How to write a business plan in 12 steps (2024 edition)
This guide breaks down how to write a business plan, step-by-step, detailing what your document needs to include and what you need to think about to make your business plan as persuasive as possible.
What is a business plan?
A business plan is an essential document that can provide immense value for new and existing companies of all sizes. It is an overview that includes an outline of your business, its key objectives and plan for achieving important goals.
This information can be used to communicate strategic actions to internal teams and also attract interest from potential partners and investors. However, writing a business plan can be a lengthy and involved process. For many, using a business plan template can be a good way to get started.
For best results, you’ll need to do a lot of thinking and planning before you start writing your business plan. This way you have all the information and resources you need at your fingertips and won’t be under time pressure to come up with something at the last minute. After all, a well-thought-out business plan can help you avoid generic information and set your company up for success.
Download your free business plan template.
Why write a business plan?
Writing your business plan helps to get your strategy nailed down and onto the page. A plan that stays in your head is probably going to be full of unrealistic assumptions and biases, whereas a strategically thought-out and organised approach forces you to notice your blind spots and find a way forward.
If you’re looking for financing, a bank or investor needs to be persuaded by your business proposal and the opportunity to work with you. Therefore, a well-written business plan can help provide potential financial partners with the confidence that your business can become profitable. Your business plan gives them a comprehensive view of all aspects of your business and details your strategy for achieving your goals.
What are the main sections of a business plan?
Whatever your line of work, your business plan will generally need to provide the following:
An executive summary
A business overview
The market opportunity
Frequently asked questions about writing a business plan:
When to write a business plan?
Typically, entrepreneurs write their business plans within the first year of operations. A business plan is a tool that helps business owners refine their strategy, attract partners and financiers, and grow their business.
If a business plan is written too soon, it may lack the substance that comes with time in the market. However, it’s important to note that a business plan is not a static document - it can and should change as the business evolves.
How long should your business plan be?
There are no hard and fast rules around how long your business plan should be - it just needs to include all the relevant information. Aim for clear, concise sections and build a business plan that is as easy to read and navigate as possible.
Using a business plan template can help you make sure you have everything covered off, while also having a document that looks as professional as possible. Make sure you run a spelling and grammar check too - any sloppy errors can undermine your credibility.
What’s a business plan on a page?
It’s important to write your business plan as it helps to embed your strategy - as well as communicate what you’re about to potential partners or investors. When you have a comprehensive business plan you can easily adapt it to suit different audiences. For example, a full business plan is essential for raising capital but a business plan on a page may be enough for potential partners or employees.
What do venture capitalists look for in a business plan?
Venture capitalists invest money into businesses with the goal of achieving a return on their investment within the short to medium term. As a result, they’re looking for an attractive market opportunity, a clear point of differentiation, a strong management team, a proven track record, solid financials and, importantly, an exit opportunity.
How to write a business plan
Make sure you cover off each of the following steps when preparing your document:
1. Write an executive summary
This section of your business plan should be 1–2 pages in length and enables potential financiers or partners to get an overview of what your business does and – most importantly — what the opportunity is for them. If they’re interested in the opportunity, they’ll conduct their own due diligence - and this will start with going through your business plan and financials.
It’s a good idea to write your executive summary last, when you’ve clarified your thinking around every section of the document. As an overview section, you don’t want to add any new content that isn’t in your business plan. Aim to keep this summary succinct and engaging by using simple, plain language, as this is much more persuasive than complicated or academic wording.
Use sub-headings and bullet points to help your most important information stand out, especially as busy executives may simply scan your executive summary and use this to decide whether they want to find out more.
What to include in an executive summary?
Make sure you include details on:
What your business does
What the opportunity is
What your unique selling points / differentiators are
How much funding you’re looking for
What the funding will be used for
How you'll succeed
Remember, you’re providing the big picture overview of your business - the detail is in the rest of the document and in the appendices.
2. Write your business overview
This section of your business plan needs to be more than just a list of what your business does. Its purpose is to excite those you’re hoping will work with you or help to fund your business.
Information to address includes:
What's the purpose of your business?
What problem does your business’ product or service solve?
What niche could it fill?
What’s different about your offering?
How are you better than anyone else at what you do?
Consider what your customer value proposition is by deciding what you want to achieve and what your number 1 benefit is for your customer.
3. Identify your USP
Think about what your unique selling points (USP) or differentiators are, and what proof-points you can provide to back them up. For example, you can use terms like “market-leading” but if you don’t provide any evidence to back up your claims, your reader will take them with a big pinch of salt!
You should certainly reference any awards or endorsements that position you as the best person to provide your product or service, as well as any client testimonials. Make sure you include any education or experience that makes you an expert in your field as well.
4. Describe the market opportunity
Show you understand your industry, market and where you fit in it. While no-one can predict the future, offer up where you think the opportunity is for your business and make sales projections based on that.
