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How to Structure a Business Plan
Resources and advice to help you write a business plan.
Contributor, corporate author, related organizations, citation type.
Updating a Classic: Writing a Great Business Plan
- A business plan can't be a tightly crafted prediction of the future but rather a depiction of how events might unfold and a road map for change.
- The people making the forecasts are more important than the numbers themselves.
- What matters is having all the required ingredients (or a road map for getting them), not the exact form of communication.
- The best money comes from customers, not external investors.
Sean Silverthorne: " How to Write a Great Business Plan " has been one of the most downloaded articles on Harvard Business Publishing since you wrote it in 1997. Why do you think you hit a nerve?
Bill Sahlman: Writing a business plan is a seminal moment in the life of a new venture. Doing so entails committing to paper a vision of the factors that will affect the success or failure of the enterprise. People take the exercise very seriously and get emotionally invested in what they produce.
In that context, the article was written to give insights into how to think about the role of a business plan and its relation to new venture formation. I tried to explain that a business plan can't be a tightly crafted prediction of the future but rather a depiction of how events might unfold and a road map for change. I emphasized the notion that successful entrepreneurs constantly seek the right mixture of people, opportunity, context, and deal. They anticipate what can go wrong, what can go right, and they try to balance risk and reward.
Over the years, I have received many e-mails from folks trying to craft a business plan. They want feedback. Actually, they really want me to say that they are on the right track. I explain that I would need to get to know them and their opportunity much better than what is possible in an e-mail and that the written document is not as important as the people writing it. It's not science—it's art and craft.
Q: In the decade since the original article came out, business conditions have changed. If you were writing this piece today, would you change it much?
A: I don't think the world has changed materially. Successful ventures still have competent people pursuing sensible opportunities, using resources that help, in a favorable context. Yes, the context is very challenging today. But challenges create opportunities.
If gaining access to capital is hard, sometimes that means there will be fewer competitors. This period is almost the antithesis of the Internet bubble when everyone could raise money and start a company regardless of how lamebrained the idea. Also, we have difficult factor markets like energy, but that simply means that there are great opportunities for people with ideas for alternative energy.
Were I rewriting the article today, I might emphasize the importance of controlling your destiny by being conservative about access to capital. Many great ventures in the Internet era (pre-1999) ended up failing because they assumed they would have continued access to cheap capital. Many of those businesses failed, though the underlying idea was sensible. Similarly, we have seen a period when capital markets got ugly, which has a negative effect on all ventures, sensible and nonsensical.
I would also reinforce the idea that entrepreneurship is critical around the world. We are confronted with many crises from health care to the environment to global poverty. Solutions are likely to come from talented private sector and social entrepreneurs.
Q: You wrote in the original article that most business plans "waste too much ink on numbers and devote too little to the information that really matters to intelligent investors." Still true today? What really matters to investors?
A: When there is great uncertainty in the market, investors become quite risk averse. They will only back proven entrepreneurs with truly compelling ideas. People make the numbers, not conversely. So, I still think the people making the forecasts are more important than the numbers themselves.
Q: More and more entrepreneurial ventures are "born global": They seek to address a global market and attract funding from global investors. Should a business plan be tailored in some way for a global audience?
A: We live in a world of democratized access to ideas, human capital, and money. There are fabulous global ventures being started in every corner of the globe. These ventures can raise money locally or globally. They can disperse talent in many countries.
Take a company like Skype. When I visited Skype several years ago, it had 125 employees from 23 countries. The development team was in Estonia, and its headquarters in Europe. Skype had raised seed capital in Europe and in the United States. That's the new model.
Q: On the technology front, software applications such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint have added many charting, graphing, and visualizing capabilities. Some business plans are even written as Web pages. Should entrepreneurs avail themselves of these tools for business plans, or do they clutter the message too much?
A: On the first floor of the Rock Center at HBS there is a copy of the original business plan that Arthur Rock wrote for Intel some 40 years ago. It's only a few pages long, but it describes an outstanding team pursuing a new technology. I have seen compelling business plans in the form of a few PowerPoint slides, a couple of scribbled pages, and a brief video. What matters is having all the required ingredients (or a road map for getting them), not the exact form of communication.
Q: If you were to update your "Glossary of Business Plan Terms" and what they really mean ("We seek a value-added investor" really means "We are looking for a passive, dumb-as-rocks investor"), what current terms would you include?
