Writing a Knockout Business Plan for Your Startup

A Winning First Impression

The saying, "There's no second chance to make a good first impression," is highly appropriate when it comes to the opening sections of your business plan and its overall appearance. With current desktop publishing, business plans are looking more professional--prospects are competing for neatness and an impressive presentation that sets them apart.

  • Format. As to format, the norm is to bind your business plan in booklet form with high-quality materials. Better ones have quality report covers in dark or rich colors and are labeled on the front. The title page serves better than a label if laminated or positioned behind a windowed cover or behind a full clear cover. Most types of binding are available at copy centers: Ibico and GBC presentation bindings, Wire Bind, and Velobinder are a few of the better ones. Some businesses go the extra step to have printed covers or printed binding strips. Three-ring binders have been used for years and are still acceptable, but you improve your odds for making that favorable first impression by using the latest and most professional-looking, high-tech materials available.
  • Page layout. Make sure the layout of each page is balanced and artistically pleasing, with a lot of open or negative space--paragraphs, lines, and characters should not be too closely spaced. With desktop publishing, many types of fonts are available. The text is generally easier to read if you use a font with serifs, such as New Times Roman, Charter or Garamond, and the margins are justified. For a professional quality, use a sans-serif font, such as Arial, Modern or Verdana, for titles, sideheads, tables and outlines. Choose one of each and stay consistent throughout the presentation.

Using the latest software printing design tools, such as boxes, borders, shadow lines, and enlarged and bold characters, can add a professional look if correctly done without drawing attention to their use and stealing the show from the material itself. Color printing, judiciously placed, is being used more all the time.

  • Tabs and titles. Each subject, with titled heading, should have its own section and be separated with indexed partitions keyed to the table of contents. Tabbed index partitions make it easier to locate information, especially during a personal presentation. Another feature is to use colored partitions, preferably muted or soft colors that coordinate with the color of the cover and with the colors of any charts or graphs inside. Instead of custom tabs, some plans are assembled with printed tab indices with miniature plastic covers, but if you have access to preprinted laminated tabs, they are preferable. Avery has Index Maker dividers for ink-jet and laser printers that you can customize with basic desktop software. A recent innovation is hidden tabs that protrude past the pages but not the cover.

Within each section, set off subsections or segments with crossheads usually set bold in a sans-serif font. When these are justified to the right or left margin, they are referred to as sideheads.

  • Color and charts. Charts, graphs, and illustrations are commonly acceptable if appropriate to the text. Color is often better than black and white; however, choose reds and blues, not chartreuses, yellow-oranges, or some other unusual color. In fact, if you are going to use extensive colored charts and graphs, choose a theme of three or four rich colors and use them consistently throughout the work. Reserve photographic prints for the exhibits. Even then, they should be presented in protective sheets or converted to color copies and labeled or captioned in font styles consistent with the rest of the business plan. If needed in the main body of the business plan, pictures look more professional when scanned and merged into the layout.
  • Printing. Use laser or ink-jet printers to print on paper of stationery quality. Paper should be the brightest white you can find, laser quality, or one of the muted color résumé stocks in soft gray or ivory. Staying consistent by using the same type of paper for text, graphs, charts, and illustrations yields a quality professional look. Using bits and pieces of different paper gives the impression the plan was thrown together.
  • Proofreading and copyediting.Have your figures checked by an accountant and the text proofread by an editor or proofreader. An accurate, easy-to-read, and well-organized text will convey professionalism and credibility. Too often this important step is avoided or forgotten: despite all the work that has gone into creating an impressive presentation, typos, missing words, poor sentence construction, and figures that don't add up become a significant part of that first impression made on a reviewer.

Important Points to Remember

  • An accurate, easy-to-read, and well-organized business plan conveys professionalism and credibility.
  • You improve your odds for making a favorable first impression by using the latest and most professional-looking, high-tech materials available.
  • Don't necessarily try to balance the material from section to section. Place your emphasis in the proper perspective and accent the features that are most important for your business.
  • Always include a cover letter with your business plan, because it may get passed on to other staff members who won't know about your venture.

Excerpted from Rule's Book of Business Plans for Startupsby Roger Rule, from Entrepreneur Press

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