As a founder, one of the first tasks that you need to tackle is the writing of a comprehensive business plan. In the initial stages, you will be asked repeatedly for your business plan: when attempting to raise money, when hiring a star team member, or when ensuring that your cash reserves will last. It seems that you do not have a proper business until you have written and refined a business plan that predicts your growth 5 years into the future.
Given the importance of business plans, founders need to understand how to best write one and how to use them to their maximum advantage to increase the chances of success. This post will attempt to lay out a guide on how to best answer these questions, helping founders understand if they can complete the task themselves or if they require some additional guidance from expert consultants.
What Is a Business Plan?
Let’s first define what we are doing. A business plan is a document that lays out:
- What your business does
- The short- and long-term goals of the business
- The action plan to achieve these goals
There are two main formats that you can use to write a business plan: a PowerPoint deck or a Word document. Both work well, but make sure that if you use a PowerPoint format, you also have a separate (and shorter) pitch deck. Initially you will share only the pitch deck with potential investors. The full business plan is reserved for those investors that have shown keen interest in your business and with whom you are moving along within the investment process.
Why Is It Important to Write a Business Plan?
There are some influential people in the startup industry that do not attach much value to overt reliance on business plans, vouching for the superiority of the “learning by doing” approach advocated by the Lean Startup method. Even though the lean approach does have significant merits in letting you test out a product’s market viability (through continuous iteration to ensure a better market fit), it does not provide answers to key questions of your business, such as where the business currently stands and where you want to take it.
A business plan will help you with the following aspects of your business:
- It will force you to state in writing what you want your business to be. This is also very useful so you can see what your business is currently NOT and better analyze the current gaps between reality and your goals.
- It will demand that you specifically write how you plan to accomplish your goals in practical terms, such as what competitive advantages the company has, what opportunities you see, and what threats exist.
- It will give your co-founders and team a common compass to guide the ship during the initial uncertain months.
- You will better understand the resources that you require in order to accomplish your goals.
- It will help with your fundraising efforts, through demonstrating to potential investors that you have thought through important aspects of the business. This will provide a concrete document to start fundraising discussions.
Although it is difficult to quantify how important writing a business plan is, a recent study showed that companies with formal business plans increase their chances of reaching positive cash flow by 16%, showing that it does pay to plan.
What Should Be Included in a Business Plan?
Once you are convinced that having a business plan is a must, the question arises of what content to include in the plan.
A cursory Google search will return an array of different “Business Plan Templates,” several of which will already be completed with generic content and where a founder just needs to substitute X for Y to make the business plan “acceptable.” It goes without saying that this shortcut should not be attempted. In many cases, it can even deviate the entrepreneur and their startup from what they actually wanted to achieve.
Founders should make the effort to write their own, original content. However, there are some uniform aspects that almost every business plan should contain:
1. Executive Summary
This is the section where you will probably spend most of your time during meetings with investors, team members, co-founders and other related stakeholders. In this section, you should summarize and recount the complete story of your business plan. If done properly, it will ensure that during meetings you will only need to refer to the different subsections if it is necessary to zero in on a specific section. Although, in later or more intensive meetings, it may be required that the whole document is scrutinized in its entirety.
For this reason, the executive summary should be the first section to be outlined when starting to write a business plan, because it will help you to structure the proceeding sections of the plan. In turn, it will be the last section to be completed, as following several edits fleshing out the main document, you can return to the executive summary to finalize it.
All of the critical subsections in the document should be touched upon in the executive summary, and you need to ensure that the content is ambitious, but grounded in reality. Back up any claims made with specific data—for example, “My Company will provide the best in-market customer experience, as our NPS Score of above 80 already indicates.” Also, make sure that the tone is upbeat. If you do not believe in the positive future of your project yourself, then you will not convince anyone else either!
2. Company Overview
The main goal of this section is to make sure that the reader understands what the company does. It is surprising how many companies have a difficult time explaining what they do. You can find many tips online that you can use to help you to convey what your company does, but as a rule of thumb, try to keep it simple, identify the problem that is being addressed, and present your company’s solution.
After making sure that anyone can understand what your business does, include other relevant information about the company. Such details include: the formal corporate structure, when it was founded, and what milestones you have already achieved. Any examples of traction are great to establish a basis that the company and its founders are able to execute.
3. Market Analysis
In this section, there are two key pieces of information you need to communicate: the main characteristics and trends in your market, and a rough approximation of the market’s size.
When defining and explaining the market, lay out general figures like:
- What is the generally accepted market size (more on this below)?
- What is its annual historic and projected growth rate?
- An interesting data point (for example, “x% of American households have this product”)
- An overview of competitor and customer dynamics
After having defined the market trends, you must then explain your market size in greater detail. Let’s use an example of a hypothetical company selling premium baby products online. Some key questions to answer here would be:
- What is the total annual spending in the US for babies?
- What is the split of sales between online and offline?
- In the market sizing, do you include only premium products sold by specialty stores, or the whole range of products including those products only sold in supermarket retailers that you do not initially plan to sell?
As you see, there are multiple answers to this question. Thankfully, to better understand this issue and how to apply it, you can find a great post by Toptal Finance Expert Alex Graham regarding Total Addressable Market Sizing and how it is applied to WeWork’s specific case.
4. Competitor Analysis
In this section, you must lay out the current competitor landscape. Make sure that it is as comprehensive as possible, taking into account not only current competitors but also potential future competitors. For example, is a foreign company likely to enter your market? Or, is a company in another market close to expanding into your turf? A good example of this was Netflix’s expansion from being only a distributor to entering the business of content generation: Did Disney and HBO prepare for this external threat?
Also, in this analysis, pay attention to and map out indirect competitors and their market dynamics. In the example of the baby eCommerce idea laid out above, the spend in grocery stores and the indirect competitors (like nurseries) in that market would be important to include.
