Writing Your Business Plan (Traditional or Online Business)

How To Write A Business Plan

In my previous article, I talked about how you can plan your business startup. I defined a business plan as a written description of the future of your business. This is a document that indicates what you intend to do and how you intend to do it. I further explained that if all you have is a paragraph on the back of an envelope describing your business strategy, you have written a plan, or at least the beginning of a plan. I also said that a business plan consists of a narrative and several financial worksheets.

I mentioned that the ‘writing of a business plan’ as one of the pivotal steps involved in setting up a successful business. By now you should understand the need for writing a business plan. Writing a business plan, for a traditional brick and mortar business, will probably take a lot of time. It may take up to 100 hours or even more. For obvious reasons, a new business needs to carry out a lot of research before a business plan can even be developed.

For an online business, a detailed and in depth business plan is usually not necessary unless you are trying to combine your online business with a traditional business. For most online business startups, the detail involved with planning a traditional business is not required. However, it would still be beneficial to you if most of the topics were still covered, even if only briefly. Having a written plan in front of you will help you to focus on important aspects of the business.

You may not have thought much about your competition or outsourcing some of your work, but things like that will impact your ability to make a profit. And you will find this especially so in the beginning phases of your business. Even you are just opening a lemonade stand in the front yard, you will still need to know what Susie is selling her lemonade for on the next street over!

So, although a detailed business plan may not be required for an online business, I am going to include it here so you can at least look at and consider each section and determine yourself if it applies to your business.

Here I shall be discussing the basic steps involved in writing a business plan:

1. Executive Summary: The first step involved in writing a business plan is the executive summary. Here, include everything that you would cover in a five minute interview.

Explain the fundamentals of the proposed business: What will your product be? Who will your customers be? Who are the owners? What do you think the future holds for your business and your industry?

Make it enthusiastic, professional, complete, and concise.

If you are applying for a loan, state clearly how much you need and be precise in how you are going to use it. Also include detail about how the money will make your business more profitable, thereby ensuring repayment of the loan.

2. Business Description: After the executive summary, you need to write a short description of the business you are going into. You need to give a general description of the industry your business belongs to. You will write about your company’s mission statement, goals and objectives, business philosophy, as well as its legal form of ownership (sole proprietor, corporation, LLC, etc.).

Describe your most important company strengths and core competencies. What factors will make the company succeed? What do you think your major competitive strengths will be? What background, experience, skills, and strengths do you personally bring to this new venture?

3. Marketing Analysis/Strategy: The next thing to write (after the general description) should be your marketing strategy. For new or existing businesses, market analysis is an important basis for the marketing plan and will help justify the sales forecast. Existing businesses will rely heavily on past performance as an indicator of the future. New businesses have a greater challenge – they will rely more on market research using libraries, trade associations, government statistics, surveys, competitor observations, etc. In all cases, make sure your market analysis is relevant to establishing the viability of your new business and the reasonableness of the sales forecast.

4. Location: Writing down the location of your business is very important. Locations with greater customer traffic usually cost more to buy or rent, but they require less spending for advertising to attract customers. This is especially true of retail businesses where traffic count and accessibility are critical.

If an online business, you need to go into detail how you will attract customers to your website. General statements like “I will use Face Book ads and email marketing” will contribute almost nothing to helping your cause unless you have detailed statistical analysis of tests you have conducted or of another similar business you have been associated with. If you do not have any data upon which you reference your estimates, it could show lack of proper thought to the remainder of your business plan.

5. Competitive Analysis: Business by nature is competitive, and few businesses are completely new. If there are no competitors, be careful; there may be no market for your products. Expand your concept of competition. If you plan to open the first roller skating rink in town, your competition will include movie theaters, malls, bowling alleys, etc.

6. Management and Operations: Because management problems are the leading cause of business failures, it is important to discuss management qualifications and structure. Resumes of the Principals should be included in supporting data. If your business will have few employees and rely heavily on outside professionals, list these key people and their qualifications. If you are seeking financing, include personal financial statements for all of the principals in the supporting data section.

