Need a business plan? Once upon a time that meant you would be locked in a library for six or eight weeks running back and forth to the reference stack and writing furiously until your pencil ran out of lead.
That’s still an option, but fortunately it’s not the only one.
Before you start writing a business plan from scratch, consider one of these alternatives. The right approach can make your experience easier and your plan stronger:
- Start with a great (blank) template: A great business plan starts with good organization. Knowing which section headings and subheads are important can save you from aimlessly writing pages and pages. “Blank” templates are usually specific for industry. Retailers, manufacturers, service providers, and Internet businesses generally have their own unique outlines. Stay focused and on task with a template designed for your industry segment. Consider templates from AllBusiness.com, the Small Business Administration, or any of a number of small business websites.
- Follow a prewritten template: If you are in a real hurry, a few online sites offer prewritten plans. You may feel like you are cheating a bit, but no one will fault you for spending $50 to $100 on a “sample plan” that you can tweak to fit your situation. Somewhat complete sample business plans can be found on sites including SamplePlan.com, Bplans.com, and others.
- Use business plan software: Are you having trouble expressing yourself in writing? Several desktop software packages offer fill-in-the-blank functions that make the writing simple. The downside is that your plan might look a lot like thousands of other plans made from the same software, but often the simplicity is worth the sacrifice. Business Plan Pro is the oldest and best known planning software, but you can also check the shelves at your local office or technology store. Fundable Plans offers a less expensive hosted version.
- Plan with Web 2.0: A few notable dot-coms are taking a new approach to business planning. Enloop.com integrates a scoring system that compares your plan to others in your industry. This is great for restaurants, consultants, and even online retailers. In newer industries, say, Apple iPad app publishing, the scoring system may not work as well, but the foundational planning piece still makes the most difficult pieces of a business plan simple and straightforward. Financial forecasts are a particular strength of Enloop. Other Web 2.0 contenders include Bizplan, which takes a more commercial approach; LivePlan, which is Business Plan Pro’s online version; and EquityNet, which makes an investor-ready plan easy to build and share.
- Call for help: Of course, sometimes you want a business plan written the old-fashioned way: one word at a time. If accuracy, in-depth research, and strategic analysis are important to you, consider hiring a practiced consultant. Experienced entrepreneurs and professional business plan writers can help you produce a plan that truly sets a clear and logical course for building your business. Rely on a consultant if you want help thinking through strategy and answering the many challenges you’ll face in the startup years. And if you’re facing investors, a pro can often lend credibility to your plan and your team. Be prepared to pay for results, however. Getting a quality person to put thought and effort into your plan will cost significantly more than off-the-shelf software.
No matter what kind of help you get to write your business plan, be sure to make it your own. A plan should help you think through the challenges of startup and communicate your vision to investors, employees, and others. If the words on the paper are not meaningful to you, you’ve wasted your time.
David Worrell is a lifelong serial entrepreneur who also coaches business owners on strategy and finance issues.