How to Write a Business Plan Built for Success (Hint: Visuals)
A business plan is how you put your best foot forward to potential investors, but it can be difficult to understand how to write a business plan that succeeds. We get it, we’ve been there, and sometimes putting your dream down on paper leads right writer’s block.
Your best tool against this bump is planning. You’ve got to do the heavy lifting of research and reporting before you hit the keyboard, or else things can quickly get muddled and unrealistic. To help, we’ve put together this step-by-step plan for how to write a business plan with thoughts on the information to gather and what to include.
Read on to get started, and don’t forget to start thinking about visuals to include in a business plan so your audience is able to stick with you to the end.
What Needs to Be in a Business Plan Document?
There are a lot of great resources to use when determining how to write a business plan. Read as many of them as possible. Your business is worth it.
One especially useful place for business plans as well as learning about funding, contracting, and paying those taxes when your business gets rolling is the Small Business Administration. It’s experts have a list of elements to include in your business plan that they continually refine and refresh.
Here are a few core pieces from the SBA’s list as well as results from our experience and thoughts that should be included in your business plan documentation:
- Executive summary: This is a short-and-sweet explanation of your company, why you’ll be successful thanks to products or services as well as leadership. Think of it as your Shark Tank pitch.
- Company description and value proposition: Give the highlights of your company and what makes you valuable. Explain the problems that you solve, general customer info, and
- Market analysis: Discuss your market in both long-term potential as well as your near-term customers.
- Products and/or services: Describe your specific product or service line and what it looks like for you to create and offer those. Discuss any benefits you have, such as IP, patents, copyrights, or other protections.
- Company management: How is your company structured and who will run it? Explain the legal entity of your business and the management structure.
- Partners and providers: Discuss the partnerships your business has already, note if you already have partners like manufacturers, and any resources you have related to these groups.
- Marketing and sales strategies: Describe your broad approach to marketing and sales, including customer retention. Tie it to your market analysis to discuss how you’ll reach that market, because that success will define your financial project.
- The Ask: Here’s where you make your funding request if the reader is a potential investor or lender. Outline funding requirements and needs.
- Financial projections and roadmap: Boost your ask by showing the financial projects and your product roadmap. Explain where you plan to grow over the next five years as well as where you are right now. The more detail you can provide for your first year, the better.
- Supporting documents: A business plan almost always needs an appendix, which is tailored specifically to your audience. In some cases, you’ll want credit histories and letters of reference. Usually, you’ll want product information including photos, licenses, permits, and legal documents.
We’re starting off by thinking about the document itself because that can help you frame all the work you’ll do when creating your plan. Each of the steps outlined below play a vital role in understanding your company, its value, potential market, and how or why someone might fund you.
If you get stuck on a step or aren’t sure if something should be included, look at the pieces of the business plan identified above. When what you’re working on directly correlates to one of those elements or if you think it would boost the argument you make in a section like “The Ask,” then include it.
Now, let’s get to the hard but worthwhile part.
Business Plan Guide: 8 Steps
When you’re thinking about how to write a business plan step-by-step, keep the goal and final document in mind. Thankfully, it’s something that you’ll be able to start pulling together when you use this and other business plan guides.
Getting started doesn’t have to be difficult, especially when you follow the steps.
Step 1: Do Your Homework on Your Market
Define your products and services, then research everything about them. You’ll want to look at your products and if they solve the pain points you’ve addressed. Look at competitors and their market opportunity. Learn as much about your customers, competition, and market as possible. Define them as clearly as you can and rank most immediate opportunities and threats.
Look at others’ business plans too. They might show you good market data or products. Pay attention to visual communication! You’ll never truly understand why you must include product visuals in a business plan until you put yourself in the shoes of an investor and look at two similar pitches but only one has visuals.
Step 2: Do You Homework on Your Business
After you look at the market where you can play, it’s time to do some self-reflection. How well is your business poised to enter in that market? How much of an impact can you make? What can derail the whole thing?
Be honest about your company, products, team, and funding. Part of a business plan is to help you identify where and how to grow. If you’re using it to raise funds, you’ll also need to know where you’re weak so you can identify where you’ll spend to help maximize any investor’s return.
“Consider spending twice as much time researching, evaluating, and thinking as you spend actually writing the business plan,” is good advice to follow.
Step 2 can be the hardest for many entrepreneurs and startups. Great ideas do start market revolutions. However, that triumph only occurs when customers outside of that company adopt the ideas. Turn to partner, mentors, and people you trust to get an honest evaluation of your business. If you do get criticism, turn that language into positives that show you where to grow and invest.
