This free step-by-step guide to writing a business plan was built just for you, if you aren’t really sure what planning a business is all about. To save time, stress and energy we’ll walk you through everything you need to know without fluff or heavy brain work.
Instead, we’re focusing on the basics. If you’re looking to create a super-dense collegiate 40-page plan, then you should probably take a business planning course at the nearest college.
This guide just covers what your average startup needs to dramatically increase chances of follow-through and success. Enjoy!
For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re the most gifted cat burglar on earth– a real savvy savant of the steal. Put yourself in the mindset where strategy and planning are time-erasing pleasures, delicious treats that reward you with immense prosperity– not complex tasks that can be skipped or shelved.
Too many entrepreneurs perceive putting a business plan together as some kind of chore. It’s not. When the product or service is something you believe in, it’s as awesome as it is for those cat burglars in the movies, except you’re plotting honest work.
Fact: It’s possible to create your initial business plan in less than an hour!
Let’s build a “lean plan” that’s simple to create and helps you identify core assets. You start with a pitch, a single page overview which can become your executive summary later on. It’s your business strategy all on one page that’s easy to update as you evolve.
You may be thinking,
“Wait a minute. If I’m not raising money from investors, why do I need a pitch?”
Well, after years working with entrepreneurs we’ve found a pitch is really the ideal format to document your business idea, share it with others, and quickly adjust as you learn more about/analyze how you’re going to build your brand.
Furthermore, once you have your pitch done you can easily convert it into a presentation-ready business plan with massive clarity. To begin, follow the simple outline below or allow tools like LivePlan (what we used for Startup Savant) to walk you through the entire process with examples and video tutorials.
What To Include in Your Pitch
As you tackle your one-pager, mentally channel Twitter and try to keep each section as short/concise as possible– the size of a solid tweet.
That might seem like a fair amount of work if you’ve never put together a real pitch before, but remember, that’s just one page of content. Another way to look at it is a one page resume for your business.
A Couple Writing Tips
First, you start with the putty. Don’t try to self-edit or curate, just barf everything out on paper as it flows from your brilliant mind. Format each section out and just let it go. That’s putting the basic shape together.
Now you need to let it dry, so walk away for a day (week) or two. After that, begin chipping away and condensing. Cut the fat and keep tightening the ideas until you’re down to one page. Be brutal! Stick to the facts. Numbers are easier, but when you’re tackling words remember the average person these days has a shorter attention span (if not compelled by your ideas) than a goldfish.
Taking Action on This Step
Create a pitch outline from the points mentioned above and refine down to one or two sentences. If you need help, check out LivePlan. It’s a solid tool that walks you through the entire process. Plus, they offer a 50% Discount.
Now that you have a running outline, it’s time to go deeper into the framework of your platform.
Perhaps you’re thinking the one-page pitch is all you’ll need? That would be like going on a road trip in unfamiliar territory with a map that only shows destinations– no routes, no roads, no other icons whatsoever. Even if you never plan on showing this to anyone, the process of creating a solid plan optimizes everything about you and your business!
Here’s a quick overview of what you need to include in your business plan:
If you need extra space for product images, detailed financial forecasts, or general additional info, use the appendix. There are three layers of complexity here. First, your pitch with a very brief summary. Then, your Executive Summary that adds details and context. Then into the finer points of the overall business plan.
Not too shabby, right?
Taking Action on The Step
Please revisit your pitch and find a good way to optimize it just a smidgen. The better your pitch, the better the overall plan.
As you fill in the structure, first focus on providing “mental barf” data you can go through and optimize later. Remember, if you need help, LivePlan will walk you through the entire process with video tutorials and examples.
When copywriters are given a business idea to optimize, they often begin by defining the USP (unique selling proposition) and mini-pitch. A USP can be just a couple words or an incomplete sentence, while the mini-pitch is usually one or two concise sentences.
Just in case you’re fuzzy on the whole copywriter thing, these folks are paid big bucks to write sales and marketing copy which often includes core slogans.
