How to start a business

Business plans for beginners: a step-by-step guide

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Have you ever put together a business plan before? It’s no joke. There are a lot of factors to consider as you start to build one, and there’s often a nagging feeling at the back of your mind: is my idea good enough? Will anybody be as excited about this business as I am? 

Don’t worry; we’re here to help.

If you’re ready to start a small business, a business plan is the way to take your idea and put it into action. As you’ll see, it’s not just for the investors or the bank’s benefit. When it’s done well, a business plan can serve as your very own road map to a successful, sustainable new business. 

The good news is, there’s no one right way to write a business plan, but there are some tips and tricks that can ensure you include all the important information any lender or investor will want to see before they go into business with you. 

Today, we’ll share: 

4 guiding principles for a successful business plan

We have lots of in-depth advice ahead on how to craft a business plan that’s specific to your small business idea. But first, here are some broader guidelines that should help you get in the right headspace:

1. Be objective

We know this idea is your baby, your pride and joy. It’s hard to stand back and evaluate it without the rose-colored glasses. But the better you are at seeing your idea’s strengths and weaknesses, the better you’ll be able to improve and see issues coming before they snowball into problems, both before you launch and as a business owner. 

2. Be realistic

Some new small business owners think they need to pad the numbers and set lofty expectations for the first few years of a business. But when you overpromise, you’re bound to underdeliver, and that impresses nobody. You also should avoid sandbagging, or underpromising on purpose just to look extra successful.

Be honest as you build your plan. Investors and lenders understand the first five years of a small business can be tough with limited to modest profits. 

3. Be specific

You might be a big-idea person who doesn’t love the details, but this is the time to take a deep breath and dive into the details. The more details you understand about your business, the better you can respond to the questions and concerns of lenders and investors.

4. Ask for help

While most of the pieces of your plan might come from your own heart, soul, and brain, there are sure to be sections that aren’t as easy to rattle off. A business plan takes a lot of different skills, and it’s uncommon that anyone is good at all of them: market analysis, financial projections, strategic thinking, supply chain… the list goes on. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out to your community and find some experts to help make your plan sing. This could mean engaging a market research analyst or an accountant to help with financial projections, or even a fellow small business owner who’s been through the new-business wringer before and can help you navigate the red tape and share what investors appreciate most in a plan. 

If you don’t know anyone who can help you yet, we’ve got you covered. The Small Business Administration offers free, local counseling for entrepreneurs that can point you in the right direction. 

Pro-tip: A business plan isn’t just for your investors or loan officers. It’s a guide for you and a great way to attract top talent to your business. A well-written and researched plan helps you best understand your own idea and its viability so you can sell that idea to all important stakeholders. Put in the time to make this document a reliable resource; we promise you won’t regret it.

8 common mistakes in writing a business plan 

Before we dive into the different ways to build a business plan, let’s start with some of the common traps that new business plans fall into: 

1. Financial projections that don’t add up

Loan officers and most investors know money and the realities of new-business revenue and spending, and they can smell fishy numbers from a mile away. Your financials are not a place to fudge it. Make sure you get some expert advice and assistance to ensure your projects are as airtight as can be.

2. Unfounded claims 

Three words to live by when building a business plan: do your research. The research you do into the markets, potential audience, and competitors will inform your projections and instill confidence in the assumptions you make. This is another area where it might help to have a professional assist you, if you’re new to the entrepreneurial game.

3. Unclear goals 

Don’t leave your investors guessing about your key milestones and objectives. Use your research and financials to create realistic, specific goals. These will be especially important to investors, who are looking to make a return on their investment and want a trustworthy timeline on when that could happen. 

4. Ignoring the competition 

Unless you’ve invented something the world has never seen before, your business idea will have competitors. And even if your idea is completely novel, chances are you’re looking to better fill a need that other businesses or industries are currently serving. What we mean to say is: you’ve got competition, no matter your business idea. Investors know this, and they want to know that you can clearly see who your competitors are and how you’ll set yourself apart. 

5. A blind spot for your business’s weaknesses and risks

You might think that you should avoid talking about the risks to your idea when you’re building your business plan. And while you don’t need to harp on them, you should fully understand what your weaknesses are and acknowledge them somewhere in the plan, along with potential solutions to compensate for them. If you don’t show your awareness of risks and weaknesses in the plan, investors might think you’re hiding something. 

The better you know your own weaknesses, the better you can address lender and investor concerns about them.

6. Overhyped impact

Your little bookstore doesn’t have to change the world. We know you’re excited about your business idea, and you should be; that passion will take you far. But a common pitfall of new entrepreneurs is to overstate how their idea will impact the market or the community. Remember, you’ll have to live up to what you put down in your plan, so be sure you can make good on the statements therein.