For example, imagine your business is selling personalised cookies - there's little competition in your area and you see your market opportunity to create designs for all calendar and holiday events. You expect to increase sales by 30% in one year and 50% in three years, driven primarily by word-of-mouth referrals.
Make sure you also consider macro trends that may create opportunities for you, such as social, environmental, or technological changes that may affect buying behaviour.
5. Include a SWOT analysis
Whatever your business strengths or opportunities, they’ll always be known and unknown weaknesses and threats; there’s no such thing as certainty in business or in life! However, you can demonstrate that you’ve examined your business through different lenses and have a thorough understanding of it by doing a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis.
Don’t worry about drawing attention to your business’ shortcomings - every opportunity has them and it’ll give investors and partners confidence in you that you won't bury your head in the sand. Naturally, it's important that you specify what you’re going to do to address these weaknesses and counter these threats.
Here are some areas you can think about to get started: reputation, technology, location, experience, staff, overheads, competition, suppliers and price.
6. Present a competitor analysis
Let’s face it, no matter what industry you’re in, or what you’re selling, there’s going to be other businesses offering the same thing. But instead of worrying about the competition, use this as a positive opportunity to up your game and work out the unique advantages you have that will keep you competitive.
Identify your top 3 competitors and analyse what they're doing well and where they’re coming up short. Try to be as objective as possible and identify how to differentiate yourself from them. You should also look into who the industry leaders are and what the benchmarks are for your industry so that you can set yourself targets for continuous improvement.
7. Create a customer persona
A customer persona is a fictional person who represents your company's ideal customer. Naturally, the persona can be based on a real person - the more you get to know your ideal customer, the more targeted and successful your marketing efforts will be.
To create a customer persona, you need to conduct research into your ideal customer’s age, sex, income, employment, daily activities, interests and hobbies. If you’re feeling unsure about your customer persona, you may need to give your ideal customer further thought and download the customer persona template to get started.
8. Write your marketing strategy
When you’ve created your customer persona, you need to work out how you’re going to reach them. Do they hang out on social media apps, like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter or LinkedIn? Or are they more used to local, traditional marketing like free local papers or high foot traffic areas?
Once you’ve figured where your audience is likely to hang out, you can outline your strategies for promoting and advertising your products or services in the next 12 months. Make a list of the marketing channels you’ll use to achieve your advertising strategy and be sure to include your budget. How much can you set aside for advertising? And where are you most likely to see a return on your efforts? Paid ads on Facebook? Half or full paid spreads in an industry magazine? Or even a direct mail out?
For more structured help around this, check out free course: Business 101 | Get social with your business on Facebook.
9. Design your customer retention strategy
Business success relies heavily on the relationship you’re able to build with your customers. What techniques will you use to keep them coming back? Consider the following:
What can your business do to increase the number of repeat customers?
Does your business have a referral or loyalty program?
Do you have a post-purchase follow up in place?
Will you use surveys to track customer satisfaction?
What ways can you continue delivering outstanding service?
Is there a way to continue educating and adding value to your customers?
10. Present your financials
Most people who are looking at investing their time and/or money in your business will want to see your financial statements - your performance to date and your projections over the short and medium term. They'll also want to know how much you’ve received in funding to date and what these other sources of funding are - including your own investment.
You need to show how your business has performed financially over the last year, highlighting metrics such as positive cashflow, net profit and assets.
You should also provide a balance forecast projecting total assets, total liabilities and net assets over 1, 2 and 3 years, and a profit and loss forecast for the same periods detailing gross profit/net sales, total expenses and net profit/loss. Finally, you should also provide a cashflow forecast month by month over the next year.
It’s also a good idea to speak to an expert like an accountant or bookkeeper about your finances and get advice on how best to present them in this all-important section of your business plan.
11. Detail how much funding is needed
Naturally, you also need to be very clear about how much money you’re looking for and what you plan to do with it. If you’re looking for a loan, you need to detail what it’s for, over what period it’ll be repaid, and what collateral you have to secure it.
12. Propose an exit strategy
Any financial stakeholder in your business will want a return on investment. If you’re pursuing this type of funding, you should include some detail on your proposed exit strategy. For example, do you want to sell the company at some point or go public?
Similarly, you should outline your succession plan so the business can continue to operate if you decide to step away from it. Likewise, you need a plan for what happens if the business loses money and can’t sustain itself. Documenting this means that everyone is on the same page and potential investors have this information upfront.
Where to go for help or more information?
There are many great resources out there to help you fine-tune your business strategy and write your business plan. The New Zealand Government has a comprehensive website dedicated to supporting businesses at all stages of their journey.
You can also get help from Business Enterprise Centres, business advisors, accountants and fellow business owners. MYOB also has a list of business advisors who can give you feedback on your business plan, so your venture has the very best chance of success.