As an example, here’s what the USP and Pitch for Startup Savant sound like:
USP: “Entrepreneurship Simplified”
Pitch: “Startup Savant is a free website that shows you how to start a business and own your future.”
Now let’s get past the “How to Write Your USP 101” stuff and dive straight into three core truths.
USPs & Pitches Evolve
The first thing a copywriter will tell you if you’re struggling with this is to relax. They know sales and branding copy optimizes (matures) over time, especially in the first 2-5 years in business.
If possible, avoid thinking your USP is set in stone, never to be altered. It’s more like a sculpture that the market chips away at. Your pitch evolves as you and your platform do. What matters is whether your USP & Pitch are as refined as they can be based on where you are now.
Always be ready to “kill your darlings” as copywriters would say. Meaning, get rid of any and all words,
“That aren’t necessary for the idea or concept you’re conveying to make perfect sense within the context it’s delivered, and to whom it’s being written to.”
You can begin with half a page, but systematically chisel down to a core concept like, Entrepreneurship Simplified.
Your Ideal Customers Will Do It For You
Copywriters care what you have to say as a business owner or marketing manager, but they know you’re not the ultimate authority in terms of advertising copy.
They’re writing for buyers. In any and all ways your business can optimize over the years, your customers, clients and users should steer the course as much as possible. Be on the lookout for their valuable signals and indications!
Hop at 20 Questions
Copywriters ask TONS of questions. They’re a bit like copy-detectives in how they search high and low for very precise data from their clients. Never fear giving your users, clients or customers a megaphone with which to bark their concerns.
We all love sharing our opinions, right? Yes we do. Let us. Prompt us. Ask us. Bribe us with incentives and discounts… then listen… carefully. Easily 9 out of 10 entrepreneurs are given the ultimate USPs on silver platters by their customers but fail to recognize when they see, read, or hear them.
Taking Action on This Step
In brief, what exactly is an executive summary? An executive summary (ES) is an overview of your business and your vision. It comes first in formal/informal business plans and is ideally 1-2 pages.
The ES introduces your business to your reader. If you don’t nail it, no one’s going to read any further. And if an ES sucks, despite it being professionally crafted, then the business model itself needs work or isn’t worth your time. Every ES should include a brief overview of the following:
If you’re raising money or presenting to investors, you’ll also want to cover:
Ideally your ES should fit on one or two pages and be able to stand alone, apart from your business plan. A common strategy is to send your ES out to investors/family/friends and then the complete plan if more detail is requested.
Remember to try and position your writing for people who don’t know anything about your business before they start reading. Explain things simply so that anyone can understand your opportunity, whether they be an in-tune player, an 8th grader, or a grandma.
Taking Action on This Step
Well done, in the next step we’ll help you explain your product or service and how it makes an impact on customers.
Once upon a time there was this lovely, vibrant and ambitious entrepreneur who decided to sell organic breast enlargement cream. It sold well for a while, but eventually her numbers plateaued then began to decline…
She knew her business needed a makeover after years in the trenches, but hey, her cream enlarges breasts. What more is there?
So, she created an automated incentive program, a 25% discount coupon code offer sent with every order in exchange for an anonymous review with a photograph. Just a simple before/after image showing the front of their body from neckline to belly button (to confirm usage).
They started rolling in and here are the gems she unearthed:
She went back and dusted off her original copy she put together years before.
“A certified organic breast enlargement cream.”
To something more along the lines of:
“Increase confidence and femininity through an organic non-allergenic breast enlargement cream.”
When stuck in a rut, and we all get there as entrepreneurs, the quickest and most effective way out is to look at your predicament from different perspectives.
Begin with the fundamental question, “What problem does my product/service solve for customers?” then look deeper and from unique angles. Who are your buyers? They have the answer. And remember, actions speak louder than words.
Oftentimes we rationalize buying things for one reason, but in reality have a more potent ulterior motive. Sure, her customers want larger breasts, that’s what prompt initial sales. But the needs her product solves in their day-to-day lives are more interesting. It actually made her customers feel more confident, happy, and healthy.