7. Personnel: The success of any company depends on their ability to recruit, train and retain quality employees. The amount of emphasis in your plan for this section will depend on the number and type of employees required.

8. Projected Financial Statements: These statements are usually helpful, but not necessary. You will develop and describe your strategies for the business throughout your Business Plan. In the financial section, you will need to estimate the financial impact of those strategies by developing projected Income Statements, Balance Sheets, and Cash Flow Statements.

It is usually recommended that these projected statements be on a monthly basis for at least the first twelve months or until the business is projected to be profitable and stable. Activity displayed beyond the monthly detail may be in summary form (such as quarterly or annually). The forecast period for most business plans is two to four years.

9. Summary Section: This section is where you will be able to attach or explain any detail not applicable to the previous sections. This section should be used to provide the financial statements of the Principle’s involved in the business and any other data you think an investor would be interested in seeing.

The main thing to remember in this section is not to provide new data, but to explain in detail data that has already been provided and to provide the support for that data.

When you sit down to compile all of the elements of your business plan, make sure you have each section able to stand on its own merits. This means you should not reference other sections sending the reader (your potential investor) back and forth between sections.

Do not try to write your business plan in one sitting. As I mentioned in the beginning, for a traditional brick and mortar business, it could take in excess of 100 hours to compile all of the information needed into a comprehensive but yet understandable document. For online businesses, probably not that long. But your final product should be well thought out, well documented and easily understandable.

Top 5 Ingredients of Successful Business Plans

Everyone has prepared a business plan. Well, should that read, everyone should have prepared a business plan? My thinking is that these tend only to be prepared when they are needed, rather than as a useful business tool for all senior management. My top five ingredients are:

1. Understand what a business plan is;

2. Understand what you intend to use it for;

3. Identify and implement the critical steps to achieving a successful business plan;

4. Understand what needs to be included in the plan;

5. Be aware of gaps or weaknesses in your plan.

What is a business plan?

A business plan sets out the method for running a specific activity over a specific future period.

Why are business plans needed?

Business plans are needed essentially for the four following reasons:

1. A formal, explicit document of the planning process;

2. A request for finances;

3. A framework for approval;

4. A tool for operational business management.

What are the critical steps needed to achieve a successful business plan?

This may come as a surprise to my fellow business consultants, but producing a successful business plan is not as difficult as people often think, so long as they follow a logical sequence. Here is my considered view as to the critical steps.

1. Understand what you are planning and why;

2. Define the activities of your organisation;

3. Outline the current position of the business;

4. Review and discuss the external market conditions, undertake and understand a competitive analysis, and define your market positioning;

5. Define your core objectives;

6. Prepare and articulate the strategy to attain and meet the objectives;

7. Identify and review risks and opportunities;

8. Prepare a strategy to deal with risks and exploit opportunities;

9. Refine the strategies into operational plans;

10. Prepare financial forecasts including revenues, costs, cash-flow, capital expenditure and assumptions adopted;

11. Finalise the plan;

12. Get it approved;

13. Use it;

14. Review it regularly and update as appropriate.

What should be included in the business plan?

Without being too prescriptive, there are certain necessary elements which need to be included. Such elements are:

· Preliminaries – such as contents, contacts and definitions;

· An executive summary;

· A description of the business;

· A review of the market, the competition and market positioning;

· The vision, mission and objectives;

· The corporate strategy;

· The plan for developing the products and services;

· Financial projections;

· An outline of the risks and opportunities;

· A conclusion.

Understand gaps and weaknesses within the plan.

Any casual viewer of the BBC programme, Dragons Den will be aware of how easy it is for weaknesses or gaps to be identified. Depending upon the purpose of the plan, this may, or may not, prove to be critical. It is often easier to recognise such weaknesses and gaps, and be prepared to deal with them, either by noting them in the plan itself, or having appropriate answers available should the need arise.

Who should prepare the plan?

