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Business-Plan Software for the Perplexed
How to create a perfectly respectable plan — without an MBA

The modern fantasy is that you start your company today, launch your initial public offering tomorrow, and retire a billionaire shortly after. All you need is a great idea. Oh, yeah -- and a business plan.

If you have an MBA, business planning is probably second nature to you. But many new entrepreneurs who know their fields intimately, never learned the fine points of creating business plans. This matters because people like bankers won't take you seriously if your plan doesn't have the standard stuff. A good plan also is important as a road map for managing growth internally. Business-plan writing can be intimidating. Take heart, though. There are a number of business-plan software programs out there that can pilot novices through the process. Here's a guided tour for the uninitiated.

Business Week tried out two of the programs on the market -- each priced at about $90: Jian's BizPlan Builder Interactive (www.smallbizcenter.com) and a competitor, Palo Alto Software's Business Plan Pro (www.palo-alto.com). We found them both to be well-designed and helpful, creating thorough business plans with all the sections and financials that typically appear in professionally developed plans, and with lots of on-screen help. They're quite similar, and both let you customize your report with text sections of your own devising. The one significant difference between them: Only Business Plan Pro lets you create a new spreadsheet section.

How do they work? The first time you use BizPlan Builder, dialog boxes automatically appear with general questions to set you up: Is your plan for external use or for internal use? (We selected the latter because there were fewer sections and subsections.) Fill in your industry, company name, and the names of your management-team members. BizPlan Builder takes that information and creates a classic business-plan framework, containing only boilerplate language. There's an executive summary, company overview, product strategy section, market analysis, and a series of spreadsheets.

A list of all the plan's sections and subsections appears in a window on the left side of the program. If you click on one, the boilerplate text for that section appears to the right. Poetry, it's not. Here's an excerpt of the boilerplate from the industry analysis section: The [market type] market is growing at a rapid rate. The market for these products amounted to [market dollars] in [market year]. This represents [market growth percent] growth over the last [previous market years] years. It does give you an idea of what to say, though. Change the boilerplate by clicking on the sections in blue type called "variables." Dialog boxes appear and let you type the appropriate text, then add it in.

The workbook section has a large spreadsheet template, where you plug in your financial assumptions: unit sales, price per unit, cost of goods sold, etc. This workbook isn't part of the final presentation, but BizPlan Builder automatically distributes numbers you fill in to the appropriate parts of the plan.

Business Plan Pro operates roughly the same way. Its opening questions ask for more details, though, such as whether your business manages inventory and whether you want to forecast sales in terms of units or dollars. Each question pops up in a dialog box accompanied by a clear explanation of the topic at hand. The program automatically plugs your answers into the boilerplate.

Then you go section by section replacing boilerplate with your own information. Click on a toolbar button, and up pops the plan outline. Double-click on any section to open it up. The top half of each screen has a set of tabs offering more guidance for each section. Click on one tab, and an explanation of that section appears in the top half of the window. Click on another tab, and text appears, which you then can copy into a built-in word processor and edit. In the financial sections, a spreadsheet with dummy numbers automatically appears in the bottom part of the program. Just fill in your own.

It's very mechanical. Still, using business-plan software has paid off for Elaine Lazar, president of Lazar & Associates, a Santa Monica (Calif.) language translation company. Lazar had a homemade plan that just wasn't working for her as a guide to a growing business. "My background is journalism with a marketing minor," Lazar explains. She brought her plan up to snuff using BizPlan Builder.

The professional-quality plan "gave us direction and got us thinking about new things we wouldn't have thought of otherwise, such as partnering with other companies," she says. "By the end of the year, we're on track to double our business."


By David Haskin in Madison, Wis.

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