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Introduction to Business Plan Guide

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This Business Plan Guide describes the possible structure and contents of a business plan. It is divided into three main parts - Front of Plan, Body of Plan and Appendices - with the details spread over about twenty pages that correspond to the main sections of a business plan.

It is aimed at new/established businesses seeking to expand, raise finance etc. and needing to produce a comprehensive* business plan for internal or external use. While not specifically intended for very small businesses, it contain many ideas and issues which could be used to produce a more basic* plan - see Preparing a Basic/Short Plan.

* See white paper on Insights into Business Planning for more information about the differences between comprehensive and basic plans.

Importance of the Planning Process & Having a Plan

The Guide may appear intimidating due to its length and detail. A cynic might say that the Guide is longer than the plan it aims to assist! However, bear in mind that the Guide was designed to cover a diversity of situations. It will be much less intimidating once you have adjusted its contents to reflect your specific needs as explained in pages dealing with Planning to Plan, Length of a Plan, Preparing a Basic/Short Plan and Table of Contents.

We make no apology for the Guide's detail as the launch or development of a substantial business is not a task for the fainthearted. When starting to prepare a business plan, be mindful that:

    • The planning process (thinking, exploring, researching, consulting and discussing) will be at least as important as the written plan.

    • It is far easier to correct errors of judgment or explore new options when researching a business plan than when actually operating the business.

    • A sound business plan is not a sure-fire route to success or a "get rich quick" recipe but it should help anticipate and resolve problems and to point the best way forward.
 
 
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Some business plans, like war plans, may not survive "first contact with the enemy" (i.e. with market/competition) but, even in these circumstances, they can provide the basis for recognizing the existence of a problem (e.g. sales less than planned) and the starting point for a solution (e.g. double sales expenditure). If there was no sales forecast and no expenditure budget at the outset, it would be very hard to formulate a solution. You don't want to be like Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland:

Alice came to the fork in the road.
"Which road do I take?" she asked.
"Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat.
"I don't know," Alice answered.
"Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

General Approach to Using the Guide

In developing the Guide, we have assumed that the plan's initial audience is its author and close associates. Accordingly, it has been structured to help them do their "homework" and comprehensively pursue all the key issues, ideas and numbers. This means that the initial "final" plan may be (a lot) more detailed than the version that is distributed to any third-parties.

As will be seen, we have put a lot of emphasis in this Guide on the presentation of factual (or estimated) data in simple tables which can be backed up off-plan in working papers and used to feed into financial projections. A business plan should come across as a straightforward, business-like and professional document - it is not a novel, academic thesis or philosophical paper.

From the outset, recognize that your plan is unlikely to be completed in one or even two drafts. For more on this, see PlanWare's white paper on Insights into Business Planning and the latest results from its ongoing survey on Preparing a Business Plan.

Once your plan has been completed using this Guide, it can be easily shortened for presentation to third parties while retaining the Template's basic structure or, alternatively, by cutting/pasting into an entirely new structure. For example, if participating in a business plan competition which specifies a precise format for entries and limits page numbers, you can edit and copy/paste your draft plan to suit.

In all cases, review the length of your final draft plan, and if its body (excluding appendices) is much above 30 pages (even for a substantial business), consider some serious scaling back. Be sure to retain this draft as a backing document to underpin your shorter distributed plan. For more guidance on this, see Length of a Plan and Preparing a Basic/Short Plan.

How to Get Started with the Guide

To get started with the Guide:

  1. Review the introductory items dealing with Planning to Plan, Length of a Plan and, if appropriate, Preparing a Basic/Short Plan.
  2. Explore the entire Guide and think through the most appropriate structure and flow for your own plan.
  3. Continue this process by printing out the relevant pages from the Guide.
  4. Construct a detailed Contents page incorporating your revised section headings to get the right overall framework for your plan.
  5. Review your content's list and the Guide's detailed notes to identify key gaps in your preparatory research and analysis.
  6. Sort out these gaps before starting to write your plan. In other words, do your main planning before drafting a detailed plan - resist the temptation to start writing before you have done all the preliminary work, or have really decided what you want to say. Most probably, you will need to do substantial market research and analysis to provide the backdrop for your business. Skip this step at your peril as a failure to assess the market could undermine your entire plan. Use 6. Profiles of Target Markets to help structure this work.
  7. Having undertaken market research and confirmed that there is a viable opportunity for your business, commence the definition of the 3. Strategic Overview.
  8. To help plan your plan, review the Checklist for Preparing a Business Plan.

If you want advice on how NOT to write a business plan, you should study the 20 suggestions in Writing a Business Plan or Checklist for Preparing a Business Plan !!

 

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Additional Help

The following white papers and tools may be helpful during your preliminary planning and thinking:

Once you are ready to start drafting, have a look at the white paper How to Write a Business Plan for further suggestions. Also review the paper on Insights into Business Planning to get some very practical guidance on many key issues connected with the preparation of a plan - different types of plans, length of plans, elapsed time, importance, difficulties and so on. This is well worth checking out as it reflects the views of a substantial number of people who have written their own plans.

Another item that will assist you in getting your thoughts together and outlining the structure and contents of your plan is Free-Plan. This 150-page Business Plan Guide and Template is available as freeware. It complements this online Business Plan Guide.

If you need help with your financial projections, evaluate Exl-Plan, our comprehensive Excel-based financial planner. This is available in nine versions to suit different business sizes - from smallest to largest. You can download trial and free versions of Exl-Plan here.

If you would like to consider using business planning software to help speed up the writing and to gain access to additional help, have a look at Plan Write Business Planner. This package integrates word processing, text outliner, financial planner and charting with extensive online help about business planning. It is especially suitable for first-time business planners, smaller businesses and many professional advisers. Also, check out the Plan Write Expert Business Planner which combines an "expert" system with a business planner.

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