A complete business plan describes what you sell: either products, services, or both.

This part of the plan is mainly description. Sometimes it will include tables that provide more details, such as a bill of materials or detailed price lists. More frequently, however, this section is mainly text. It normally appears in the plan, after the company description, but before the market analysis.
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The detailed description of what you sell

List and describe the products or services you sell. For each business offering, cover the main points, including:

  • What the product or service is
  • How much it costs
  • What sorts of customers make purchases, and why
  • What customer need does each product or service line fill? You might not want or need to include every product or service in the list, but at least consider the main sales lines.

It is always a good idea to think in terms of customer needs and customer benefits as you define your product offerings, rather than thinking of your side of the equation–how much the product or service costs, and how you deliver it to the customer.

As you list and describe your sales lines, you may run into one of the serendipitous benefits of good business planning, which is generating new ideas. Describe your product offerings in terms of customer types and customer needs, and you’ll often discover new needs and new kinds of customers to cover. This is the way ideas are generated.

The competitive comparison

Use this topic for a general comparison of your offering as one of several choices a potential buyer can make. Use a separate topic, in the market analysis section, for detailed comparison of strengths and weaknesses of your specific competitors.

You should discuss how your product lines and retail offering compare in general to the others. For example, your outdoor store might offer better ski equipment than others, or perhaps it is located next to the slopes and caters to rental needs. Your jewelry store might be mid-range in price but well known for proficiency in appraisals, remounts, and renovation. Your hobby shop has by far the largest selection of model trains and airplanes.

In other words, in this topic you want to discuss how you are positioned in the market. Why do people buy from your business instead of from others in the same market? What do you offer, at what price, to whom, and how does your mix compare to others? Think about specific kinds of benefits, features, and market groups, comparing where you think you can show the difference. Describe the important competitive features of your products and/or services. Do you sell better features, better price, better quality, better service, or some other factor?

Sourcing and fulfillment

Explain your product sourcing and the cost of fulfilling your service. Manufacturers and assemblers should present spreadsheet output showing standard costs and overhead. Distributors should present discount and margin structures. Service companies should present costs of fulfilling service obligations.

For example, sourcing is extremely important to a manufacturing company. Your vendors determine your standard costs and hold the key to continued operation. Analyze your standard costs and the materials or services you purchase as part of your manufacturing operation. Look for strengths and weaknesses.

Manufacturing companies want to have ample information about resource planning and sourcing of vital materials, especially if you are preparing a plan for outsiders, such as bankers or investors, or for business valuation. In this case, you may have additional documentation you can copy and attach as appendices, perhaps even contracts with important suppliers, standard cost breakdowns, bills of materials, and other information.

Where materials are particularly vital to your manufacturing, you might discuss whether second sources or alternative sources are available, and whether or not you use them or maintain relationships with them. This is also a good time to look at your sourcing strategy, and whether or not you can improve your business by improving your product sourcing.

But sourcing is not just for product-based companies. For example, a professional service company, such as an accounting practice, medical practice, law practice, management consulting firm, or graphic design firm, is normally going to provide the service by employing professionals. In this case, the cost is mainly the salaries of those professionals. Other service businesses are quite different. The travel agency provides a service through a combination of knowledge, rights, and infrastructure, including computer systems and databases. The Internet provider or telephone company provides a service by owning and maintaining a network of communications infrastructure. A restaurant is a service business whose costs are a combination of salaries (for kitchen and table waiting) and food costs.

Technology: How does it affect you?

Once technology changed lives only when the next wave of invaders swept across the Mesopotamian farmlands. Now technology can change our lives as we read the morning paper. Explain how technology affects your business, the products you sell, the means you use to sell them, and the needs of the customers you serve.

In some cases this might be a change in scanning technology, retail point-of-sale systems, or even video displays. In others, technology changes the nature of the goods or services you sell, such as cellular phones or DVD videos that didn’t even exist a few years ago. Do you want to include the Internet? Will a website change the way you do business?

Sometimes, technology can be vital to a service company, such as the case of the internet provider that uses wireless connections as a competitive edge, or the local company that offers conference rooms for video conferencing. An accounting practice might gain a competitive advantage from proprietary software or wide-area network connections to its clients. A medical laboratory might depend completely on certain expensive technologies for medical diagnostics. A travel agency might depend on its connection to an airline reservation system.

Technology can be critical to a manufacturing business in at least two ways: first, the technology involved in assembly or manufacturing, such as in the manufacture of computer chips; and second, the technology incorporated in your product, such as proprietary technology that enhances the value of the product. In either case, technology can be a critical competitive edge. If you are writing a plan for outsiders, then you need to describe the technology and how well or thoroughly you have the technology protected in your business, through contracts, patents, and other protection.

Technology might be a negative factor, something to be included in a plan because a threat should be dealt with. For example, that same travel agency that depends on a computerized reservation system might also note growing competition from Internet reservations systems available to consumers who prefer to buy direct.

Not all businesses depend on technology. Technology might also be irrelevant for your business. If so, you can delete this topic if it doesn’t seem important.

Future products: What’s Your Strategy?

Now you want to present your outlook for future products or services. Do you have a long-term product strategy? How are products developed? Is there a relationship between market segments, market demand, market needs, and product development?

Here again, what you include depends on the nature of your plan. In some cases, future products are the most important point for investors looking to buy into your company’s future. On the other hand, a bank is not going to lend you money for product development or hopes for future products; so in a plan accompanying a loan application, there would probably be much less stress on this point.

You may also need to deal with the issue of confidentiality. When a business plan includes sensitive information on future products, then it should be carefully monitored, with good documentation of who receives copies of the plan. Recipients might reasonably be asked to sign non-disclosure statements and those statements should be kept on file.

Sales literature: Where to include it

It is generally a good idea to include specific pieces of sales literature and collateral as attachments or appendices to your plan. Examples would be copies of advertisements, brochures, direct mail pieces, catalogs, and technical specifications. When a plan is presented to someone outside the company, sales literature is a practical way to both explain your services and present the look and feel of the company.

If it is relevant for your business, you should also use this topic to discuss your present situation regarding company literature and your future plans. Is your sales literature a good match to your services and the image your company wants to present? How is it designed and produced? Could you improve it significantly, or cut the cost, or add additional benefits?

Depending on the purpose of your plan, you should provide good, practical information on the products or services you sell. Give your plan readers what they will need to evaluate the plan. Make sure they understand the need you serve, how well you satisfy that need, and why your customers buy from you instead of somebody else. Ideally, the descriptions in this chapter make your sales forecast seem realistic and even conservative.

Tim BerryTim Berry

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