I’ve been quite vocal with my concern that farming your business plan out is usually a bad idea.

A business plan is not a one-time task—it’s an ongoing practice. The writing, formatting, and cosmetics of a business plan are nowhere near as important as its contents (though they’re still important); and its contents should change often. Real companies with real business plans review and revise them often.

Be aware of common pitfalls

The underlying reason for my caution on the topic of outsourcing the writing of your business plan is the confusion about what makes a business plan successful. Some people think it’s about the paper itself, or even the writing. But these are not the all-important factors.

For example, my article My Worst Ever Business Plan Engagement tells a true story of smart entrepreneurs with a solid business plan not getting funded because they didn’t know the plan by heart.

So, before you dive headfirst into finding someone to write your plan, read these two articles: 10 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Business Plan Writer, and Business Plan Writing Can’t Perfume a Pig.

I had to explain this earlier this month, in response to a question on Quora.com: “How do I make an impressive business plan?”

Make no mistake, it’s the business that’s impressive or not; it isn’t the business plan.

A business plan is impressive when it combines a credible team with an attractive market, plus differentiators, barriers to competition, good product-market fit, some proprietary secret sauce.

The best you can do with the writing and formatting and such is keep that all out of the way, so it doesn’t interfere with the content.

Start by doing your own planning

Like everything else in business, the planning process should adhere to the general business principle of getting a return on investment of time and effort, as well as money. Before you go for outside help, focus on the business purpose.

If your business plan is to help you manage better by setting strategy, tactics, milestones, metrics, and essential projections, tracking results and revising often, then the keys to success with that task are not related to what you normally get by having an outsider do it for you.

If, on the other hand, you have a business plan event, in which a business plan is a requirement for a loan, investor, divorce settlement, strategic ally, or some other outsider, then in that case maybe you do have a business need to go beyond the basics and formalize a plan with well-written summaries, descriptions, and so forth. As always in business, form follows function. So first, you decide what you really need, for real business purposes.

Assuming you do need to show a plan to outsiders, as you go for help you look for a coach or advisor, not somebody to just write your plan for you so you don’t have to.

Here’s a quick summary in video:

YouTube video

Look for a coach, advisor, and confidante

Still, let’s assume for a moment that you are a business owner, or that you want to start a new business, and you have a budget to pay for help and you don’t want to do your business plan by yourself.

Am I suggesting you shouldn’t even try to get help? No. I am saying that you can do it yourself and that you do know how. Anybody who can develop a business can develop a business plan. A plan is good or not based on its content, specifics, milestones, scalability, defensibility, financial projections, and team in charge. It’s not style, writing, or formatting.

Of course, I’m biased on this question too because here I am writing on Bplans, surrounded by ads for LivePlan, which exists to make it easy for you to do your plan yourself.

Still, I made a living doing business plans for owners and entrepreneurs for more than 15 years, and I deal with bad business plans often enough since I read more than 100 startup business plans every year. So I don’t say don’t ever get help. As with a lot of business tasks, maybe a coach can help, somebody to look over your shoulders, particularly on the financial projections. You want the math and finance to be correct.

1. Find someone who is in it for the long haul

Avoid hiring anybody that assumes a business plan is a one-time thing, to be used once and discarded. That’s just not the way real business planning works anymore. Business plans go stale in a matter of weeks.

For a plan to be useful, you need to review results regularly, track progress, and revise often. So you have to have somebody helping who will either pass the plan on completely so you can review and revise it easily, or be available later to help with review and revision.

Some business plan writers think like coaches and have that kind of relationship in mind, and some don’t. Avoid working with somebody who will deliver a plan and disappear. 

2. Find someone with useful industry experience

Given that the actual content of the plan matters way more than cosmetics, if you look for somebody to help you, you want to find somebody with related experience who can compare your plan to what the experience indicates will really happen.

You want somebody who can tell you if you are projecting marketing expenses as too low to be realistic, or profits too high. You want somebody who can tip you off to what metrics will matter. Those metrics are usually specific to your business, so you probably know them already.

For example, some businesses grow based on traffic, others conversion rates, and others sales per square feet, trips, leads, presentations, or whatever.

3. Ideally, find someone on your team

The best place to find somebody who will be around for the long term, who knows your industry, and who has relevant experience, is somebody already on your team. Think through your roster of managers and advisors.

If you assume doing a business plan is something that anybody who knows the business can do—not a specialized skill—is there somebody who might be able to lead the task for you, and take it over?  If yes, you’re set.

Tim BerryTim Berry

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