Business Plan Guidelines

A common fault of business plans is that they are not organized well. Without a well thought-out structure even the most persuasive arguments can fail to convince the reader. So, the first step in preparing your plan is to organize it. Over the years we have found the following format to be effective.  This table may help you to track progress so check off each item as it is completed.

Table of Contents
1. Summary – a brief overview integrating all aspects of the plan into a detachable summary,
2. Business Description – what the company does, why a customer will purchase,
3. Market Analysis – who is the customer, market size, trends
4. Competitive Analysis – who else is out there
5. Product/Service Advantages – why is yours better or innovative and by how much
6. Objectives – quantifiable targets or milestones
7. Marketing Strategy – how to reach those targets, especially sales
8. Operations – how will the company produce & deliver the product/service
9. Organization & Management – who will run it
10. Timing – when will things happen
11. Financial Information – historical, actual, projected, how much, type & when capital is required

Whatever your business, all these sections can be important. For example, without a market analysis which concentrates on early adaptors, starting a new business is like rolling dice — and providers of capital are not gamblers, they are risk managers. With this in mind, let’s take a look at each section of the plan.

Executive Summary
Many investors and lenders receive many business plans to read. The Summary becomes a screening device to help them sort out plans.  In other words, the Summary is your first, and possibly only, chance to convince the reader that this is a viable business or idea and to read on. You should be able to detach the Summary and be able to understand all aspects of the business opportunity.  As such, your Summary should present the plan in a way that makes the reader want to continue.  Though the Summary appears first, you should write it last — after you have completed the plan; and, it should not be longer than two pages. It should include:

• A brief description of the business
• Why is customer motivated to purchase your product or service
• Estimated market potential and competitive assessment
• Your product’s advantages and market need it will meet
• Your objectives for the business
• Your market strategies
• How you will make the product or perform the service
• Your experience with the product or service or industry
• Projected sales and profits
• How much you have or will invest in the project
• How much financing is/will be needed and when
• Targeted/Secured financing sources and what the money will be used for
• How and when the financing will be repaid
• Include only an abbreviated Income Statement

Obviously, to get all of this onto a couple of pages you must write very concisely — give only the highlights with the supporting detail in the sections that follow.

Business Description
In this section you describe the business you are, or want to be, in. It should include:

• The legal form of the business [e.g., corporation, subchapter S, partnership, etc.]
• Your specific product or service
• Customer motivation to purchase your product or service
• The present or proposed location of the business
• Your existing or potential customers and their demographics
• A brief history of the business – how did you get here
• How was the business financed thus far
• Who are, or who will be, the owners

Think carefully about this section. For example, many years ago, Western Union could have said they were in the telegraph business. In reality, they were in the communications business; hence, today we have AT&T, Sprint, etc.

Market Analysis
Frequently this is the weakest part of many plans and reveals that the marketing homework has not been done thoroughly. This is the section where you must present sufficient evidence to prove (and to convince the reader) that there really is a need for your product or service — and that there is sufficient demand to support the business you have proposed. It is not enough that you believe in the product or service.

This section must first identify the need for your product or service, second, show how your product or service meets that need better than any other competitor, and third, show how you can sell your product or service at a profit. This section can be organized in many ways to answer these questions. The following is one suggested way.

Market Size - Present figures and factual information on the size of the market for your product or service. Obtaining reliable numbers may seem difficult but the effort will be worth it. Include detailed information on the following:
• How much is now being spent on the product or service (by all customers), or, if the product is new, how much is being spent on alternatives?
• Is the market expanding or contracting, and at what rate? How is the market changing, and define the characteristics that are changing?
• Where will the market be in five years, how much will customers be spending, do populations or age   projections show an impact for the future?

Market Profile - Describe existing or potential customers for your product or service, expanding on the information in the Business Description. This expanded detail should include:
• Who will buy? If your customers are individuals what are their characteristics, age, income level, education, family status, etc., in a word your customer’s demographics. Also, how many customers are there? If your customers are businesses, what kind of businesses, what do they have in common, what sizes are they, are products branded or private label, etc.
• Where are your customers? Are they located in a particular region or area? Describe the characteristics of the region as it may relate to your products, e.g., if your business makes winter coats your customers are principally in cold regions.
• Why will your product or service be purchased? Expand on the need your product or service meets and why the customer will select yours over a competitive choice. Will your product meet a feature or benefit need? For example, with athletic footwear, Velcro brand closures are a feature but if the sneakers make you jump higher and run faster, that is a benefit.
• When will your product or service be purchased? Is it seasonal and, if so, what is the seasonal aspect? Does it tie in with other products or events?
• What is the customer’s expectation for your product or service in terms of price, quality, service, delivery, packaging, etc?

