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Resources to Turn to When You Need Help Writing Your Business Plan

September 10, 1997

Q I would appreciate any assistance you can provide in locating a source for writing a business plan. Computer software is preferable, or a book or other written materials. Also, if there is an organization that could help me write my plan, I would appreciate knowing that.

--Peter Bentley,

Center for Management, San Francisco

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A When you talk about starting a new business, many times what you need to do first is a feasibility study, not a business plan. A business plan assumes that you have a feasible business, and it guides you through the creation and management of the company.

But first you must determine if your idea will be accepted in the marketplace. A feasibility study determines whether there is a market for your idea, and how much it will cost to start your business.

Assuming your idea has been tested, the business plan becomes a living guide to the business: what the business is, who the players are, projections for profit and cash flow, who the customers are, how you intend to reach them through marketing strategy, what kind of distribution strategy you will use, etc. The plan covers all the functions of a business.

Writing a business plan is a big task--that's why many people don't do it. Yet creating a business plan is a wonderful learning experience. When you talk to a banker, an investor or someone at a cocktail party and you have written a business plan, you will know your business so well that you can tell them within seconds what's important about it. If you don't know your business inside and out, you can't tell people why they should get involved or invest in it.

There are many ways to learn how to do a feasibility study or business plan. I am totally against business plan software. The trouble is that the software assumes all businesses are basically alike--and they're not. The business owner's personality, culture and vision need to be expressed in the business plan, and nobody who's writing software knows what they are. I think software includes too much boilerplate and leads a business owner to think that because they've plugged in the numbers they now have a persuasive business plan when they may not.

Try calling a business school and hiring a student to help you prepare your plan. They have spent an entire year of classroom time learning how to do such things as business plans and feasibility studies.

Another possibility would be for you to take a weekend college course specifically designed for people who are preparing business plans. I tell students to keep their plans under 50 pages, and remember that the executive summary must excite people about the business and make them want to read the rest of the plan.

--Kathleen Allen, USC professor of entrepreneurship

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A In all the years I have taught and dealt with entrepreneurs, I have found that books with work sheets and references bring a rich developmental process to the business plan.

Any reasonably large bookstore has shelves and shelves of books that explain how to write a business plan. The real key is to look through several of them and find a voice that you understand and appreciate. If you spend enough time, you will find a couple of books that will fill the bill.

In terms of getting help, you can visit U.S. Small Business Administration offices all over the state and attend workshops on business planning. Also, many chambers of commerce, university extension programs and community colleges run free or low-cost training sessions that can be a big help.

--Jon P. Goodman

director, Annenberg Incubator Project

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A Many ordinary business owners, faced with the mathematical calculations necessary to do a business plan, feel they have only one option--hiring an accounting professional to crunch the numbers for them.

The great thing about using computerized spreadsheets is that the owner can put in numbers, many based on "what if" scenarios, and see instantly what they will mean for cash flow and other crucial areas.

The problem with much of the software on the market is that it is extremely restrictive and lulls the business owner into thinking it is a quick fix. Business planning software should not be a quick fix. It is a serious and tedious business. If the software company promises you can complete your plan in less than a day, run for the exit. Good software should assist the owner in the educational process of learning about his or her business. The project--even with the software--still requires a lot of work.

When choosing business plan software, do not simply rely on the promotions on the outside of the box. That's how software turns into shelf ware. Talk to other business people and get recommendations on good products they have used.

Above all, make sure the software you purchase can be customized to your business, so you do not produce a generic business plan but one that is yours alone.

--Linda Pinson, author and software developer, Out of Your Mind and Into the Marketplace, Tustin

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If you have a question about how to start or operate a small business, please mail it to Karen E. Klein in care of the Los Angeles Times, 1333 S. Mayflower Ave., Suite 100, Monrovia 91016 or e-mail it to Kklein6349@aol.com. Include your name, address and telephone number. The column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice.

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