While starting a company may seem easier now than ever before, entrepreneurs have an uphill battle from the moment they start a business. And without a clear, actionable business plan for selling, marketing, finances, and operations, you're almost destined to face significant challenges.
This is why crafting a business plan is an essential step in the entrepreneurial process.
In this post, we'll walk you through the process of filling out your business plan template, like this free, editable version:
We know that when looking at a blank page on a laptop screen, the idea of writing your business plan can seem impossible. However, it's a mandatory step to take if you want to turn your business dreams into a reality.
That's why we've crafted a business plan template for you to download and use to build your new company. You can download it here for free. It contains prompts for all of the essential parts of a business plan, all of which are elaborated on, below.
This way, you'll be able to show them how organized and well-thought-out your business idea is, and provide them with answers to whatever questions they may have.
Featured Resource: Free Business Plan Template
Building a Successful Business Plan
In the next section, we'll cover the components of a business plan, such as an executive summary and company description. But before we get to that, let's talk about key elements that should serve as building blocks for your plan.
For some entrepreneurs, the thought of writing a business plan sounds like a chore — a necessary means to an end. But that's a bad take.
A solid business plan is a blueprint for success. It's key to securing financing, presenting your business, outlining your financial projections, and turning that nugget of a business idea into a reality.
At the core, your business plan should answer two questions: why your business and why now?
Investors want to know why your business is entering the market, i.e. what problem it's solving and how it's different from what's currently out there. They also want to know why now is the right time for your type of product or service.
At a minimum, your plan should:
- Be more realistic than idealistic: Too often, business plans focus too much on how things could be instead of how they are. While having a vision is important, your plan needs to be rooted in research and data.
- Legitimize your business idea: If an idea fails on paper, it's a signal to go back to the drawing board. In doing so, you avoid losing precious time or money chasing an unrealistic idea.
- Position your business for funding: To get your business off the ground, chances are you'll need financial backing. Even with a solid business idea, investors, lenders, and banks still need convincing. An effective business plan will outline how much money you need, where it's going, what targets you will hit, and how you plan to repay any debts.
- Lay the foundation: Investors focus on risk – if anything looks shaky, it could be a dealbreaker. Ideally, your business plan will lay down the foundation for how you'll operate your business — from operational needs to financial projections and goals.
- Communicate your needs: It's nearly impossible to communicate your needs if you don't know what they are first. Of course, a business’ needs are always changing — but your plan should give you a well-rounded view of how your business will work in the short and long term.
So back to the question of why and why now – consider three things:
- Your industry – How does your product or service fit within your industry? Are you targeting a specific niche? Where do you see the industry going in the next five to 10 years?
- Your target audience – Who are you targeting? What challenges are they facing? How will your product or service help them in their daily lives?
- Your unique selling proposition (USP) – What sets you apart from your competitors? Is it your product/service features? Your company values? Price?
Once you know the answers to these questions, you'll be equipped to answer the question: why your business and why now.
How to Build a Business Plan
- Cover Page
- Executive Summary
- Company and Business Description
- Product and Services Line
- Market Analysis
- Marketing Plan
- Sales Plan
- Legal Notes
- Financial Considerations
Featured Resource: Free Business Plan Template
1. Cover Page
Your business plan should be prefaced with an eye-catching cover page. This means including a high-resolution image of your company logo, followed by your company's name, address, and phone number.
Since this business plan will likely change hands and be seen by multiple investors, you should also provide your own name, role in the business, and email address on the cover page.
At the bottom of this page, you can also add a confidentiality statement to protect against the disclosure of your business details.
The statement can read as follows: "This document contains confidential and proprietary information created by [your company name]. When receiving this document, you agree to keep its content confidential and may only reproduce and/or share it with express written permission of [your company name]."
Remember to keep your cover page simple and concise — and save the important details for other sections.
Why it matters: First impressions are everything, and a clean cover page is the first step in the right direction.
Example of a Cover Page
2. Executive Summary
The executive summary of your business plan provides a one- to two-page overview of your business and highlights the most crucial pieces of your plan, such as your short-term and long-term goals.
The executive summary is essentially a boiled-down version of your entire business plan, so remember to keep this section to the point and filled only with essential information.
Typically, this brief section includes:
- A mission statement.
- The company's history and leadership model.
- An overview of competitive advantage(s).
- Financial projections.
- Company goals.
- An ask from potential investors.
Why it matters: The executive summary is known as the make-or-break section of a business plan. It influences whether investors turn the page or not — so effectively summarizing your business and the problem it hopes to solve is a must.
Think of the Summary as a written elevator pitch (with more detail). While your business plan provides the nitty-gritty details, your Summary describes — in a compelling but matter-of-fact language — the highlights of your plan. If it's too vague, complicated, or fuzzy, you may need to scrap it and start again.
