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Writing Your Business Plan

After you've considered the purpose of your plan and done some background preparation, it's time to consider the actual elements that you'll include in the written document.

A business plan customarily has a number of major elements or sections. Each of these elements serves a particular purpose in the overall presentation of your plan. The following list identifies and briefly describes each of the documents or document categories that will make up your plan. They are presented in the order in which they usually appear in the plan. But don't feel constrained to follow this exact format if another way makes more sense because of the nature of your business. For example, the financial portion of a plan for a business with a 20-year track record is much more important (and comprehensive) than the financial portion of a startup business's plan.

The relative mix of product and services to be offered can also affect the content of a plan. Issues relating to inventory, production, storage, etc., become less significant as the product/service mix moves toward a purely service business. For example, a business that relies on the services of many professional employees would provide substantial details about acquiring and retaining these vital workers.

In any event, it pays to at least mention all the major issues listed below, even the ones that are relatively less significant to your particular business. Someone who's reading your plan will be more confident about your assessment of the situation if you identify such issues and resolve them, however summarily. For example, if you plan to work alone and perform all services personally, you might note that you anticipate no need to hire employees or engage independent contractors if the business succeeds at the levels projected in the plan. You don't want to raise any questions in the mind of your audience that aren't resolved somewhere within the plan document.

Remember that there is no requirement that these items be created in the order shown. In fact, conventional wisdom has it that the executive summary, which is preceded only by the cover sheet and table of contents, should be prepared after the rest of the plan is complete. The components of a written business plan are:

  • General format and presentation: first, remember that the business plan is a clearly recognizable type of document, and your audience will have some expectations with respect to style and contents. Just as your teachers in school expected you to conform to certain standards, the people who will look at your business plan will have certain expectations.
  • Cover page and table of contents: they identify your business and make it easy for readers to find and examine particular documents.
  • Executive summary: this is arguably the most important single part of your document. It provides a high-level overview of the entire plan that emphasizes the factors that you believe will lead to success.
  • Business background: this is the section that provides company-specific information, describing the business organization, history, and the product or service the business will provide.
  • Marketing plan: this presents an analysis of the market conditions that the business faces, sets forth the marketing strategy that the business will follow, and provides a detailed schedule of marketing activities to support sales.
  • Action plans: this is where you detail how operational and management issues will be resolved, including contingency planning.
  • Financial projections: this is another extremely important section. Your projections (and historical financial information, if you have it) demonstrate how the business can be expected to do financially if the business plan's assumptions are sound.
  • Appendix: this is the place to present supporting documents, statistical analysis, product marketing materials, resumes of key employees, etc.