Best Online Business Plans Tips

Successful entrepreneurs know that getting the details down on paper is critical before starting any new venture. For help in the planning stages, many new owners use an online business plan service. Such services provide potential investors with details on how a new business will become profitable. Online business plan software offers the tools and templates needed to create a professional presentation that can be put in front of prospective backers to demonstrate where you want your venture to go and how you plan to get there. The best services provide financial calculators and chart generators to help crunch numbers and illustrate the business’ vision in a quantifiable manner. They also offer a number of additional features such as performance graphs and goal achievement monitors that let business owners track their progress and make necessary changes along the way.

Our sister site, TopTenREVIEWS, does extensive in-depth reviews of online business plan services. Here are the Top 3 recommendations for online business plan services:

LivePlan earned this year’s TopTenREVIEWS Gold Award for simplifying the business plan writing by providing access to the work and materials from any computer with an internet connection. For those launching their first venture, the service guides them through each step. By incorporating teaching into the writing process, LivePlan produces not only an exceptional business plan, but also a more informed entrepreneur.

Document Generation Tools: Chief among the document generation tools offered by LivePlan are the table generators such as sales forecasts, budgets and profit and loss statements. Each part of the LivePlan Financial Plan section contains an easy-to-use table generator for the specific table type desired by the business owner. The service also gives advanced business owners the option of operating in its “Full Financial Mode.”

Guidance Resources: LivePlan walks users through each section of their business plan, giving precise instructions for developing each component. The service divides the writing into chapters, including Executive Summary, Company, Products and Services, Target Market, Strategy and Implementation, Financial Plan and Appendix. Each section contains specific instructions on what needs to be included and examples of what investors and lenders are looking for. Each section also has video tutorials.

Costs: To compare costs, visit TopTenREVIEWS best online business plan services here.

#2 BizPlan

BizPlan earns high marks for providing a step-by-step process that’s accessible to users of all skill levels. While new users have resources to learn what they need, business veterans have the tools required to formulate a business plan without unnecessary handholding. A highlight is the service’s overall compatibility with other widely used applications such as Excel and cloud-based document creation and sharing services like Google Docs. Additionally, it integrates with social media sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter.

Document Generation Tools: For beginners, the BizPlan service provides a step-by-step guide to creating a business plan, making the process of building from scratch easy. In addition, BizPlan allows users to share and coproduce their business plan with an unlimited number of partners – even those who many not be central authors on the document but still have important content contributions, such as a lawyer or financial advisor.

Guidance Resources: The entire service is set up to guide users through the process with as little pain as possible. In addition to building the business plan, Bizplan offers investor information to help kick-start the hunt for funding. As users move through the process, each section is clearly labeled and explained in order to remove the ambiguity many entrepreneurs battle when they create their first business plan.

What should you know about business plan competitions

Business plan and startup contests take an entrepreneur’s thirst for competition to the next level. Throughout the year, organizations all over the country open their doors to new, aspiring or established business owners, offering them the chance to win much-needed funding for their ventures.

Even though most competitors don’t end up winning the prize money, they do gain one thing that all startups need: the chance to network and share their ideas with fellow entrepreneurs and mentors. If you want to advance your entrepreneurial dreams, consider entering one of these annual business plan and startup competitions, open to eligible entrepreneurs in all U.S. states. Visit each competition’s website for contest dates and entry information.

American Dream Seekers – Fort Myers, Florida. RJ Riley & Company’s American Dream Seekers competition provides a platform for showcasing business creations to industry leaders, potential investors, peers, friends and family. Five finalists are selected from a number of categories to compete for a $5,000 prize.

FastPitch Competition – Savannah, Georgia. Students, early stage startups and established local entrepreneurs are invited to share their three-minute pitches at The Creative Coast’s FastPitch Competition. Local community leaders, academics and investors will assess the viability of each venture, and will also provide coaching and feedback to contestants throughout the competition. The winner receives a $3,000 prize.

Innovation World Cup – International. With the Internet of Things, wearable tech and cloud solutions rapidly integrating into everyday life, Navispace AG’s  Innovation World Cup series gives global, early stage entrepreneurs the chance to introduce innovative tech solutions to a panel of industry experts. The winning product for each of the three competitions (IoT/M2M, wearable technologies, cloud) gets a $5,000 prize.