7. Not enough outside insight

If you’re the only person looking at your business plan, you might be heading for a “no” from lenders or investors. It’s critical that you get other people’s eyes on your plan before you present or submit it.

Even if the people in your life have no experience in business, your plan should be easy enough for them to read, understand, and critique. And if you want expert feedback, there are several free resources available to hopeful small business owners, including the Small Business Administration’s network of counselors.

8. Poor readability

Spelling and grammar matter. If your investors and lenders can’t get through your plan because of easy-to-fix mistakes, they might question your attention to detail. If grammar isn’t your thing, have a friend proofread your plan before you share. It can also help to read your plan aloud to catch these kinds of errors. 

Choose your own adventure: Which business plan is right for you? 

Business plans aren’t one-size-fits-all. There are lots of ways to create the right plan for you, depending on what your financial backers and other stakeholders need to see in order to have confidence in your idea. But overall, most plans fall into one of two models: 

Impress with a traditional business plan

A traditional business plan is the more in-depth of the two, full of fleshed-out financials, market analyses, risk assessment, and other nitty-gritty factors. This is the model to use if you’re looking for a small business loan from a bank and some investor situations. 

The pros: This comprehensive plan is extremely detailed and, if done properly, is sure to make your investors feel safe putting their funding into your new venture.

The cons: These plans take a longer time to pull together, which could slow down your timeline. Plus, the traditional model is more granular and tends to leave out more high-level, strategic ideation that some investors might find important. 

To follow the traditional business plan model, click here

Inspire with a lean business plan, or business model canvas

If a traditional business plan is the trees, a lean plan is the forest. The one-page approach, also known as a business model canvas, is more about the concepts and big picture of your future business and is focused on relationships, key activities, and your overall value proposition. This type of plan is popular for startups or super-simple and small business ventures looking for independent investors. 

The pros: This version might get you out the door first, since it usually involves less upfront analysis. It can also be the more inspiring and visionary of the two models, since it focuses on the big ideas and broader impact than the nuts and bolts. 

The cons: Investors kind of love the nuts and bolts, most of the time. After you’ve sold them with your high-level concept, chances are you’ll have to dig in on the details, which might feel like you’ve doubled your work. 

To follow the lean business plan model, click here

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Build your own traditional business plan in 8 steps

It’s time to get those facts and figures together and floor your potential investors! 

Here are the main sections of a traditional business plan that you should include:

1. Executive summary

Whether it’s a bank loan officer or an investor reading your business plan, chances are they’re short on time and need the fast facts up front. The executive summary opens your plan, and it’s where you share your overall mission statement, along with important market analyses and financial projections.

A top-notch executive summary will give readers the most important details in the first few pages of your plan so they feel confident in your idea and interested in reading on.  

Pro-tip: Write your executive summary last. You’ll be able to see the full picture of your plan more clearly, and that means you can sum it up more effectively.

2. Company description

In this section, give all the specifics about your business, and don’t be afraid to brag. The more tangible and sure-footed you can make the company feel, the more confident your investors will be in the concept. 

Here are some of the questions your company description should answer: 

3. Market research and competitive analysis

Here’s where the nitty-gritty details come into play. It’s time to do some research on your future market and analyze that data to make decisions on how to structure your business, and what you can reasonably charge for goods and services. 

Not a huge fan of data? Don’t sweat it. You can hire market research analysts who will do the heavy lifting for you. We highly recommend finding a professional to help with the research if it’s not in your wheelhouse, since it’s really important to get the numbers right.  

Here are some areas of analysis you’ll need to include in your business plan: 

Pro-tip: Be sure to include ways your business idea disrupts the status quo of the market you’re targeting, if it plans to do so. Disruption is the name of the game today, and investors who are looking for the Next Big Thing might be excited and impressed by this potential. 

4. Company structure and operations

This section is where you detail the people and processes that will keep your business profitable. 

In the company operations section, it’s a good idea to include: 

5. Your service and product line

You’ve mentioned what you plan to sell in your executive summary. Now it’s time to, you guessed it, dig into the details. 

In your service and product line section, be sure to include:

6. Sales and marketing plan

The data is all well and good, but how will you take action on it and move your products and services? Having even a tentative sales and marketing plan in place that discusses how you’ll position yourself in the market and attract customers can go a long way to proving you have a game plan beyond getting the doors open.

