While we just discussed several different types of business plans, there are key elements that appear in virtually all business plans. These components include the review schedule, strategy summary, milestones, responsibilities, metrics (numerical goals that can be tracked), and basic projections. The projections include sales, costs, expenses, and cash flow.
These core elements grow organically as needed by the business for the actual business purpose.
The order doesn’t matter a whole lot, so don’t sweat having the “right” outline as long as you have an outline that works. Here’s what they normally include:
Just like the old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, the executive summary is your business’s calling card. It needs to be succinct and hit the key highlights of the plan. Many potential investors will never make it beyond the executive summary, so it needs to be compelling and intriguing.
The executive summary should provide a quick overview of the problem your business solves, your solution to the problem, the business’s target market, key financial highlights, and a summary of who does what on the management team.
While it’s difficult to convey everything you might want to convey in the executive summary, keeping it short is critical. If you hook your reader, they’ll find more detail in the body of the plan as they continue reading. You could consider using your one-page business plan as your executive summary.
One often useful section of a formal plan describes the market, including market analysis, data, projections, descriptions, and competition.
As critical as it is that your company is solving a real-world problem that people or other businesses have, it’s equally important to detail who you are selling to. Understanding your target market is key to building marketing campaigns and sales processes that work. And, beyond marketing, your target market will define how your company grows.
Describe the most important changes happening in your target market right now. Are the needs, demographics, or preferences of potential customers changing in a notable way? Ideally, explain how those trends will favor your products or services over those of your competitors.
For example, if people in your market are increasingly using their smartphones for tasks that they used to do on a computer, perhaps the mobile app you are developing is well positioned to capture a bigger part of the market.
Explain how your target market has been growing or shrinking in recent years. Research is key here, obviously. You can use Internet searches, trade associations, market research firms, journalists who cover your market, or other credible sources to gauge market growth. A growing market is encouraging, since it suggests stronger demand for your solution in the years to come. That said, you can still be successful in a weak or contracting market. It’s just important to acknowledge that you are swimming against the tide.
What other options do your customers have to address their needs, and what makes your solution better for them?
Products and services
The products and services section of your business plan delves into the core of what you are trying to achieve. In this section, you will detail the problem you are solving, how you are solving it, the competitive landscape, and your business’s competitive edge.
Depending on the type of company you are starting, this section may also detail the technologies you are using, intellectual property that you own, and other key factors about the products that you are building now and plan on building in the future.
Marketing and sales
The marketing and sales plan details the strategies that you will use to reach your target market. This portion of your business plan provides an overview of how you will position your company in the market, how you will price your products and services, how you will promote your offerings, and any sales processes you need to have in place.
Depending on the specifics of your business, include plans related to locations and facilities, technology, and regulatory issues.
Milestones and metrics
Plans are nothing without solid implementation. The milestones and metrics chapter of your business plan lays out concrete tasks that you plan to accomplish, complete with due dates and the names of the people to be held responsible.
This chapter should also detail the key metrics that you plan to use to track the growth of your business. This could include the number of sales leads generated, the number of page views to your web site, or any other critical metric that helps determine the health of your business.
For external plans, the company overview is a brief summary of the company’s legal structure, ownership, history, and location. It’s common to include a mission statement in the company overview, but that’s certainly not a critical component of all business plans. The company overview is often omitted from internal plans.
The management team chapter of a business plan is critical for entrepreneurs seeking investment but can be omitted for virtually any other type of plan.
The management team section should include relevant team bios that explain why your management personnel is made up of the right people for the roles. After all, good ideas are a dime a dozen—it’s a talented entrepreneur who can take those ideas and turn them into thriving businesses.
Business plans should help identify not only strengths of a business, but areas that need improvement and gaps that need to be filled. Identifying gaps in the management team shows knowledge and foresight, not a lack of ability to build the business.
The financial plan is a critical component of nearly all business plans. Running a successful business means paying close attention to how much money you are bringing in, and how much money you are spending. A good financial plan goes a long way to help determine when to hire new employees or buy a new piece of equipment.
If you are a startup and/or are seeking funding, a solid financial plan helps you figure out how much capital your business needs to get started or to grow, so you know how much money to ask for from the bank or from investors.
A typical financial plan includes:
- Sales forecast
- Personnel plan
- Profit and loss statement
- Cash flow statement
- Balance sheet