I am constantly amazed at how many people neglect the look of their business plan. So often they are disorganized, cluttered, and wordy. You wouldn’t go to a meeting with potential investors with your hair and clothes in disarray. Your business plan is part of your first impression and should also be part of your own identity and vision for the business. Bottom line: A business plan needs to be a polished and professional-looking working document that represents the flavor and viability of your business idea in a clear and easy-to-use fashion.
Purpose of a Business Plan
The purpose of the plan is not just to have a document you can show to potential investors — it’s also a roadmap for yourself. Forcing yourself to come up with the hard data and answer the tough questions gives you a depth of understanding and focus that skimming over such “minor” topics as what separates you from your competition can keep you from experiencing. Don’t shy away from this opportunity to get to the meat of what your business is truly capable of and what it is vulnerable to.
With a document by your side that you can constantly adjust and add to, you are empowering yourself with knowledge, data, and direction. It can serve as a guide for all of those times when you need back-up, assurance, or even the way back to the true purpose of your business those times when you get a little lost. Bottom line: For a useful business document that serves as a reference for both investors as well yourself, make sure the plan has a design that represents your brand in a polished way and is above-all easy to use and understand.
Business Plan Design Tips to Help Your Plan Fulfill Its Purpose
- Use a Clean and Spare Design
There are plenty of business plans out there that have the heft of a phone book and maybe the personality of one, too. Long and dense plans give off the air of something trying to make up in weight what it is missing in substance. Investors don’t want to pick up a phone book to read. You do not want to pick up a phone book to read.
For a document that is handy, portable, and inviting, make a design that is clear, brief, and direct. Avoid wordiness that can obscure your true purpose and message. A cluttered design with ten different levels of numbered and lettered outlines, asterisks, and footnotes conveys a cluttered and over-loaded mind. A clean design with objectives and details concisely and clearly presented conveys a mind and business purpose that has laser-focus, knows what is important, and has a confident sense of itself. Bottom line: Clean design shows a clear vision.
- Include a Table of Contents and Helpful Headings
Making a business plan an easy-to-read and easy-to-use document requires that information and sections are easy to locate. Use a table of contents to make your information easy to be referenced. A table of contents shows that you are an organized person and that you value the time of the reader. Within the content, use helpful headings that make information easy to find and identify. Bullet points and numbers are fine, but avoid going overboard with different levels of indentions and notations. Keep information organized and easy to follow. Bottom line: A table of contents and straightforward headings keep your thoughts organized, help you and your reader locate information, and look professional.
- Choose a Font That is Easy to Read
Even if your business is arts-related, a business plan is never the time to sacrifice function for form. Since this will be a workable document, every design decision must come back to its ease of use. Fonts that look professional and are easy to read include Arial, Helvetica, and the traditional Times New Roman, Times, or Palatino. Bottom line: Choose a font style and size based on readability.
- Include Only Relevant Graphics
A long business plan with lots of graphics in lots of shapes and colors does look impressive at first flip-through, but it does not encourage a reader or user to start reading or look closer. The ease with which even the not-so-savvy can create custom charts and graphs using computer programs is great, but only make a graph or chart if it meets two criteria. One, that it is absolutely relevant data. If you plan on starting a knitting supply company, then a pie chart showing the different colors of yarn you plan on ordering is a waste of time and color ink. Only include a graphic if it packs a punch in terms of conveying necessary information in a clear and concise way. Use too many graphics and the more important ones are not noticed. Use a graphic only when you are making a high-impact point you want to stand out.
Second, be sure the graphic is easy to understand. If a reader has to slow down and think very hard about what this measurement is on the side of the graph and what the striped bars mean and that information is not quickly made clear, you have lost your reader. If you are the one using your plan, a complicated graph is not something you will ever want to revisit or use. Bottom line: Use charts and graphs only when absolutely necessary so important information stands out and only when the data and interpretation is easily read and interpreted.
- Use a Template — Or Not
There are thousands of business plan templates out there, even for free. These are great resources for giving you an idea of what elements most plans include. But as they are general in nature, they pretty much include the kitchen sink. So while you don’t want to get rid of every topic and leave your plan with only an Executive Summary, your business may not need every single detail included in a template. A template is a great way to approach the overwhelming task of a business plan — it gives you that structure and a place to start. But before you start filling in blanks, think hard about what the true essence of your business and your plan for it. Get rid of any topic that takes away from that focus and hone in on those elements that most accurately will represent the spirit, financial potential and costs, and strategy of growth for YOUR business. If you are interested in using a template, you may even want to search for one that is specific to your industry. Bottom line: Use a template to give you initial structure, but only use the most relevant elements for your business.
Bill Post, Small Business Research Analyst, has been providing research on issues of concern to small businesses for 123Print.com Business Cards for three years. Prior to his involvement with 123Print, Bill was a small business owner himself, providing marketing and branding services to other small businesses in the Washington, DC metro area. Before working with 123Print on Business Card Templates, Bill spent several years after receiving his degree in the fast-paced corporate world. It was there that Bill not only honed the skills he uses to help small businesses get ahead, but it is also where he realized that he’d rather help the little guy prosper than make huge corporations money.