How to Write a Business Plan

When you’re contemplating starting your own company, crafting a detailed financial document that outlines your strategy and long-term goals may not be at the top of your priority list, but it should be. Without a sound written plan that outlines your concept, structure and financial projections, it can be difficult to secure essential funding.

“A business plan is a structured process to test ideas to determine if they are feasible and financially attractive. Thus, a business plan becomes a road map to successful implementation of your business idea,” explains Hal Shelton, a mentor with the nonprofit business mentoring group SCORE, an angel investor and the author of “The Secrets to Writing a Successful Business Plan.” Think of the financial document as a guidepost that includes tactical plans and budgets, he says.

[Read: How to Build a Balance Sheet.]

In other words, a business plan offers an opportunity to explain how you’re going to successfully implement your idea. “During the process of developing a business plan, you develop a consistent set of messages, based on facts and analysis, describing your business idea, which will be used in discussions with funders, investors, customers, board members, advisors, vendors and employees,” Shelton says.

With that in mind, here are the basic steps for writing a business plan, along with key resources and tips for getting your startup off the ground.

Why You Need a Business Plan

If you need to secure a loan or attract key investors to get your business started, a detailed business plan is crucial. A written plan provides an overview of your business concept, structure and potential opportunities or risks for investors. The more well-laid-out your business plan is, the better your odds of attracting a lender or investor. Even if you don’t intend to borrow money or pitch investors, crafting a business plan can help you fully understand the challenges ahead.

What to Include in a Traditional Business Plan

While business plans can differ in format and structure, experts agree there are some key elements to include. A business plan should contain the following descriptions:

Executive summary. “The executive summary will sum up everything about you and your business, what you do, the industry you’re in, where you’re located, why consumers should be interested in your offerings and how you will make money,” says Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, a website that helps entrepreneurs form an LLC or a corporation.

Company description. Explain what your company will do and your big-picture vision for the business. If you’ve registered it as an LLC or S Corp, for instance, you’ll want to include that in the document, along with where you’ll be located and your overarching mission for the company.

Objective statement or business goals. In this section, you should address business strategy. Sweeney also suggests including an industry analysis. “Know who your competition is, what they’re offering and study their marketing approach carefully,” she says.

A market analysis. “Define what your target demographic looks like and how your business will attract, capture and retain its audience,” Sweeney says.

Management and operational strategy. Think of this as an outline of the nuts and bolts of how your business will run. Will you have inventory, and if so, how much will you likely carry? Are you manufacturing a product? If so, how is that going to work? The more information you put down, the more you’ll highlight to key stakeholders that you’ve really thought how your business will be structured and how it will operate.

A financial analysis. In this section, you’ll want to highlight pricing and profit margins and explain how your company will make money.

Financial projections. Including a financial forecast is key for long-term success. You need to know how much your company is likely to earn in its first year or two and provide that information to potential lenders and investors.

[See: 12 Useless Fees Draining Your Budget.]

“With your financial projections should be tables and charts that outline your cash flow and profits and losses. Fresh startups should also include their 12-month income statement, sales forecast, expenses budget and break-even analysis,” Sweeney says.

And if you are seeking funding from an investor or lender, along with the amount for how much revenue you’re asking, “your request must include information about how you plan on spending the money and the manner in which it will be spent,” Sweeney says.

Resources for Creating a Business Plan

Andrea Roebker, the regional communications director for the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Small Business Administration, points out that there are many places you can turn to for help with a business plan, often for free. She says that the SBA.gov website offers guidance on writing a business plan as well as a business plan tool that you can register for; it will help you put together a plan at your own pace (it saves the information you put in for six months after your last log-in date). She also suggests checking out SBA’s Learning Center, which has free courses to help budding entrepreneurs learn about becoming a business owner.

“With 68 district offices, 300-plus SCORE chapters, 980 Small Business Development Centers, 100 Women’s Business Centers and 20 Veterans Business Outreach Centers across the country, small business owners are never far away from SBA-approved experts who can help a small business thrive,” Roebker says.

[Read: 8 Budget Types for Businesses.]

You may also want to talk to your local chamber of commerce, which may be able to help you, or at least point you in the right direction. Still, the best way to set yourself apart from the other business plans is to not be overly concerned with flash and instead focus on competency and keeping your financial analysis and projections grounded in reality.

“Most people are pie in the sky here,” says Heidi Pozzo, founder of Pozzo Consulting, which specializes in leadership and high-performance and is based out of Vancouver, Washington. “This requires understanding the market, the customer and why customers buy from you and not someone else.” Ultimately, she says, your business plan “needs to have where you are today, where you want to be in the future and the step-by-step plan to get there.”

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How to Write a Business Plan originally appeared on usnews.com

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