A: The glossary holds today. I think entrepreneurs, investors, and employees need to be suitably skeptical about what they read in business plans. I have read perhaps 5,000 plans and have only seen three companies really meet their plan. That sounds like a pattern to me. If anyone makes a bet based on the company doing exactly as written, he or she will be sadly disappointed.
At the same time, every player has to be somewhat optimistic about the possibility of overcoming inevitable setbacks. I think of ventures as roller coasters, not rocket ships.
Q: Any general advice to entrepreneurs seeking funding in the uncertain capital markets of today?
A: The best money comes from customers, not external investors. I think entrepreneurs need ideas that are so compelling they can get early money from customers. I also believe that great teams with great ideas can continue to access capital on quite attractive terms from outstanding investors. If the short term looks unsettled, that often means that focusing on the long term has a big potential payoff.
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Define and organize your business’s growth by writing a business plan.
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How to Effectively Pitch a Business Idea
- 27 Aug 2020
You’ve identified an underserved need and validated your startup idea . Now it’s time to talk about your business to potential investors. Yet, how do you effectively communicate your idea’s promise and possible impact on the market?
Pitching a business idea is one of the most nerve-wracking parts of any entrepreneur’s journey. It’s what stands in the way between your vision and the financing needed to turn it into a reality. Although daunting, there are steps you can take to ensure a greater chance of success.
Access your free e-book today.
What Makes a Great Pitch?
To make a successful pitch, entrepreneurs must exhibit several characteristics to convince investors to fund their innovative ideas .
Every entrepreneur needs an intricate understanding of their idea, target market, growth strategy, product-market fit , and overall business model . This differentiates your business concept and solidifies the steps needed to make it a reality. The perfect pitch shows investors your proof of concept and instills confidence that they can expect a return on investment .
Another crucial component of a successful pitch is understanding the venture capital (VC) ecosystem.
“It’s critical for entrepreneurs to understand the background and motivations of venture capitalists so when entrepreneurs seek them out to help fund their venture, they know what to prioritize in a firm and how to build a strong, trusting relationship,” says Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Jeffrey Bussgang in the online course Launching Tech Ventures .
To secure funding and support, here are essential steps to ensure your pitch is effective.
How to Pitch a Business Idea
1. know who you’re pitching.
Some entrepreneurs try to get in front of every investor, despite their industry expertise or firm’s investment stage. Consider that, when you accept an investment, it’s about more than money; you enter a partnership. You must perform your due diligence and research potential investors before making your pitch.
When researching, ask yourself:
What industries do they invest in?
A VC firm’s industry focus depends on what the partners’ niche is and where their passions lie. Some firms specialize in a particular sector, such as financial technology (fintech) or education technology (edtech).
For example, Rethink Education is a venture capital fund that invests in early- and growth-stage edtech startups, while Blockchain Capital is dedicated to financing companies innovating in the crypto market. Others are generalists and span several industries.
Knowing the types of companies the firm invests in can help you tailor your pitch and zero in on their presumed priorities.
What stage do they invest in?
If you’re in the earliest stages of business development, you won’t receive growth equity, which is reserved for mature companies that need capital to expand operations, enter a new market, or acquire another business. Before making your pitch, have a rough estimate of the money and resources you need to launch, and then align yourself with investors who can help at that particular stage.
What’s the investor’s track record?
Dig deeper into the investor’s experience and investment history to determine the types of companies they typically finance, the background knowledge they might already have, and whether your personalities will mesh. This information will enable you to modify your pitch and determine if this is the right person or fund to partner with.
“The best venture capitalists become trusted partners and advisors to the founders and team,” says HBS Professor William Sahlman in the online course Entrepreneurship Essentials . “They help recruit key employees. They introduce the company to potential customers. They help raise subsequent rounds of capital. In some cases, they signal that the firm they've backed is a winner, which helps make that assertion true.”
Given the benefits and high stakes, the more you know going into a pitch, the better.
2. Consider How You Present Yourself, Not Simply Your Idea
Although your ideas and skills matter , your personality is equally as important. According to research published in the Harvard Business Review , venture capitalists’ interest in a startup “was driven less by judgments that the founder was competent than by perceptions about character and trustworthiness.”