Taking Action on This Step
Find one deeper way your product or service materializes in everyday life for your customers. Pay close attention to the simple verbiage you and others use to describe it, e.g. “Your earphones really get rid of all the noise on the bus.”
If possible, get hold of one fresh buyer perspective. Who and where are they? That woman in our example had spent years excluding nearly half her customer base in her advertorial copy. Do you use your own product or service? If so, find a way to record yourself explaining it in the most natural language possible. Use a smartphone or leave yourself a voicemail. Then, just listen.
But wait, what if you’re just starting out and don’t have much to draw on in terms of direct customer or user feedback? Glad you asked! In the next section we’re going to talk about competition, which is another valuable source of indicators.
What products and/or services are people choosing instead of yours?
Whether you’re new to the market or not, these so-called “competitors” are really the ideal source of optimization for your brand. And it’s not about being better per se. All things equal, it’s more about uniqueness.
Would you rather be a prettier, more flashy brand trying desperately to stand out, or develop intense brand-character that the right people notice? Once you’ve narrowed down your competitors, look at them from new angles to discover what makes you distinctive.
A common practice entrepreneurs use in pitch presentations to venture capitalists or investors is the Comparison Matrix.
You’ve seen these a zillion times. In short, list your competitors across the top of the page and your features and benefits along the side, then check the boxes for which company offers each. Don’t forget you can be creative here. You may even already use one of these on your website, or within some other marketing media.
Taking Action on This Step
Got time to put something simple together? In reality what we’re looking for are the things about your competitors that help you stand out.
All in all, understanding your competition is an important part of the planning process. This is where you find your true competitive advantage.
For a more in-depth look at how you stand up to the competition, check out LivePlan’s Benchmark feature. You can see at-a-glance how you compare to companies just like yours. Tell LivePlan your industry and location, and it shows if/how you’re doing better or worse than your competition.
Now let’s talk about your unique marketing approach. This will help you stand out and connect with your customers on multiple levels.
Fred is a brand spanking new entrepreneur with a neat new fitness product he believes is going to make a big splash.
He knows exactly who his ideal customers are and his niche is carved out like a Renaissance marble sculpture. Fred’s also managed to get his hands on $100k in debt-free funding (don’t ask us how, this is hypothetical)…
Admittedly, that would be pretty amazing, but that’s because we’re coming from a standpoint of experience. Fred’s just showing up to the 21st-Century party. He’s never built, owned, or managed a business before, let alone an ecommerce platform.
He’s never outsourced a graphic artist or content writer before; never had to choose which analytic dashboard to use; never designed a conversion model or tangled with paid advertising platforms. Let’s say Fred called and begged us to lunch. We accepted. And so there we are, the three amigos with Fred sitting on a huge meal ticket drooling for answers.
“How Do I Market My Product?”
Once the table conch gets passed to us, we’re going to hit him hard with massive bombshells:
Question is, what advice would you give Fred? That’s what we’d like you to consider. And it needs to be marketing-based. The money’s there, the production system’s in place, it’s just a matter of reaching his fitness-based audience and selling.
Taking Action on This Step
Let’s imagine Fred’s offered you a lifetime, no questions asked, 5% share of his company from now till doomsday. All you have to do is provide valuable direction in these three areas:
Just let your mind wander, and don’t worry, in the next section we’ll talk about setting milestones for your business.
If there’s one specific part of the entrepreneurial journey that we get really nerdy about, it’s the way people verbally describe their trials and successes. We’re listening intently for clues as to how they set milestones and metrics and then track them.
Let’s spend some time pondering the way(s) you’re measuring your journey and how you approach KPIs (key performance indicators) in relation to both your marketing and your competition. Or, if you’re trying to figure out how viable a product idea is, how you’re calculating acceptable setbacks and struggle.
What have you achieved so far and what are your major goals for the next few months or years?
Sure, it’s cliché to talk about tracking milestones in an era of big data, but truth be told too many aspiring entrepreneurs either skip this part until much further down the road when it can’t be ignored anymore, or they only take it seriously in the beginning then fail to stick to the plan.
