A business plan is also a road map that provides directions so a business can plan its future and helps it avoid bumps in the road. The time you spend making your business plan thorough and accurate, and keeping it up-to-date, is an investment that pays big dividends in the long term.
Your business plan should conform to generally accepted guidelines regarding form and content. Each section should include specific elements and address relevant questions that the people who read your plan will most likely ask. Generally, a business plan has the following components:
Title Page and Contents
A business plan should be presented in a binder with a cover listing the name of the business, the name(s) of the principal(s), address, phone number, e-mail and website addresses, and the date. You don't have to spend a lot of money on a fancy binder or cover. Your readers want a plan that looks professional, is easy to read and is well-put-together.
Include the same information on the title page. If you have a logo, you can use it, too. A table of contents follows the executive summary or statement of purpose, so that readers can quickly find the information or financial data they need.
The executive summary, or statement of purpose, succinctly encapsulates your reason for writing the business plan. It tells the reader what you want and why, right up front. Are you looking for a $10,000 loan to remodel and refurbish your factory? A loan of $25,000 to expand your product line or buy new equipment? How will you repay your loan, and over what term? Would you like to find a partner to whom you'd sell 25 percent of the business? What's in it for him or her? The questions that pertain to your situation should be addressed here clearly and succinctly.
The summary or statement should be no more than half a page in length and should touch on the following key elements:
- Business concept describes the business, its product, the market it serves and the business' competitive advantage.
- Financial features include financial highlights, such as sales and profits.
- Financial requirements state how much capital is needed for startup or expansion, how it will be used and what collateral is available.
- Current business position furnishes relevant information about the company, its legal form of operation, when it was founded, the principal owners and key personnel.
- Major achievements points out anything noteworthy, such as patents, prototypes, important contracts regarding product development, or results from test marketing that have been conducted.
Description of the Business The business description usually begins with a short explanation of the industry. When describing the industry, discuss what's going on now as well as the outlook for the future. Do the necessary research so you can provide information on all the various markets within the industry, including references to new products or developments that could benefit or hinder your business. Base your observations on reliable data and be sure to footnote and cite your sources of information when necessary. Remember that bankers and investors want to know hard facts--they won't risk money on assumptions or conjecture.
When describing your business, say which sector it falls into (wholesale, retail, food service, manufacturing, hospitality and so on), and whether the business is new or established. Then say whether the business is a sole proprietorship, partnership, C or Sub chapter S corporation. Next, list the business' principals and state what they bring to the business. Continue with information on who the business' customers are, how big the market is, and how the product or service is distributed and marketed.
Description of the Product or Service The business description can be a few paragraphs to a few pages in length, depending on the complexity of your plan. If your plan isn't too complicated, keep your business description short, describing the industry in one paragraph, the product in another, and the business and its success factors in two or three more paragraphs.
When you describe your product or service, make sure your reader has a clear idea of what you're talking about. Explain how people use your product or service and talk about what makes your product or service different from others available in the market. Be specific about what sets your business apart from those of your competitors.
Then explain how your business will gain a competitive edge and why your business will be profitable. Describe the factors you think will make it successful. If your business plan will be used as a financing proposal, explain why the additional equity or debt will make your business more profitable. Give hard facts, such as "new equipment will create an income stream of $10,000 per year" and briefly describe how.
Other information to address here is a description of the experience of the other key people in the business. Whoever reads your business plan will want to know what suppliers or experts you've spoken to about your business and their response to your idea. They may even ask you to clarify your choice of location or reasons for selling this particular product.
A thorough market analysis will help you define your prospects as well as help you establish pricing, distribution, and promotional strategies that will allow your company to be successful vis-à-vis your competition, both in the short and long term.
Begin your market analysis by defining the market in terms of size, demographics, structure, growth prospects, trends, and sales potential. Next, determine how often your product or service will be purchased by your target market. Then figure out the potential annual purchase. Then figure out what percentage of this annual sum you either have or can attain. Keep in mind that no one gets 100 percent market share, and that a something as small as 25 percent is considered a dominant share. Your market share will be a benchmark that tells you how well you're doing in light of your market-planning projections.
You'll also have to describe your positioning strategy. How you differentiate your product or service from that of your competitors and then determine which market niche to fill is called "positioning." Positioning helps establish your product or service's identity within the eyes of the purchaser. A positioning statement for a business plan doesn't have to be long or elaborate, but it does need to point out who your target market is, how you'll reach them, what they're really buying from you, who your competitors are, and what your USP (unique selling proposition) is.
How you price your product or service is perhaps your most important marketing decision. It's also one of the most difficult to make for most small business owners, because there are no instant formulas. Many methods of establishing prices are available to you, but these are among the most common.
- Cost-plus pricing is used mainly by manufacturers to assure that all costs, both fixed and variable, are covered and the desired profit percentage is attained.