Investors also want to know they’re entering a partnership with the right people. Jennifer Fonstad, co-founder of Aspect Ventures , acknowledges in Entrepreneurship Essentials that her investment firm “thinks about team and team dynamics as being very critical.”
Investors want to know whether the founders have worked together before, if your startup’s early hires have complementary skill sets, and whether you’ll be flexible, open-minded, and willing to embrace different perspectives.
Think about this as you prepare your pitch. If investors poke holes in your idea, will you get defensive? When they ask for financial projections, will you exaggerate the numbers? Hopefully, your answers are “no”—firms want to partner with founders they can trust who are open to guidance and mentorship—but if you’re second-guessing your reactions, consider what you might be asked and practice your responses.
As Sahlman reinforces in Entrepreneurship Essentials : “Most experienced investors look at the people first and the opportunity second. Even when a team is young and inexperienced, an investor depends on them to make the right decisions.”
3. Tell a Story
When describing your business idea, zero in on the problem you address for your target audience and how you solve it better than the competition. You could do this by presenting a real-life scenario in which you describe the pain point a current or prospective customer faced and how your product or service fixed the issue. This can help engage investors on a personal level and inspire them to see your idea’s potential.
By complementing your spreadsheets and charts with a compelling story, you can paint a fuller picture of your startup’s future and more effectively highlight its business opportunity.
4. Cover the Details
While it’s important to set the stage, you also need to cover the specifics. In your pitch deck, concisely define your value proposition and share a memorable tagline for investors to leave the meeting with.
According to Bussgang in Launching Tech Ventures , every pitch to an investor should contain the following:
- Intro: Focus on answering important questions like who you are, why you’re asking for funding, and what your founder-market fit is.
- Problem: Talk about your ideal customer’s pain point and how you plan to solve it.
- Solution: Explain how your idea is a compelling solution and why it’s better than existing solutions.
- Opportunity and Market Size: Provide your total addressable market (TAM), serviceable addressable market (SAM), and serviceable obtainable market (SOM) through research.
- Competitive Analysis: Understand your unique differences in the market that can help you sustain a competitive advantage.
- Go-to-Market Plan: Clarify how you’re going to reach your customers.
- Business Model: Describe how you’re going to make money.
- Financials: Define what your financial projections are and how you’re going to provide returns for investors.
- The Ask: Detail how much funding you need, how long it will last, and what milestones you hope to achieve.
“VCs will expect entrepreneurs to clearly define the milestones they need to achieve with each round of funding,” Bussgang continues. “Entrepreneurs should know what experiments they will run to reach these milestones and what they expect the results will be.”
5. Show the Roadmap
Although you’re in your business’s early stages, investors want to know how they’ll cash out in the end.
“To truly understand the motivations behind VC firms, remember that they are professional investors,” Bussgang explains in Launching Tech Ventures . “Their objective is to generate the maximum return for their limited partners with a dual fiduciary duty to their investors and the company.”
To clinch your pitch, highlight your exit strategy and the options available.
The most common exit strategies include:
- Acquisition: When one company buys most or all of another company’s shares to gain control of it
- Merger: When two existing companies unite into one new company
- Initial Public Offering (IPO): When a private company issues its first sale of stocks to the public and can start raising capital from public investors
Related: What Are Mergers & Acquisitions? 4 Key Risks
3 Kinds of Pitches for Entrepreneurs
While all effective pitches share foundational elements, you should use different types depending on the scenario. To increase your chances of success, tailor your pitch to your audience and the available time frame.
1. The Elevator Pitch
This is one of the most popular pitches. Use this when you need to communicate their startup’s value in 60 seconds or less.
An effective elevator pitch should be concise, convincing, and convey your startup’s value proposition and differentiators. For tech business ideas, mention the innovative technology that sets your concept apart. At the end, include a call to action, such as the amount of capital required to launch.
2. The Short-Form Pitch
You should portray your business idea’s value to prospective clients and investors as efficiently as possible. This means summarizing the most important elements of your idea in a way that makes them want to hear more. Highlight the market size, how you’ll create barriers for competition, your plan to monetize the business, and how much financing you need.
Short-form pitches can run from three to 10 minutes; if you’re pitching in a competitive setting, note any length requirements. These shorter pitches can pique investors’ interest and earn you the chance to present a long-form pitch.