Avoid Drowning Out Customer Journey!
Of course there are folks who obsess on this part and try to manage a small army of analytic dashboards and amazing software solutions like FreshBooks or Xero.
Once it becomes too much they end up transforming their perspective of the customer journey from something organic into a mesh of math and graphs. Most of their day is spent pouring over dense numbers or marketing data and trying to figure out how to alter this metric or that.
Find ways to do more with less data. It’s always within reach these days, especially when you’re tuned in to your customers!
Taking Action on This Step
Need help in this area? LivePlan has a really impressive dashboard to help you set goals and stay accountable over the lifetime of your business. This dramatically increases your chances of success.
Without question, failure to clearly know the cost of acquiring customers is a mighty new business demolisher. It’s crushed more entrepreneurial dreams than every economic collapse combined since the creation of fiat currency. To come to grips, or optimize your Customer Acquisition Costs (CAC), begin by figuring out exactly how you’re reaching customers.
Or, if you’re building an initial business plan, how much will it cost to reach buyers on the platforms where they spend their time? Your financials should easily allow you to calculate CAC.
Now, in the simplest terms here’s how:
If you happen to run a purely web-based business, headcount likely doesn’t need to grow as you scale customer acquisition, but it’s a useful metric to include nonetheless.
The second part of this is your Lifetime Customer Value, or LCV, because in most cases 80% of your revenue will come from 20% of overall customers and happen AFTER the initial sale. Never shortchange the follow-through!
If your CAC is too high, it must be able to come down through optimization. If LCV is horrid, then in the long run it’s an unsustainable business model. Or in other words, once CAC exceeds LCV, something needs to change or you’ll have to close shop.
Taking Action on This Step
After you make these calculations three or four times, it starts becoming second nature. LivePlan’s forecasting handles this pretty well. It walks you through creating expenses that are a certain percentage of sales.
Smart entrepreneurs start forecasting sales early on.
And while ‘the numbers’ part of business planning can be intimidating, this exercise is definitely a small mountain worth karate chopping down.
Keep in mind that if you get stuck at any point, LivePlan’s Forecasting and Budgeting feature is extremely helpful. Whether you’re starting a bakery, a subscription software business, or a manufacturing company, LivePlan walks you through the entire forecasting process within a few clicks.
How Detailed Does it Need to Be?
Don’t be too generic and just forecast sales for your entire business. But on the other hand, don’t go nuts and create a forecast for everything you sell if you’ve got a large assortment.
For example, if you’re starting a restaurant you don’t want to create forecasts for each item on the menu.
Instead, focus on broader categories like lunch, dinner, and drinks. Or if you’re starting a clothing brand, forecast key categories like outerwear, casual wear, and so on.
Top-Down or Bottom-up?
In our humble opinion, forecasting “from the top down” can be costly. What that means is figuring out the total size of the market you’re in and trying to capture a small percentage.
For example, in 2015, more than $1.4 billion smartphones were sold worldwide. It’s pretty tempting for a startup to say they’re going to get 1% of that total market. After all, 1% is such a tiny little sliver it’s got to be believable, right?
The problem is this kind of guessing isn’t based on reality. Sure, it looks like it might be credible on the surface, but you have to dig deeper.
Instead of “from the top down,” do a “bottom-up” forecast. Just like the name suggests, bottom-up starts at the bottom and works its way up to a forecast. Start by thinking about how many potential customers you might be able to make contact with.
This could be through advertising, sales calls, or other marketing methods. Of the people you can reach, how many do you think you’ll be able to bring in the door or get onto your website?
And finally, of the people that come in the door, get on the phone, or visit your site, how many will buy?
Here’s an example:
Obviously, these are all nice round numbers, but it should give you an idea of how bottom-up forecasting works. The last step of the bottom-up forecasting method is to think about the average amount that each of those 100 people in our example ends up spending (remember LCV).
