Starting a business without a plan is akin to navigating through a forest without a map. And beyond knowing where you want your firm to go, banks and investors want plans that they can evaluate before they release funds. Before you go knocking on doors, invest a dime or sign on any dotted lines, consider Palo Alto Software's excellent Business Plan Pro 2006 (BPP). This comprehensive and powerful program provides all of the tools and resources that you need to build a viable business plan.
The venerable program has long dominated its market niche and continues to evolve. While early versions from over a decade ago were little more than dressed-up spreadsheet templates, these days, Business Plan Pro offers a powerful wizard that walks you through an admittedly daunting process and offers tons of useful advice and resources.
New features make a great program even stronger. You can now create plans for particular situations, for example, to introduce new products or services; emphasize marketing or finances or apply for loans. A welcome new strength, weakness, opportunity and threat (SWOT) analysis feature helps you evaluate your company's advantages, disadvantages and strategy.
People who already use the program may find it hard to believe that this latest version comes with even more resources, including 500 samples scripts that can form the basis of a company's plan. With this many samples, there's bound to be an applicable plan for almost any business. And another plus: you can use keywords to search for plans. There are also 9,000 industry profiles that let you compare your business against others in your industry.
Beyond new features, the automatic plan review has been improved to check for common mistakes and offer tips and suggestions. Stronger table wizards can generate financial tables to analyze statements, forecasts and budget milestones. A variety of direct Web links provide sources for market data, venture capital opportunities and legal guidance. The program now comes with two helpful books: The Art of the Start, by Guy Kawasaki, and Hurdle The Book on Business Planning, by Tim Berry, which offer lots of useful information on starting and planning businesses.
In look and feel, BPP resembles tax software such as Intuit's TurboTax on steroids. The wizard asks a series of questions that include: start date, the type of business you are creating, cash versus accrual accounting and lots more, and provides explanations and resources, usually with each step. It effectively walks you through the process of building a plan and even refers you to specific chapters in the enclosed books.
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Based on your answers, the wizard recommends a template. Of course, you can customize plans by adding new topics or deleting those that you don't need. Once you've completed the wizard, you can work from the intuitive Plan Outline that displays the structure and topics in your plan and lets you quickly navigate to portions that you wish to work with, as well as add, delete and rename topics.
Comprehensive spreadsheets analyze cash flow, financial ratios and milestones and BPP builds-in the many cross-links, as well as offers lots of instructions and explanations. From these spreadsheets, you can create color charts and graphs and customize them.
The program creates five document types: loan, new product or service description, financial, marketing and complete and formats them to meet the requirements of banks, the Small Business Association (SBA), angel investors and venture capitalists. Speaking of venture capitalists, the program comes with 1,200 profiles of venture capital firms and lets you search for firms based on location, type of funding, company stage and monetary requirements.
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BPP is designed to work with other programs, too. You can import data from Intuit's QuickBooks to build financial forecasts from accounting data and export plans to Microsoft Word and Excel and create Adobe PDF documents. And if you're taking your plan on the road to meet and greet investors, the program exports charts, financial data and text into PowerPoint to form the basis of presentations.
You can also publish plans to a secure Web site that's provided by Palo Alto Software, which lets designated contributors or investors login and review plans. You can even tell who has read what, and when they read it.
BPP also comes in a Premier edition (at twice the price of the Standard edition) that forecasts sales, considers plans for personnel, generates enhanced profit-and-loss statements for up to a decade. Premier's new features include options to handle exit strategies, financial risks and contingencies.
You can not only perform break-even analysis, but also calculate how long it will take to pay back an investment. There are tools for performing "what-if" analysis and tracking fund allocations
Collaboration tools let you work with other people (partners, mentors, etc.) to create plans. You can e-mail the plans for review and edits, and upon return, integrated them back into the master plan (all team members must have Business Plan Pro Premier installed on their computers). You can also save plans as templates for future use.
Business Plan Pro 2006 offers a powerful and comprehensive program for building business plans. If you're launching a venture and have upcoming appointments with banks and investors, the program is definitely worth the investment.
The Standard Edition retails $99.95 while the Premier Edition sells for $199.
Over the last ten years, Wayne Kawamoto has written over 800 articles, columns and reviews about computers, new technologies, the Internet and small businesses. Wayne has also published three books about upgrading PCs, building office networks and effectively using and troubleshooting notebook computers. You can contact him through his Web site at www.waynewrite.com.
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