3. The Long-Form Pitch
Sometimes, you’re fortunate enough to have more than a few minutes to pitch your idea. If this opportunity presents itself, it’s crucial to make the most of your time and address every aspect of your business plan.
“You’re not just trying to start any business,” Bussgang says in Launching Tech Ventures . “You’re trying to create a business that’s profitable, sustainable, and valuable.
Zero in on your story and share a real-life scenario. Detail the market size to illustrate demand and clear examples of how you’ll attract and retain customers, particularly in light of competitors. This will show you’re planning for—and ahead of—future challenges.
You should also have a blueprint for testing product-market fit and early results, along with a detailed monetization plan. Lastly, share your exit strategy and the amount of capital needed to, one day, achieve it. Your long-form pitch should communicate your business concept clearly and concisely, open the possibility for follow-up questions, and capture the investors’ interest.
Consider preparing all three pitch lengths to be ready for any opportunity. It’s important to stay agile so you can modify your pitch to fit specific length requirements.
Landing the Pitch
Every investor prioritizes different data and information. Yet, if you start by choosing the right investor and then align their needs with your proposed market opportunity, value proposition, and exit strategy, you have a chance at landing the pitch.
“In some ways, startup success depends just as much on whether your hypothesis about the future is right, as it does on whether your idea is a good one,” Bussgang explains in Launching Tech Ventures .
As a result, it’s important for you to do your due diligence before pitching your business idea to investors.
If you’re interested in learning more about what investors look for and how you can create value, explore Entrepreneurship Essentials and Launching Tech Ventures , two of our entrepreneurship and innovation courses . Not sure which is the right fit? Download our free course flowchart to determine which best aligns with your goals.
This post was updated on July 28, 2023. It was originally published on August 27, 2020.
About the Author
Brought to you by:
By: Hiromi Kubo, Thomas J. Ottaviano
Company and Industry Research: Strategies and Resources is a five-chapter book published by Business Expert Press in 2016 and written by Hiromi Kubo, business and economics librarian at California…
- Length: 20 page(s)
- Publication Date: Jan 1, 2016
- Discipline: General Management
- Product #: BEP326-PDF-ENG
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Company and Industry Research: Strategies and Resources is a five-chapter book published by Business Expert Press in 2016 and written by Hiromi Kubo, business and economics librarian at California State University, and Thomas J. Ottaviano, business and economics librarian at Cornell University's Mann Library. The focus of the book is to provide practical guidance for conducting effective business research. The authors describe important characteristics of research and emphasize the need for evaluating information gathered. They review several sources of business, industry, and general research. They also offer practical insight into the elements of a business plan. In Chapter 5, Business Plans (20 pages), the authors offer practical tips for creating an effective document. They review common elements of a business plan and offer insight into developing each section and what information to include. The common components covered include: executive summary, company description, description of products/services, industry analysis, market analysis, organizational structure, a marketing plan, an operations plan, other key strategic plans, financial analysis, and request for assistance. The authors explain that although there is not one way to write a business plan, researchers should consider all of the elements listed.
To identify the important elements of a business plan
To learn practical tips for creating an effective business plan.
Jan 1, 2016
Business Expert Press
The Trump fraud trial verdict goes well beyond ordering the ex-president to pay $355 million. Here's what the ruling means.
- Trump, his eldest sons, and the Trump Organization must repay $364 million from a decade of fraud.
- Friday's verdict also bars Trump from running a New York business for three years.
- Judge Arthur Engoron wrote that Trump's frauds "leap off the page and shock the conscience."
In a scathing verdict that punishes a decade of deceit, the judge in Donald Trump's New York civil-fraud case on Friday slammed the GOP frontrunner, his two eldest sons, and his company with a nearly $364 million cash penalty.
"The frauds found here leap off the page and shock the conscience," the verdict by the New York Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron , who has presided over the case for more than three years, said.
While Trump is personally on the hook for almost $355 million of that penalty, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump must pay $4 million each, and the former Trump CFO Allen Weisselberg must pay $1 million.
But the verdict hits way beyond just Trump's wallet. It targets his real-estate and golf-resort empire, the Trump Organization, in two ways that Trump has pushed against for years.
First, the verdict wrests control of the company further from the former president and his two eldest sons, leaving major company decisions to a yet-named "independent director of compliance" who'll operate under Trump's court-appointed monitor's continuing watch .
