With this step-by-step guide, learn how to write a well-written professional business plan that can help you successfully start your business, apply for funding, and grow.
Writing a business plan doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t need to have a business or accounting degree to put together a viable business plan. Business planning can be simple—even fun!
This guide will show you how to get your plan done without any complexity or frustration. By the time you’re done, you’ll be better prepared to start, run, and grow your business. Here are the 7 steps to write a business plan:
- Executive summary
- Products & services
- Market analysis
- Marketing & sales
- Company organization and management team
- Financial projections
Be sure to download our free business plan template to start writing your own business plan as you work through this guide. For a more detailed guide to writing a business plan, download our free ebook: The Easy Way to Write Your Business Plan.
What is a business plan?
A business plan is a document that describes your business, the products and services you sell, and the customers that you sell to. It explains your business strategy. How you’re going to build and grow your business, what your marketing strategy is, and who your competitors are.
Most business plans also include financial forecasts for the future. Setting sales goals, expense budgets, and predictions for cash flow.
Now, a business plan can be far more than just a static document that you write once and forget about. It’s also a guide that helps you outline and achieve your goals. A management tool to analyze results, make strategic decisions, and showcase how your business will operate and grow. In short, if you’re thinking of starting a business or plan to pitch to investors or venture capitalists, writing a business plan can improve your chances of success.
Why do you need a business plan?
You likely already have a good idea of your business strategy in your head. So you may be wondering, “Why should I spend my time making a business plan?” Here are the top reasons why you should invest in planning:
Businesses that plan grow 30% faster.
A surprising amount of research has been done on business planning and has shown that companies that take the time to write a plan and review it regularly grow 30% faster than those businesses that don’t plan. Not only do these companies grow faster, but they perform better and are less likely to fail in the long run.
Lenders and investors need business plans
If you’re growing your business and plan on getting a business loan or raising money from investors, you’ll need a business plan. Most lenders and investors will ask for a plan, but even if they don’t want to see the actual document, they will ask you questions that only a solid business plan will be able to answer.
Business plans reduce risk
Starting and running a business is always risky. Instead of flying by the seat of your pants, you can use a plan to forecast potential cash flow issues and get ahead of any potential roadblocks so you aren’t caught off guard. A business plan will help you reduce your risk and help you navigate the future.
Business planning helps you make smart spending decisions
Before you make a big spending decision for your business, you need to know the potential impacts on your finances. With a business plan in place, you can easily explore different scenarios and see what impacts a new hire or an expansion to a second location will have on your business.
Need more reasons for why you need a business plan? Read our full list of reasons why having a business plan is important for small businesses.
How to write a business plan step-by-step
Whether you’re building a business plan to raise money and grow your business or just need to figure out if your idea will work, every business plan needs to cover 6 essential sections. Here’s an overview of each section:
1. Executive summary
The executive summary is an overview of your business and your plans. It comes first in your plan and is ideally only one to two pages. Most people write it last, though.
Ideally, the executive summary can act as a stand-alone document that covers the highlights of your detailed plan. In fact, it’s very common for investors to ask for only the executive summary when they are evaluating your business. If they like what they see in the executive summary, they’ll often follow up with a request for a complete plan, a pitch presentation, and more in-depth financials.
Your executive summary should include a summary of the problem you are solving, a description of your product or service, an overview of your target market, a brief description of your team, a summary of your financials, and your funding requirements (if you are raising money).
Learn more about writing an effective executive summary.
2. Products & services
The products & services chapter of your business plan is where the real meat of your plan lives. It includes information about the problem that you’re solving, your solution, and how your product or service fits into the existing competitive landscape.
Start the products & services chapter by describing the problem that you are solving for your customers and what your solution is. This is a description of your product or service.
Next, you should outline your competition. Who else is providing solutions that try to solve your customers’ pain points? What are your competitive advantages over other businesses?
If you happen to have any competitive advantages, such as specific intellectual property or patents that protect your product—this chapter is a great place to talk about those things.
Finally, review your milestones and metrics. This is an overview of the next steps that you need to accomplish to get your product or service ready to sell, with target dates. If you’ve already achieved some key milestones, such as landing a crucial customer or taking on pre-orders, discuss that here.
3. Market analysis
This section is where you will showcase all of the information about your potential customers. You’ll cover your target market as well as information about the growth of your market and your industry.
First, describe your target market. Your target market is the group of people that you plan on selling to. Try to be as specific as possible. With a solid target market, it will be easier to create a sales and marketing plan that will reach your customers.
Next, provide any market analysis and market research that you have. You’ll want to explain how your market is growing over time and also explain how your business is positioned to take advantage of expected changes in your industry.
4. Marketing & sales
The marketing and sales plan section of your business plan details how you plan to reach your target market segments, how you plan on selling to those target markets, what your pricing plan is, and what types of activities and partnerships you need to make your business a success.
