How to Start A Business Plan: The Ultimate Guide

Every entrepreneur has heard of a business plan. Don’t let those two words strike fear into your heart! It’s true that a formal business plan can be a complex document to put to put together, especially when you’re working hard to establish or grow your business. Our guide will help you put together a business plan that can serve as a roadmap for your business.

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Why Do You Need a Business Plan?

According to the small business mentoring organization SCORE, a business plan has two primary purposes. First, it acts as an organized roadmap to help you analyze your plans for marketing, sales, production, distribution, etc.

The second purpose is the reason many entrepreneurs put together a plan-seeking funding from a bank, credit union, or another type of lender. Some financial institutions or other lenders will not invest in your company unless you present a business plan that demonstrates your steps to success. SCORE reports that banks want to mitigate their risk of default and private investors, such as Angel investors, want a realistic forecast for when they will get a return on their capital. (NOTE: SmartBiz does not require a business plan when you apply for an SBA loan or a bank term loan through one of our marketplace banks.)

Other reasons for creating a business plan include defining new business, outlining an agreement between partners, setting a value if selling your business, and to help you manage and track business planning.

On top of all of the reasons to have a business plan in place, the process of writing your plan can be a big help. You’ll see where you’ve been and have a plan for where you’re headed. Use our guide to help you get started.

Questions to Ask Yourself While Writing A Business Plan

As you create your business plan, ask and answer the below questions so that your business idea is more likely to become a successful small business:

  • Who do you need on your side? At the very least, your business plan should sound realistic and persuasive to you. Ideally, it should also be persuasive enough to reel in potential customers and team members. With no firm ground from which to attract these two important groups of people, your company may fail to grow and succeed.
  • Who do you want on your side? Your business plan could also persuade some less necessary, but still very helpful, entities that your products or services will translate to high sales. Such entities could include funding sources such as lenders, investors, and perhaps other small businesses with whom you’d like to partner. Make sure your plan includes content that will address all these groups’ potential concerns.
  • How much information is too much? Most business plans run between 15 and 25 pages, but if you need more or less space to clearly, completely outline your vision, that’s okay too. As long as your plan presents everything necessary to persuade any people whom you hope to involve in your operations -- as well as keep you on track while you grow your business -- your business plan is just right.

Elements of a Business Plan

Executive summary

This is basically an introduction paragraph, preparing the reader for what’s to come. You’ll want to outline the elements of your business plan in a clear, concise, and positive way. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and skip flowery language or padding with unnecessary words. Here’s an example of an executive summary for a fictional restaurant business:

XYZ Deli is a new restaurant retail establishment located in Los Angeles, California. XYZ Deli expects to capture existing deli customers in the area as several high-profile delis have shuttered in the last 5 years. The owners have extensive experience in the restaurant industry with close ties to the community. XYZ Deli expects to attract higher-income residents and tourists.

Company description

This section is similar to an elevator pitch. The company description tells the story of your business journey. Include the history of your business and give an overview of the products or services you offer. What problem are you solving and what are your goals as you move forward? Here’s an example of a company description on the website of SmartBiz Loans customer Roshambo Baby:

ro•sham•bo baby is owned and operated by San Diego family Scott, Julia and their baby girls, Avery (4) and Chloe (1). we started our little company after realizing that nobody was making high-quality baby sunglasses or stylish baby shades while at a baseball game with a friend’s four month old who was staring up at the bright sun with no protection. Scott put his adult sunglasses on him and lightning struck: Little People Deserve Big People Shades. that means making our stylish baby shades in Italy instead of China. that means making them safe, durable, flexible, and chewable for little mouths. And that means making them just as stylish as designer adult shades.

Two years later, we had the world’s best high-quality baby sunglasses ready for your little one and ours! Scott didn't want to stop there though; he wanted to wear matching unbreakable pink shades with Avery, so we made kids and adult sizes so the whole family can match!

Target audience

Ready to research? To define your target market, research the consumers most likely to purchase your products or services. For example, American Bike Patrol Services (ABPS) is a SmartBiz Loans Customer. They have a very targeted customer base, servicing law enforcement and private security corporations with their bike patrol programs. Don’t make the mistake of trying to target everyone.

For example, if you have a restaurant with loud music, expensive and creative alcoholic drinks and a casual atmosphere, you’re probably not going to add “senior citizens” to your list!

Market analysis

A market analysis is a detailed overview of your industry including statistics. You’ll learn if your business is solving a real problem and if the consumer base exists to support it. Your market analysis should include the following:

  • Target market: Include demographic data on your target customer including age, gender, income, location, shopping habits, etc. Include the size of the market and how you intend to reach them.
  • Market test results: Support your market research with details and statistics.
  • Lead time: How long does it take for you to fulfill an order and what factors impact that time frame?
  • Competitive analysis: Identify the strengths and weaknesses of the competition. You’ll also outline why you have an advantage, the problems you might face breaking into the marketplace and strategies you’ll use to gain the advantage.

