excerpted from The Plan-as-You-Go Business Plan by Tim Berry

“Please, can you recommend somebody to write my business plan for me? How much will it cost? How do I find somebody?”

“Where can I find (or buy) a business plan for a doggie daycare? For a resort? For a website selling environmentally-sensitive goods?”

Forget it. You can’t. It won’t happen. Furthermore, the whole idea of finding a business plan for your business is off-kilter. I think it’s a new variation on the very bad idea of students buying term papers on the Web instead of writing them themselves; and in this case, it’s even worse, because it’s not just a term paper that you should have done once.

It isn’t something you just do and forget. It’s your business plan. Your business is unique. Buying a business plan makes about as much sense as buying a medical checkup already done and on paper, instead of going to a doctor.

Many people confuse the idea of sample business plans with somehow getting a business plan already done. That doesn’t work. Sample business plans can be useful in some cases because they can help you see what other people planned to do, in the best of cases in situations similar to yours. But their market is different from yours, their strategy is different, their resources are different, and their plan won’t work for your business.

Businesses aren’t built by recipes.

Okay, there are some exceptions to these rules.

Sometimes a person with knowledge and experience in the right field can help you develop your business plan, by asking you the right questions and helping you to think through your ideas.
Sometimes when you need help creating a document from your existing plan ideas, as long as the core content of the document is yours, you can work collaboratively with somebody to actually craft the thoughts onto paper. Most franchise businesses are formula businesses. The better franchises do work like recipes. You follow the steps. In fact, if it doesn’t work like that, you aren’t getting what you’re paying for as franchisee.

More important, notice how the plan-as-you-go business plan solves a lot of the stress related to finding a suitable existing business plan by focusing on doing only what you need, building it as you go, and developing it as you need it, in pieces.

Sample Business Plans Suck

The original title of this piece was “Business Plans Are Made, Not Found.” It comes from my childhood memories of the Wheaties ad campaign of the 1950s. The slogan was “Champions Are Made, Not Found.”

The same applies to business plans. You make one, you don’t find one. You develop your own.

This idea comes up a lot these days because — I think– of sample business plans. The spread of sample business plans is a real problem for the greater good of business planning. And unfortunately, I might be part of the problem. Gulp.

I started sample business plans at Palo Alto Software in 1987 with the first Business Plan Toolkit, which included the original versions of Acme Consulting and AMT, the computer reseller, which I had written for clients.

Digression: If you’re curious, Google one or the other and see how widespread it is. By the way, there are a few sites that use one of these examples with permission (the SBA, for example, has permission to use AMT as a sample on its site), but there are a lot of people just copying one and calling it their own. Seems like there are hundreds of them out there. Only a very, very few have permission. Most are pirates. End of digression.

We came up with the idea of including sample plans with the business-planning product to help people understand what a business plan looks like, what it covers, and how it comes together. We included 10 real sample plans in late 1994 when we released Business Plan Pro. People liked the samples, so we included more. We polled the users and came up with 20 real plans from real businesses to include with our second version in February of 1996, and 30 sample plans for the third version, in May of 1998. People really liked sample plans as part of the product.

Then the idea spread. People started buying and selling sample plans. Our life as market leader became very complicated when a competitor bought 100-some sample plans from a book compilation and included them as Adobe PDF files with some business plan software. That company didn’t tell their customers that the plans were just electronic documents, didn’t work with their software, and most didn’t even have financial information, but they did cause a stir in the market. We had to work like mad to get 250 real plans, all of which worked with Business Plan Pro and had financial data, to compete. We sponsored business plan competitions, and paid our customers, looking for real plans.

So the race was on. By this point we had our version 2002 (equivalent to the fifth version) of Business Plan Pro out. People started selling sample plans on the web, most of them poorly-disguised knock-offs of our sample plans exported from Business Plan Pro and massaged slightly. We’ve had several legal battles with people using our work to compete against us. We’re up to 550 sample business plans with LivePlan now, and, frankly, I hate it.

Here’s the problem: when it was two sample plans or even 10 sample plans, people generally understood that they were supposed to give you an idea of what a plan is. Now with hundreds of sample plans available, some people naturally think their own business plan is supposed to be one of those 500.

Frankly, as author and professional business planner, I hate this idea. People are buying and selling finished business plans as if they were term papers (also a bad idea) for college students. That trend is really spreading, and it’s a mistake. Not just wrong because of plagiarism, but wrong because it doesn’t work and clouds business planning.

I get the question all the time: “Do you have a plan for X?”

Which brings me back to the title of this sidebar (which was originally a blog post). I want to tell everybody that finding a business plan you can use is a really, really bad idea. You make a plan; you don’t find one. Obviously, every business is unique. Every business plan is unique. Even if you happened to find a business plan for a business very much like yours, it would never have the same owners, the same management team, the same strategy, and probably not the same market or location either.

Sure, I recognize that a sample plan can help in several ways. You can find out how somebody else defined the units and prices in a business, what her expense projections were and for what categories, and how she described her market.

But I strongly recommend you start at zero, and write your own plan. Refer to samples for some hard points, perhaps, but start with an empty plan. If you’re using LivePlan, the wizard takes you through the process step by step, tells you what you need to include and why, so that you just tell your own story and do your own numbers. If you start with somebody else’s plan it’s going to be very hard to distinguish your own ideas from hers. You’re going to end up with a hodgepodge of rehash.

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Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.