Example of an Executive Summary Introduction
"The future looks bright for North Side Chicago, particularly the Rock Hill Neighborhood. A number of high-end commercial and residential developments are well on their way, along with two new condo developments in nearby neighborhoods.
While the completion of these developments will increase the population within the neighborhood and stimulate the economy, the area lacks an upscale restaurant where residents and visitors can enjoy fine food and drink. Jay Street Lounge and Restaurant will provide such a place."
3. Company & Business Description
In this section, provide a more thorough description of what your company is and why it exists.
The bulk of the writing in this section should be about your company's purpose – covering what the business will be selling, identifying the target market, and laying out a path to success.
In this portion of your business plan, you can also elaborate on your company's:
- Mission statement
- Core values
- Team and organizational structure
Why it matters: Investors look for great structures and teams in addition to great ideas. This section gives an overview of your businesses' ethos. It's the perfect opportunity to set your business apart from the competition — such as your team's expertise, your unique work culture, and your competitive advantage.
Example of a Values/Mission Statement
"Jay Street Lounge and Restaurant will be the go-to place for people to get a drink or bite in an elegant, upscale atmosphere. The mission is to be North Side's leading restaurant, with the best tasting food and the highest quality service."
3. Product & Services Line
Here's where you'll cover the makeup of your business's product and/or services line. You should provide each product or service's name, its purpose, and a description of how it works (if appropriate). If you own any patents, copyrights, or trademarks, it's essential to include this info too.
Next, add some color to your sales strategy by outlining your pricing model and mark-up amounts.
If you're selling tangible products, you should also explain production and costs, and how you expect these factors to change as you scale.
Why it matters: This section contains the real meat of your business plan. It sets the stage for the problem you hope to solve, your solution, and how your said solution fits in the market.
There's no one-size-fits-all formula for this section. For instance, one plan may delve into its ability to market in a more cost-effective way than the competition, whereas another plan focuses on its key products and their unique features and benefits.
Regardless of your angle, it's critical to convey how your offerings will differ from the competition.
Example of a Product/Service Offering
"The menu at Jay Street Lounge and Restaurant will focus on Moroccan cuisine. The stars of the menu (our specialties) are the Moroccan dishes, such as eggplant zaalouk, seafood bastilla, tagine, and chickpea stew. For those who enjoy American dishes, there will also be a variety of options, from burger sliders and flatbread pizza to grilled steak and salads.
The food at Jay Street will have premium pricing to match its upscale atmosphere. During the summer months, the restaurant will have extra seating on the patio where clients can enjoy a special summer menu. We will be open on all days of the week."
4. Market Analysis
The market analysis section is where you'll provide details about the audience to which you're marketing your business. This should encompass the size of your total addressable market, your market's demographics and psychographics, and location analysis for your business' operating space.
It helps to reference your market research documentation in this section, like a Porter's Five Forces Analysis or a SWOT Analysis (templates for those are available here). You can also include them in your appendix.
If your company already has buyer personas, you should include them here as well. If not, you can create them right now using the Make My Persona Tool.
Why it matters: Having an awesome product is, well, awesome — but it isn't enough. Just as important, there must be a market for it.
This section allows you to dig deeper into your market, which segments you want to target, and why. The "why" here is important, since targeting the right segment is critical for the success and growth of your business.
It's easy to get lost (or overwhelmed) in a sea of endless data. For your business plan, narrow your focus by answering the following questions:
- What is my market? In other words, who are my customers?
- What segments of the market do I want to target?
- What's the size of my target market?
- Is my market likely to grow?
- How can I increase my market share over time?
Example of a Market Analysis
"Jay Street Lounge and Restaurant will target locals who live and work within the Rock Hill Neighborhood and the greater North Side Chicago area. We will also target the tourists who flock to the many tourist attractions and colleges on the North Side.
We will specifically focus on young to middle-aged adults with an income of $40,000 to $80,000 who are looking for an upscale experience. The general demographics of our target market are women between 20 to 50 years old.
A unique and varied Moroccan-American menu, along with our unique upscale atmosphere, differentiates us from competitors in the area. Jay Street will also set itself apart through its commitment to high-quality food, service, design, and atmosphere."
5. Marketing Plan
Unlike the market analysis section, your marketing plan section should be an explanation of the tactical approach to reaching your aforementioned target audience. List your advertising channels, organic marketing methods, messaging, budget, and any relevant promotional tactics.
If your company has a fully fleshed-out marketing plan, you can attach it in the appendix of your business plan. If not, download this free marketing plan template to outline your strategy.
Why it matters: Marketing is what puts your product in front of your customers. It's not just advertising — it's an investment in your business.
Throwing money into random marketing channels is a haphazard approach, which is why it's essential to do the legwork to create a solid marketing plan.
Here's some good news — by this point, you should have a solid understanding of your target market. Now, it's time to determine how you'll reach them.