On average, do they spend $20? $100? It’s fine to guess here, and the best way to refine your guess is to go out and talk to potential customers. You’ll be surprised how accurate a number you can get with a few simple interviews.
How Far to Forecast
Try forecasting monthly for a year into the future and then just annually for another three to five years.
The further your forecast into the future, the less you’re going to know and the less benefit it’s going to have for your company. After all, the world’s going to change, your business is going to change, and you’ll be updating your forecast to reflect them.
And don’t forget, all forecasts are wrong—that’s fine. Your forecast is just your best guess at what’s going to happen. As you learn more about your business and your customers, you’ll adjust. It’s not set in stone.
Taking Action on This Step
Just remember that sales forecasting doesn’t have to be hard. Anyone can do it and you, as an entrepreneur, are the most qualified to do it for your business. You know your customers and you know your market, so you can forecast your sales.
But if you decide you’d appreciate help, we highly recommend forecasting your sales with LivePlan. LivePlan automatically generates all the charts and graphs you need and automatically includes them in your plan.
The format of your business plan is critical. It goes a long way toward refining and achieving your goals: raising money, setting the strategy for your team and growing your platform. That being the case, let’s breeze through seven tips that can help you create, refine, and optimize your brilliant business plan.
1. Always Start with Your Executive Summary
An ES should be written for ideal readers, customers, potential investors or team members, or even just to help you ‘goal-map’ your way to where you need to be. Regardless, nailing the Executive Summary is critical in terms of understanding the potential behind your business idea.
2. End with Supporting Documents
The appendix is composed of key numbers and other details that support your plan. At a minimum, your appendix should include financial forecasts and budgets. Typically, it’s wise to include a Profit & Loss statement, Cash Flow forecast, and a Balance Sheet. With practice and a smidgen of savvy software like LivePlan these pages can take a couple hours or so.
You might also use your appendix to include product diagrams or detailed research findings, depending on your business, your industry, and how deep your business plan needs to go given the reader/purpose.
Quick Recap of the Lineup
Products & Services
Marketing & Sales Plan
Milestones & Metrics
Company & Management Team
Financial Plan & Appendix
3. Keep it Short
Let’s face it: no one has time to read a 40-page business plan. If you’ve nailed your ES, you’ll want to follow up with 8 to 12 additional pages at most in support. Instead of trying to cram everything in using small fonts and tiny margins, focus on trimming down your writing (‘kill your darlings’). Use direct, simple language that gets to the point.
4. Get Visual
As the old adage goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” This is especially true when you’re formatting a business plan. Use charts and graphs to explain forecasts. Add pictures of your product(s). Again, there are plenty of software solutions that make it easy to do more showing and less telling. That said…
5. Don’t Obsess on Looks
It’s your ideas that matter. A beautiful plan that talks about an ill-conceived business with incomplete financial forecasts is never going to beat a plan that’s formatted poorly but discusses a great, clearly explained vision. Spending days making a beautiful plan isn’t going to make your business ideas better. Instead, focus on polishing the words. Trim extra content you don’t need, and make sure ideas are well-presented.
6. Keep Formatting Simple
Why choose different fonts for on-screen versus off-screen? Well, research shows readers have higher comprehension when they read a document with a serif font on paper, and higher comprehension reading with a sans serif font on a screen.
Don’t stress too much about this, though. Choose any one of the four fonts mentioned above and move forward.
Cover pages are always a good idea, too. Use the cover page to show off your logo, tagline, and pitch.
Finally, make sure your plan document flows well and doesn’t have any “widows” or “orphans” when it prints out. A “widow” is when the last line of a paragraph appears alone at the top of a page, and an “orphan” is a single word that gets left behind at the bottom of a paragraph.
7. Get a Second Pair of Eyes
The last piece of advice is to get a second pair of eyes. When you’re the only one working on your plan, you can become blind to common errors. Recruit a friend or family member, or even hire a copy-editing professional to give it that last bit of polish. There’s nothing worse than a plan with grammatical or spelling errors. A second pair of eyes will go a long way toward catching the majority of those potential problems or holes.
Taking Action on This Step
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