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.

When You Need Business Plan Help, Where Can You Find It?

Writing a plan for your business is often a challenging experience, and finding business plan help isn’t very easy either. There are many more employees than there are entrepreneurs in the market place, and very few people with the skill and experience to write entrepreneurial plans which produce results. It’s no wonder people looking to start or grow a business have a tough time finding help in this area.

Don’t fret though – help does exist – you just need to do a little digging to find it. Of course everything depends on your needs and budget, so with those in mind, let’s look at the choices you have…

Enroll in a Entrepreneurial Planning Course

Now some of you may be rolling your eyes at this suggestion because you’d rather have someone else write the plan for you. In my opinion though – and it is a strong opinion – no other option can compare with creating your own plan. Even if you do end up hiring someone else to help you write your plan, consider taking a course in company planning so that you understand and can follow what that person is doing. More importantly, you can challenge them.

Several community colleges offer such courses, and you can find some online as well. I would stick to the college programs though, as they are typically taught by people with real-life experience in planning a business. Plus, you get the benefit of studying the process with classmates, and by taking an accredited course, are “forced” to complete assignments which get reviewed by your instructor. I’m not saying that the online courses aren’t great – some of them are. But if you lack knowledge and experience in company planning, you’ll be much more motivated in a class environment.

Visit your Local SBA Office

If you’re in the USA, you have a great resource in Small Business Administration (SBA). This is a non-profit agency with the aim of providing assistance and guidance to entrepreneurs seeking to start new business. Aside from having useful guides and resources on writing an entrepreneurial plan on the SBA site (sba.gov), you can also seek business plan help from a mentor or counselor through your local SBA office. You’ll find detailed instructions on how to find a mentor or counselor, and if you belong to a minority group or are a female entrepreneur, SBA has several programs specifically designed for minorities.

Beyond the help you’ll get for planning your business, know that SBA is also a great resource for learning about various government loan programs available to small businesses.

If you’re not in the USA (e.g., UK, Canada or Australia), there are similar government agencies and programs designed to encourage small business owners. A little bit of research into these will take you a long way to getting smart about planning your business.

Buy Books on How to Write an Entrepreneurs Plan

OK. This is easy to do, but not as easy as it sounds. Thing is, there are so many books available on the subject, but so many of them give “template” sounding advice. One book I will recommend buying and reading is Bankable Business Plans by Edward G. Rogoff. This is one book I can confidently endorse because the author is no-nonsense about the realities of planning for a company and the truth about getting a small business funded. I’m sure there are other fantastic books out there. If you trust me, I would suggest starting with this one. You’ll get smart real fast.

Hire a Consultant or Writer

If you are clear about your business goals, or at least you are sure you will take charge in establishing them, then hiring a consultant or writer is an option to consider. This option is really recommended if what you need is someone who has the talent to put your thoughts onto paper more elegantly than you could, or someone who can challenge your ideas to get you thinking outside the box.

Having said that, it is a more expensive option, and can be really expensive down the road, not merely because of the fees you pay this person. Many individuals would prefer to “buy” a company plan that someone has written for them. Truth is, no one can really understand your business as intimately as you do, unless they are a part of your organization and play a key role in it.ad

So consider this option only if you have the knowledge to create a plan for your company but actually need business plan help to get your plan organized and written persuasively. And only consider it if you can afford it.

A search on the web for writers or consultants specialized in entrepreneurial plan writing will find you some options. You can also find help on freelance sites like elance.com. Make sure you do your research and selection carefully.

New to Business Planning? Start With a Basic Business Plan

Why would you want to write a basic business plan as opposed to a more elaborate one? Most business owners I know struggle with the idea of writing a full-blown plan for their business. To be completely honest, writing a plan for anything, let alone a business you own or intend to start, is challenging because…

1. we don’t know where or how to start
2. we want our plan to be perfect the first time we write it – as in, we don’t want to make any mistakes
3. we don’t like to write – and let’s face it, writing a plan involves writing.

I’m going to share with you ways to overcome each of these hurdles. But before you do anything, allow yourself to break the process of business planning into small steps.

The first step is to have a basic plan which will serve as the foundation for a more detailed and comprehensive plan down the road.

How to Start Writing Your Plan

What goes into a basic plan? Well, let’s first define a basic plan as a plan for the bigger plan you will arrive at later on.

