From the October 2005 issue of Startups

Before you hang the "Open" sign in your storefront window, you must formulate a plan that captures the essence of your business and anticipates the rush of customers, the cost of employee benefits and your competition's weaknesses. For some, it's a painstaking task that makes them quit before they ever get started. Others seek answers from a box.

Business-plan software can offer helpful, step-by-step advice to get budding entrepreneurs over the threshold of procrastination. It can also help secure investment. According to the American Bankers Association, 52.3 percent of bankers believe a complete business plan is key to securing a loan.

Business Plan Pro from Palo Alto Software is a great example of an out-of-box solution that is user-friendly and produces a formatted final product you can circulate among potential investors.

Terry Levine, 49, used Business Plan Pro before launching her Overland Park, Kansas-based lingerie boutique Clair De Lune in 2004. Levine, who admits she's not extremely computer-literate, confesses, "The most intimidating part for me was working out the tables and projection numbers, and having it in the format that I could turn around and give to a banker." The software paid off-Levine secured a $150,000 loan after visiting just two bankers. Levine expects her first-year sales to reach between $275,000 and $300,000.

When selecting business-plan software, you should choose one that gives file-exporting flexibility and delivers a robust financial model, says Bryan Howe, business-plan consulting firm Masterplans.com's CEO. Howe says exportation is important because it allows investors to modify your business model throughout negotiations.

Alight Planning from Alight LP is a great software solution for those who would rather drink curdled milk than input spreadsheet formulas. One of the coolest functions of Alight Planning is the ability to manipulate time assumptions with the click of a button. For example, if your product hits the market two months behind schedule, click a button and your financial numbers adjust appropriately. This versatile software also allows users to input an unlimited number of line items, link line items without complicated formulas used in traditional spreadsheet software, create an unlimited number of forecast scenarios and much more. One caveat to Alight Planning is that it only delivers a financial road map, not a mission statement, competition analysis or other aspects of financial planning.

Get With the Program
These software solutions can help clarify your vision and present a professional package.

Software: Alight Planning
Key Features: Superb financial modeling, easy financial scenario-builder and easy time assumption manipulation
Price: $349
Website:www.alightplanning.com

Software: Business Plan Pro 2005
Key Features: Thorough, step-by-step wizard that imports from QuickBooks and includes over 435 sample plans
Price: $99
Website:www.paloalto.com

Software: Business Plan Template 3.0
Key Features: Extremely affordable, preformatted templates in Microsoft Word and Excel
Price: $39
Website:www.business-plan-success.com

Software: PlanMagic Business 8.0
Key Features: Fill-in-the-blank templates, automated Microsoft Excel financial templates
Price: $99
Website:www.planmagic.com