MIT-CHIEF Business Plan Content – Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since 2011, the MIT-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship (MIT-CHIEF) Forum has sponsored a business plan contest that connects entrepreneurs in the United States and China with resources such as funding, industry expertise, legal services and marketing know-how. Startups in the clean technology, health care, consumer tech/services, social good and Web/IT/mobile industries compete for a $20,000 prize.

NAPEC Innovation Challenge – Chicago, Illinois. The North American Professionals and Entrepreneurs Council (NAPEC) Innovation Challenge is designed for student entrepreneurs from top universities who want to pursue an innovative business idea, develop a technology or create a new approach to a difficult problem. Finalists present their ideas to entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists for the chance to win the $10,000 grand prize. Second- and third-prize winners receive $5,000 and $2,500, respectively.

Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit Business Plan Competition – Lafayette, California. If you have business idea that will capture the growing baby boomer market, the Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit is the competition for you. Early stage entrepreneurs in all industries are welcome to submit a 10-slide-deck business plan to the competition organizers at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University.

Challenges to Overcome

Starting a business? Entrepreneurs know that dreaming up a business idea is the easy part it’s making your dreams come to fruition that’s the real challenge.

And one of the first steps to taking on that challenge is creating a business plan, a task that can be pretty daunting no matter how great your idea is.

Your business plan is essentially your map to success — it’s an outline of the goals, research and projections you have for your new company so that you can stay on the right track, and is an especially important document to have if you’re seeking funding.

Business News Daily asked business owners, strategists and experts what the most difficult part of writing a business plan is. Here are 13 challenges you’ll face writing your business plan.

Actually starting it

“The hardest part about writing a business plan is getting it started. Lock yourself in a room, turn off your phone and focus.” – John Gavigan, executive director, 43North

Filling out your financials

“The most difficult part of writing a business plan is the financial section. It is difficult to project figures on a brand-new business with, possibly, a brand-new concept. There is not roadmap, no one to follow. The best you can do is find a similar company and try to gauge what they are making.” – Rosemary O’Brien, owner, Pocket Parks Publishing

Knowing your demographics

“The hardest but most important piece is getting your target demographics dialed in properly. You need to know who you’ll be selling to and how big the market is to estimate with some accuracy how many people you can reach and sell your product or service to.” – David Batchelor, founder, DialMyCalls.com [Writing a Business Plan? Do These 5 Things First ]

Planning for tech changes

“Predicting the unforeseen technology variables that the future holds [is a challenge]. When I started my business nearly 10 years ago, there was no marketing on Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram did not yet exist. Today, these social media platforms play a huge role in my business’ marketing strategy and directly affect sales.” – Monif Clarke, CEO and founder, Monif C.

Being concise

“[One of the top challenges is] keeping it short and sweet. The more concise and focused a plan is, the more likely business owners are to achieve the goals they have set out for themselves and their business.” – Rick Faulk, chairman and CEO, Intronis

Making it interesting

“The hardest thing about writing a business plan is being able to tell your story in such a way that people buy into your idea. If you tell a lousy story, people won’t want to invest.” – MJ Pedone, president and founder, Indra Public Relations

Establishing workable goals

“Establishing clear, concise and understandable goals — these goals must also be realistic. When people can’t see the vision of the plan, they won’t take action to pursue the plan. In addition, by having set goals that align with your plan, you have measureable targets to track your progress.” – Mike Rodriguez, coach and business consultant

Staying grounded

“[You need] to be honest with yourself. Entrepreneurs are by nature dreamers and optimists and business plans require them to challenge their assumptions about  market opportunity, the competition, the value of their product and growth projections. That is where they get caught up in defining an aspirational, but somewhat realistic, business plan.” – Vikram Aggarwal, CEO and founder, EnergySage

Entrepreneurs Tips For Business Plan

Writing a business plan is an important step in the startup process. It helps you and your partners decide if you will work well together, teaches you about the marketplace, and lets you brainstorm business and product goals. But because of all the effort and detail involved, many entrepreneurs dread the thought of sitting down and creating this critical but time-consuming document.

While business plans can be frustrating if you’re writing one from scratch, there are plenty of online templates available to take some of the pain out of the process. Small business owners can benefit from simple, easy-to-follow business-plan tools so they can spend less time writing and more time launching.

Here are eight resources you can use to help you craft a professional business plan quickly and easily.

