A new business generally needs two things. First, it needs a reason to exist. What are you going to bring to the marketplace that no one else is providing or how are you going to provide an existing product in a “better” fashion? Second, you’re going to need some cash. Even if you’re just going to be making websites in your bedroom, you’ll need some money for internet access, food, and some software or hosting.
These two problems can both be addressed through a solid business plan.
A business plan tells you – and anyone you decide to share it with – what your core function is. It helps you focus in on the things that you do best and it gives you metrics to determine what your success looks like. I say, “It gives you,” but really it’s just a template for managing your own thoughts.
In the same way that a blueprint is the physical manifestation of a building plan, a business plan is the physical manifestation of your business goals. Could you build a house without drawing up a blueprint? Sure. Is it a super good idea that we’re all about to adopt? Not even close.
In addition to putting your own thoughts on paper and making the organization process more structured, a good business plan is also your pitch. When you go into the bank, you’re going in with a clear message about what you do, who buys it, and how much you’re expecting them to spend with you over time.
The forecasting and economic consolidation that happens in your business plan makes talking to the bank – or VC or neighbor or rich uncle – that much easier.
To help you pull a plan together, there are – of course – plenty of software solutions. These range from the simple to the complex. You can opt for a solution that basically just lays the material you create out or one that helps you with every step of the process.
Today, we’ll look a few free business plan software options to help get you started. I’ll also give you a few non-software solutions, just in case you want to get your hands a bit dirty.
Note: Your hands may not get dirty, except in a metaphorical sense. Much depends on the type of pen you employ.
Free business plan software options
StratPad is a cloud-based business plan software solution. There are a few different versions, depending on how many business plans you want to make, but for one plan, you can get a free account. As an additional little bonus, if you happen to teach business at a high school or university, StratCloud has a free version of its Unlimited offering. Interested in products with similar features? These StratPad alternatives could be what you are looking for.
That little bonus points to what StratCoud is really all about. The company provides workshops, videos, and educational blogs for entrepreneurs. It makes the bulk of its revenue not through subscriptions, but through the introductions it provides via StratPad Connect.
There, business coaches, accountants, and other professionals can connect with new businesses. Those leads generate a small fee from the professional, paid to StratPad. You’re not paying, so you’re the product – but it’s a pretty tame version of the old adage.
StratPad comes with follow along instructions and ends up generating a very clean and classic looking business plan. I like the layout of the system and I’m apparently not the only one. StratPad claims over 100,000 businesses are currently using its service.
Enloop is another free option for those seeking a single business plan. The company attempts to bring a little bit of credibility with its offering by scoring your business plan. Once it’s been scored, bankers or investors can look to see how well you did.
The score encompasses some basics like cash flow and growth. It updates as you update the document, so you can see what metrics are having the biggest – in Enloop’s mind – impact on your business’s viability. Sharing the actual score is only available to paid users.
Enloop also makes it easy to collaborate on plans, and the free version of the service gives you one additional user. You’ll be able to forecast up to 36 months out for financials, and all of it can be dropped into a PDF. Want to find software solutions with comparable features? These Enloop alternatives are a good place to start.
This is my wildcard entry into the mix. Plan Cruncher isn’t really a business plan software. Instead, it takes the information you give it and generates a sort of elevator pitch/cover letter for your business plan.
When you’ve input all the details, you’ll end up with a one-page overview of the business, including what you’re going to do, who’s involved in the project, where you are in the funding process, and what you’re looking for next.
I like this for two reasons. First, it’s kinda fun. The final product is covered in these little logos that Plan Cruncher has come up with, so you get a nice visual view of the business. Second, it makes you summarize the whole thing. You’ll be entering details in 140 character boxes and chopping your offering down into small consumable chunks. This is a great way to determine what the core parts of your business really are.
Plan Cruncher has just the one version. It’s free and you end up with a nice PDF when it’s all said and done. That being said, it is 100 percent focused on tech startups looking for cash from investors. If you roll into the bank with this thing, it better be because you’re the founder of Plan Cruncher and you brought it along to demonstrate what the service does. No banker is going to care about this.
Non-software options for business plan creation
Software doesn’t always have to be the solution. I mean, sure, you’ll need some software to make any business plan, but we’re talking about Microsoft Office style programs. These resources are excellent alternatives to software.
The SBA wants you to succeed in business and it’s got a whole host of resources to help you generate your own business plan on its website. One of the things you’ll miss out on by using software is a solid education.
By building your own plan, you’ll be forced to learn how the whole thing works, what investors are looking for, and what all the terms means. You’ll be forecasting and analyzing before you know it. The SBA has a great set of instructions on how to get up to speed before you head down to your bank.
Speaking of which…
Many major banks have free business planning tools to help you get started. On the Wells Fargo site, for instance, you can learn about how business plans work, use some tools to bring the whole thing together, and even do some competitive analysis.
As a major benefit, you’ll be working with the company that you’re going to be asking for money, right out of the gates. If you don’t like your bank’s offering, you can always find another bank that has better tools. Most of them are available without an account.
Another SBA shout out. The SCORE network hooks successful business folk up with the next crop of winners. You can reach out to knowledgeable, local, mentors who can help you craft a business plan. These people are there to help and to make business better.
That means 1) there’s not a cost associated with reaching out and 2) they’re not going to do your homework. If you show up with all your research and a good start, a mentor can help you put some finishing touches on or send you in search of more details. If you show up with nothing, expect to get nothing in return.
That’s probably a little unfair. I’m sure you can get help finding your way if you haven’t kicked things off yet. Just don’t expect to drop off your bank records and walk out with a plan that they’ve drawn up for you.
We’ll end on another quirky one. The BMC was developed by Swiss business consultant Alexander Osterwalder. The BMC breaks a business into nine basic building blocks and then has you fill out all those blocks. The result is a sort of brainstorm of business planning that fits on a single page.
This is a popular framework for lean start-ups, as you can present the entirety of the plan in a single slide – with more detail than Plan Cruncher provides. If that sounds intriguing, check out Alexander Cowan’s overview of the BMC for more details on how it actually works.
A business plan can help you understand and champion the growth of your business. Thinking through your business’s core functions and challenges can give you a better understanding of where you should be spending your time.
You’ll also be in a better position to get the funding you need, when you need it. Business planning may be the least exciting part of starting your business, but it’s one of the most important. If you’ve got any other tools or software options that you’ve used and loved, let me know in the comments.