An Introduction to Business Plans

Finding the Right Plan for You

Business plans tend to have a lot of elements in common, like cash flow projections and marketing plans. And many of them share certain objectives as well, such as raising money or persuading a partner to join the firm. But business plans are not all the same any more than all businesses are.

Depending on your business and what you intend to use your plan for, you may need a very different type of business plan from another entrepreneur. Plans differ widely in their length, their appearance, the detail of their contents, and the varying emphases they place on different aspects of the business.

The reason that plan selection is so important is that it has a powerful effect on the overall impact of your plan. You want your plan to present you and your business in the best, most accurate light. That's true no matter what you intend to use your plan for, whether it's destined for presentation at a venture capital conference, or will never leave your own office or be seen outside internal strategy sessions.

When you select clothing for an important occasion, odds are you try to pick items that will play up your best features. Think about your plan the same way. You want to reveal any positives that your business may have and make sure they receive due consideration.

Types of Plans
Business plans can be divided roughly into four separate types. There are very short plans, or miniplans. There are working plans, presentation plans and even electronic plans. They require very different amounts of labor and not always with proportionately different results. That is to say, a more elaborate plan is not guaranteed to be superior to an abbreviated one, depending on what you want to use it for.

  • The Miniplan. A miniplan may consist of one to 10 pages and should include at least cursory attention to such key matters as business concept, financing needs, marketing plan and financial statements, especially cash flow, income projection and balance sheet. It's a great way to quickly test a business concept or measure the interest of a potential partner or minor investor. It can also serve as a valuable prelude to a full-length plan later on.

Be careful about misusing a miniplan. It's not intended to substitute for a full-length plan. If you send a miniplan to an investor who's looking for a comprehensive one, you're only going to look foolish.

  • The Working Plan. A working plan is a tool to be used to operate your business. It has to be long on detail but may be short on presentation. As with a miniplan, you can probably afford a somewhat higher degree of candor and informality when preparing a working plan.

A plan intended strictly for internal use may also omit some elements that would be important in one aimed at someone outside the firm. You probably don't need to include an appendix with resumes of key executives, for example. Nor would a working plan especially benefit from, say, product photos.

Fit and finish are liable to be quite different in a working plan. It's not essential that a working plan be printed on high-quality paper and enclosed in a fancy binder. An old three-ring binder with "Plan" scrawled across it with a felt-tip marker will serve quite well.

Internal consistency of facts and figures is just as crucial with a working plan as with one aimed at outsiders. You don't have to be as careful, however, about such things as typos in the text, perfectly conforming to business style, being consistent with date formats and so on. This document is like an old pair of khakis you wear into the office on Saturdays or that one ancient delivery truck that never seems to break down. It's there to be used, not admired.

  • The Presentation Plan. If you take a working plan, with its low stress on cosmetics and impression, and twist the knob to boost the amount of attention paid to its looks, you'll wind up with a presentation plan. This plan is suitable for showing to bankers, investors and others outside the company.

Almost all the information in a presentation plan is going to be the same as your working plan, although it may be styled somewhat differently. For instance, you should use standard business vocabulary, omitting the informal jargon, slang and shorthand that's so useful in the workplace and is appropriate in a working plan. Remember, these readers won't be familiar with your operation. Unlike the working plan, this plan isn't being used as a reminder but as an introduction.

You'll also have to include some added elements. Among investors' requirements for due diligence is information on all competitive threats and risks. Even if you consider some of only peripheral significance, you need to address these concerns by providing the information.

The big difference between the presentation and working plans is in the details of appearance and polish. A working plan may be run off on the office printer and stapled together at one corner. A presentation plan should be printed by a high-quality printer, probably using color. It must be bound expertly into a booklet that is durable and easy to read. It should include graphics such as charts, graphs, tables and illustrations.

It's essential that a presentation plan be accurate and internally consistent. A mistake here could be construed as a misrepresentation by an unsympathetic outsider. At best, it will make you look less than careful. If the plan's summary describes a need for $40,000 in financing, but the cash flow projection shows $50,000 in financing coming in during the first year, you might think, "Oops! Forgot to update that summary to show the new numbers." The investor you're asking to pony up the cash, however, is unlikely to be so charitable.

  • The Electronic Plan. The majority of business plans are composed on a computer of some kind, then printed out and presented in hard copy. But more and more business information that once was transferred between parties only on paper is now sent electronically. So you may find it appropriate to have an electronic version of your plan available. An electronic plan can be handy for presentations to a group using a computer-driven overhead projector, for example, or for satisfying the demands of a discriminating investor who wants to be able to delve deeply into the underpinnings of complex spreadsheets.

Source: The Small Business Encyclopedia, Business Plans Made Easy, Start Your Own Business and Entrepreneur magazine.


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