Some businesses that distribute their products and reach their customers through stores like Amazon.com, Walmart, Target, grocery store chains, and other retail outlets should review how this part of their business works. The plan should discuss the logistics and costs of getting products onto store shelves and any potential hurdles that the business may have to overcome.
The marketing & sales chapter of your business plan can also be a good place to include a SWOT analysis. This is purely optional but can be a good way to explain how your products and services are positioned to deal with competitive threats and take advantage of opportunities.
5. Company organization and management team
Investors look for great teams in addition to great ideas. Use this chapter to describe your current team and who you need to hire. You will also provide a quick overview of your legal structure, location, and history if you’re already up and running.
Include brief bios that highlight the relevant experiences of each key team member. It’s important here to make the case for why the team is the right team to turn an idea into a reality. Do they have the right industry experience and background? Have members of the team had entrepreneurial successes before?
Your company overview should also include a summary of your company’s current business structure. The most common business structures include:
Be sure to provide a review of how the business is owned as well. Does each business partner own an equal portion of the business? How is ownership divided? Potential lenders and investors will want to know the structure of the business before they will consider a loan or investment.
6. Financial projections
Last, but certainly not least, is your financial plan chapter. This is often what entrepreneurs find most daunting, but it doesn’t have to be as intimidating as it seems. Business financials for most startups are less complicated than you think, and a business degree is certainly not required to build a solid financial forecast. That said, if you need additional help, there are plenty of tools and resources out there to help you build a solid financial plan.
A typical financial plan will include:
Sales and revenue projections
A monthly sales and revenue forecast for the first 12 months, and then annual projections for the remaining three to five years. Three-year projections are typically adequate, but some investors will request a five-year forecast.
Profit and loss statement
An income statement, also known as the profit and loss (or P&L), is where your numbers all come together and show if you’re making a profit or taking a loss.
Cash flow statement
A cash flow statement. While the income statement calculates your profits and losses, the cash flow statement keeps track of how much cash (money in the bank) you have at any given point.
A balance sheet lists the assets, liabilities, and equity in your company. In short, it provides an overview of the financial health of your business.
Optional sections to include when seeking funding
If you are raising money from investors, you should include a brief section of your business plan that details exactly how you plan on using your investors’ cash. This is typically just called, “Use of Funds.”
Investors will also want to see a short section on your exit strategy. An exit strategy is your plan for eventually selling your business, either to another company or to the public in an IPO. If you have investors, they will want to know your thoughts on this. If you’re running a business that you plan to maintain ownership of indefinitely, and you’re not seeking angel investment or VC funding, you can skip the exit strategy section.
For more information, read our guide on the different types of exit strategies.
Finally, discuss any assumptions and important risks for your business. Knowing what your assumptions are as you start a business can make the difference between business success and business failure. When you recognize your assumptions, you can set out to prove that your assumptions are correct. The more that you can minimize your assumptions, the more likely it is that your business will succeed.
An appendix to your business plan isn’t a required chapter by any means. However, it is a useful place to stick any charts, tables, definitions, legal notes, or other critical information that either felt too long or too out-of-place to include elsewhere in your business plan. If you have a patent or a patent-pending, or illustrations of your product, this is where you’d want to include the details. For more details, read about what to include in your business plan appendix.
Business plan writing tips
To help streamline the business plan writing process here are a few tips and key questions to answer to make sure you get the most out of your plan and avoid common mistakes.
Determine why you are writing a business plan
Knowing why you are writing a business plan will determine your approach to your planning project. For example, if you are writing a business plan for yourself or just for use inside your own business, you can probably skip the section about your team and organizational structure.
If you’re raising money, you’ll want to spend more time explaining why you’re looking to raise the money you want and exactly how you’re going to use those funds. So, before you start writing your plan, think about why you are writing a business plan and what you’re trying to get out of the process.
Keep things concise
Probably the most important tip is to keep your business plan short and simple. There are no prizes for long business plans. In fact, the longer your plan, the less likely it is to be read.
So, focus on trimming things down to the essentials that your readers need to know. Skip the extended descriptions of your target market and instead focus on creating a plan that is easy to read.
Have someone review your business plan
Writing a business plan in a vacuum is never a good idea. It’s helpful to zoom out from time to time and make sure that your plan is logical and makes sense. You also want to make sure that it’s easy to read and understand. Don’t wait until your plan is “done” to get a second look, though.
Start sharing your plan early and find out from your reader what questions the plan leaves unanswered. This early review cycle will help keep you on track. If you need a more detailed review, you may want to explore hiring a professional plan writer to give it a thorough examination.
Use a free business plan template to get started
Knowing what information you need to cover in a business plan sometimes isn’t quite enough. If you’re struggling to get started or need additional guidance, it may be worth using a business plan template. If you’re looking for a free downloadable business plan template to get you started, download the template that’s been used by more than 1 million businesses.
