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Chapter 3 of 16

How to write a business plan


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Small business guides > How to start a business: the ultimate guide > Putting small business ideas into action

How to write a business plan

Are you daunted by the thought of writing a big, formal business plan? You’re not alone. A lot of people start and never finish, but you don’t have to be one of them. You can start with smaller tasks and work your way up.

What is a business plan anyway?

Think about your business plan as a road map. You know where you want to go, you just need to write down the directions to get there. The good news is it doesn’t have to be super detailed straight away. That’s because there are two types of business plan:

The content of each is broadly the same. You say who the target market is, why they need your product or service, how you’ll reach them, who you’re competing with and, of course, how much money you’ll make.

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How to do a fast, one-page business plan

The key to a one-page plan is to start out simple, and grow it as you go. You can begin with a few headings and some bullet points mapping out your vision, goals, milestones and financial forecasts.

Things will keep changing, and new information will come in, so think of it as a living document. Keep tweaking it as things evolve.

Sections for a one-page business plan:

  1. Value proposition
    Make sure the reader understands the unique value you’ll provide in a few clear, simple sentences. Cut the jargon and fluff, and get to the point.

  2. The problem you’re solving
    Expand on the problem that you’re solving. Imagine that you’re talking to someone who’s never heard your idea before. What is it about your solution that hasn’t been done well before?

  3. Target market and competition
    Who are you selling to, and what other choices do they have? How are you going to serve them better? This is where you need to show you’ve done some market research.

  4. Sales and marketing
    How will people learn about you?  Will you use social media? Do your customers read trade publications? Or will you sell to them in person? Figure out where your target audience is, and go there.

  5. Budget and sales
    Do some forecasts of sales and outgoings. What will your margin be on each sale? Will it be enough? How many sales will you need to make a profit? Use the figures to define ‘success’.

  6. Milestones
    Milestones will help you keep an eye on the big picture. For each milestone, say why it’s important, note what (or who) you need to make it happen, and put a due date on it. This helps break everything you need to do  down into manageable pieces.

  7. The team
    Who’s part of your business and why? Write a couple of lines for each person, including their goals and responsibilities. Do this even for roles you haven’t yet filled.

  8. Funding
    Identify how much you need (or already have) and what it’s for. When will repayments be made, and when do you expect to have paid it all back?

When writing a business plan that’s just one page, you need to keep things short and to the point. If there are lots of details for one of the sections, keep them on a separate document. Just run with a high-level summary in the one-page plan.

It’s often harder to write something short, so take a few passes. Whittle it down as you go. Make your language clear and simple. A 12-year-old should be able to understand it.

Example of one-page business plan

You'll be surprised what you can fit on a single page. Use bullets, be concise, and save the details for other documents.

Super-brief one-page business plan with eight sections

One-page business plan

For some, one page is enough

Some people start a business with little more than a one-page plan. Rather than doing a whole heap of research, they launch their service or product quickly and watch the reaction of paying customers. After gathering that feedback, the business adjusts and improves their offering as fast as possible.

This lean startup methodology doesn’t suit all businesses. If you need finance from banks or investors, then you’ll probably need a more complete business plan.

Struggling to get started? Try a SWOT analysis

If you can't get into a flow with your planning, try doing a SWOT analysis. It's a great way to organize your thoughts and kickstart the planning process.

What is a SWOT analysis?

SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It’s a way of thinking about your business from the inside out, and from the outside in.

  • Strengths = things that are great about the idea

  • Weaknesses = things about the idea that could be better

  • Opportunities = things about the environment or market that will help the idea take off

  • Threats = things about the environment or market that will work against you

A SWOT analysis gives you talking points for your business plan, and concrete action points for getting launched.

How to do a SWOT analysis

To do a SWOT analysis, divide a page into quarters, then list your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the four boxes.

SWOT Analysis Template

SWOT analysis template

So you’ve done a SWOT analysis – now what?

Your SWOT analysis is likely to have uncovered some new strategies, goals and things to work on. There’ll be something to do in each quarter of your SWOT analysis.

  1. Strengths
    How will you build on your strengths? Is there more you could do, such as other opportunities to go after? How can your strengths help you deal with threats?

  2. Weaknesses
    Which weaknesses are the most glaring? Can they be fixed? Will it take more money, more people, or more knowledge to do that?  

  3. Opportunities
    Set goals for each opportunity. Ensure that the goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and have a timeline (also known as SMART goals).

  4. Threats
    Threats tend to attack your weaknesses first, so use this as another opportunity to remedy your weaknesses and reduce the risks.

These action points will be a great starting point for your business plan and your marketing plan –  both documents tend to take shape together. Start with the one-page version.

Writing a longer business plan

Once you’ve done a lean one-pager, you’ll have a much better idea of how to write a detailed business plan. You’re really just expanding on what you already have.

Contents of a business plan (11 essential sections):

  1. Executive summary
    Provide a short summary of the main points of your business plan. Although it comes first, write it last.

  2. Company overview
    Identify your industry and your business model.

  3. Products or services
    Include the context for the problem your products or services solve. You could include your SWOT analysis here.

  4. Market analysis
    Identify your target market, and the competition including their strengths and weaknesses.

  5. Risk assessment
    What could go wrong, and how likely is it that those things will happen?

  6. Marketing and sales plan
    What’s your message, and how will you push it out? How many sales can you get?

  7. Milestones
    What needs to happen and when? How will you measure success for each milestone?

  8. Progress reporting
    When and how will you report against these milestones? You don’t have to be overly formal. Just make sure you’re doing it.

  9. Team
    Name the people involved, note their special skills, and assign responsibilities.

  10. Budget
    Take your sales forecasts and show how they play out financially.

  11. Finance
    Show how capital will be used to get set up and maintain operations initially. Show when debts will be repaid.

You can also add an appendix with any supporting or background documents.

Avoid these common business planning mistakes

  • Underestimating how much money it will take to get started
  • Not budgeting enough money to cover the first few months of operation
  • Expecting sales to ramp up too fast
  • Relying too heavily on one or two customers (or suppliers)
  • No contingencies for unexpected delays or costs
Meryl Johnston - Bean Ninjas

"Reduce financial risk by validating your business idea first. For example, you could open a pop-up store first, instead of paying for the fit-out of a retail store.”

Meryl Johnston, Bean Ninjas, Xero gold partner

Chapter 4: Getting business finance

Learn the basics of business finance – from getting a loan, to finding investors, to using crowdfunding or P2P lending. And find out how to pitch yourself.

Read chapter 4

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