How to write a business plan

Every business owner can benefit from writing a business plan, including those in the early stages of launching a business. A well-crafted business plan communicates the business’s strategy for growth to key leaders and investors. It’s also an important step to get a business loan since many lenders require it.

Let’s walk through the steps and elements of writing your ideal business plan.

Key takeaways

  • A business plan outlines how you plan to bring products or services to market

  • Many lenders require a business plan to be included with a loan application

  • You can choose to write a lean or traditional business plan

  • It covers everything from market research to your marketing and financial plan.

What is a business plan?

A business plan is a document that outlines a business’s strategy for bringing a product or service to market. It describes the company, product idea and goals or steps that the business will take to achieve growth. The document includes multiple sections that provide insight into each part of the strategy.

The business plan can be a simple document called a lean business plan or a more detailed traditional business plan. The lean business plan covers the basics of the company, product, target customers and how it will get revenue. It may only be one page with short descriptions for each part.

The traditional business plan includes more depth on the goals, measurements, research and marketing strategies to get the business where it’s going. Here are the key differences in the information written for each type of business plan:

Lean business plan

Traditional business plan

Short company description

executive summary

Value proposition

Company description and management structure

Target customers

Value proposition

Revenue streams

Market and competitor research

Funding and resources

Goals and performance metrics

Milestones to achieve

Marketing strategy

Financial forecasts and budgets

Funding sources

Financial forecasts and budgets

Although there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, follow these steps to create a strong business plan.

Write an executive summary

An executive summary is the introduction to a business plan, giving the key details about your business model and the product or service you’re offering. While there’s no strict formula for writing this section, you should include all the relevant details that you’d want a key partner or investor to know.

It should describe your product or service idea, target market and key objectives for growth within the next few years. It may also summarize your marketing and sources of revenue or funding.

You can adjust what to include based on the exact business you’re starting and its business model. Most business plans keep the executive summary to one to two pages.

Create a company description

The company description should overview important details about your company. It can state your company’s name, location and type of entity as well as describe its history. It should also clearly define the vision that you have for your company’s future in the form of a mission or vision statement.

You may also outline the structure for managing the business, listing key roles and responsibilities and the people filling those roles. Depending on the details you included in the executive summary, you might include information about your product or service.

Describe your value proposition

The value proposition is your chance to pitch what makes your business stand out. It identifies the customer’s problem or gap in the market for the product or service you’re offering. It then goes into detail about how your business will solve the problem.

The value proposition can also explain the major barriers that customers have before making a decision and what your business will do to break through those barriers. It shows leaders and investors that you have a thoughtful purpose behind the business you’re creating.

State your business goals

The path to achieving success starts with knowing what success looks like. Many business plans state its main objectives in the company description. Others describe those goals in a separate part of the business plan to dive deeper into the specific goals.

You can also include key measurements you’ll use to gauge whether your business is achieving its goals. You would then use these goals in other business planning documents, further breaking them down into defined short-term steps that ladder up to the larger goals.

Outline your products and services

Next, you want to dive into the main product or service that your business is offering. Explain what the product is, how it works and the benefits that it brings to customers. If you’re planning to make multiple products, you can include a description of each product line. Show how this product or service is set apart from similar products from competitors.

You can also use this section to show how the product or service is produced, including the cost of supplies and the price at which you plan to sell. Let the investors and stakeholders know if you have a trademark or patent for the product you’re creating.

Give a summary of market research

Next comes market research, the part of the plan where you do your due diligence to gather information and understand your target customers and competitors. First, you want to understand your target customers’ needs and any barriers they might have to buying your product.

You want to look for information about their demographics and how they might respond to the product you’re offering. This information will help you when designing your product and marketing it in a way that resonates with customers.

Then, you can look at the economy around your product, such as average pricing and sales revenue. This also includes research about your competitors, the market share that they hold and the barriers to entering your market. This section may include data from data research companies, surveys, focus groups and interviews.

According to the US Small Business Administration, the questions you’re trying to answer include:

  • Market size, or how many people may want to buy your product

  • What people are willing to pay for your product

  • Similar products are already available

  • Who your competitors are

  • How your industry is doing

  • Typical revenue gained by small businesses in your industry

Summarize a marketing strategy

Once you’ve clearly defined your product and who you’re selling to, you can come up with a strategy for how you’ll reach and sell to customers. In this section, you’ll include the different marketing channels you’ll use to promote your products and services.