Or, if you just want to see what a completed business plan looks like, check out our library of over 500 free sample business plans.
How do I write a simple business plan?
If you’re not ready to work on a detailed business plan and want to start with something shorter and simpler, we recommend starting with a simple one-page business plan. You’ll be able to put together an initial plan in less than 30 minutes. For many businesses, this is a great way to get started. And, if you’re not raising money from investors, this may be all the plan you need.
Next steps for writing your business plan
Whether you’re writing a plan to explore a new business idea, establishing steps to start a business, looking to raise money from investors, seeking a loan, or just trying to run your business better—a solid business plan will help get you there.
Business planning is a continuous process that can help you validate your idea, set goals, manage, and successfully pitch your business. One of the most helpful things you can do to build a successful business is to jump in and start planning. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive step-by-step walkthrough for writing a business plan, check out our Business Planning Guide.
If you need more than a template, we recommend exploring business planning software, such as LivePlan. It features step-by-step guidance that ensures you include only what you need in your plan and reduces the time you spend on formatting and presenting.
You’ll also get help building solid financial models that you can trust, without having to worry about getting everything right in a spreadsheet. Finally, it will transform your plan into a management tool that will help you easily compare your forecasts to your actual results. This makes it easy to track your progress and make adjustments as you go.
Business plan FAQ
A business plan helps you understand where you want to go with your business and what it will take to get there. It reduces your overall risk, helps you uncover your business’s potential, attracts investor, and identify areas for growth. Having a business plan ultimately makes you more confident as a business owner and more likely to succeed for a longer period of time.
The seven steps to writing a business plan include:
1. Write a brief executive summary.
2. Describe your products and services.
3. Conduct market research and compile data into a cohesive market analysis.
4. Describe your marketing and sales strategy.
5. Outline your organizational structure and management team.
6. Develop financial projections for sales, revenue, and cash flow.
7. Add any additional documents to your appendix.
There are plenty of mistakes that can be made when writing a business plan. However, these are the 5 most common that you should do your best to avoid:
1. Not taking the planning process seriously.
2. Having unrealistic financial projections or incomplete financial information.
3. Inconsistent information or simple mistakes.
4. Failing to establish a sound business model.
5. Not having a defined purpose for your business plan.
Writing a business plan is all about asking yourself questions about your business and being able to answer them through the planning process. You’ll likely be asking dozens and dozens of questions for each section of your plan. However, these are the key questions you should ask and answer with your business plan:
– How will your business make money?
– Is there a need for your product or service?
– Who are your customers?
– How are you different from the competition?
– How will you reach your customers?
– How will you measure success?
The length of your business plan fully depends on what you intend to do with it. From the SBA and traditional lender point of view, a business plan needs to be whatever length necessary to fully explain your business. This means that you prove the viability of your business, show that you understand the market, and have a detailed strategy in place.
If you intend to use your business plan for internal management purposes, you don’t necessarily need a full 25-50 page business plan. Instead, you can start with a one-page plan or a 3-10 page Lean Plan to get all of the necessary information in place.
While all business plans cover similar categories, the style and function fully depend on how you intend to use your plan. Here are a few common business plan types worth considering.
Traditional business plan: The tried-and-true traditional business plan is a formal document meant to be used when applying for funding or pitching to investors. This type of business plan follows the outline above and can be anywhere from 10-50 pages depending on the amount of detail included, the complexity of your business, and what you include in your appendix.
Business model canvas: The business model canvas is a one-page template designed to demystify the business planning process. It removes the need for a traditional, copy-heavy business plan, in favor of a single-page outline that can help you and outside parties better explore your business idea.
One-page business plan: This format is a simplified version of the traditional plan that focuses on the core aspects of your business. You’ll typically stick with bullet points and single sentences. It’s most useful for those exploring ideas, needing to validate their business model, or who need an internal plan to help them run and manage their business.
Lean Plan: The Lean Plan is less of a specific document type and more of a methodology. It takes the simplicity and styling of the one-page business plan and turns it into a process for you to continuously plan, test, review, refine, and take action based on performance. It’s faster, keeps your plan concise, and ensures that your plan is always up-to-date.
A business plan covers the “who” and “what” of your business. It explains what your business is doing right now and how it functions. The strategic plan explores long-term goals and explains “how” the business will get there. It encourages you to look more intently toward the future and how you will achieve your vision.
However, when approached correctly, your business plan can actually function as a strategic plan as well. If kept lean, you can define your business, outline strategic steps, and track ongoing operations all with a single plan.
The core elements of business planning are the same for nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses. The main difference between the two is that nonprofits are primarily driven by a specific mission or purpose. While a for-profit organization is typically driven by growth and improved performance.
Additionally, nonprofit organizations will need to intently focus on their promotional, partnership, and fundraising strategies. While some of this is present in for-profit businesses, the need to thoroughly outline how and who you will continue to receive funding is far more important as a nonprofit.