How to Write a Winning Business Plan
The business plan admits the entrepreneur to the investment process. Without a plan furnished in advance, many investor groups won’t even grant an interview. And the plan must be outstanding if it is to win investment funds. Too many entrepreneurs, though, continue to believe that if they build a better mousetrap, the world will beat […]
The Idea in Brief
You’ve got a great idea for a new product or service—how can you persuade investors to support it? Flashy PowerPoint slides aren’t enough; you need a winning business plan. A compelling plan accurately reflects the viewpoints of your three key constituencies: the market, potential investors, and the producer (the entrepreneur or inventor of the new offering).
But too many plans are written solely from the perspective of the producer. The problem is that, unless you’ve got your own capital to finance your venture, the only way you’ll get the funding you need is to satisfy the market’s and investors’ needs.
Emphasize Market Needs
Cashing out. Show when and how investors may liquidate their holdings. Venture capital firms usually want to cash out in three to seven years; professional investors look for a large capital appreciation.
Making sound projections. Give realistic, five-year forecasts of profitability. Don’t skimp on the numbers, get overly optimistic about them, or blanket your plan with a smog of figures covering every possible variation.
The price. To figure out how much to invest in your offering, investors calculate your company’s value on the basis of results expected five years after they invest. They’ll want a 35 to 40% return for mature companies—up to 60% for less mature ventures. To make a convincing case for a rich return, get a product in the hands of representative customers—and demonstrate substantial market interest.
The business plan admits the entrepreneur to the investment process. Without a plan furnished in advance, many investor groups won’t even grant an interview. And the plan must be outstanding if it is to win investment funds.
Too many entrepreneurs, though, continue to believe that if they build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to their door. A good mousetrap is important, but it’s only part of meeting the challenge. Also important is satisfying the needs of marketers and investors. Marketers want to see evidence of customer interest and a viable market. Investors want to know when they can cash out and how good the financial projections are. Drawing on their own experiences and those of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Enterprise Forum, the authors show entrepreneurs how to write convincing and winning business plans.
A comprehensive, carefully thought-out business plan is essential to the success of entrepreneurs and corporate managers. Whether you are starting up a new business, seeking additional capital for existing product lines, or proposing a new activity in a corporate division, you will never face a more challenging writing assignment than the preparation of a business plan.
Only a well-conceived and well-packaged plan can win the necessary investment and support for your idea. It must describe the company or proposed project accurately and attractively. Even though its subject is a moving target, the plan must detail the company’s or the project’s present status, current needs, and expected future. You must present and justify ongoing and changing resource requirements, marketing decisions, financial projections, production demands, and personnel needs in logical and convincing fashion.
Because they struggle so hard to assemble, organize, describe, and document so much, it is not surprising that managers sometimes overlook the fundamentals. We have found that the most important one is the accurate reflection of the viewpoints of three constituencies.
Too many business plans are written solely from the viewpoint of the third constituency—the producer. They describe the underlying technology or creativity of the proposed product or service in glowing terms and at great length. They neglect the constituencies that give the venture its financial viability—the market and the investor.
Take the case of five executives seeking financing to establish their own engineering consulting firm. In their business plan, they listed a dozen types of specialized engineering services and estimated their annual sales and profit growth at 20%. But the executives did not determine which of the proposed dozen services their potential clients really needed and which would be most profitable. By neglecting to examine these issues closely, they ignored the possibility that the marketplace might want some services not among the dozen listed.
Moreover, they failed to indicate the price of new shares or the percentage available to investors. Dealing with the investor’s perspective was important because—for a new venture, at least—backers seek a return of 40% to 60% on their capital, compounded annually. The expected sales and profit growth rates of 20% could not provide the necessary return unless the founders gave up a substantial share of the company.
In fact, the executives had only considered their own perspective—including the new company’s services, organization, and projected results. Because they had not convincingly demonstrated why potential customers would buy the services or how investors would make an adequate return (or when and how they could cash out), their business plan lacked the credibility necessary for raising the investment funds needed.
We have had experience in both evaluating business plans and organizing and observing presentations and investor responses at sessions of the MIT Enterprise Forum. We believe that business plans must deal convincingly with marketing and investor considerations. This reading identifies and evaluates those considerations and explains how business plans can be written to satisfy them.
Things to Know Before You Begin Writing
Know your audience. For example, if your business operates in a very niche space, you don’t want to use niche and complex language that no one will understand if your plan will be reviewed by lenders or investors who don’t have much knowledge of your space.
Also, keep the length of your plan in mind when it comes to your reader. We would always recommend keeping your plan as short as possible, but certain readers might want to see more details while others might want only the high level information. For example, a potential business partner will likely want to see a bit more details than an underwriter evaluating your business. However, don’t go overboard with this and write a 50-page plan, as no one will read that.
Pick Your Format (traditional vs. lean startup)
There are now two ways you can write your business plan. The traditional route, and the most common, is likely what you’ll be using. The traditional plan contains far more details and should be used for most scenarios. Alternatively, you can explore a lean startup plan , which are onepagers and detail your business only at the highest level. This is most appropriate for businesses that are likely to change quickly or are on a very, very short timeline.
