Business plan in notebook on a table
Make sure your business plan works for you. — Getty Images/nevarpp

One of the cornerstones of launching a new business is writing a business plan. The plan is a roadmap to a business’s goals and outlines the steps to achieve them. The plan also serves as a sort of resume to put in front of loan officers, investors and partners to secure funding. Before you start plotting out your future, it’s important to think about all the components of a good business plan and why you want to have one.

To help you understand how to write a business plan, this guide will:

  1. Explain why writing a business plan is important
  2. Talk about when to write a plan
  3. Outline what should be included in your business plan
  4. Discuss different types of business plans and audiences for your plan
  5. Talk about updating your business plan

Why you should write a business plan

There is a school of thought in the startup community that making mistakes and learning from them without a long-term plan in place is beneficial to a business, but there are certain instances in which a business plan is a necessity. One of them is securing financing.

If you need financing, a lender or investor will want to see how their money will be spent and how they’ll be paid back. A Palo Alto Software survey of 2,877 business owners found that of the 995 respondents who said they had a business plan, 36 percent secured a loan. Only 18 percent of the business that had not completed a business plan were able to secure a loan. The same held true for investments. Of those with a business plan, 36 percent secured investment capital compared to only 18 percent of those without a plan. While the business plan itself might not have been the only factor involved (for example, owners who completed a plan might be better organized), the survey also found that of those with a business plan, 64 percent experienced business growth, compared to 43 percent without a plan.

A business plan is certainly far from the only requirement to get a loan or investment, but it’s a good way to stand apart from the pack. It’s especially useful for newer businesses who don’t have the financial or credit history most lenders are looking for. Even the best business plan, though, won’t save a traditional loan application if you have a really poor credit score.

At the end of the day, you want to give your business the best chance of survival. The risks are still quite high and many new companies don’t make it. According to the most recent data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 56.3 percent of companies formed in 2011 were still in business five years later.

A business plan can give you a leg up on staying in business and launching a sustainable business to begin with. People who write formal business plans are 16 percent more likely to create viable businesses compared to almost identical entrepreneurs who don’t have a plan.

Defining your goal is a good place to start with your business plan. You should also determine the audience for your plan to guide you on what to include. Whether you need outside funding and how much business experience you have will factor into your decisions.

When to write a business plan

There are no absolutes when it comes to when you should write a business plan. Many people will create a plan right from the start to help them hash out their business idea. That’s a good option for most, since the plan can help clue you in on whether your idea has potential. Either way, be ready to revise your plan—frequently.

Attempting to write a business plan is an easy way to expose what you don’t know and should research, whether that be the product itself, the industry you want to enter, or what your competition and market looks like.

But, there are benefits to writing a plan even if your business is already up and running. A plan can help you develop your ideas on where the company is headed and what’s next for you in terms of products, services or even marketing endeavors. This is also a great way to set long- and short-term goals. And, of course, it’s useful for attracting funding if you need to grow your business or smooth out cash flow issues.

However, your business isn’t operating in a vacuum. You’ll need to make amendments, updates and, on top of that, your projections will need to be revised with new data. A business plan should be a detailed plan for a year, but also be able to broadly account for the next five years of your company’s future.

What to include in a business plan

Writing a business plan can seem overwhelming and it may be tempting to cut some of the sections. What your business plan looks like is largely dependent on your audience. For example, if the idea is to attract investors, document everything. Cash flow, expenses, projections—make a plan as detailed as possible to show due diligence without overburdening the reader.

If you are going to put in the work to build a business plan, make it work for different scenarios. Make a shorter version for angel investors and a longer version for the bank. And, if it’s to inform employees about where you see the business going, make sure the information is relevant to them. Your business plan should make it easy for the intended reader to see how being involved in the business relates to them, and to compel them to take a positive action.

Your business plan should make it easy for the intended reader to see how being involved in the business relates to them.

When to update your business plan

A business plan is a living document. That means you should update your plan at least once a year, though, in many cases, it may be beneficial to update it more often than that. This will also help you evaluate if you’re on track with the goals in your five-year plan, and also serve as a measurement of your successes or shortcomings. Regardless, always review your plan before you send it to someone new.

You may want to update your plan if your competitors change their prices or products, potentially causing you to reevaluate your own products and pricing. Sudden changes in the market, the economy or new regulations could also require you to update the projections in your business plan, as are relationship changes—i.e., you have a new vendor or supplier, or your terms or contracts have changed with those groups.

Of course the major reason to overhaul your business plan is if you are looking for a new round of financing or are ready to plot a new course for your company.

Creating a thoughtful and detailed business plan ensures that you will have a useful tool in helping launch or maintain a successful business, and updating it should be a fluid process.

See our Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Business Plan

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