want to read a book on the topic, but these programs will make it easier to get all the data down on paper. They include instructions and examples that promise to generate impressive, aesthetically pleasing business plans to assist you in raising capital.

Just as the idea for a new business or venture takes time to germinate, so does the writing of a business plan. It's important to put serious thought and consideration into your plan and to create one that includes all the necessary elements. The process can take days, so be prepared to spend long hours at the keyboard getting your plan right. You don't need to be a professional writer to develop a strong business plan, but you should be able to write one that is clear, concise and easy to read.

This month, we look at three products: Business Plan Pro 2.0, Business HeadStart and Power Business Plans. All run on Windows systems, and Power Business Plans also works on Macs.

Go With A Pro

Developed by international business planning expert Tim Berry, Palo Alto Software's Business Plan Pro installs in minutes, then takes you through the process of creating a business plan in a straightforward manner. There is the Task Wizard to help you keep track of where you are in your business plan's creation. It gives you a clear outline of all the steps involved in the process and uses plain English to describe each step. With this handy tool, you can bounce around between the various elements in your business plan, including tables, graphs and charts. Once a task has been completed, you can check it off.

Inputting data is also easy with Business Plan Pro. The program offers users a split-window view (so you can toggle between the two screens), with instructions and examples on top and a window to input your text below. When using one of Business Plan Pro's sample templates, the text for the industry you choose will appear in the text box; you can type over it or keep it as is. This considerably minimizes the amount of time spent writing the business plan.

If there are tables or graphs associated with a certain topic, Business Plan Pro includes an icon that users can click on to access these elements. Once opened, a graph or table can be altered to fit your needs.

Head Of The Class

Planet Corp.'s Business HeadStart is not nearly as intuitive as Business Plan Pro. Though many of the same functions are there, it lacks the easy-to-use outline format that Business Plan Pro has. Still, once you've begun the process of creating a business plan with HeadStart, you'll find it's a relatively painless process.

First, the program asks you for some basics, including accounting (receivables and payables), tax and company information. But after this data is input, Business Headstart doesn't tell you what the next step might be. Under a pull-down menu called Data, you can begin entering data about your company. There are numerous areas for entering expenses, including Start Up, General and Operating, Marketing and so on.

The Plan Writer feature assists you in the actual writing of the plan. It comes with instructions and examples, but I found it difficult to use the sample text because it's placed in a tabbed window beneath the actual writing area. This means users have to tab between the sample text and the blank page for writing, instead of viewing them side-by-side. If you opt to use your word processing program, you might have an easier time inputting the text. HeadStart lets you work with virtually any word processor and is compatible with Microsoft Word for Windows, Microsoft Wordpad, WordPerfect for Windows and AmiPro. I used Microsoft Word 97; using this program's Document Map feature, I was able to easily make my way around the document. Microsoft Word also nicely formats your business plan: When it's time to create charts and graphs within your Word document, you cut and paste that information from HeadStart into your word processing application.

Power Of One

If you're a Microsoft Office user and you want to use the applications you're familiar with to create your business plan, Power Business Plans from The Learning Company may be for you.

Power Business Plans isn't really a software program; instead it's more like a set of templates created using Microsoft Word and Excel. You open the templates in Word and find descriptions of each topic but no sample text. For examples, you'll have to turn to the 10 or so sample plans included in Power Business Plans. These will give you an idea of a business plan's content before proceeding on your own. Sophisticated Word users will have no problem navigating the document, inputting text, and accessing the embedded graphs and charts that were created in Excel. You can double-click on an embedded image to make changes to the data in Excel or import a previously created chart into your Word document.

This product is more appropriate for people who have created business plans in the past or who are relying heavily on a book or other source and just need a basic guide to get them through the process.

If I was creating a business plan today, I wouldn't hesitate to purchase Business Plan Pro. Though I like HeadStart's treatment of financial data, I found it lacked the intuitive nature of Business Plan Pro. Likewise, I appreciated Power Business Plans' use of the familiar Office programs but felt it didn't have the same degree of data and information that Business Plan Pro offers.

Hot Disks New And Notable Software

ImageTrax Express: Losing track of your company's important records can be a fatal mistake. Document Control Solutions' ImageTrax Express ($47.95) is a computerized bar-code tracking system for file folders that was designed to assist companies in getting a handle on their filing systems. This product makes it easy to locate a folder you want, to perform an audit trail on a folder and even to create a waiting list for a folder. To create a new folder, users simply print out a bar code or color-coded sticker, scan it into the system, and enter the folder's tracking information. Call (714) 738-6131 or visit www.docsolutions.com for more information.

WebEx: Though Netscape and Microsoft might have the corner on Web-browsing technology, there are other products that might be worth considering. Traveling Software's WebEx 2.0 ($49.95) is designed for the on-the-road professional. With WebEx, you can download entire Web sites to your hard drive so you can take them on the road. The site can then be searched by keyword and even be e-mailed to colleagues. For more information, call (800) 343-8080 or visit http://www.travsoft.com

Proven Edge: Finding all the software you need to run your small business can be an overwhelming task. If you prefer one-stop shopping, check out Proven Edge ($399) by Proven Edge Inc. This product promises to give users all the functionality they need in one easy-to-use package. Proven Edge includes accounting and inventory, contact and project management, word processing, reporting and payroll modules. Call (888) 877-6836 or visit http://www.provenedge.com for a free trial copy.