Describe the companies and products that are or will be your competition and don’t forget to include imports if they are a factor in your market. Remember, even new products have some type of competition. For example, if you will be selling cash registers, a look at personal computers would be appropriate as there is competition from point-of-sale data processing equipment. Include the following and limit your detailed analysis to the top 5 or 6 competitors:
• How many companies you will be competing against. Where are they located, how long have they been in business?
• How do they distribute the product or service? What is their respective market share?
• What are their strengths and weaknesses in marketing, operations and finance, what are their strategies?
• How does your product compare in terms of price, quality, service, design, delivery or other features?
• Do you intend to take market share away from the competition or will you be creating a new, niche market?

Again, some of this information may seem difficult to obtain, but get as much as you can so you will know who and what you are up against. Start your research with readily available tools like your telephone, the Yellow Pages, catalogues, sales literature, industrial and commercial directories, libraries, trade associations, etc. You may wish to set this section up as a chart or table/matrix listing the same categories for each competitor.

Product or Service Advantages
Investors or lenders want to know how your product or service compares to the competition. They want to know what is unique about yours and to what extent you will have a competitive advantage over similar or existing products, and, how long will that advantage last.

Product Description - Describe the key features of your product or service and its benefits to potential customers. Compare these features with those of competing products or services.  Emphasize your competitive edge – what ‘ … er’ will your product or service have – that is better, faster, cheaper, softer, neater, etc. If your product or service has any limitations, specify them here – to do otherwise is fooling yourself.

Proprietary Position - If you have a proprietary position, describe the patent, copyright, or other contractual or design exclusivity or means of protecting your product or service or technology.

Other Barriers to Competition - Describe any other barriers that would discourage others from entering the market. These include agreements with manufacturers or distributors, high startup or research costs, tie-in sales or usage applications, licensing or proprietary process technology, etc.

Regulatory Requirements - Describe the regulatory environment for your product or service, if applicable. This includes Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, local licenses, etc.  Research any pending, or proposed rules or legislation that may affect your product or service or the technological process behind it.

Product Extension - Where are you going with your product or service? Describe future improvements, developments or directions to meet the changing needs of your market. These will usually be extensions of the primary product or service and will follow with market changes described in your marketing section. 

This section describes and importantly, quantifies your marketing objectives – where will your product be and when, e.g., how many will you sell, at what price, what will your market penetration rate be, and, when will each target happen.

Target Markets - Based on the information from your market analysis identify the specific target market(s) that you will concentrate on. Be as specific as possible – when you carry out your plan you want to focus your resources on the market segment in which you have the greatest chance for success. If possible carve out your own market niche.

Estimated Sales and Market Share – Estimate the sales you think you can achieve over the next three to five years, starting with monthly estimates in years 1 and 2. Calculate the market share that these sales represent. Market share is that percentage of the total market represented by your sales.

For example, if $100 million is spent by all the customers who might buy your product or service, and you sell $500,000 you have a 0.5% market share. In calculating your sales forecast start with existing sales, commitments to purchase, and, potential sales; be realistic in developing your estimates. Use supporting data as well.

For example, if you can sell your product or service to 1 of every 20 customers you speak to, and each sales call takes 1 hour, a salesperson can sell two orders per week, therefore, to sell 200 orders per year will require 2 salespeople.  Compute your revenues from the “bottom up, not top down”. 

Marketing Strategy
In this section describe the marketing strategy that you will use to achieve the objectives. The strategy is essentially how to do it. This is the section in which you assess the market, the competition, your capabilities and how you will set your product or service apart from the others.

The following are important elements to consider when developing your strategy: trends in the market, competitive strengths and weaknesses, voids in the market, market niches, technology, lower costs (production or sale), advertising, public relations, promotions, quality, and service. Also, include the following:

Product Features - Review the features of your product or service that meet the needs or demands of the marketplace. Discuss how those needs are met. Describe related features and design elements such as:
• How the product will be packaged in terms of function and promotion? Does the package need to preserve or protect the product or display the product, or, all three? Is shipping a concern? Are there environmental concerns or concerns by the retailer or final seller of the product?
• How will you label your product or describe your service? In addition to promotional information are there regulatory concerns for label content e.g., ingredient lists, nutritional data, warnings, directions, UPC codes, UL listing, ISO 9000, etc?
• How will you register and use trademarks and identifying images; discuss your plans to develop, establish and protect the image? Remember – if it is unprotected and can be used by anybody entering the market what is your investment worth? Warranty terms are sometimes a purchasing decision point.
• What will your terms be, why, and, what does the market expect?
• Service may be another significant purchasing decision point. What will your service policy be and how will it impact operations?