Organization and management

This section has two distinct parts. First, you’ll describe the organizational structure of your company. Who reports to who, what departments exist, etc. Next, you’ll introduce the people who will help run and grow your business. This section is especially relevant if you have a partnership or a multi-member LLC. Even if you’re a one-man-show, you’ll want to outline your responsibilities and toot your own horn. Include your relevant business experience and education. You want to show that you have what it takes to run your business successfully.

Services or products

This section sounds simple but you need to do more than just list what you’re selling. Include the following:

  • Pricing of your products or services
  • Information about your website, marketing collateral, and sales tactics
  • How orders will be processed
  • What you need to create or deliver your product (vehicles, equipment, ecommerce software, etc.)
  • Patents held or legal issues that you might come up against
  • Products or services you hope to develop in the future

Marketing/sales

Here’s where you include in-depth information about pricing, sales strategies, advertising, and promotion. Although you don’t want to give away the “secret sauce”, you should let readers know that you have solid plans in place to promote your products and services to your target audience. Cover your goals, strategies, and timelines for implementing your marketing and sales plan.

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Break-even analysis

The break-even point is when your sales equal expenses and you can sell enough units of your product to cover your expenses without making a profit or taking a loss. From that baseline, if you sell more at the same price, you’ll make a profit; if you sell less, you take a loss. Visit Investopedia for in-depth information about how to calculate: Break-Even Calculation.

Financial plan

The financial plan section of your business plan should include financial statements indicating where your company currently stands and where it expects to be in the near future. A financial plan is one of the best ways to determine how much financing you might need in the future. A financial plan also helps lenders determine if lending you money is a wise use of their funds and can indicate the net worth of your business. Your financial plan should include:

  • Income statement
  • Balance sheet
  • Cash flow statement (The SmartBiz Blog has Cash Flow Templates to help you with this step)

The SmartBiz Small Business Blog has an article that can guide you as you work on this section: How to Make A Financial Plan for A Business In 6 Steps.

Operations

In the operations section of your business plan, you’ll show that you understand what’s physically needed to start a business and maintain its daily needs to reach those goals. Be sure to detail your facility, inventory, and equipment needs, all their costs, and how these elements work together to meet the goals outlined in your business plan. Explaining your manufacturing process, if applicable, will also be helpful. And while you’re at it, discuss the steps you’ve already taken to prepare your company for its launch and outline what you’ll do next.

Competitive Analysis

No company is without competition, so in creating a business plan, you’ll need to reckon with how other companies might get in the way of your sales. Your business plan should include as much detail as you can find about all your competitors, including their strengths, weaknesses, and marketing strategies. You should also address what might make you stand out from your competitors when reaching your target market and how you plan to capitalize on this distinction.

Objectives

Perhaps most importantly when writing a business plan, you must show how you’ll achieve all the goals you’ve listed. Ideally, you’ll do so through a set of objectives, each of which is a step you’ll take to work toward your business launch goals. For example, if you still need to figure out which demographics in your local customer base might be likeliest to buy your products, then conducting market research and analysis can be among your objectives.

Final Thoughts

The best way to get started on your business plan? Just get started! It may sound overwhelming but simply jumping off and getting going is the toughest part. Here are three things to keep in mind:

Be brief

This isn’t the time for flowery language and high word counts.

Write for your audience

Avoid inside industry lingo and craft your plan to speak to the audience you’re interested in reaching. That could be investors, potential employees, or a lender.

Use software

There are plenty of tools available to help you write a business plan. Compare the top brands here: The 5 Best Business Plan Software and Tools in 2019 for Your Small Business.

Test your business idea

Although business owners like yourself can never know for certain that their business will succeed, you can make a reasonable assumption if you test your business idea. To do so, you can use focus groups, poll internet communities of likely customers, or even crowdfunding campaigns to see whether your business might prove successful. If you see few signs of success or notice that customers find little value in your products, use the feedback you receive to tweak your idea and try again.

Know what you want from your business

Although the overarching goal of a business plan is to guide your company’s launch and key first years in operation, you should also determine how you want your company to look in the long run. Are you starting your business to earn a living on your own terms, or are you in this just to grow it, sell it, then walk away? Do you want to oversee business affairs all by yourself, or would you rather trust a management team to oversee everything on your behalf?

Once you know the answers to these questions, you can shape your metrics and objectives to make these outcomes more realistic. You don’t necessarily need to explicitly state the answers you come up with in your plan, but your plan should be geared toward achieving them.

Don’t be intimidated

Starting a business can be scary, but you’ll find it so much easier if you keep the above tips in mind and go slowly. Instead of rushing into a full business plan, start with a loose summary, then come back to your draft several times over a long period and flesh it out.

As you do, remember that if you’ve come up with a business idea, you’ve likely done so because you’ve identified a need that no other company meets. It might follow that other people are waiting for a business to meet this need. So don’t hold back in your plan – go for the gold, and you might wind up with a successful business before you know it.

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