As a business consultant, this may sound like heresy, but I believe that any plan should be produced by the senior management of the organisation. That is not to say that the consultant does not have a role to play in its preparation. He does. Senior management should prepare the plan as they will then be able to present and discuss it, demonstrating to their audience that they fully understand their business and market. I believe that the consultant’s role is to help facilitate the preparation of the plan, the consultant can help undertake the necessary research, and can cast a critical and impartial eye over the plan.

Do I Really Need a Business Plan for My Business?

Most successful businesses have created a business plan at some point, usually before their start-up.

Why?

A business plan is needed to address all of the central components to starting a business. It is essential to make sure that you, as a new entrepreneur have carefully thought through many if not all, of the important components of your business. Ideally, you need to do this BEFORE starting your business.

What is a business plan?

They are generally prepared for two reasons:

1. To obtain financing for the business

2. To help determine if essential components of starting a business have been considered.

Often times with new entrepreneur’s (and sometimes even with the more experienced!) they overlook certain aspects of starting a business. So the business plan helps to ensure that most, if not all reasonable questions have been answered and strategies thought about.

Although business plans are often considered optional – they serve a vital importance to entrepreneurs.

Many aspiring entrepreneurs and even experienced entrepreneurs fail to recognize their importance. It is often considered an “optional” component of their business and should only be prepared when absolutely necessary.

Not so!

It is needed to address all of the central components to starting your business. It is essential to make sure that you, as an entrepreneur of quality, have carefully considered what you are offering, how you are offering it and whom you are offering it to.

Although it may be tempting to say “I have everything in my head about my business” – could lead to a lack of clarity.

Why?

The idea of keeping everything in your mind makes it possible for you to:

forget certain things
remember things incorrectly or too modified to later be useful
misconstrue thought combinations that you had at one point but later revised
revisit ideas that you already have thought of and since dismissed…

Preparing a business plan will allow you to document what you know and have the permanent impact of writing it down.

But this is complicated – Right?

In the context of the larger corporate world a business plan is not only essential but required. Many formats of business plans are modelled after the layouts and inclusions used for larger public companies. The time frame and level of detail is much greater for large corporate entities as they are required for various interested parties (stakeholders). However, it is not necessary for smaller businesses, especially start-ups to prepare overly lengthy and complex documents.

Your business plan need not be a time consuming, uncontrollable and over-the-top difficult process!

How Can I, As an Entrepreneur Achieve This?

Through the simple process of preparing a Preliminary Business Plan you will:

Engage in a key strategy that will help you to organize your thoughts
Help you to focus on your business intentions.
Apply a straightforward, step-by-step process to prepare one.
Obtain clarity about your business.

Why is it called a Preliminary Business Plan?

Traditional business plans, like those used for large public corporations can be very complex and have the level of detail that is not required for most smaller, private businesses.

A Preliminary Business Plan is shorter, designed more for the start-up of the business and it is easier to understand and prepare.

Here are just some of the questions that it should answer:

Describe in detail exactly what your business is to be.
Describe whom your products and/or services are for.
How do you plan to deliver your products/services to your customers/clients.
What pricing do you plan to use.
If you have a product, list the major suppliers
Indicate whom your major customers/clients are likely to be.
What are the risk factors that you see for your business.
What current businesses pose as competition to your business?
How many employees do you plan to have in the company and at what point will they become active?
Have you completed one?

It will address all of the central components to starting your business. It is essential to make sure that you, as a new entrepreneur have thought carefully through and considered all that you need to BEFORE starting your business.

A Preliminary Business Plan is a step-by-step method that allows you to organize your thoughts and WRITE DOWN your intentions through documenting them in a meaningful way. It also provides you with a document to provide to interested parties (for example, banks, investors, etc.) if the need arises.

You need to prepare one, if you are:

An aspiring entrepreneur who is serious about properly planning a business and would like to discover if you need one for their new business.
An experienced entrepreneur who never has prepared one, but would like to learn how.
An aspiring entrepreneur who is skeptical, but would like to explore the process and know more.
Any entrepreneur who has heard about them, but are confused and would like some clear DIRECTION of what to d

3 Business Plans Every Entrepreneuer Must Have

I am mentoring small businesses and I am amazed at the ideas I read from the entrepreneurs I have the pleasure of meeting.

