Meet the Best Free Business Plan Templates
Welcome to another installment of our series on the best free tools for small businesses! Here, we’re focusing on some of the nitty-gritty of business ops: business plans. There are some great free business plan templates available, and a lot of guidance for creating one that will set you up for success.
Business plans are the first order of business
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of business plans—the one you make for yourself and ones you produce for others, like investors, loan managers, and so on. Ideally, you should have a business plan for yourself so you know what you’re starting out with, where you’re trying to go, and how you plan to get there. Things change, especially when you’re starting (or running) a business, but it’s a lot easier to pivot if you know what you’re pivoting away from. That means it can be worth updating your business plan even once your business is off the ground, especially if you’re planning to look for a loan.
And, knowing that you know the basics of your business and have developed a deep understanding of the industry will give you confidence as you talk to others about your business—as well as inspire confidence in your ability to reach your goals.
The other sort of business plan is the one for people outside your business. Plans for pretty much anyone in this audience need to demonstrate:
- That you know what you’re doing by laying out the fundamentals of the business
- That your business idea is bankable by laying out the financial data
It’s hard to convince others that your plan to open shop is viable if you can’t show them, well, a plan.
Lots of would-be entrepreneurs want to “just do it” and skip writing out a business plan. In an Entrepreneur article, Clemson University entrepreneurship professor William B. Gartner explained why he believes business plans are essential. Research shows “you’re two and a half times more likely to get into business” if you’ve actually written a plan. If you really want to do it, it’s hard to argue with that stat.
What business plan templates look like
Like other formal documents, business plans have a specific set of sections in which you answer the implicit questions your audience will have. The document should have some version of these categories in something like this order. Different business plan-assistance companies will vary slightly in what they recommend.
Nolo, which publishes legal guides for personal and small business use, recommends:
- a persuasive introduction and request for funds, or executive summary
- a statement of the purpose of your business, or what problem your business is solving and why your product or service is the ideal solution
- a detailed description of how the business will work, including whether you’ll have employees, who will supply your goods, and where you will be located
- an analysis of your market, including who your customers are and an evaluation of your main competitors
- a description of your marketing strategy
- a résumé setting forth your business accomplishments, and
- detailed financial information, including your best estimates of start-up costs, revenues and expenses, and your ability to make a profit.
Some business plan templates may condense some of these sections or vary the order. The most important thing is that all the necessary information is included and easily grasped.
It may be useful to think about the specifics of your business or industry and look at a variety of samples to get a sense of how you might arrange the information, and what would work best in your case.
Many would-be entrepreneurs and even those already running a business find the prospect of creating financial projections intimidating, but online tools can be especially helpful here. Here’s the financial data Nolo recommends including:
- Break-even analysis. Here you’ll use income and expense estimates to determine whether, in theory at least, your business will bring in enough money to meet its costs.
- Profit-and-loss forecast. Next, you’ll refine the sales and expense estimates that you used for your break-even analysis into a formal, month-by-month projection of your business’s profit for the first year of operations.
- Cash flow projection. Even if your profit-and-loss forecast tells you that your business will have higher revenues than expenses — in other words, that it will be profitable — those numbers won’t tell you if you’ll have enough cash on hand from month to month to pay your rent or buy more inventory. A cash-flow projection shows how much money you’ll have — or how much you’ll be short — each month. This lets you know if you’ll need a credit line or other arrangement to cover periodic shortfalls.
- Start-up cost estimate. This is simply the total of all the expenses you’ll incur before your business opens. If you need to pay off these costs during the first year or two of business, they should be included in your month-to-month cash-flow projection.
That’s a lot of material. Before you break out the abacus or go running for a CPA, check the online calculators that can help with these projections.
Business plan templates
Maybe the best reason to use Bplans is to take advantage of the wealth of information they have on their site, including a variety of sample business plans for most every industry. They have guides that break down what each of their recommended sections should cover and translate acronyms and business-speak you’re likely to encounter.
Bplans’ business planning software, Business Plan Standard ($99.95) or Premier ($159.95), is actually from well-regarded Palo Alto Software. As you might gather from the prices, these are meant to be robust tools and include things like “industry profiles,” with “real data from other businesses in your industry,” “beefed-up funding tools,” and a management dashboard.
Enloop’s free template includes some useful auto-generated data, including three-year financial reports (annual output only), a performance score, a “FICO-like score for your business plan,” and a report card. The report card looks at the score, three key financial metrics, and checks that your plan is always cash-flow positive. If you pass, you get a gladiator-style thumbs up.
Don’t forget, however, that whether you do the calculations yourself or get help, if you’re applying to someone for money, it’s essential that you can explain all the numbers on the spot.
For a monthly fee, Enloop has business plan templates that will generate some good-looking charts ($9.95) and a financial ratio analysis ($19.95), among other things.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) also offers a business plan template. It requires (free) registration, but it walks you through the process step-by-step and saves the plan as a PDF. One bonus of this template is that you can keep it online and update it as your business matures.
If you have questions about how to develop particular parts of the business plan, including financial projections, or about why lenders or investors want certain kinds of information, Nolo is a fantastic resource. Though they sell detailed guides on subjects like LLC or Corporation?, Legal Guide for Starting and Running a Small Business, and How to Write a Business Plan, the site also has a plethora of free articles covering individual issues. Resources include why and how to prepare a break-even analysis before you start a plan, a sample cash-flow statement, and the super-duper handy 50-State Resources for Small Businesses, which includes links to State Tax Agencies, regional SBA offices, information on each state’s business license or permit requirements, and much more.
SCORE’s site runs slowly, but the resources are generally worth the wait. They have a pageful of business plan templates, starting with different ones for startups and established businesses. SCORE also offers various financial statement templates and marketing templates that can be helpful when you’re trying to figure out the actual content of your business plan. Worksheets like Target Market Data, Target Market Comparison, Brand Message, and Marketing Expenses Strategy will help you think through the marketing portion of your business plan, for example.
SCORE also has a recorded webinar on business plans, Building Your Business Webinar Series Part 2: How to Develop a Business Plan in 6 Easy Steps.