These may include direct mailers, social media, traditional or online advertising or media events. The exact channels you use will depend on where you can easily find your target customers.

You can also describe the key messaging that you plan to use during marketing, which will pinpoint the value that it offers to customers. The marketing plan should also include the cost of marketing to different channels and your marketing budget. You can then outline the marketing goals and measurements you’ll use to see if you’re meeting those goals.

Create a logistics and operations plan

The logistics and operations section of your business plan is a detailed description of how your business will bring products and services to market. It explains how the business will run on a day-to-day basis. It should highlight your company’s management structure, give an overview of processes and describe the workflow from end to end. It can also include data on how many products you can make or how long it will take to make products or offer services.

Create a financial plan

Now that you’ve laid out the research, goals and planning, you can use that information to forecast revenue and build a financial plan. Use any past revenue or sales history as a starting point. Then, refer to your company’s recent growth and goals to calculate future financial growth.

If you’re a startup, you can use market research to estimate revenue for a startup in your industry. You can either forecast revenue manually or find software projects that generate revenue for you.

In your financial plan, you also want to create and track your business budget. You’ll track your estimated and actual revenue, updating regularly to keep the revenue forecast accurate and realistic. Next, you’ll list all expenses and their amounts, including one-time, variable, fixed or seasonal expenses. Here are some examples of different business expenses:

  • One-time or capital expenses: Equipment, real estate, furniture, commercial vehicles, business licenses

  • Variable expenses: Inventory, utilities, fuel, office supplies, shipping services, card processing fees

  • Fixed expenses: Employee salaries and benefits, software, web hosting, office or equipment leases, business loan repayments

Business plan resources

Writing your business plan will take more than putting pen to paper. Try these resources to help you gather data, set up your finances and more:

  • Business plan templates. Creating a business plan for the first time? Learn by looking up examples of other business plans or templates like these from Smartsheet.

  • Software for accounting and financial planning. Many small businesses use Quickbooks, Xero or Netsuite to track revenue and expenses. These may also forecast revenue based on sales history.

  • Business loan resources. To cover your funding needs, think through the types of business loans that will best serve your business. Once you’ve landed on a loan, compare features and interest rates to help you make a decision.

  • Survey tools. For in-depth market research, you can build a survey and send it to your target customers through a data research company like GWI.

Small business mentoring

Experienced mentors can guide you to make effective business decisions and unlock new potential for growth. Where to find small business mentors:

  • SBA. You can find resources and free or low-cost mentors through the SBA’s local assistance tool.

  • Small Business Development Centers. SBDCs provide specialized training programs in your local area covering specialized topics like marketing, data research and business management.

  • Community Development Financial Institutions. CDFIs are financial organizations like banks and credit unions that are built to develop the community. Alongside banking and lending services, CDFIs offer training programs and resources.

  • SCORE. SCORE is an organization that partners with the SBA to bring resources to small business owners. Mentorship is at the core of what the organization does, and it can match you with a local mentor through its online locator tool.

  • Local Chamber of Commerce. These local organizations are known for supporting business networking. They may help you find a mentorship program, or you may build a relationship with another successful entrepreneur through networking events.

  • Nonprofit organizations. Some non-profit organizations are dedicated to supporting small business owners with funding, training and mentorship programs. These are typically local programs. For example, NYPACE is a nonprofit that offers free consulting to underserved entrepreneurs in New York.

Bottom line

Your business plan should outline key information about your company, products and the strategy for getting those products in the hands of your customers. Every business plan looks different, but there is essential information to include in every plan, such as who your target customer is and your expected revenue. The business plan serves to help you get business funding and outlines exact goals and steps to grow your company.

Frequently asked questions

  • Do I need a business plan to apply for a business loan?

    Yes, many lenders require a business plan to review how you plan to grow and succeed in the market. This is especially important if you’re applying for a startup loan since you may not have enough financial history to show that you can repay the loan.

  • How do I write a simple business plan?

    A lean business plan aims to provide a clear but short overview of the business model. It can include a company overview, description of the product and costs, the value proposition, list of target customers, marketing channels and key performance metrics.

  • What basic items should be included in a business plan?

    A business plan should outline the products and services, the value you bring to the market, market research data, projected revenue and any funding sources you’ll use.

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