5. Customer Analysis
In the customer analysis section, you need to prove that there are actually real customers that will pay/use/download your service. Use this space to drill down into the psychographics of the customer. Where are they, what real problem do they have that needs to be addressed, and what is their profile? It is very useful to define some specific characteristics, such as gender, age, geographical location, marital status, family, and main consumption patterns.
Even though most of the time entrepreneurs gather this kind of information from secondary sources such as research reports, a strong recommendation is to also go out and conduct primary interviews with potential customers. Prepare a questionnaire, speak to potential customers, and analyze the intelligence gathered. It is surprising how many important perspectives can be obtained from primary research.
6. Go-to-Market Strategy
Up to this point, you will have identified what your company does, its market, the customers, and the competition. Now, you will need to detail how you plan to actually get your product or service to market. This will include, but not be limited to:
- Do you have several products/services to address the market?
- What will your marketing strategy be?
- What marketing channels do you plan to use? Direct sales, online marketing, or below the line?
- What will your pricing be, and why?
Make sure that you show your knowledge of all of the intricacies of your marketing initiatives. In this section, it is very useful to detail any marketing initiatives you have already executed and their results. For example, if one of your marketing channels is going to be online marketing, do a small test beforehand in the channels chosen (Google, Facebook, etc.) and show the initial results.
7. Operations/Technology Strategy
Does your company have any operational or technological advantages relative to competitors? This relates to exploiting your key competencies over your competitors for commercial gain, such as a superior logistics platform.
In this section, it is important to also list and define the main operational areas within your company, even if some of those functions have not yet been developed. This can lay out a roadmap for the future, such as a plan to introduce a dedicated customer service team.
8. Management Team
There are some investors who say they invest “in the team, not the product;” this is founded upon the thesis of the key role that a strong and well-rounded team has in making a company become successful.
There are two main aspects to be covered in this section: the actual executive management team and the investor team. In the executive management team, make sure to detail why the team is a great fit for the business in terms of experience and capabilities. It is also important to state what their specific roles are and if they have stock or stock options and under what conditions. Also, any information on their synergies of working together as a team will be very useful for potential investors, as it de-risks future management team dysfunctions.
Finally, if you already have business angels, VC funds, or advisors, list their experience, the relationship they have had with your company, and how they add value beyond the size of their pockets.
9. Financial Plan
In parallel to your business plan, you should also build a detailed financial business plan that shows all the assumptions, drivers, and financial statements of your business for the next 3 to 5 years. This financial business plan should have several scenarios (conservative, base, aggressive) and allow for the quick tweaking of assumptions. The financial statements developed should at a minimum include cash flow, balance sheet, and profit and loss statements, although more ad-hoc analysis such as unit economics P&L can add value.
Both documents, the written business plan and the financial business plan model, will feed into each other and help with different parts of their respective content.
In this section, you need to include the main financial projections that resulted from your financial business plan in a summarized and graphic manner. A good rule of thumb is to include at least the yearly P&L and cash flow statements of the main scenarios expected, but you can go into as much detail as you see fit.
Without a doubt, this section is one of the most technical and knowledge-specific parts of the document. Not many people know how to build detailed financial statements. Therefore, it is useful to consider hiring finance experts with significant know-how to ensure that you build the most suitable financial statements possible for the launch of your business.
10. Financing Requirements/The Ask
After having explained in detail your company, its plans, and the financial projections, now comes a critical part: asking for funding and detailing how much. There are two choices to make in how much information is shown here:
- Limited information: Detail that you are seeking funding, but leave out actual funding amounts, or any kind of valuation markers. The idea is to open up the conversation regarding this topic and then follow up with specifics in person with appropriate counterparts. The benefit of choosing this option is that it allows you to tailor your negotiations towards the appetite of any potential investor that you come across.
- Full disclosure: list the actual amount and the pre-money that you are seeking. The benefits of this is that it shows confidence in that you know exactly what you are looking for, but the downside is that you could either sell yourself short or scare away potential investors.
Although there are different opinions regarding the best approach, the idea is that during the development of the business plan, you will gain an idea of how much funding you need. In turn, with looking at the competition, you will also see comparable valuations, allowing you to triangulate towards a cash amount needed and a targeted valuation. Therefore, in case of doubt, it is preferable to go with full disclosure and accelerate any discussions, avoiding the loss of time (and face) that could occur if you and your potential investor are on completely different pages regarding ticket size and valuation.
Another topic usually included is the use of funds. If you are looking for funding from investors, they will want to know what you will be doing with their money.
Finally, a key component in the fundraising section is the exit strategy. Remember that investors are looking for financial returns, so any information that can be gathered regarding potential exits and valuations is a plus.
How Should a Business Plan Evolve as the Company Matures?
An aspect that is often ignored regarding business plans is what happens once it is written and the founders move on to executing it. As time goes by and a company matures, it is inevitable that some aspects of the business plan will change or develop as new market realities set in. When that happens, what do you do with your original business plan?
Periodically rewriting the business plan from scratch is not the best approach to take, as by doing so, you cannot see what areas have changed and use them as a learning opportunity. However, it does make sense to set up a yearly review of the business plan, which can usually be tied to your annual budget review. Another good practice would be to tie the review to a yearly management offsite where the company plans its next year in terms of goals.
Without a doubt, it is very important to write a well-structured and thought-out business plan. There is no need to add superfluous bells and whistles to it, but it is essential that it covers the core aspects of your business.
Use the plan as your benchmark—as your north star—and, when appropriate, check to see if changing course makes sense. Use the business plan to spark opening conversations and to initiate strong business relationships, whether with team members or potential investors. Finally, use your business plan to bring order to the early life of your company and to allow for structured growth going forward.