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On Document Types: How to Write a Sales Plan

This week I’m diving into document types with a case study in sales pitches and business plans. Yesterday I talked about the purpose of a business proposal and gave you a brief glimpse at the people who will be reading it.

Today I’m supposed to tell you how to actually write one. The good news is that the template is pretty straightforward — a single standard font throughout, minimal document metadata, and nothing much more complicated than a Table of Contents in terms of page elements. And pretty much everything you need to say is prescribed, in standard, required sections.

The bad news is that, even with all that organization done for you, filling in the blanks is a lot of work. Then again, everything about starting a business is a lot of work, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

And when it comes down to it, document templates aren’t really supposed to make writing projects easy, they’re supposed to make the setup easy. As I said yesterday, when I went searching for a good business plan template, it made my setup remarkably simple.

Filling in the Blanks

These are the sections an investor expects to find in a standard business plan:

  • Executive Summary
  • Market Analysis
  • Company Description
  • Organization and Management
  • Marketing and Sales Management
  • Service or Product Line
  • Funding Request
  • Financials
  • Appendix

Each section serves a specific purpose. And while the content changes from project to project, nearly every business benefits by presenting its information in this style.

The Market Analysis describes the market your business hopes to compete in. It should address the competition in the field, customers’ expectations for the delivery and service of similar products, and any notable regulations that would dictate how companies do business in this market.

The Company Description explains in high-level terms what you do. Building on the foundation provided by the Market Analysis, the Company Description  should clearly establish a market need that your company is capable of satisfying. Explain what makes your company a viable alternative (whether it’s better service, better products, better prices, or just better marketing).

Organization and Management tells the reader who you’ve got working for you, what makes them great resources, and how you plan to put them to use. This includes an analysis of your board of directors and your management structure (or founding members), as well as a description of your company’s legal status. This section is one of the most critical in establishing your company as a legitimate enterprise with the resources to achieve its goals.

Marketing and Sales Management investigates just how you’re going to find customers within that Market you analyzed earlier. This includes your plan for getting your message out, as well as how you’re going to position your business competitively and how you’re going to getting your products or services to the customers once a sales is made.

Service or Product Line seems a little late to the discussion, but this section presents what it is you actually have to sell. This should be your real sales pitch, too. You’re not just focusing on what you have to sell — you’re convincing the reader that real people are interested in buying your product.

The Funding Request makes a case for a specific amount of funding you’ll need to start your business. It should include what you’ll need for the next year, what you’ll need over the next five years, and a description of what you would do with that funding if you had it. It’s absolutely crucial here that you go back to your audience analysis and write this section with a strong focus on how it will read to the potential investor (and thinking hard about what they’re looking for in it).

Then your Financials section backs up the Funding Request with hard numbers, showing an analysis of the historical financial data related to your market and prospective financial data (describing how things will look in the future if you get some or all of your requested funding). This section is often composed almost entirely of charts and graphs — and you’re on your own, for those.

And last (as it should be), there’s an Appendix, which contains extra information you’ll provide on an as-needed basis — things like resumes of your key board members and managers, a credit report, and legal documents like licenses related to your ability to conduct business. You won’t share that with nearly as many people as the main body of your business plan, but it’s handy to have it ready.

When all that’s done, you get to write the very first item in the list: the Executive Summary. That’s a one- or two-page narrative that provides an overview of information included in all the other sections. It’s your opportunity, in just a few hundred words, to describe your business.

Describe Your Business (TW Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopIf you’ve made it this far into the business plan series, you’ve got to have something big you want to put on paper. Maybe you don’t realize it consciously, but I’m certain that if you’re here now, you’ve got a project that deserves a detailed business plan.

A business plan can do more than secure funding — it can help you formalize a vague idea (or daydream), and decide for yourself if it’s something you want to pursue, or something you’d prefer to forget about altogether. And if you’re not interested enough to even fill out a business plan, you’re probably better off forgetting.

Try it out. Check out the business plan template in your version of Word (if you’ve got access to Word) or use this one I found on Google Docs. Then start at the top, and do your best to fill it out, whether it’s a description of your ad-supported blog or your dream of opening an haute-cuisine restaurant on that abandoned lot you pass on your way to work.

Or if you’re part of my Thursday crowd, maybe your dream is to be a professional novelist. More and more, that’s an entrepreneurial endeavor all its own. So figure out the Market Analysis for your genre and your Service or Produce Line, and if you’ve got the patience, even put your Financials into words.

And then if you’re really brave, share it with us. At least tell us that you did it, though. I’d love to know how your experience goes.

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