$100 Startup

You’ve heard about those entrepreneurs who started off by jotting down their ideas on a napkin at a bar, café or restaurant. $100 Startup’s One-Page Business Plan is a little like that, but more organized. Designed for entrepreneurs who are itching to get started, this simple business-plan template asks a handful of questions that you can easily answer in one or two sentences. It covers everything from what you sell and who will buy it to how you will get paid, “hustle” to find customers, foresee challenges and overcome the obstacles — all in a single page. [Writing a Business Plan? Do These 5 Things First]

Copyblogger

Not all small businesses are concerned with credit lines, partnerships and office space — at least not in the beginning. So why should their initial business plans include these things? Copyblogger’s Remarkably Simple Business Plan doesn’t. Instead, it offers a business-plan template fit for the real would-be entrepreneur’s world. Whereas most business-plan templates assume all businesses are uniform, Copyblogger’s Remarkably Simple Business Plan was created to get to what entrepreneurs really need to know to start a business: the ins and outs of the product or service, how customers will find the business and how the business will make money. Simply copy and paste the template of the Remarkably Simple Business Plan, created by Sonia Simone, co-founder and chief content officer of Copyblogger Media, and you’re good to go.

Enloop

Founded in 2011, Enloop is regarded as an innovative player in the business-plan-creation industry. Like many others, the service uses an online interface to help automate your business plan’s creation. To get started, users enter basic information about their businesses, including product details. Then, Enloop’s software uses metrics to help predict the financial performance of the company in comparison with others in the sector. According to CEO Cynthia McCahon, the goal of the company is to help entrepreneurs make better-informed decisions. Users can get started on Enloop for free; more advanced paid options are also available.

LivePlan

LivePlan is a relatively new entrant to the online business-tools market that helps you every step of the way, from the planning stages through your launch. Like other services, LivePlan allows business owners to craft perfectly formatted plans. From there, users can create the presentation necessary to pitch their business ideas to would-be investors. Once off the ground, businesses can track revenue and expenses against forecasts, and multiple users within a company can work through the LivePlan interface. Pricing starts at less than $12 a month.

The One Page Business Plan Company

Created by The One Page Business Plan Company, this simple business template covers only the key areas entrepreneurs need to address to start a business: their vision for the company, mission for why the business exists, objectives for setting out goals, strategies to make the business successful and action plans indicating what work needs to be done. Unlike complicated business plans, boring blocks of text are not required — bullet points will do.

Platform Planner

Are you the visual type? Look no further than Angela Bowman’s One-Page Visual Business Plan. Based on the principles of the Business Generation Model Strategyzer app, Bowman’s One-Page Visual Business Plan uses sticky notes to help you creatively craft an out-of-the-box business plan. To create a One-Page Visual Business Plan, start by separating a single page into different sections or columns, such as company information and customer segments. Write down your ideas or responses on a sticky note, and then stick it on the corresponding section. You can also color-code the sticky notes for better organization. Then, if your plans change, you can easily remove a note, move it around or add new ones to better fit the direction in which your business is headed.

SBA Build Your Business Plan Tool

The fact that the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has an online tool to help users craft business plans will come as no surprise to anyone who has investigated the SBA’s offerings before. The agency has a wealth of free planning, financing and consulting tools and resources, both online and through available consultants. The SBA’s online tool for business-plan creation allows a user to enter information on a Web interface that is tied to that user’s account. The administration says this is intended to be a “live” plan that can be referred to and changed as the company’s plans progress. The SBA encourages entrepreneurs to use their generated plans to discuss their company’s prospects with SBA advisers like those available through SCORE and the Small Business Development Center. The SBA’s tool is available online at no cost.

Opening a Salon Tips

For many beauty industry professionals, owning a salon is a dream come true. If you’ve got the styling skills and the capital needed to start your business, you’re already halfway there. However, just like with any other industry, opening your own business can be challenging, and it comes with a lot of tasks and responsibilities to complete.

Thinking about putting your beauty skills to the test and opening your own salon? Make sure you follow these 10 expert tips first.

Create a business plan

“A business plan is key to starting a salon. The plan offers a road map for salon owners to follow and helps entrepreneurs consider all areas of the business. A business plan makes sure you set up a metric for success and consider the financials before you invest huge amounts of time and money in a new salon.”