Here are the essential questions you need to answer:

1. What do you want to gain by writing this plan?

Is this plan an internal plan which you will use to guide yourself or your team towards achieving specific and measurable targets? Or are you aiming to attract potential investors? Is this something you would like to take to the bank to propose a loan for your business?

Begin by examining what your specific goal is for writing your plan.

2. Who is going to review my plan, and what do you want them to do with it?

You need to identify who is going to actually study your plan, and what they are going to do with it. If it’s yourself, then it’s a little easier to answer this question because the answer lies within you.

If, however, you are writing your plan for others to review, and assuming you’ve answered #1 above, you’re going to have to do some background analysis.

Start listing names or titles/positions of people who you expect to review your plan. Then, for each person, brainstorm how you want that person to react to your business plan – what they should do with it.

You could do the same thing for investors – do you know any business owners? Ask them what they would look for in any business venture they would invest, and specifically what they would look for if you wanted them to invest in your business.

3. What is the core product or service your business offers to buyers?

To answer this, write down the product or service you intend to offer as simply as possible. We’ll answer more detailed info about it in the following questions.

4. Who is the ideal customer for this product or service?

Really, ideas for business are a dime a dozen. You often hear people talk about a great business idea they have, but they rarely back it up with any kind of proof that a customer exists for such a product or service, and that that customer would be willing to pay.

Try to be specific in profiling your buyer. For example, does your product or service cater to men or women, or both? What age groups or income levels does it service/attract? Are there any geographical areas that your product or service would supply?

5. Is there enough demand for your product or service?

This is something you’ll want to investigate in more detail as you develop your business plan. At this point though, what’s important is to do some preliminary research. Searches on Google, Hoovers or Bizminer will help you study a particular industry, and you can often drill down your research to a particular state or city. Your search at Google is of course, free, but you’ll often find for a small investment at sites such as Hoovers or Bizminer, you’ll get meaningful data for your market vertical, which you can start analyzing right away.

It’s also not a bad idea to survey buyers on their purchase behaviors and perceptions towards your product or service. Arranging a questionnaire or focus group can give you some useful insight into how potential buyers react to your product or service.

If it’s reasonable, consider giving away product or service trials and then follow-up to evaluate user expectations and experiences.

If you don’t have demand for your product or service, it really doesn’t matter how great it is anyways, right?

6. What existing problems or needs does your product or service solve for your customers?

This is one of the most important questions to answer, because ultimately, your product or service is just another one available unless it clearly and uniquely solves a problem or need which buyers face.

To give an example, let’s say your product is a software application that helps you manage your finances and taxes. There are a few applications in the market which do that already. So, what does your application do that others don’t? Is it better on features, is it faster? Is it more secure? Is it more user-friendly? Is it more portable? Does it really help someone save money or increase their net worth?

Can you see why getting clear on the solution you offer to your target market is so crucial?

7. Who are your direct and indirect competitors?

You really should gain at least an initial understanding of who else is offering similar products or services to your target market. It’s good to know how their products or services are currently used and perceived – why people buy them, and why they don’t. In doing so, you begin to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors from the consumer’s perspective.

Depending on what your product or service is, you can find all kinds of information about user experiences with your competitors’ offerings. Sites like Amazon let you see product reviews by customers who bought products.

8. What do you need to get your business rolling/growing, and what will it cost?

This is arguably the most painful part of business planning. Yet, what is the point of having a plan if you don’t know how it all adds up financially? You may not know how to put all the numbers together on your own. If that’s the case, invite or even hire someone to help you sort out the numbers.

Aside from any potential revenues earned from sales of your product or service, you’ll need to know your fixed expenses – what it costs you to run your business whether or not you sell a single item, and your variable expenses – what it costs you for each item sold.

Naturally, in the early stages of planning a business, you will be doing a lot of forecasting, and your numbers may not be as accurate as you’d like them to be. So, you’ll want to be as conservative as possible about how much revenue you’ll generate and how much your business will cost to run.

9. Putting your plan to action – what are the key steps you need to take?

At some point, the plan needs to hit the road! The plan is no good if it doesn’t help you take action. So a simple action plan should be included – what needs to be started and completed, when and who will do it, all need to be mapped out at least at a basic level.

Having an action plan will also help you get excited about your business venture, as you can see how it comes to life.

10. How can you improve your plan?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you have a basic blueprint of how your business is going to look at the early stage.

Remember, your first step is to prepare a basic business plan that serves as a foundation. From this foundation, you will want to further explore areas which need more analysis and testing, while some aspects of your business venture merely require you to get started and measure how things are going.