It’s certainly possible to create a good business plan by using nothing more than a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word for the text and a spreadsheet such as Microsoft Excel for the financials. You can then embed the spreadsheet in the word-processing document so everything flows together.
However, developing a business plan from scratch can be daunting if you’ve never done it before. Business planning software can help by walking you through the steps and highlighting the most important elements you need to consider.
Business Plan Templates
Business plan templates include model documents with both words and numbers you can use for guidance. These templates require other software in order to work, usually Microsoft Word and Excel.
Word templates usually contain great gobs of standard business text that is obviously generic. Though it can be challenging, try to write the plan in your own words as much as possible. If you merely insert a few paragraphs here and there in a standard template, the change in writing style will be obvious. It will look rather like the student who buys an essay from a term paper mill and tries to turn someone else’s work into his own. The teacher can tell the difference, and so will the sophisticated reader of your business plan. It will not inspire confidence in your ability to execute the plan. Don’t be afraid to add additional sections that help describe your business and the opportunity.
Spreadsheet templates for the financial component of your plan can be more helpful, particularly if they’re designed for a similar type of business.
Is the template you select based on the right model for your business? A business that sells products has different financial requirements than one that provides services. For example, a financial template for a product-oriented business will require calculations for inventory, the raw materials, and finished goods available for sale to customers. A service business will require more details on the costs relevant to delivering the services, such as employee wages.
Typically the financial projection will cover the next five years. Integrated financial projections that show the income statement, cash flow, and balance sheets are recommended. Financials that only show cash flow or income are a little weak and may not hang together upon close examination.
The first year or two in a business plan usually features detailed monthly projections, while annual figures suit the final years because the projected results are more uncertain far into the future.
Exl-Plan is a good example of business planning templates available for download. The free version (registration required) contains fewer features than paid versions and handles financial projections for just two years, compared to up to seven years in the paid software.
While the free version will provide a good introduction to Exl-Plan, for most business plans you’ll need to buy one of the more sophisticated versions. The paid versions can handle multiple revenue streams and prepare a larger number of reports and charts. The templates are driven by macros, so you needn’t be a spreadsheet expert unless you want to step outside the box and customize the results. You will need Excel and software that can read a Word document to use these templates.
Business Plan Wizards
The business-plan-in-a-box solutions guide you through a step-by-step process of creating a business plan. Usually wizard-based software includes everything you need to develop a plan, but check the requirements closely because some require third-party software, most commonly Microsoft Word and Excel.
The wizard approach is easier to use than a template-based system if you have little familiarity using a spreadsheet. All you need to do is follow the steps to create your plan.
See if you can export the business plan created by the wizard into another application. This can help if you want to tweak the look of the plan before you distribute it. For example, you may want to include some graphics for eye candy, such as a company logo or photographs of products.
Venture Planning System Pro from Advantage Venture Systems is an Internet-based service that requires nothing more than a Web browser and the free Adobe PDF reader for reports. There is a 10-day free trial of the service available but you cannot print reports during the trial.
The service limits financial projections to just three years, which may be a little too short for some businesses that have larger investment requirements. Optional extra-cost services, including telecoaching, are available.
In all cases, the software will help you organize your plan and automate components of its creation. No software can create a good idea and solid business model. You’ll need to do that on your own.