Unfortunately, not many have well laid out business plans and most use the Internet for planning.

A big percentage of the documents they use from the Internet are impressive, but what they do not understand is that one cannot use a business plan tailored for another region of the world to fully execute his specific business.

Business concepts are similar universally, but execution and sustainability differ depending on one’s environment and market.

The business plans I have read display glorified projections and their market analysis clearly depicts great profit.

In short, one look at a business plan will tell you that some issues have yet to be thought out clearly. For example, competition, risk, challenges and so forth.

Before embarking on your venture, draft at least three business plans.

Individual

This plan is the truest of them all. I refer to it as the naked business plan. It covers almost everything including risk and possibility of failure. No business life lesson can be complete without a discussion on risks and risk management and no business can be started without embracing risk.

Risks are inherent in everything we do – business risk management is the key to ensuring risks are identified and a plan-B or C thought out. Some risks we can control while others we cannot.

This plan should cover who you are as an individual, what your honest strengths and weaknesses are and how you will handle stumbling blocks or closure.

It should address questions like; Can you persevere through tough times? Do you have a strong desire to be your own boss? Do the judgments you make in life regularly turn out well? Do you have an ability to conceptualise the whole of a business? Do you possess the high level of energy, sustainable over long hours, to make a business successful? Do you have specialised business experience?

Financial projections in the plan should cover, at the very least, five different modules. You should work on the plan yourself and get prepared for any outcome.

Investors

I like to call this the headlines business plan. You only have one shot at getting investors – make the best out of it.

This is a plan that shows what team you will be working with and how you plan to invest to make money for investors. Show a well laid out plan that includes short and long term financial gains.

The confidence, coupled with experience, shown in this document will determine whether you get the initial investment you seek.

Financial projections in this case can be three to five years. They are there to show sustained profit. You should not glorify the plan nor try to get a lot of money for the start-up.

You must mention what your competition is and how you plan to create your own niche market – having a business plan that does not have a thorough SWOT analysis could raise the red flag. You might end up not getting financial support.

Pick the right team, get professional advice, try to separate your product from the rest in order to achieve your own niche.

Do not spend too much money. Most people think that having a lot of money is fundamental in starting a business. That is a fallacy – you can make a lot out of very little.

Universal

This is the plan that you started out with – the ”sitting research” through which you came out with pros and cons of the venture. The plan that has been developed from different Internet searches to better understand what you will be dealing with.

This is the longest business plan. This plan has a lot of data, but you should sieve out information that is irrelevant for your business. Without this plan, it is difficulty to cover everything that needs to be covered in your proposed venture.

Business Planning For Recession Survival and Recovery

The New Basics of Business

With unemployment continuing to rise, home prices falling due to a surplus of inventory, and small business lending at a standstill, this recession doesn’t seem likely to end soon. The recovery will be slow and Americans will certainly not enjoy the prosperity of a few years ago for a long time to come. It’s not just economists who think this way. “Half the population in [a] new ABC News poll thinks both job security and retirement prospects in the years ahead will remain worse than their pre-recession levels.” (“Poll: Less Job Security is the ‘New Normal,’” ABC News The Polling Unit, June 15, 2009, analysis by Gary Langer) This confidence, or lack thereof, is an integral part of an economic cycle. The analysis goes on to say, “Those diminished expectations – plus the pain of the current downturn – are fueling retrenchments in consumer behavior that could fundamentally reshape the economy.”

Basically, consumers are hunkering down to limit spending, save money, conserve resources, and change the way they’ve been living. The major influence on the health of an economy is the psychological state of its consumers. When there exists a broad belief that spending beyond necessity is unwise, people will change their habits and as a result, some businesses will have to close their doors. The economy is molting into a new, leaner animal. Rather than react in desperation to avoid doom, firms should interact with the current situation with innovative and forward thinking actions.