Here are some key elements to include in your sales and marketing plan: 

7. Your ask

Even if you have to close your eyes while you do it, you’re going to have to write down the exact amount of money you’re asking for from investors or the bank. If you’ve done the rest of this business plan with great attention to detail and objectivity, the number should be pretty clear and based on your projected overhead. 

The Small Business Administration recommends asking for the amount you’ll need to keep the doors open for the first five years, so be sure to think ahead when calculating that number. And whether you’re working with a bank or an investor, clearly outline the terms you seek for repayment. 

Be specific in this section about how you will spend this particular funding. If you’ve already nailed down a loan for business supplies, for example, be upfront with your investors about needing their support to compensate your team and keep the lights on. People are likely to feel more comfortable investing if they know exactly how their money will be used. 

Pro-tip: Don’t sell yourself short. When looking for investors, ask for what you need, not what you think someone will give. You never know what someone is willing to invest until you ask, so give them the opportunity to pleasantly surprise you!  

8. Financial projections

You might see some investors skip right to this section of your proposal, after seeing the highlights in your executive summary. While everything else in your business plan is important, you can’t blame them for wanting to know how financially sound your idea is… and how much money they might stand to make as a result. 

This piece is also crucial to you as the potential business owner. Numbers don’t lie, so make sure you listen; if the projections aren’t positive, you might need to rethink your plan. 

Here’s what your financial projection section might include, depending on your position as you launch a new business: 

Pro-tip: Don’t skimp on the expert input. Find a great accountant you trust to help you develop the financial projections for the first five years of your business, so you know they’re sound enough to share with your investors or bank. 

If you want help calculating costs, try the Small Business Administration’s startup calculator here.

Build your own lean business plan 

It’s time to polish up your vision and inspire those potential backers to believe in your idea with a high-level, conceptual plan. Some startups are able to accomplish their lean plan in one page, but feel free to add the amount of detail that makes you (and your investors) most comfortable. 

Here are the usual sections of a lean business plan that you might want to include or adjust as you see fit. We’ll lay it out in the traditional lean plan format, based on the Small Business Administration’s suggestions, to show you just how high-level it can be. But remember: a lean plan can be whatever you need it to be, so don’t be shy about adjusting the structure and content to suit your investors’ needs. 

Here’s an idea of what you can include in your one-sheet lean business plan, using an online flower delivery service as an example: 

Business name
“Fancy Flowers, LLC”
Who you are and what you offer
Ex: “We grow and sell fresh-cut, organic flowers for delivery nationwide.” 
The problem you solve 
Ex: “Big-box flower companies are often environmentally unfriendly, from the pesticides they use and the carbon footprint it takes to deliver, plus underpaid labor.“
Your solution
Ex: “Fancy Flowers uses no pesticides, pays a living wage to its workers, and is carbon neutral.” 
Target market
Ex: “Flower lovers nationwide, specifically people looking to send flowers for special occasions to family and friends around the country.” 
Competitors 
Ex: “Big-box floral delivery conglomerates, and the growing number of smaller, more curated services.”
How you set yourselves apart
Ex: “With less overhead than the conglomerates, we can often compete on price. Plus, people feel good buying from us, knowing our commitment to sustainability and economic justice.”
How we’ll sell to customers: revenue stream
Ex: “We will have an online storefront selling to customers nationwide.” 
Marketing activities
Ex: “Fancy Flowers will do most of its targeted marketing via Instagram and Facebook advertisements, specifically around important holidays, showcasing our beautiful, sustainable arrangements. We will also contact existing customers with promotions to encourage repeat purchases and offer delightful customer experiences to foster loyalty.” 
Your major expenses
Ex: “Renting land for growing and harvesting our flowersCompensation of all employees at a living wageCost of delivery and offsetting the carbon footprint of delivery: tree planting, etc.”
Your team and roles
Ex: “Our team currently includes myself as the owner and operator, 2 customer service team members, a social media marketer, and several floral designers who put our arrangements together. We contract with local farms and a shipping company for the harvesting and distribution.” 
Key milestones 
Ex: “Fancy Flowers will seek to grow its business statewide in Missouri first, as we grow and tweak our services to ensure we offer the freshest quality in a timely manner. 
Once we’ve established ourselves, we’ll scale to the entire Midwest region, adjust for growing pains, and then move on to fully global service within the first five years.” 
Forecasted sales
Ex: “Balancing the considerable upfront costs with the potential opportunity in the market, we forecast breaking even by the end of Year 2 and turning a modest profit midway through Year 3.” 

Pro-tip: An appendix can really come in handy if you’re doing a lean business plan. Attach some more concrete financial projections and any other background research you’ve done to bolster this more conceptual, strategic plan model.