Second, it sets a three-year ban on Trump running the Trump Organization or any other business in the city and state where he made his name — and where he first seized a national spotlight as a brash real-estate mogul. For Trump, it's the commercial equivalent of being run out of town on a rail.
Significantly — and this is a big silver lining for Trump — the verdict reverses the most unfriendly elements of the judge's pre-trial " corporate death penalty " judgment from September.
He no longer has to surrender all of the Trump Organization's New York operating licenses, and the verdict does not mention the forced sale of any Trump properties.
The verdict caps a five-year effort by the office of New York State Attorney General Letitia James .
On Friday afternoon, James issued a statement celebrating the verdict.
She said that Trump has engaged in fraud for years to enrich his own family and company.
Now, he and his codefendants will have to pay more than $450 million, including interest.
"While he may have authored the 'Art of the Deal,' our case revealed that his business was based on the art of the steal," she said.
Trump is expected to immediately appeal, likely putting these and other punishments from the 92-page verdict on ice well past the November election.
But in the coming weeks, Trump will still have to spend millions on a surety bond — a bond guaranteeing performance of a contract or obligation — to guarantee he can pay whatever dollar figure, plus interest, an appellate court ultimately upholds.
Interest also applies to the penalties, potentially adding millions more to his ultimate verdict price tag.
"When confronted at trial with the statements, defendants' fact and expert witnesses simply denied reality, and defendants failed to accept responsibility or to impose internal controls to prevent future recurrences," Engoron wrote Friday.
The verdict holds Trump civilly liable, based on Engoron's three-month Manhattan bench trial, for leading a conspiracy to commit business and insurance fraud with help from his two eldest sons and a pair of long-standing Trump Organization executives.
"Their complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on pathological," Engoron wrote.
"They are accused only of inflating asset values to make more money," the verdict said.
"The documents prove this over and over again. This is a venial sin, not a mortal sin," he added. "Defendants did not commit murder or arson. They did not rob a bank at gunpoint. Donald Trump is not Bernard Madoff. Yet, defendants are incapable of admitting the error of their ways."
In a statement, a Trump Organization spokesperson decried the verdict as a "gross miscarriage of justice."
"Every member of the New York business community, no matter the industry, should be gravely concerned with this gross overreach and brazen attempt by the Attorney General to exert limitless power where no private or public harm has been established," the spokesperson said in the statement. "If allowed to stand, this ruling will only further expedite the continuing exodus of companies from New York."
Read Friday's verdict here .
"Today, justice has been served. This is a tremendous victory for this state, this nation, and for everyone who believes that we all must play by the same rules — even former presidents," James said in her statement Friday.
" When powerful people cheat to get better loans, it comes at the expense of honest and hardworking people," James continued. "Everyday Americans cannot lie to a bank to get a mortgage to buy a home, and if they did, our government would throw the book at them. There simply cannot be different rules for different people .
Some lesser penalties
The verdict also bans Trump and the Trump Organization from borrowing from New York banks or purchasing real estate in the state for three years. James had asked for a five-year ban on such buying and borrowing in her lawsuit.
Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are banned from running a New York business for two years. James had asked for five-year bans for the brothers.
And it bans the two former executives, the ex-CFO Weisselberg and the former Trump Organization controller Jeff McConney, from controlling another New York company's finances.
Watch: Trump fights back as fraud trial begins
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Building a Supplier Diversity Program? Learn from the U.S. Government.
- Chris Parker
- Dwaipayan Roy
Time-tested practices of the federal government can help companies develop more inclusive supply chains.
Large companies are striving to increase their purchases from small, diverse-owned businesses (SDBs) — those that are 51% or more owned and operated by an individual or group that is part of a historically underrepresented or underserved group (e.g., women, racial minorities, veterans, LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities). Despite their pledges, they are struggling to meet their goals. The practices of four federal agencies can help them make their programs more effective.
Since George Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the nationwide protests in the United States to address racial injustice that it sparked, large companies in the United States have been increasingly looking to supplier diversity programs as a means to advance racial equity.
- Chris Parker is a Kogod Research Professor and associate professor of information technology and analytics at American University and a visiting associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
- Dwaipayan Roy is an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he studies socially responsible operations. He previously worked as a project manager at the Royal Bank of Scotland.