How to Write a Traditional Business Plan
A traditional plan is typically comprised of seven sections that are each crucial for explaining a different angle of your business. The length and detail of your plan will vary with the audience of the plan and how mature your business is. You’ll use a business plan to sell your business to investors, qualify your business with for a loan with lenders, and more. Having a solid plan is always useful and can also help keep your actions as a business owner on track.
Step 1: Write an Executive Summary
As with any other piece of writing, this introduction to your plan is the hook. Why should the reader believe in your business? Sell your business and explain why it matters. Additionally, supplement your sell with a high level summary of your plan and operating model. However, don’t go over one or two pages.
Step 2: Write a Business Description
This is your first opportunity to really go into detail about your business. What’s the opportunity that your business is capitalizing on? What’s the target market? How are you standing out from competitors? Highlight how your business is differentiated.
Step 3: Market and Competitive Analysis
Any good business will have done comprehensive analyses of the market that its entering. This doesn’t just apply to large corporations, and your reader will likely want to see evidence of this. Here, you can describe the industry and market your business will operate in and highlight the opportunities your business will take advantage of. Did your market research reveal any unique trends? If so, this is the place to show it.
Illustrate the competitive landscape as well. What are your competitors doing well and not so well? Why are you moving into this space, and what’s the weakness to be exploited in the industry? How will competitors logically react? Are you going to take competitors’ customers? How?
Step 4: Operational Structure
What’s your business’s legal structure? Is it a sole proprietorship? Include this as well. We’d recommend putting together an organizational chart if there are multiple stakeholders to not only show who’s involved but to also show how everyone brings something to the table.
Step 5: Product Description
Now, you finally get to discuss in detail what you’ll be selling or offering. What’s your good or service that’s for sale? This section will likely be a bit longer than the others because of its importance.
Also include a marketing or promotions plan here. You could have the best product in the world but it won’t matter if no one knows about it. Identify your target market and really detail out how you’ll make that market aware of your product. What’s the message you want to promote and why does that resonate with your specific product and the target audience? How will you build awareness and retain loyalty?
Step 6: Raise Capital
If you intend for a prospective investor or lender to read this, you’ll want to include a section here on your funding request. Be clear with how much you’re asking for and why. You don’t want to ask for a $100,000 loan or investment without a clear plan as to what exactly that money would be used for. On top of explaining what the funds would be used for, also clearly state the projected ROI.
Step 7: Financial Analysis and Projections
It doesn’t matter if you include a request for funding in your plan, you will want to include a financial analysis here. You’ll want to do two things here: Paint a picture of your business’s performance in the past and show it will grow in the future. Use charts and images to help make the experience easier.
If your business has already been operating for a few years, demonstrate stability through your finances. But if your business is newer and not yet profitable, be clear and realistic with your projections. For example, if your sales have been increasing at a steady 5% every quarter, you don’t want to suddenly assume 50% sales growth per quarter for no reason.
Research industry norms and look up how comparable businesses have performed. Include income statements, balance sheets and cash flow statements for multiple years if possible. When showing your financial outlook, project your vision out over at least five years. Clearly state the logic behind your projections, and you can also tie this section back to your previous section on raising capital if applicable.
Step 8: Appendix
If you have any remaining pieces of information such as relevant patents, licenses, charts or anything else that wasn’t able to fit in organically in the plan elsewhere, feel free to include those here. Don’t use this as a space as a document dump. Instead, be absolutely sure that every piece of information that goes here goes toward supporting your business plan.
How to make a business plan that stands out
- Keep it brief. A typical business plan can range from 10 to 20 pages. As long as you cover the essentials, less is more.
- Make it easy to read. Divide your document into distinct sections, so that investors can quickly flip between key pieces of information.
- Know your margins. List every cost your business incurs, and make sure that you’re assigning those costs to each product or service that you sell.
- Proofread. Double-check for typos and grammatical errors. Then, triple-check. Otherwise, you might risk your credibility.
- Invest in quality design and printing. Proper layout, branding, and decent printing or bookbinding give your business plan a professional feel.
- Be prepared in advance. Have everything ready to go at least two weeks ahead so you have time to make revisions in case of a last-minute change.
It’s a good idea to periodically revisit your business plan, especially if you are looking to expand. Conducting new research and updating your plan could also provide answers when you hit difficult questions.
Mid-year is a good time to refocus and revise your original plans because it gives you the opportunity to refocus any goals for the second half of the year. Below are three ways to update your plan.
1. Refocus your productivity
If you only want to work a set number of hours per week, you must identify the products and services that deliver the returns you need to make that a reality. Doing so helps you refocus your productivity on the most lucrative profit streams.
2. Realign with your goals
3. Repurpose your offerings
If your time has become more focused on small projects rather than tangible growth and building a valuable client list, consider packaging your existing products or services differently. Can you bundle a few things together?