Find a way to stand out

“With salons on every corner, even in small towns, entering into the market with a specialty or service niche can dramatically increase buzz and press about your opening. Most salons try to please everyone, offering a huge menu of services. But this does nothing to differentiate you in the market. Even if you do offer many services, promoting a niche or specialty service will help you attract not only a very loyal client base, but will [also] instantly lend credibility to your salon as the experts in your niche space.” – Pamela Jeschonek, owner, Everyday Esthetics Eyebrow Studio

Research local laws and regulations

“Do your research. Ensure that you are complying with the state laws and regulations. If you have to make some adjustments to your plan because of regulations and laws, do so early so that you can avoid potentially having to stop your operation later or [having to pay] a fine. This will save you time and money.” – Shanell Jett, owner and stylist, JettSet Mobile Studio

Talk to distributors

“Get in touch with major product distributors like Redken, Paul Mitchell, etc. Some of them offer support services such as training [and] consultants to salon owners and staff. ” – Tom Justin, author and business consultant

Create a solid client base

“My number-one tip for aspiring entrepreneurs before they open up a salon is to have a number of professional clients of your own that will cover your overhead. Salon employees have an independent mind-set and will try to make power plays. With a solid client base of your own, you’ll be in a better position to call the shots.” – Sandra LaMorgese, speaker and entrepreneur

Choose the right location

“Secure a solid location with plenty of parking. If you make it convenient for clients to visit your salon, you’ll have more customers, which in turn means more revenue to pay off your initial loan and to put toward growth expenses.” – Jim Salmon, president of business services, Navy Federal Credit Union

Focus on your staff

“I would advise any new salons to invest time in the training and motivation of the staff. Now, any technician is going to know their trade. However, they might need help with the selling and customer-retention side. Your salon will be built around your stylists and technicians, [so] ensuring they are comfortable with up-selling products and other treatments across the brand is the difference between success and failure. Spending time before launch training your key staff to learn these key skills and learn how to teach them to new employees will pay dividends once the salon is running, and will go a long way to help with the smooth operation of a successful business.” – Jennifer Quinn, client relations and Web content executive, Phorest

Think about your clients

“Create a vision for how you want clients to feel, what you want them to experience and what adjectives clients will use when describing their experience. This will help in developing a look, feel and atmosphere.” – Samira Far, founder, Bellacures

Hire a designer

“Work with a designer or space planner to ensure you are maximizing your revenue potential for the space. Keep in mind any plumbing needs, and take advantage of space in the center of the salon with double-sided stations or other uses. Know the dimensions you have for each area, so you can shop for salon equipment to fit the space or have it custom-ordered. If construction work is needed, try to negotiate those costs in your lease agreement.” – Miriam Deckert, marketing director,

Great Design Tips For Your Business

No matter what industry you’re in, design the look and feel of your website, logo, social media profiles, marketing materials, etc. is an important tool to help you hook customers with a great first impression.

As a small business, this can mean the difference between gaining an edge over your competitors and turning customers off completely. That’s why it’s so crucial to invest the necessary time and resources in a visually pleasing, well designed brand presence.

Business leaders and branding experts weighed in on the importance of design for small businesses, and what to consider when creating visuals for your company.

“People have [feelings] about your company based on the experiences that they have had with a brand,” Marin told Business News Daily. “[For example,] a well-designed logo and website inspires confidence because it looks professional. If a company is willing to focus on creating a clean and functional design that is easy to use, then that could be an indicator of what using their product might be like.”

“Great design not only conceptually reflects the mission of your company, but also, functionally, it’s the embodiment of that concept,” added Ty Walrod, CEO of Bright Funds, an all-in-one corporate program for donating, matching and volunteering. “A company’s design shapes the way an audience relates to your business, and any company, no matter the size, can benefit from employing design as a primary vehicle of brand expression.”

Marin cited Apple as an example of a brand that used design to distinguish itself from its competitors. In the 1980s and ’90s, design was often an afterthought for many major technology companies, she said. Apple worked with several partner companies to create the distinct, consistent design aesthetic that consumers recognize today.

“Through design, Apple was able to craft a positive brand presence that is slick and modern yet simple,” Marin said.

Visual appeal

You might have a great story to tell, but no one’s going to want to read your “About” page or explore your social media posts if you don’t present people with strong visuals right off the bat. Why do visual elements work so well? Cole Sletten, creative director at digital branding agency Ready Set Rocket, said it’s because they work fast.

“In a culture of information overload, diminishing attention spans and TL;DR (too long; didn’t read), an image can communicate even complex messages quickly, concisely and memorably,” Sletten said. “It’s this same drive for fast consumption that has evolved the Internet from its text-centric roots into an image- and increasingly video-centric medium as well.”

Ian Wishingrad, founder of the branding company BigEyedWish.com, agreed, and said that there are more visuals than ever in today’s world, and the bar for what captures consumers’ attention has risen considerably.

