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On Document Types: Building a Business Plan

Yesterday I talked about my incredibly depressing sales pitch for the Consortium, which has somehow achieved a 100% conversion rate…. I can’t promise you those kind of results, but I do want to teach you how to build a business plan of your own.

Finding Firm Foundations

Last week I told you that my first step, any time I’m working with a brand new document type, is to find some good examples to use as models. I talked about asking friends or colleagues, and also about using Google to find them in the wild. I did both.

My friend Bruce studied Business Plans while pursuing his MBA, and he was able to provide me some great examples. Not just that, he taught me how to read them (and which bits really matter). That’s a huge help.

Speaking of the bits that count, I also told you last week that a document template consists of several key elements, and then I provided a big honkin’ list of them all. Once I had my sample documents, the first thing I did was create a new, blank one to work in.

I didn’t refer back to my list because I’ve recreated enough templates in my time that it’s second nature, but I did go through all of those elements as I scanned the samples and designed my own, brand new business plan document. Then, just out of idle curiosity, I opened up Word to check out the templates they already had.

Working in Word 2010, I was surprised to find a phenomenal business plan template already waiting for me. I had one all ready to go in my head, but after a few moments scanning the built-in one, I decided to use it instead.

Always be ready to take advantage of the tools you’ve got available.

Designing Your Content

The whole point of a template, I’ve said, is to save you time formatting so you can focus on the important work of writing. Using Word’s built-in template, it took me all of a minute to get my document built, and everything I’ve done since then has been content design.

So how do you design the content for a business plan? The same way you do the content for any other document: audience analysis and deliberate structure. Luckily, our sample documents help make that process faster, too, since they gives us a glimpse of the audiences their authors expected, and (as I mentioned) provide a consistent set of required headings organized the same way, again and again.

Here’s what I learned, from my review:

  • A business plan’s primary audience is potential investors. They’ll use the formally structured information it contains to evaluate the quality of the investment.
  • The document’s organization is almost entirely done for you. I looked through a dozen different sample business plans, and 90% of the structure repeats across every one of them. That means you know exactly what to put where, and readers know exactly where to find the answers to the questions that most interest them.
  • A business plan is all about answering questions. It’s a sales pitch, but more than that it’s a factual accounting of your ideas and mission. In other words, good technical writing will serve you far better here than creative writing would.
  • One of the major benefits of a business plan is helping you, the writer, figure out all the fine details of your business. That’s often a pleasant side-effect of good writing, but a business plan is designed specifically to force you to research the things you’re going to need to know, and think them through in an orderly and critical manner.

How to Write a Business Plan

That’s some handy advice and a pretty good application of last week’s articles, but I haven’t really told you much about what the end product should look like, have I? I should probably do that.

Okay, fine. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you how to write a business plan. There will be plenty of details. I promise.

2 Responses to “On Document Types: Building a Business Plan”

  1. Roberto Rodriguez says:

    Good article, thanks. I think the main problem people have with business plans is actually knowing how to put the whole thing together. There are now plenty of online templates that will automatically do this for you but it really requires some in-depth research beforehand to see if this is the best option for you.

    I know people who’ve used both and and highly recommend them. They can help to shape business plans if you don’t want to go down the manual route.

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Thanks for the comment, Roberto. It brings up an interesting discussion.

      My purpose for this post wasn’t so much to teach someone exactly how to write a business plan, but to show how an understanding of templates (like I discussed last week) makes a given application of that information a lot more powerful. In other words, once you understand how templates work, you can bring that information to a new project (going down the manual route with a business plan), and know at a glance whether it’s the best option.

      You shared links to some business plan preparation wizards, but once someone really understands how to use document templates, the templates are wizards. It’s remarkably powerful info.