Get your business in gear with a plan

Need a plan for your growing business? These four methods will help you map out your business's current and future success.

Credit is tough to come by these days. Though interest rates are down, banks and other sources of capital are tightening the screws.

According to the Federal Reserve, banks today are much more reluctant to extend credit than they were at this time last year, because of worries about the weakening economy and thus the ability of firms to meet their re-payment obligations. That once-friendly loan officer, who didn't blink an eye last year when she handed over the money for your new Volvo, today just smirks and sighs as she tells you no, she won't extend your business a loan unless you bring in a business plan.

A business plan is an essential tool for obtaining working capital or investments--you can forget finagling finances out of anyone, bank or no, without one. But a business plan is more than just a document you schlep to the savings and loan, then toss once you have the dollars. A plan is the written form of your business strategy, a way to set up a timeline of future events and goals. If you have workers or plan to hire employees, it's also a way to communicate your idea of the business to them.

In that spirit, I dove into the Web to come up with a fast four-step scheme to put a business plan in your possession.

Finding Web sites that spill the secrets of writing a business plan isn't the hard part--it's cutting through the fluff and locating the intelligent advice that takes time. Seems that the Web makes everyone an expert.

I've found four sites I think are worth perusing to learn about business plans. While none is ideal, each has its own attitude and advantages, so you should check out all four.

1. Pressed for time? Like to read USA Today because its stories are short enough to skate through while you wait for the latte lady to make your morning jolt? Check out Soyouwanna Write a Business Plan?, a fast-paced, if superficial, explanation of a business plan's particulars.

2. If Soyouwanna merely whets your appetite, your next stop should be the Preparing a Business Plan article from the Harvard ManageMentor Web site, a collection of two dozen semi-interactive topics from the Harvard Business School. This article is a step up on the thoroughness ladder, and delves into details that Soyouwanna omits, such as milestone timelines and the operations plan.

3. I like American Express's Business Plan Workshop because nearly every plan element outlined here includes a slew of first-rate tips. (My fave: "Feel free to be dramatic" when you're writing up a synopsis of your business's industry.)

4. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's ChamberBiz site offers entrepreneurs an even more comprehensive summary of business plan components at its Writing Your Business Plan page. This is as readable as business plan advice gets; it won't put a pain behind your eyes as you absorb the info, but it doesn't talk down to you, either. (ChamberBiz didn't create this content; it's from CCH, Inc.'s excellent Business Owner's Toolkit, an online reference resource every small biz beginner should bookmark and browse.)

Once you've schooled yourself on the ins and outs of a plan, the next step is to begin crafting one. I have a shortcut in mind, though, that may save you time. My secret's next.

If you're the type that pinched a paper or two in college to slide through a tough class, you can get a foot up on the whole business plan chore by poring over a real-life plan that someone else sweated over.

The advantage to these resources is that you see what a real business owner created to acquire financing or nail down strategy. If your business matches the market niche or industry of a sample plan, you can, with some judicious editing, cut corners and produce your own plan in days rather than weeks. Most sites offering sample business plans don't try to block such usage with disingenuous disclaimers seen on online collegiate research mills like Genius Papers: "These papers are to be used for research purposes only."

The Web's best locale for ready-to-pilfer plans is Bplans.com, a Web site operated by Palo Alto Software, publisher of the CD-ROM plan makerBusiness Plan Pro (which I'll discuss in more detail later on). Real-life plans from more than 50 businesses are available for viewing within your browser. You can copy text (and even figures such as graphs, charts, and tables) from the browser, then paste everything into a word processing document. For more expeditious editing of these sample plans, you'll need a copy of the $100 Business Plan Pro 4.0. (ZDNet Downloads has a copy that works for two weeks--enough time to figure out if the program and its plans work for you.)

If you're not sure which of Bplans' sample business plans are suitable for your business, take a spin through its PlanWizard. You'll need to register by submitting an e-mail address, but there's no charge. This wizard poses eight or so questions, such as "Do you sell products, services, both, or neither?" and recommends several plans that share some of the characteristics you just identified in your answers.

If you haven't found a plan that fits your business to a "T," you'll want to head to my next brainstorm--a way for cheapskates to create a plan.

Lots of people want to make a buck off your desire to crank out a business plan. Software assistants abound, including programs such a Business Plan Pro, PlanMagic Business and PlanWrite, as well as enough how-to books to fill one of Amazon's warehouses. I won't even venture into the ridiculous fees of $10,000 or more that some consulting firms charge to produce a business plan.

The free alternatives to plan-writing software are few, and unless you're so strapped for cash that you're willing to risk putting together a second-rate plan, better left untouched. But for those who need to count every dollar, I've scouted out a pair of for-free online planners.

The Small Business Administration's Business Plan page includes not a word about the Web, but it does have a lengthy and self-paced outline on writing a plan. Your answers to its quirky questions are supposed to lead you through generating massive amounts of business-plan text, but there are no guidelines about wording or even format. One of its few saving graces is that it's also available in Spanish.

BPlans.com's MiniPlan isn't much better, though it's a lot more concise in its explanations. This ten-step questionnaire-cum-tutorial shows you how to produce plan components, such as the executive summary, break-even charts, and a mission statement. You won't win any planning prizes with this free tool (you need to register at the site, but that's all), but it should give you a taste of the planning process.

By now you get the idea: online planners, such as they are, can't cut it. So click on to the final step in my planning program: buying business plan software.

Online this, online that. For some tasks, the tried-and-true CD-ROM disc still works the best. So it goes with business plan writing.

A piece of software on your own computer, not on an ASP server somewhere, is the best route to writing a small business plan. These programs (there are lots of popular business plan downloads available at ZDNet Downloads) walk you through the chore in small detailed steps, just as tax prep programs nudge you in tiny stages toward a final return. Most of all, they tightly integrate the text-writing and number-crunching that together are necessary to create the story of your enterprise--one that a bank will want to read and support.

Palo Alto's Business Plan Pro typically gets the nod from those in the know. (Check out the detailed review by PC Magazine.) My vote goes to this package, too, for several reasons.

Ease of use. First of all, it's incredibly easy to use, a major plus when nearly everything about a business plan is incomprehensible to most small business owners. I'm no genius, but I was able to build a basic business plan in just a day.

Cost. Second, the price is right: around $80-90 at e-stores like Outpost.com and Buy.com. That's slightly less than competitors like PlanWrite.

Try it for free. As I pointed out earlier, you can download a demo from ZDNet Downloads and try out the program for a couple of weeks. You'll need a fast connection or a lot of patience, since the file is a bulky 22MB.

I think a business plan is a necessity for every small firm, from the one-person computer consultant considering leaving the corporate world behind to the established manufacturer who wants to expand. Even if you're not stepping into a bank someday soon, you should take the time to think through your business strategy and put it down on paper. And that's exactly what a plan forces you to do.

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