For this reason, Marin noted that eye-catching visuals will set your brand apart. The imagery you use should be relevant to your brand and engage your target audience.

“When in doubt, keep design and messaging direct and simple,” Marin said.

Design tips for your business

When you’re thinking about what your online brand presence should look like, Sletten said it’s important to be consistent, but not repetitive.

“The best brands, large and small, feel more like real, multifaceted personalities than collections of graphical elements,” Sletten said. Think about the qualities that are unique to your business and that could authentically and attractively represent your brand. Then let those qualities drive everything, from your logo and website to your Instagram feed and even your storefront, packaging and customer service.”

To this end, Walrod advised using the design process as a way to answer some of the deeper questions around your company, before you create any visuals. Determining your company’s personality and what you stand for will help you enrich your brand, he said. After laying this groundwork, create the visuals that naturally align with those traits and values.

“Bright Funds, for example, aims to make the experience of giving delightful and rewarding,” Walrod said. “As such, our brand created a sense of positivity and empowerment through our use of bright colors, illustrations and photography.”

Finally, Wishingrad reminded business owners to view art and design as the “wardrobe” of their business, and always think of the impression it will make on your customers.

“Good design is like a great suit — everyone takes notice,” Wishingrad said. “With a little time, consideration and style, your business can have that elegant and professional polish that resonates with consumers.”

Business Plan To Success On Your Business

Writing a business plan can be tricky and time consuming, but it’s a crucial step if you’re starting a new business.

Not only is a business plan helpful if you’re looking for investors, but it can also be a great structural resource to help guide you and remind you of your business goals. So how do you create an efficient business plan that meets your needs? Here are five expert tips.

Make sure your business is viable

Before you start writing your business plan, you need to make sure your business idea or product is actually desirable to your intended customer base.

“Many entrepreneurs come up with a great idea without stopping to think if they are solving an actual problem for a group of people,” said Jenny Leonard, CEO of digital agency Never North Labs. “You don’t want to spend months or even a year working on developing a business or product idea only to find out nobody cares or even wants it.”

Leonard said you should spend some time researching your customer base by actually speaking to people your product or business idea would target.

“You’ll quickly find out just by talking to a few dozen people if your business idea or product is a hit or a miss,” Leonard said. “It may be a little extra work early on, but it will save you potentially hundreds of hours in the future by doing this work first.After doing this bit of research, you’ll have the clarity you need to write your business plan.”

Consider your audience

So what’s the first step in actually writing your business plan? Startup consultant Kristi Klemm said the first thing you should do is ask yourself, “Who am I making this plan for?” There are usually two answers to this question, Klemm said: You’re writing it to fit your own needs, or you’re writing it for investors or partners.

“It’s important to recognize when someone wants a business plan for their own needs,” Klemm said. “This indicates the person usually desires structure, and getting their motivations for starting a business on paper or [on a] screen is an important step for them in order to begin working [and] to acknowledge the business is really happening.”

This type of plan tends to be less reliant on outside data, functioning mostly to set into motion the actions needed to get the business off paper, and operating, Klemm said.

“It’s more of an expansive-yet-broad to-do list for the next 12-24 months,” Klemm said.

If you’re making your business plan for investors or partners, it should be very analytical, and include a lot of competitive and market research, with money-asks clearly defined and term sheets as detailed as possible, Klemm said.

“You’re already convinced the business is going to work. Now you need someone else to believe in you,” Klemm said.

Make it visual

A great way to simplify your business plan, both for yourself and your investors, is to make it more visual. Zack Pennington, chief operating officer at online music instruction resource Collabra Music, said you shouldn’t be afraid to use charts in place of long text paragraphs.

“Sometimes, people get too hung up on trying to explain their business model or cost assumptions in words, when a simple table, pie chart or flow chart can do wonders,” Pennington said. “Investors spend countless hours reading business plans, and if you use a chart that makes it simple and easy for them to understand what you do, you’re significantly more likely to hear from them.”

Pennington also noted a change in the way many business plans are being created.

“It’s OK for your business plan to look more and more like a slide deck, since that’s where most business plans are heading,” Pennington said.

Think about timing

When you’re creating your business plan, you also have to think about the time it will take you to reach your goals. Lora Ivanova, co-founder and chief marketing officer of at-home STD testing company myLAB Box, said that it’s key to ask yourself about your time line or personal runway.

