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Small Business Center

7 Tips for Writing a Successful Business Plan

April 20, 2023

As the program manager of PowerUP, the Brooklyn Public Library’s annual business plan competition, Arcola Robinson has seen thousands of business plans — in all sorts of states. Some plans, at 30-plus pages, read more like novels. And some, when they were first submitted, had appendixes longer than the business plans themselves, Robinson recalled with a laugh.

In the 20 years the competition has been running, Robinson and PowerUP business advisors have nurtured more than 10,0000 entrepreneurs as they refine these plans. In that time, the program has awarded more than $600,000 in cash to help small business owners start and grow their businesses, and it has seen many of these businesses, such as Pan-Latin restaurant Bogota Latin Bistro and dessert shop Island Pops, go on to great success.

In the Brooklyn Public Library’s 2022 PowerUp business plan competition: Maua Organics founder Sally Ngoje, left, won second place; SoL-I Movement Center’s Busola George, middle, won first; and People’s Heritage Tours’ Daniel Katz, right, took third. Photo credit: Gregg Richards

Robinson offered seven tips for writing a successful business plan:

1. Start with a clear and concise executive summary.

The executive summary is a brief overview of your entire business plan. Basically, Robinson explained, “it’s the summary of your idea and how you plan to fund it.” It’s also the first section of your plan that investors, lenders and other stakeholders read, so it’s critical to make a strong first impression. The most effective executive summary provides a clear and concise summary of your business concept, market opportunity, competitive advantage, financial projections and funding needs, Robinson advised. It’s important to avoid using any technical jargon or acronyms. The goal with the executive summary is to make your points as understandable as possible. “We often tell our participants: Make sure your grandmother knows what you’re selling. If your grandmother can’t understand, then assume nobody can understand it,” Robinson said.

2. Clearly define your target market.

The target market section defines the ideal customer or group of customers your business is looking to attract. People reading your business plan look for a firm understanding of the demographics, psychographics and behavioral characteristics of your ideal customer. “This section can’t just be winged,” Robinson said. Investors want to see that you’ve referenced and researched things like Census data and market research reports when arguing why your business is good for a certain market. For help finding and accessing statistics like growth trends and competition in the marketplace, Robinson suggested heading to your local library. “Something people don’t think about or don’t know are all the resources that are available at the library. Some of these databases are very expensive or hard to access, but the library can provide you with that information for free,” she said.

3. Make sure your marketing strategy is customer-centric.

Your marketing strategy, Robinson explained, is how you’ll reach your target audience and communicate your value proposition. The marketing strategy part of your business plan should include your branding, messaging, advertising and sales tactics. A lot of people say simply that they’ll use social media to market their businesses, but she cautioned that, depending on your potential customer, social media may not be perfect for your business. “I’m a Boomer, for instance,” Robinson said. “If you’re marketing or selling your product to somebody my age, most of them will not be found on Instagram.” Spend the time to really understand how your ideal market digests and receives information about the places at which they shop.

4. Describe your products or services in detail.

Make sure anyone reading your plan walks away with a clear understanding of what you sell, how it works and what benefits it offers to customers. Highlight any unique features or advantages your products or services have over competitors. Sometimes it helps to think in narrative. A PowerUp participant who wanted to start a tea shop explained that his childhood responsibility within the family was to make tea for his mother. Through brewing it daily, he came to know what elements make for a good cup of tea. These details, Robinson said, caught the judges’ attention. “It helped to add to the personality and understanding of why he wanted to start the business,” she said. Incidentally, that entrepreneur now has his own tea shop in Brooklyn.

5. Be transparent in your financials.

The financial section outlines the financial projections and strategies for your business, and it’s one of the most crucial parts of the business plan. It should include your capital requirements, including start-up costs, working capital and operating expenses. Anyone who reads your plan should walk away with a clear understanding of your current funding sources and any loans or investments you’ll need to get started. Potential investors and lenders need to “understand how your money is coming in, how it’s going out and where it’s going to,” Robinson said. And where the funding is coming from cannot be solely other sources. “The biggest downfall for many of our participants is expecting 100% funding for their business externally,” Robinson said. “We always tell them that they have to have skin in the game. If you don't believe in your business enough to put your money in it, why should you expect someone else to do that?”

6. Provide a detailed management plan.

The management plan should outline the roles and responsibilities of each member of your team, including key hires you plan to make in the future. It’s also important to discuss your organizational structure, production or service delivery, and how you plan to deal with things like quality control and regulatory compliance. “You need to be realistic about your time and resources here,” Robinson said. When written well, the management portion of your plan provides a roadmap for how your small business will operate on a day-to-day basis and will achieve its goals.

7. Keep your business plan succinct.

Remember: Time is valuable. Investors, lenders and other stakeholders are busy people with limited time to review business plans. A concise plan allows them to grasp the key aspects of your business quickly and make informed decisions. “We suggest 10 pages — and no more than 20,” Robinson said. And don’t try to squeeze in more words by using a smaller font. “Sometimes people are tempted, if the plan can’t be more than 10 pages, to use a 9-point font,” Robinson said. “But nobody’s going to read a plan in a 9-point font.” It’s important, too, to include a table of contents. It offers a navigational system for your business plan, allowing readers to access the sections they want to read quickly. “When somebody is flipping through your plan, they might not read it front to back; they might want to read the financial first or the marketing plan first,” Robinson said.

Though these may seem like little things, they add up to the overall impression readers will have of you and your business. As Robinson said, your business plan is the key to instilling confidence in others about your ability to succeed, so you want to make sure it reflects your potential for greatness.

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today and Small Business Center

Small Business Center

ICSC champions small and emerging businesses in getting from business plan to brick-and-mortar.

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