Step 3: Define Your Plan’s Purpose
Now that you know thy market and self, it’s time to define your document. Business plans can serve a variety of purposes depending on the audience. Do you want to use it to raise venture capital? Are you seeking a traditional business loan? Is this a part of a pitch to a local business Meetup where you want help fleshing out an idea?
Clearly define the purpose of your document so you can understand and address the most important people reading it.
Let’s say you’re using it to share with friends to see if they like the idea of your business. Here, you may want to write it to a general audience who is just learning about your company, without a lot of the specific financial information. Once you have a plan people are excited by, then you can work on adding in broader market analysis so that you have a document you can bring to a loan officer.
Eventually, you’ll likely have multiple variants designed to accomplish different tasks, from gaining funding to exciting customers and planning your roadmap. Each version of your plan always needs a purpose.
Step 4: Tell Your Story
Your company’s mission and purpose are going to play a crucial role in how people perceive you. So, don’t skimp with a basic company profile that is a laundry list-style timeline of your founding. Tell a story about who you are, who the company is, and why you want to serve your specific audience.
Keep focus on the why about creating your company and what it offers. Readers, as individual humans, are going to connect with that why a little more. They’ll be drawn to a product that reduces stress and strain at work by making it easier to perform common tasks than one that reduces back office efficiency by 7% — even if they’re the same product.
Getting people to connect with your mission is a smart business plan guide for attracting talent. If you’re posting this on your site, think about sharing a vision that employees want to connect with too.
Step 5: Turn Homework into Documents
Some steps are more time-consuming than others and this one can be a lengthy process depending on how complex your business is already.
Your readers want proof of what you’re saying. This is especially true of investors looking for a return. So, your mission is to document as much as possible. Source your stats and industry projections, make copies of your contracts and patents, create records of your business expenses, and make it crystal clear what your cashflow is and that no one has their hands in the cookie jar.
Every license, agreement, producer, warehouse provider, and other contractor should be covered by your documents.
Step 6: Build a Timeline
Put everything you have collected and understood about today and your targets together. It shows where you’re at and what you need to become to achieve your goals. Think of it as the first steps in the financial planning and projections that your business plan document will eventually need.
Go back to your competitor and market research to estimate sales and how long new product adoption takes in your area. Look at trends and habits in similarly disruptive situations too. Build your market and financial needs separate from your product/service rollout roadmap.
Bring the two together and try to understand where you need to adjust product to meet market or expansion plan based on the time it takes to code, manufacture, or provide your service. You’ll want to approach this from both a big-picture standpoint as well as very granular.
For example, let’s say it takes your manufacturing partner three months to ramp up for a new product. And, you know your market needs a new product each year. These considerations should give you general guidance as to when your new product would need to be ready and go to your manufacturer so that you and your distribution partners are ready.
You might need to finish R&D in Q1, get it to the manufacturer by the end Q2, create your marketing campaign in Q3 are your manufacturing partner hits inventory levels and ships to you, all for a Q4 launch because your product does its best work right ahead of and during the holiday shopping season.
Surprisingly, getting a timeline and understand that it might take you six months to hit the next big product innovation is a great way to get a handle on how your business should approach pricing structure.
Step 7: Refine Your Targets
The first six steps are all about gathering your data. Now, you’re ready to move into the construction phase of this step-by-step guide for writing a business plan. Your mission is to take the homework and build your story with a specific audience in mind.
Adjust everything based on the goal you have for the person reading your business plan. This potential reader must be specific — employees and VCs prioritize financial statements very differently – and you’ll want to cater to their interests or needs.
The closer you can write the document to speak to the concerns of your audience, the more likely they are to take the step you want. Usually, that’s financing your efforts. While you may want to include certain items or change the tone of some content, don’t adjust firm items like your financial numbers or project roadmap itself. Keep the core data the same.
Step 8: Deliver Big with Visuals
We’ll wrap up with the decisive step of this business plan guide: reviewing everything with an eye for visuals. Listen to the wisdom of authors throughout the ages and show, don’t tell. Visual communication is essential in your business plan because readers demand speed and clarity.
People want to be able to understand who you are and your position, but walls of text won’t do that. Not only do text-only pages fail to “wow,” they can also bore your audience and cause them to mentally checkout.
We’ve all seen Shark Tank where people needed an exciting pitch to win over someone skeptical. Seeing how a product works often was the trick!
New tech means you can show your readers your product or service in action in a variety of ways, no matter where they are or how they’re looking through your plan. CloudApp makes it easy for anyone to create videos, screen recordings, image snippets, GIFs, annotated photos, and more. You can even turn elements into videos, such as an explainer in your executive summary that allows people to see your vision right away. You’ll look like a professional without having to pay through the nose.
The brain processes images 60,000x faster than text. Try this free trial here to see if CloudApp can make your business plan 60,000x faster to get to “yes!”