For example, “How long can you and the people on your team — co-founders and anyone investing sweat equity — commit yourselves [to] full-time [work] or any meaningful capacity [dedicated] to your business?” Ivanova said.

Once you have that time frame, Ivanova said that the second most important question is, “Is that enough time, conservatively, to get your business to a place where it can sustain your ongoing commitment?” Or, in other words, “At what point in time can your business provide enough income for you to keep working on it?”

From there, you can figure out what goals you need to achieve and how to achieve them.

“Depending on any gap between your runway and revenue, your business plan’s primary goal will be to bridge that gap with tangible solutions,” Ivanova said.

She also suggested creating a business plan for your best- and worst-case scenarios.

“Looking at them side by side is a great reality check,” Ivanova said. “At the end of the day, any business plan is irrelevant if you, the founder [that the business’s] success hangs on, cannot sustain your livelihood to keep building.”

Business Plan Templates For Free

Writing a business plan is an essential task for any entrepreneur. It’s recommended as one of the first steps in getting your new venture off the ground, and having a business plan is required if you want to apply for a loan or raise investor capital. But if you’ve never written one before, it can be difficult to create one from scratch.

Rather than struggle with formatting and figuring out what to include, you can make your life easier by plugging all the information you’ll need into a pre-made template. There are plenty of Web-based business plan tools, but these often require you to create an account and save your work on the provider’s server. This means you will need to log in every time you want to view or edit your business plan, and that you will be dependent on someone else to keep your plan secure and accessible.

Bplans

Bplans gives registered users access to a database of business planning tools, including a collection of free business plan templates that can be downloaded as Word documents. These templates cater to a wide range of businesses in different industries, such as retailers, online stores, independent contractors, service-based businesses and food establishments like restaurants, cafes and bakeries. Bplans’ Word business plan templates are comprehensive and include a table of contents and standard business plan sections — executive summary, company summary, products and services, market analysis, strategy, management summary and financial planning. Bplan business plan templates also come with instructions, making them a great option for beginners and new business-owners.

BusinessPlanToday

Whether you’re looking for advice articles, business planning software or a template for your specific type of business, you’ll find it at BusinessPlanToday (BPT). This website provides a range of free business planning resources, including multiple Word templates and a full chapter-by-chapter business plan writing guide. When you sign up for an account, you’ll also have access to BPT’s comprehensive business plan writing software, which lets you include additional visual elements like charts and graphs.

Entrepreneur.com

In addition to publishing business news and entrepreneurship advice, Entrepreneur.com also provides business tools. Their collection of business plans features free PDF, PowerPoint and Word business plan templates, which can be viewed and downloaded via the SeamlessDocs platform. The site includes a templates for a variety of specific business types, a business plan model that outlines the different parts of a business plan, and customizable templates that allow users to add their logos and business information. A guide to writing a business plan is also available for download.

MyOwnBusiness

This simple but useful website offers numerous printer-friendly Word samples and templates to help you write your business plan. MyOwnBusiness allows you to access the different sections of a business plan such as the business profile, licenses/permits and location as individual templates, or as a larger all-in-one document. The site also has several financial templates available for Excel. All downloads on MyOwnBusiness are compatible with current and older versions of Word (2003 and earlier).

Office Depot

Office Depot offers more than just office supplies and furniture. Its Business Resource Center contains a trove of free business plan samples for retailers, manufacturers and service providers. Office Depot’s business plan samples are in rich text format (RTF), which is compatible with Microsoft Word and most Windows-supported word processors. For merchants, the retailer business plan template includes forecasting and financial tables that require Microsoft Word version 6.0 or later.

Rocket Lawyer

It’s always a good idea to have a lawyer look over any official business documents. When you create your free business plan with Rocket Lawyer, you get the advantage of getting an attorney’s advice to make sure your document is legally sound. The questionnaire-style template asks you to fill in key information about your business — founders, structure and industry, marketing plans, financial projections, etc. — to help you cover all your bases. If you have any questions as you’re working, you can type them in a convenient sidebar box and they’ll be emailed to a Rocket Lawyer attorney upon completion (estimated turnaround is one business day). Your document is free to download as a Word document with a trial subscription, which you can cancel during the one-week period at no charge, or $10 to purchase on its own without a subscription.