Example of a Marketing Plan Overview
"Our marketing strategy will focus on three main initiatives:
- Social media marketing. We will grow and expand our Facebook and Instagram following through targeted social media ads.
- Website initiatives. Our website will attract potential visitors by offering updated menus and a calendar of events.
- Promotional events. Jay Street will have one special theme night per week to attract new clients."
6. Sales Plan
It doesn't matter if your sales department is an office full of business development representatives (BDR) or a dozen stores with your products on their shelves.
The point is: All sales plans are different, so you should clearly outline yours here. Common talking points include your:
- Sales team structure, and why this structure was chosen.
- Sales channels.
- Sales tools, software, and resources.
- Prospecting strategy.
- Sales goals and budget.
Like with your marketing plan, it might make sense to attach your completed sales plan to the appendix of your business plan. You can download a template for building your sales plan here.
Why it matters: Among other things, investors are interested in the scalability of your business — which is why growth strategies are a critical part of your business plan.
Your sales plan should describe your plan to attract customers, retain them (if applicable), and, ultimately, grow your business. Be sure to outline what you plan to do given your existing resources and what results you expect from your work.
Example of a Sales Plan Overview
"The most important goal is to ensure financial success for Jay Street Lounge and Restaurant. We believe we can achieve this by offering excellent food, entertainment, and service to our clients.
We are not a low-cost dining option in the area. Instead, the food will have premium pricing to match its upscale feel. The strategy is to give Jay Street a perception of elegance through its food, entertainment, and excellent service."
7. Legal Notes
Your investors may want to know the legal structure of your business, as that could directly impact the risk of their investments. For example, if you're looking for business partners to engage in a non-corporation or LLC partnership, this means they could be on the line for more than their actual investment.
Because this clarification is often needed, explain if you are and/or plan to become a sole proprietor, partnership, corporation, LLC, or other.
You should also outline the steps you have taken (or will need to take) to operate legally. This includes licenses, permits, registrations, and insurance.
The last thing your investor wants to hear after they've sent you a big chunk of change is that you're operating without proper approval from the local, state, or federal government.
Why it matters: The last thing your investor wants to hear after they've sent you a big chunk of change is that you're operating without proper approval from the local, state, or federal government.
Example of Legal Notes
"Jay Street Lounge and Restaurant is up-to-date on all restaurant licenses and health permits. Our business name and logo are registered trademarks, presenting the possibility of expanding locally."
8. Financial Considerations
Ultimately, investors want to know two things:
- When they will earn their money back.
- When they will start seeing returns on their initial investment.
That said, be clear, calculated, and convincing in this section. It should cover:
- Startup costs.
- Sales forecasts for the next several months/quarters.
- Break-even analysis for time and dollars.
- Projected profit and loss (P&L) statement.
Facts and figures are key here, so be as specific as possible with each line item and projection. In addition, explain the "why" behind each of these sections.
However, keep in mind that information overload is a risk, especially when it comes to data. So, if you have pages upon pages of charts and spreadsheets for this section, distill them into a page or two and include the rest of the sheets in the appendix. This section should only focus on key data points.
Why it matters: One of the most important aspects of becoming "investor ready" is knowing your numbers. More importantly, you need to understand how those numbers will enhance your business.
While it's easy to write a number down on paper, it's more important to understand (and communicate) why you need capital, where it's going, and that your evaluation makes sense.
Example of Financial Projections
"Based on our knowledge and experience in the restaurant industry, we have come up with projections for the business.
Starting with an expenditure of $400,000 in year 1, we forecast sales of $1,500,000 and $2,800,000 for years two and three. We expect to achieve a net profit of 15% by year three."
A detailed and well-developed business plan can range anywhere from 20 to 50 pages, with some even reaching upward of 80.
In many cases, the appendix is the longest section. Why? Because it includes the supportive materials mentioned in previous sections. To avoid disrupting the flow of the business plan with visuals, charts, and spreadsheets, business owners usually add them in the last section, i.e. the appendix.
Aside from what we've already mentioned – marketing plan, sales plan, department budgets, financial documents – you may also want to attach the following in the appendix:
- Marketing materials
- Market research data
- Licensing documentation
- Branding assets
- Floor plans for your location
- Mockups of your product
- Renderings of your office space or location design
Adding these pieces to the appendix enriches the reader's understanding of your business and proves you've put the work into your business plan without distracting from the main points throughout the plan.
Why it matters: An appendix helps the reader do their due diligence. It contains everything they need to support your business plan.
Keep in mind, however, that an appendix is typically necessary only if you're seeking financing or looking to attract business partners.
Use a Business Plan Template to Get Started
Writing a business plan shouldn't be an insurmountable roadblock to starting a business. Unfortunately, for all too many, it is.
That's why we recommend using our free business plan template. Pre-filled with detailed section prompts for all of the topics in this blog post, we're confident this template will get your business plan started in the right direction.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in June 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.