No matter the economic slump, increasing profits is typically the number one goal of any business. To ensure profitability, a company must demonstrate a competitive advantage over others in its industry, either by cost leadership (same product as competitors, lower price), differentiation (same price, better services), or focusing on an exclusive segment of the market (niche). For long term maintenance of competitive advantage, a firm must ensure that its methods cannot be duplicated or imitated. This requires constant analysis and regular reinvention of competitive strategies.

A recession is the optimal time to reinvent competitive advantage because the pressure of a feeble economy will separate the strong businesses from the weak ones, with the weak falling out of the game entirely. Your business will be strong if you have a plan of action based upon a little industry research, an analysis of what you have and what you want, and continuous monitoring of the results of your plan. This kind of innovation is not only a necessity right now, but it is an opportunity to improve the quality and efficiency in the way you do business.

The three basic actions for growing a business in any economic climate are: improve efficiency (maintain output while reducing inputs, such as time and money); increase volume (produce more in order to spread fixed costs); reorganize the business (change goals, methods and/or philosophy). If you plan to implement one of these, you may as well plan to implement them all. By focusing on one of the above strategies, you will find a ripple effect that causes a need to address the others. This is a good thing.

Right now, growth may sound like an unattainable goal as businesses are grappling just to survive, but hey, “flat is the new up.” If a business can keep its doors open and lights on, then it’s doing better than many others. But lights and open doors don’t make sales, so making changes that attract business is in a sense, striving for growth. It won’t be this tough forever, but for now, putting some growth strategies into action may be what keeps your business alive, if not thriving.

Every Business Needs a Plan

Without a plan, there is little hope for growth, let alone survival. As my small business development counselor, Terry Chambers says, “If it’s not written, it’s not real.” That doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable, but it does show that you mean business. In order to accomplish your strategies of improving efficiency, increasing volume, and reorganizing your business, you’ve got to examine what you have, what you want, and how you plan to get there.

Sometimes it takes a significant event or change in existing conditions for a business to create a written plan. I think it’s safe to say that the state of the economy is a significant change that should prompt business owners to alter the way they’ve been doing things. If you already have a business plan, it’s time to get it out and revise it. Make sure your plan includes answers to these questions:

What do I want to accomplish?
What do I have to work with?
How have I done in the past?
What might I do in the future?
What will I do now?
How will I do it?
Is it working?

A business plan can be used as a vehicle for accurate communication among principals, managers, staff, and outside sources of capital. It will also help to identify, isolate, and solve problems in your structure, operations, and/or finances. Along with these advantages, a business plan captures a view of the big picture, which makes a company better prepared to take advantage of opportunities for improvement and/or handle crises.

Essentially, the three main elements of a business plan are strategies, actions, and financial projections. In order to cover all of the principle elements, you will engage in other types of planning:

Marketing plan: Includes analysis of your target market (your customers), as well as the competition within that market, and your marketing strategy. This plan is usually part of the strategic plan.
Strategic plan: Asses the impact of the business environment (STEER analysis: Socio-cultural, Technological, Economic, Ecological, and Regulatory factors). Includes company vision, mission, goals and objectives, in order to plan three to five years into the future.
Operational planning: With a focus on short-term actions, this type of planning usually results in a detailed annual work plan, of which the business plan contains only the highlights.
Financial planning: The numerical results of strategic and operational planning are shown in budgets and projected financial statements; these are always included in the business plan in their entirety.
Feasibility study: Before you decide to start a business or add something new to an existing business, you should perform an analysis of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT analysis), as well as its financial feasibility, then asses its potential sales volume.

The process of business planning does not end when the written plan is complete. Business planning is a cycle, which includes the following steps:

Put your plan of action in writing.
Make decisions and take action based upon the plan.
Gauge the results of those actions against your expectations.
Explore the differences, whether positive or negative, and write it all down.
Modify your business plan based upon what you learned.