SCORE

Small business resource website SCORE aims to help entrepreneurs launch and grow small businesses across the United States. Their collection business planning tools include free Word business plan templates for startups and established businesses. For in-depth planning, SCORE provides a sales forecasting template, competitive analysis charts to determine your business’ strengths and weaknesses, and financial planning templates such as startup expenses, profit and loss projections, and financial statements. After crafting your business plan, you can also take advantage of SCORE’s mentoring services for expert business planning advice.

How to find the best city to open your small business

As part of our yearlong project “The State of Small Business,” Business News Daily plans to report on the small business environment in every state in America. In this installment, we asked a few of Florida’s more than 2 million small business owners about the challenges and opportunities of operating in their state. Here’s what they had to say.

Small business owners report generous tax benefits, access to several large markets, and ease of transportation by sea, air, and ground. Businesses in the Sunshine State also benefit from the thriving tourist industry, which brings potential customers in from out of state year-round. Florida boasted the country’s fourth largest economy in 2014, totaling a gross domestic product of $838.9 billion. Its economic growth also outpaced the nation by half a point that year at 2.7 percent. Small business owners also overwhelmingly said they don’t feel restricted by state regulations.

Entrepreneurs said recruiting the skilled labor they need remains difficult and that retaining customers can be a challenge in industries that cater to transient groups such as tourists. Some business owners also said they felt there was little guidance from the state when it came to complying with regulations, though the entrepreneurs we interviewed were nearly unanimous in saying the rules are not burdensome.

There’s a reason Florida is called the Sunshine State; it’s a thriving tourist hotspot. In 2014, the state attracted more than 98 million tourists, which generated more than $80 billion in economic activity, according to Visit Florida, the state’s official travel planning organization. Through the first three quarters of 2015 tourism outpaced that record-breaking year by 5.5 percent.

Laura Haftel, owner of the central Florida-based children’s boutique Tugboat and the Bird, said that prior to moving to their current location in Winter Park, Fla., her business was unable to harness the purchasing power of tourists.

“Moving to Park Avenue was a great move; we retained our loyal customers, but saw a real influx and uptick in the tourist business,” Haftel said. “Tapping into that tourist base was really key for us.”

For Rita Goldberg, founder of the British Swim School, the tourism industry indirectly benefits her business. While her swim lessons tend to attract residents, she said many were tourists first, and some have even become franchise owners.

“The more people who come here to visit, the more people who settle here,” Goldberg said. “A lot of my franchising down here is from people from abroad. We appeal to people who want to make a life down here.”

Large markets

Florida is home to more than 20 million people living across more than 53,000 square miles of land. Large population centers are spread evenly throughout the Sunshine State, including in Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Tallahassee. The even distribution of Florida’s largest cities offers economic opportunity to the surrounding areas as well, and population density remains nearly uniform along the coasts of both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, easily connecting the cities with more suburban areas.

Ronnie Dragoon, who owns Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant and Caterers, said the growing population coupled with tourism has been a big boost to business.

“It has been growing,” Dragoon said. “I have seven units and [Boca Raton] is my highest grossing unit, because Florida is such a high tourist area and also because South Florida has been settled and resettled by northerners.”

The continued draw of retirees from northern states ensures demand will continue grow, Sean Smallwood, founder and owner of law firm Sean Smallwood, P.A., said.

“With exploding population growth and retirees moving here in droves, the opportunity for small business owners to prosper in the Sunshine State is great for all different types of businesses,” Smallwood said.

Even web-based businesses not bound by borders, like Candice Galek’s swimwear dealer Bikini Luxe, are happy to zero in on local customer bases in cities like Miami despite their ability to reach out of state markets as well.

“In 2016, we plan on taking more advantage of the local economy,” Galek said. “We are most concerned about focusing on our Miami clientele.”

Tax benefits

Every small business owner we spoke to cited favorable taxes as a big boon to doing business in Florida. For one, there is no personal income tax in the state. In addition, there’s a cornucopia of tax benefits available to businesses in Florida. One such benefit is the Community Contribution Tax Credit, which allows any company that donates to an eligible community-based organization to take a credit of 50 percent of the donations against its corporate income tax up to $200,000 per year. The state’s Department of Revenue maintains a list of the other available incentives.

“The small business climate is strong here,” Stacia Pierce, a success and business coach, said. “There’s so many tax breaks and other incentives that encourage people to go into business for themselves.”

The entrepreneurs who spoke to Business News Daily invariably praised the tax climate, with some even saying it gives them the opportunity to better compensate their employees.

“For the business climate here, as a whole, the obstacles are very low,” Peter Wasmer, CEO of Chrome Capital, said. “We don’t have a high tax problem that would preclude us from making positive decisions about benefits to employees, and that allows us to retain and attract talented employees.”