Pricing - Price can be the key element in many marketing strategies and it must be carefully thought out. There are several price development theories that you may wish to explore and apply. Consider and explain the following:
• How will your price relate to the cost of your product or service? How will it relate to the cost of marketing and promotional efforts? Is couponing or discounting required in the marketplace you will be serving?
• How will your price compare to competitive products or services and is the difference worth it?
• How will your price relate to what the market is able and willing to pay? Products targeted for price sensitive low end markets cannot carry a high price.
• How will your pricing strategy enable you to achieve your objectives and how does it relate to your distribution methodology? Is multi-tier pricing required? What will the impact of retailer/distributor markups be? Will these add-ons make your product too expensive?

Distribution - This is where you describe how your product or service gets from you to the customer and how that relates to your marketing methods. Consider the following:
• What are the available methods for distribution (e.g., direct sales force, distributors, retailers, mail order) for similar products or services?
• What are the methods used by your competition? Will yours be different? Why, and can this be used to differentiate your product or service?
• If you elect to use a direct sales force how large will it be, what will its growth rate be, how will they be compensated, and, what expenses will they incur beyond salaries?
• If you use dealers or distributors how many do you need, where will they be, how will you determine these factors (e.g., geographically, demographically, logistically), and how will you find them?
• Describe, in reasonable detail, how the distribution methodology will support your strategy and allow you to reach your objectives.

Promotion - Describe how you will generate awareness of your product or service among potential customers. Include the following:
• What promotional activities are used by the competition (e.g., advertising, publicity, literature, trade shows, etc.)?
• What activities you plan to use, how and why will they differ from the competition? How much do you plan to spend on these activities as a total dollar amount and as a percentage of sales?
• How will your activities reach the customer at a purchase decision making point, how will you maintain awareness for uneven sales decision cycles, how will you develop brand loyalty?
• How will you schedule these activities? Provide an estimated media or production schedule for literature or advertising? 

In this section you need to describe how you will obtain or produce your products or provide your service.

Consider the following:

Location & Space Requirements
• If your business exists, where is it?
• If proposed where are you planning to put it and why?
• What type of space do you need, how much, what will it cost?
• What may be unique or special about it (e.g., an assembly operation may require air conditioned manufacturing space)
• What is the breakdown by type (e.g., 20% office, 50% manufacturing, & 30% warehouse)?

• What is the regulatory environment that you need or need to avoid?
• Is the area you want to be in zoned for your type of operation?
• Are emissions or discharge a concern?
• Is parking or truck traffic count a concern?

Equipment Requirements
• What type of equipment do you need for manufacturing or service provision?
• How much does it cost?
• Is special operator training necessary?
• Are special licenses required?
• How much will the equipment cost to obtain and to operate?

Personnel Requirements
• How many people do you need?
• What skills do they need?
• What kind of experience is needed and are the people available?
• What are the prevailing wages, is training required, unions?
• Provide a roster of existing operations personnel and a schedule of planned hires by date and expense.

Production or Service Operations
• Describe the process of manufacturing or providing the service.
• Include the advantages of your process, capacity, quality control systems, potential suppliers, secondary sources for raw materials or subcontract services.
• Provide a breakdown of fixed and variable operating expenses, both current and projected.  Describe the relationship of cost to sales (e.g., is it linear, does it move in incremental steps).

Organization and Management
How will you organize your business and who will manage it. Investors and lenders must be convinced that you have people who can manage the business successfully and that you can attract needed new people. Describe the following:

Organization - Explain how the company is organized with a brief description of the role of each manager and provide an organizational chart or job descriptions. Job descriptions should include the specific tasks, responsibilities, authority and relationships to other employees of each job.

Key Managers - Show how your management team has the necessary functional skills in production, marketing, finance, and general management. Describe their experience with your product or service or in a related industry, providing a brief biography of key managers, listing past positions, accomplishments and career highlights that show they can do the job.

Management Weakness - Identify any weakness in the management team and how you will fix it. Are critical skills missing, can they be provided by recruitment, training or subcontracting?