- Demand pricing is used by companies that sell their products through a variety of sources at differing prices based on demand.
- Competitive pricing is used by companies that are entering a market where there's already an established price and it's difficult to differentiate one product from another.
- Markup pricing is used mainly by retailers and is calculated by adding your desired profit to the cost of the product.
You'll also have to determine distribution, which includes the entire process of moving the product from the factory to the end user. Make sure to analyze your competitors' distribution channels before deciding whether to use the same type of channel or an alternative that may provide you with a strategic advantage.
Finally, your promotion strategy should include all the ways you communicate with your markets to make them aware of your products or services. To be successful, your promotion strategy should address advertising, packaging, public relations, sales promotions and personal sales.
The purpose of the competitive analysis is to determine:
- the strengths and weaknesses of the competitors within your market.
- strategies that will provide you with a distinct advantage.
- barriers that can be developed to prevent competition from entering your market.
- any weaknesses that can be exploited in the product development cycle.
The first step in a competitor analysis is to identify both direct and indirect competition for your business, both now and in the future. Once you've grouped your competitors, start analyzing their marketing strategies and identifying their vulnerable areas by examining their strengths and weaknesses. This will help you determine your distinct competitive advantage.
Whoever reads your business plan should be very clear on who your target market is, what your market niche is, exactly how you'll stand apart from your competitors, and why you'll be successful doing so.
Operations and Management
The operations and management component of your plan is designed to describe how the business functions on a continuing basis. The operations plan highlights the logistics of the organization, such as the responsibilities of the management team, the tasks assigned to each division within the company, and capital and expense requirements related to the operations of the business.
Financial Components of Your Business Plan
After defining the product, market and operations, the next area to turn your attention to are the three financial statements that form the backbone of your business plan: the income statement, cash flow statement, and balance sheet.
The income statement is a simple and straightforward report on the business' cash-generating ability. It is a scorecard on the financial performance of your business that reflects when sales are made and when expenses are incurred. It draws information from the various financial models developed earlier such as revenue, expenses, capital (in the form of depreciation), and cost of goods. By combining these elements, the income statement illustrates just how much your company makes or loses during the year by subtracting cost of goods and expenses from revenue to arrive at a net result, which is either a profit or loss. In addition to the income statements, include a note analyzing the results. The analysis should be very short, emphasizing the key points of the income statement. Your CPA can help you craft this.
The cash flow statement is one of the most critical information tools for your business, since it shows how much cash you'll need to meet obligations, when you'll require it and where it will come from. The result is the profit or loss at the end of each month and year. The cash flow statement carries both profits and losses over to the next month to also show the cumulative amount. Running a loss on your cash flow statement is a major red flag that indicates not having enough cash to meet expenses-something that demands immediate attention and action.
The cash flow statement should be prepared on a monthly basis during the first year, on a quarterly basis for the second year, and annually for the third year. The following 17 items are listed in the order they need to appear on your cash flow statement. As with the income statement, you'll need to analyze the cash flow statement in a short summary in the business plan. Once again, the analysis doesn't have to be long and should cover highlights only. Ask your CPA for help.
The last financial statement you'll need is a balance sheet. Unlike the previous financial statements, the balance sheet is generated annually for the business plan and is, more or less, a summary of all the preceding financial information broken down into three areas: assets, liabilities and equity.
Balance sheets are used to calculate the net worth of a business or individual by measuring assets against liabilities. If your business plan is for an existing business, the balance sheet from your last reporting period should be included. If the business plan is for a new business, try to project what your assets and liabilities will be over the course of the business plan to determine what equity you may accumulate in the business. To obtain financing for a new business, you'll need to include a personal financial statement or balance sheet.
In the business plan, you'll need to create an analysis for the balance sheet just as you need to do for the income and cash flow statements. The analysis of the balance sheet should be kept short and cover key points.
In this section, include any other documents that are of interest to your reader, such as your resume; contracts with suppliers, customers, or clients, letters of reference, letters of intent, copy of your lease and any other legal documents, tax returns for the previous three years, and anything else relevant to your business plan.
Some people think you don't need a business plan unless you're trying to borrow money. Of course, it's true that you do need a good plan if you intend to approach a lender--whether a banker, a venture capitalist or any number of other sources--for startup capital. But a business plan is more than a pitch for financing; it's a guide to help you define and meet your business goals.
Just as you wouldn't start off on a cross-country drive without a road map, you should not embark on your new business without a business plan to guide you. A business plan won't automatically make you a success, but it will help you avoid some common causes of business failure, such as under-capitalization or lack of an adequate market.
As you research and prepare your business plan, you'll find weak spots in your business idea that you'll be able to repair. You'll also discover areas with potential you may not have thought about before--and ways to profit from them. Only by putting together a business plan can you decide whether your great idea is really worth your time and investment.