“We have low taxes,” Galek, of Bikini Luxe, said, adding that it makes the increasing minimum wage not just manageable, but a welcome change. “We have good morale, our employees are happy, and minimum wage is increasing, so that’s exciting.”

Things that you should plan on your business

images-43It may be tempting to dive right in when you have a great startup idea, but failing to create a detailed business plan is where many entrepreneurs go wrong.

A solid business plan can be the difference between just an idea and a successful business. It allows you to set goals and determine how to realistically measure them. In the process of creating one, you develop an understanding of your market and the competition that is based on facts, not just hopes.

A review of the competition

If companies focus only on themselves in their business plan, they are making a big mistake. Businesses should use their business plan partly to address the competition and how their idea differs from what’s already out there, said Steve Martorelli, CEO of Turnkey Processing, a payment processing provider.

“First, identify your X factor — what can you do 10 times better than your competition?” Martorelli said. “Next, test your hypothesis by talking to potential customers. Do they value what you are proposing to offer them as much as you think they do? Finding the answer to these two questions is the most important planning anyone can do.”

Innovation

Companies that value innovation must make it a priority from the start. Your business plan should highlight the ways in which your startup will be original and groundbreaking, said Amy Hutchens, business strategist and CEO of AmyK International, which specializes in executive development.

“Innovation must be a critical component of every business plan,” Hutchens said. “By making innovation part of the plan, the process becomes intentional, not reactive or accidental, and sets the stage for a culture of creativity and innovation for the long run.”

A contingency plan

It is highly unlikely that everything about your business will go according to plan. Justin Palmer, founder and president of HomeLife Media, which operates pet-focused websites, said entrepreneurs should have a “contingency plan” that allows them to make any necessary business-model changes should something not go as anticipated.

“An example of a contingency might be, ‘If we do not have 1,000 paying customers within six months of operations, we need to shift product focus,'” Palmer said. “A metric such as this is especially vital if your business operates on the Web or builds software. A business plan is great, but there’s no point in sticking with a failing plan for too long.”

Preparation for success

On the other hand, businesses also should prepare for unexpected success. Your business plan should account for normal scenarios as well as highly successful, best-case scenarios, said Elle Kaplan, CEO of LexION Capital Management.

“When I started my business, I was in no way prepared for the success and level of growth we obtained,” Kaplan said. “I should have planned bigger and prepared for faster growth versus being surprised and having to rework my plan.”

Psychographics

A typical business plan will discuss a company’s target market, usually in terms of demographic information such as age, gender and income level. However, businesses should consider looking even further to define their target customers by factors such as lifestyle, needs and desires, said Amber Goodenough, co-founder of fourfour media, a Web design and development company.

“Psychographics ― customer values, lifestyles, habits and interests ― give you a deeper insight into your customers’ needs, wants and frustrations, which then helps you create products and services that really meet those needs and solve their problems,” Goodenough said. “The better you do that, the more money you make.”

A social media strategy

As social media remains a dominant force in marketing and customer engagement, a business plan needs to highlight how the company will use social media to its strategic advantage, said Stephanie Ciccarelli, co-founder and chief brand officer at Voices.com, an online marketplace that connects businesses with voice-over talent.

“No business plan should be without a section dedicated to the use of [social media] as part of their marketing efforts and channel for supporting and engaging customers,” Ciccarelli said. “These efforts may also tap into a company’s advertising, search engine optimization and customer service efforts.”

Employee engagement tactics

If your business is going to have employees, you’ll want to spell out how you’re going to keep them engaged and focused on their responsibilities, said Bill Rosenthal, CEO of Communispond, a provider of employee skills training. “The plan must include ways to show employees [that] their well-being aligns with that of the company,” Rosenthal said. “Establish metrics for everyone’s performance, and spell out the rewards for meeting the metrics.”

An exit plan

Although it may be the last thing on your mind when starting a business, providing an exit strategy with your business plan can be a great help if you decide to sell the business later on. A well-researched exit strategy can also help you land investors, said Mike Scanlin, a venture capitalist and CEO of Born To Sell.

“As an early-stage company, you need to show investors a path to 10 times their investment,” Scanlin said. “Make a list of exits — mergers and acquisitions or IPOs [initial public offerings] — in your space … to help convince [investors] that if they invest in you, there are plenty of people who will want to buy you in three to seven years.”