Compensation - Describe in detail the compensation plan that you will use and how each manager will be paid. Will you have a bonus, profit sharing or other incentive plan, and, if so, describe it in detail. If your plan does not provide pay for you that is a mistake and it will affect the credibility of your plan.

Ownership - Provide a list of all the owners and their stake in the business. If a corporation, list all shareholders, the number of shares owned, the total outstanding, the total authorized, and, the totals by group (e.g., total owned by management, the principal owner’s family … )

Board Membership - Identify who sits on your Board of Directors, why they were selected, how each one helps your business and indicate any investment members have made.

Prepare a schedule that reflects major milestones in your business plan for the next three to five years.  This can be very effectively presented by using a chart and brief explanations.  You should address planned product introductions, changes in workforce or management, noteworthy sales events (e.g., trade shows, selling seasons, tie-in promotions), changes in facilities, significant changes or events in your marketing strategy or the marketplace (e.g., pending regulatory changes) and significant changes to your customer base.

Financial Information
Use the sales and cost information developed in the preceding sections to prepare projected financial statements. Unless you have a financial background, you may need help with this section. However, you need to provide certain key information for the projections.

All plans must include the Cash Flow Projection, Income Statement and Balance Sheet. Plans that are seeking investment must include the Source and Use of Proceeds and Statement of Changes in Working Capital.

Source and Use of Proceeds - If you are seeking a lender or investor, you need to indicate in a summary table how much money you are seeking, where you anticipate it will come from, how it will be paid back, and, most importantly, specifically how it will be used.

For example, your business might need a $25,000 bank loan in phase one, with a 7 year term carrying a 12% interest rate to be used for the purchase of two $10,000 punch presses and one $5,000 engineering computer; and, a $30,000 bank loan in phase two with a 5 year payout at prevailing rates 24 months later, to be used for two additional punch presses, improvements to the manufacturing facility and worker training.

Source and Use is frequently done as a table identifying the major income items, and the major expense items by category (e.g., machinery, computers, office equipment, etc.)

If you are seeking an equity investment, or some other investment vehicle, explain in detail how you envision the money coming in, how the investor will realize profits, and how the investor will be paid back. Include a summary equity ownership table indicating the number of shares authorized, issued, owned, and owner name.

Income Statements and Balance Sheets - These statements are the standard measure for all businesses. If you are already in business provide statements for the last three years. All planners should provide annual projections for years 3 to 5, but the first two years should be based upon monthly projections.  Monthly projections are extremely important during the first years of a startup, but frequently are omitted from the Business Plan due to length/size constraints.  If you use an accountant to prepare your historical information disclose this fact and be prepared to provide audited or reviewed statements to any investor. The income statement shows revenue, expenses and profit or loss, and, provides an overview of the operations of your business. The balance sheet identifies the assets and liabilities of your business showing quantitatively where your business is.

Break-even Analysis - This analysis will help you to understand the specific relationships between your costs and sales. At what volume do your profits start? At what volume do profits dip due to incremental expenses such as new machinery, overtime, etc.? This very important analysis looks at your business as one entity.

Cash Flow Projection - This statement identifies sources of cash from internal operations, cash inflows and outflow associated with various working capital requirements, and cash inflows and outflows associated with various financing/capital activities.  This essential statement will help you to plan your cash requirements in both short and long terms views.

Assumptions - For each and every line item in your pro-forma [projected] financial statements indicate the assumption on which it is based, and why. For example, if you say you will be spending $10,000 on a new piece of production equipment, have a quotation from the supplier or a copy of a price list. In other words, do your homework on the numbers. Support raw material price estimates with quotations, support labor rates with prevailing wage studies (available in many libraries) or union summaries.

Additionally, many assumptions will flow from earlier sections on objective, marketing strategy, operations, organization, management and timing. Specifically, if your plan calls for 10 salespeople they must be reflected in the salary costs you assume. Assumptions are among the most likely areas for challenges to your plan. Test the assumptions and be confident in the ones you select.

Capital – If equity capital is required, various “exit” alternatives need to be discussed since any investor eventually required some form of liquidity event.  “Exit” valuations based upon industry comparables and/or reasonable multiples of cash flow, such as EBITDA, is preferred.  All debt service requirements, interest & principal payments, need to be accurately reflected in the financial projections and be consistent with the associated maturities and terms.

Spread Sheets - Computer spread sheets are sometimes very useful for asking what if questions and looking at results under different conditions or scenarios.

Useful Links:
Forms, Scorecards and Applications The Paulsen Award Application
Guidelines Sample Business Plan