In their book Write Your Business Plan, the staff of Entrepreneur Media offer an in-depth understanding of what’s essential to any business plan, what’s appropriate for your venture, and what it takes to ensure success. In this edited excerpt, the authors briefly describe just what your business plan should contain, how long it should be and how to know if it's time to write it.
A business plan is a written description of the future of your business. It's a document that tells the story of what you plan to do and how you plan to do it. If you jot down a paragraph on the back of an envelope describing your business strategy, you’ve written a plan, or at least the germ of a plan.
But there are some generally accepted conventions about what a full-blown business plan should include and how it should be presented. A plan should cover all the important matters that will contribute to making your business a success. These include the following:
1. Your basic business concept. This is where you discuss the industry, your business structure, your particular product or service, and how you plan to make your business a success.
2. Your strategy and the specific actions you plan to take to implement it. What goals do you have for your business? When and how will you reach your goals?
3. Your products and services and their competitive advantages. Here's your chance to dazzle the readers with good, solid information about your products or services and why customers will want to purchase your products and services and not those of your competitors.
4. The markets you’ll pursue. Now you have to lay out your marketing plan. Who will your customers be? What is your demographic audience? How will you attract and retain enough customers to make a profit? What methods will you use to capture your audience? What sets your business apart from the competition?
5. The background of your management team and key employees. Having information about key personnel is an important but often misrepresented portion of a business plan. It’s not a long and detailed biography of each person involved but an accurate account of what they've done and what they bring to the table for this specific business opportunity.
6. Your financing needs. These will be based on your projected financial statements. These statements provide a model of how your ideas about the company, its markets and its strategies will play out.
As you write your business plan, stick to facts instead of feelings, projections instead of hopes, and realistic expectations of profit instead of unrealistic dreams of wealth. Facts—checkable, demonstrable facts—will invest your plan with the most important component of all: credibility.
How long should your plan be?
A useful business plan can be any length, from that scrawl on the back of an envelope to more than 100 pages for an especially detailed plan describing a complex enterprise. A typical business plan runs 15 to 25 pages.
Miniplans of five to 10 pages are the popular concise models that may stand on their own for smaller businesses. Larger businesses seeking major funding will often have miniplans as well, but the full business plan will be waiting in the wings. It’s to your advantage to run long when creating your plan, then narrow it down for presentation purposes.
The size of the plan will also depend on the nature of your business and your reason for writing it. If you have a simple concept, you may be able to express it in very few words. On the other hand, if you're proposing a new kind of business or even a new industry, it may require quite a bit of explanation to get the message across.
The purpose of your plan also determines its length. If you're looking for millions of dollars in seed capital to start a risky venture, you'll usually (although not always) have to do a lot of explaining and convincing. If you already have relationships with potential investors, they may simply want a miniplan. If you're just going to use your plan for internal purposes to manage an ongoing business, a much more abbreviated version may suffice.
Many business plan presentations are made with PowerPoint decks, using 10 to 12 slides to tell your story. That's a great starting point, but you should have at least a miniplan available, especially if you're seeking millions of dollars.
When should you write it?
Still not sure if it's time to write a business plan? Here are a few clues that it's time to start writing:
- A business plan is a good way to explore the feasibility of a new business without actually having to start it and run it. A good plan can help you see serious flaws in your business concept. You may uncover tough competition when researching the market section, or you may find that your financial projections simply aren’t realistic.
- Any venture that faces major changes (and that means almost all businesses) needs a business plan. If the demographics of your market are rapidly changing, strong new competitive products challenge your profitability, you expect your business to grow or shrink dramatically, or the economic climate is improving or slipping rapidly, you’ll need a business plan. This will allow you to make changes accordingly.
- If you're contemplating buying or selling a business, your business plan can provide you with a handy tool to establish a value—and to support that value if challenged.
- You'll need a business plan if you're seeking financing. Your business plan is the backbone of your financing proposal. Bankers, venture capitalists and other financiers rarely provide money without seeing a plan. Less sophisticated investors or friends and family may not require a business plan, but they deserve one. Even if you’re funding the business with your own savings, you owe it to yourself to plan how you’ll expend the resources you’re committing.