President of Palo Alto Software, Inc. and business planning coach Tim Berry says, “Planning isn’t complete unless you’ve planned for review.” Review is the fundamental action that initiates putting your business plan into action. In his blog at Entrepreneur.com, Berry lists some insightful strategies to making good use of your plan review, a few of which include keeping the review meetings as brief as possible and an emphasis on metrics as key to effective review.

Write your business plan in sessions. Don’t think that you have to produce a business plan before go to bed tonight or you won’t be able to open your doors for business tomorrow. I like Tim Berry’s Plan-As-You-Go method of business planning. The practice of planning is an effective way to really get to know your business and you might end up discovering some important things about your company and about yourself.

There are various strategies and outlines available that will guide you in choosing the appropriate format for your business plan. Check out the collection of sample business plans for a variety of businesses at Bplans dot com. Every business is different, therefore every business plan will be structured differently, but for the purposes of this white paper, I will present the fundamental elements that make up strategic, operational, and financial planning. Here is a basic outline, thanks to NxLevel® for Entrepreneurs (2005, Fourth Edition):

General Business Plan Outline
Cover Page
Table of Contents
Executive Summary

Mission, Goals and Objectives

General Description of the Business
Stage of Development
General Growth Plan Description
Mission Statement
Goals and Objectives

Background Information

The Industry
Background Industry Information
Current/Future Industry Trends
The Business Fit in the Industry

Organizational Matters

Business Structure, Management and Personnel
Management
Personnel
Outside Services/Advisors
Risk Management
Operating Controls
Recordkeeping Functions
Other Operational Controls

The Marketing Plan

Products/Services
Products/Services Description
Features/Benefits
Life Cycles/Seasonality
Growth Description (Future Products/Services)
The Market Analysis
Customer Analysis
Competitive Analysis
Market Potential
Current Trade Area Description
Market Size and Trends
Sales Volume Potential (Current and Growth)
Marketing Strategies
Location/Distribution
Price/Quality Relationship
Promotional Strategies
Packaging
Public Relations
Advertising
Customer Service

The Financial Plan

Financial Worksheets
Salaries/Wages & Benefits
Outside Services
Insurance
Advertising Budget
Occupancy Expense
Sales Forecasts
Cost of Projected Product Units
Fixed Assets
Growth (or Start-Up) Expenses
Miscellaneous Expenses
Cash Flow Projections
Break-Even Analysis
Monthly Cash Flow Projections – First Year
Notes to Cash Flow Projections (Assumptions)
Annual Cash Flow Projections – Years Two and Three
Financial Statements
Projected Income Statement
Balance Sheet
Statement of Owner’s Equity
Additional Financial Information
Summary of Financial Needs
Existing Debt
Personal Financial Statement

Appendix Section

Action Log
Supporting Documents (Resumes, Research Citations, etc.)

Executive Summary

A business plan starts with an executive summary, which is a one or two page summary of your business plan, or an introduction to your business. Although this section is at the beginning of the business plan, it is the last thing to be written. You’ll be able to condense your business plan more succinctly once you have the opportunity to work through the other parts of the plan. The executive summary may be the only thing a potential investor or financier will read, so write it last because it has to be the most compelling.

Start by writing a description of your business, including what stage of development it is currently in (conception, start-up, first year, mature, exit) and your plans for growth. Discuss the nature of your business, the main products and services you offer, the market for your products and services, and how and by whom the business is operated.

Mission Statement

Then work on your mission statement. Here is where you concisely state the focus, scope and hope of your business (or values, vision, philosophy, and purpose). What is the customer pain you are soothing, the need you fulfill? Here’s an example from Coca-Cola:

Our Roadmap starts with our mission, which is enduring. It declares our purpose as a company and serves as the standard against which we weigh our actions and decisions.

To refresh the world…
To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…
To create value and make a difference.

PepsiCo has a different take:

Our mission is to be the world’s premier consumer products company focused on convenient foods and beverages. We seek to produce financial rewards to investors as we provide opportunities for growth and enrichment to our employees, our business partners and the communities in which we operate. And in everything we do, we strive for honesty, fairness and integrity.

This is the mission statement of Inspiration Software, Inc.: