What Makes a Successful Business Plan? 5

Business PlanEvery year, I spend a lot of time reading and judging  business plans for business plan competitions. I have read some great plans and some not-so-great plans, but that is how it always turns out in any business plan competition.

I thought it might be useful to talk about the most common deficiencies that have come up in the reading of these plans.

Executive Summary – Frequently, business plan authors are so immersed in their business and their business concept that they forget that all potential readers of the plan aren’t experts in their industry. Many executive summaries that I read assumed some degree of knowledge about the industry and in some cases even the business and business concept. Executive summaries need to be short, direct, and provide an overview of the business opportunity. The idea of an “elevator pitch” is critical here. A good plan will communicate what the business does, who the target market is, and what the potential upside is in no more than 5 sentences.

Expenses – A common failing in business plan financials is to either under-estimate expenses or to leave out some expenses altogether. Several plans I read recently neglected to include any personnel costs. This is fine if you are bootstrapping the business, but this needs to be explained clearly in the supporting text. On the flip side, don’t discuss plans for a sales team and then neglect to include the costs of that team in your personnel plan.

On the expenses side, make sure that your P&L includes all of your fixed costs for running your business. You’d be surprised how many people forget things like rent, insurance, hosting costs for a web site, etc.

Optimism – Optimism is great and a required attribute of any entrepreneur but it can be a minor detriment in planning. While it is tempting to create a sales forecast that shows exponential growth, make sure your forecast is realistic. Most business plan readers are going to question what appears to be overly optimistic growth scenarios and it is important to back up these claims with text if these projections are realistic.

Market Size – Similar to my point on optimism above, it is very common for businesses to define their market too broadly in their plans. It is not uncommon to see plans that define their markets in the billions of dollars and millions of potential customers. While this is not a bad thing on its own, it’s very important to sub-divide this huge market into manageable target markets or market segments. Divide your market into manageable segments such as location, customer needs, age, income, etc. Without a realistic market segmentation strategy and a marketing plan that addresses that segmentation, you will have a difficult time implementing the plan.

There are plenty of other topics worth focusing on to build a successful business plan, but these four I mention today are common enough that they merit being singled out for discussion.

About the Author Noah Parsons is the COO of Palo Alto Software, makers of LivePlan, the award-winning online business planning software. Follow him on Twitter. Follow Noah on Google+ Read more »

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  • Michael Warren

    I have written a fifteen page business plan, but I am surprised that one of the four key points you mentioned, was not about working with capital (I mean getting the loans and permits required). Rarely does anybody get capital, to do ‘anything you want’. Your investors will often want to decide with you, if not totally control, what kind of business it will be.

    • http://www.paloalto.com Noah Parsons

      Thanks for the comment Michael. Yes, the “funding” section is a key portion of most business plans. But, while it’s important to detail how much money you need and how you are going to use that money, I don’t find that many plans have a lot of trouble communicating their funding needs. Some companies are unrealistic about how much money they are going to be able to raise and how much control investors might insist on, but this section of a plan is typically much less important than the other areas I mentioned. If you don’t have a fantastic executive summary, for example, the investor isn’t even going to read the rest of the plan.

  • John Vardaxis

    “on it’s own ” should be “on its own”

    • http://www.paloalto.com Noah Parsons

      Thanks for the grammer correction. Fixed now.

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  • http://www.chrisducker.com/ blogging for business

    Do you have an infographics about business plan?