BONUS: Add depth to any business plan with these sections

Here are a few extra sections you can sprinkle in to either plan format to give your investors even more peace of mind: 

Your story. Paint a complete picture of your business’s journey up to this moment. Tell the story of how your idea was born, why it’s important to you and the world, and what your vision is for the future.

Product development and distribution plan. If you’re selling products, this is a great piece to add within your product line section. A distribution plan shows exactly how your products go from concept to customer. Seeing that flow chart clearly is helpful for both you and your investors. 

Risk assessment and mitigation. Are you looking to break into a high-risk industry like construction, cannabis, or even owning your own restaurant? Chances are your investors want to see that you are aware of the risks and have plans in place to manage them. 

Early wins. Do you already have proof that your business is in demand? Maybe you’ve been selling your products informally to family and friends to gauge interest, or other investors have already ponied up because they love your idea. It’s a good idea to include these wins in your business plan. Seeing that others already believe in you will make it easier for new investors to make that leap of faith, so include these facts and figures to invigorate confidence. 

7 tips for a killer business plan pitch deck 

As you do research for writing your business plan, you’ll probably hear about a pitch deck. This is a slide-show version of your plan that might come in handy. You’re likely to need a pitch deck if you’re looking for investors. Most banks’ small business loan officers just want the facts on paper and don’t expect to see a pitch deck. 

Here are some pointers to help you create a dynamic, easy-to-follow pitch deck:

1. Include overview and conclusion slides 

This is a classic teacher technique: tell the audience what you’re going to show them, show them what you promised, and recap what you’ve shown. This gives your listeners an experience that has a beginning, middle, and end… and you’ll see in #2 that this might be more important than you thought. 

Take a moment at the top of your presentation to tell your investors exactly what you’ll cover in your allotted time, so they know what’s coming. Then include a wrap-up slide at the end, with a few of the key points from the presentation, to tie it all together. 

2. Tell a story

Since the beginning of humankind we’ve loved and gravitated toward storytelling, from cave paintings to binge-watching the latest season of our favorite show. And it’s not just for entertainment purposes; a classic Stanford study once showed that people retain information when delivered in the form of a story six to seven times better than they do when the same information is given as dry lists or statistics. 

This doesn’t mean you need to open your presentation with “Once upon a time.” Just focus on the story of you and what brought you to this big idea: what roadblocks were you running into when you saw the solution? What product did you need that didn’t exist? Share the cold, hard financial facts, of course, but don’t leave out the you of this journey. Use storytelling to build trust in your vision and inspire passion in this new business venture. 

3. Hit the high-level points of your business plan

A pitch deck should stick to the most important pieces of information that investors need, in order to hold their attention from beginning to end. 

Here’s where you should spend your time in a pitch deck: 

4. Make your data more digestible

In both your business plan and your pitch deck, make sure your market research and financial projections are easy to read and understand. Use the tools at your disposal to make the numbers sing: charts, graphs, statistics spelled out big and bold. 

5. Keep it simple

The more uniform and clean your pitch deck is, the easier it will be to read and retain. Stick to one font, one color scheme, throughout the deck. Make sure the graphics you decide to use—images, charts, graphs, other designed pieces—are high quality and sprinkled in. Do your best not to clutter slides with multiple graphics, as this can make your presentation harder to follow. 

6. Brevity is your friend

Speaking of holding your audience’s attention: pare down the text on your slides to the most essential points. A good pitch deck is usually 10 to 15 slides, with around a minute spent on each slide. Be sure you’re only tackling one topic per slide to keep things focused.

Your pitch deck is for the investors’ engagement, so if you need more detailed reminders about what to cover, create separate notes for yourself instead of crowding the slides with text. If you need to provide your audience with more context, you can always add an Appendix at the end of the deck, which investors can review on their own time. (And don’t forget your business plan! It should answer most of the more detailed questions your investors have.) 

7. EXTRA: Present your deck

The way you present your pitch deck is as important as its contents. Here are some

Tools to help you build a business plan 

If you need some help organizing your ideas and building your first business plan, here are some tools that can assist: 

More resources: helpful books for starting a small business

Starting a business is a big undertaking. If you want to do some more research before you start making your plan, here are some helpful reads: 

Your business plan: the hard work will pay off

Creating a business plan can feel overwhelming at first if you’ve never made one before. And we won’t lie; it does take a little bit of elbow grease to put one together. 

But a business plan done well, be it traditional or lean, will either reinforce how great your idea is or help you find ways to make it even better. Take the time to do it well, and you’ll have a much easier time securing funding for your new small business venture. 

Got your plan in hand? Read on to learn about key business fundamentals for success.

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