Writing a business plan can seem like an intimidating hurdle. You know that you need to put a plan together to start a successful business, but you find yourself staring at a blank Word or Google doc wondering what to do next.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re willing to give up your preconceptions that a plan has to be a traditional long, document that you spend a lot of time and energy on once and then file away, you’ll discover that there are better (and faster) ways to plan.
How long does it take to write a business plan?
A traditional business plan can take hours and even days to put together. And while there’s nothing wrong with taking this much time, and if you’re seeking funding you’ll eventually need this type of plan, you don’t have to start with it.
In fact, it’s possible to write your initial business plan in under an hour. I did this same exercise when exploring the creation of our product, Outpost, and was able to quickly figure out our strategic goals and what it would take for us to be successful. Even if you’ve never written a business plan before, you’ll be able to do this too.
To write a business plan in 30-minutes, I use a process called Lean Planning to develop a much more useful Lean Business Plan.
A Lean Plan is faster and easier to put together than a traditional business plan, yet it provides all the value of an old-school plan. You skip all the long-form writing and instead focus on short, simple descriptions of strategy and tactics.
Do you really need a business plan?
The world has changed a lot since the idea of business planning was formalized decades ago. Things move much faster now and it’s easier than ever to get a business started. And even if you can write up a viable business plan in under an hour, you may be asking is it really worth it?
So, it’s rational to think that startups don’t need business plans anymore. After all, you could just dive in and start building a business without spending much time thinking about your goals or how your business is actually going to work.
However tempting, starting a business without a plan is not a great idea, here’s why:
It’s not just about funding
Planning is still a critical part of starting a business, but not for the reasons you might think. Most people think that the plan is all about showing it to other people to raise money or get a loan. But, that’s not the real reason planning is so important.
The process is what’s valuable
Writing a business plan is important because of the process you’ll go through when you put the plan together. When you plan, you discover what you need to do to start your business and what it’s going to take to be successful. Writing a plan is all about you, and clarifying your business idea for yourself and for your business partners.
You get very specific about your idea
After all, before you’ll be able to explain your business idea to friends, family, and potential investors, you’ll need to be able to explain your idea to yourself. The value of writing a business plan comes from going through the process, not from printing a document.
Reduce your risk
Spending a little time on planning before starting your business reduces the risk that you’ll lose money and make silly mistakes. Your plan will help you discover if your business can actually make money and what you really need to make it successful. Sure, you could jump right in and start your business without a plan, but it’s much more likely that you’ll waste time, money, and resources—unless you have a plan.
Research proves it helps
Planning actually guarantees that you’ll be more successful. Over the years, there have been multiple academic studies of companies that do plan and those that don’t. And, time and time again, the results show that companies that plan are more successful, more likely to get funding, and more likely to achieve their goals.
This still holds true even during a crisis. In our recent State of Small Business Survey, we found that 58% of businesses that feel confident in the health of their business have a current business plan. Even amidst uncertainty, having a business plan provided guidance and stability, allowing businesses to make decisions, pivot their business, and succeed in a volatile environment.
Why Lean Planning will make writing a plan faster and easier
When you’re writing a business plan for yourself, you can do things differently.
Keeps it simple and concise
For starters, you can throw out the expectations of a long, formal written document. You can skip all the formatting, complete sentences, and paragraphs of text that few people will actually read. Instead, you should put together a Lean Plan that focuses only on what you really need to know to build a successful business.
It will be a tool that is useful in the long run
A Lean Plan simplifies the entire process and makes your business plan actually useful. Instead of developing a long document, a Lean Plan focuses on distilling your business strategy into a simple, concise set of statements. It helps you set goals and then track your progress toward those goals.
Your business will be more nimble
Lean Plans are also much easier to change when your plans change—and they will. Starting a business is full of changes in direction and strategy as you learn more about what works and what doesn’t. If you use the Lean Plan format, updating your plan will take minutes instead of hours.
How to write a business plan in 30-minutes
When you’re putting together your Lean Plan, think in bullet points and short sentences. The goal is to keep each section as short as possible. The ideal Lean Plan will fit on a single page so you’ll end up with a one-page business plan. Here’s what sections you need to include, along with examples of a bike shop plan I put together in just 27 minutes.
If you’re at a party and someone asks you what your business does, can you describe it in a single sentence? Your goal is to communicate the value you are providing to your customers in a way that is as simple and direct as possible.
What’s the problem you solve for your customers? Why would they go out shopping for a solution? Why does your business need to exist? If you’re not sure, try talking to your potential customers and ask them what they might like about your products or services. Why would they choose you over other alternatives?
Describe your product or service and why it’s better than the alternatives. Essentially, if someone asked you what you sell, what would your answer be?
Describe your ideal customer. Who are they? Be as specific as possible—age, gender, shopping habits, and so on. If you target different types of people, create market segments for each group.
Every business has competition. Who do your customers buy from if they aren’t going to buy from you? What makes your business and products better than the alternatives that are out there?
Nearly every business needs some money to get off the ground. Think about how much money you’ll need and how you plan on using it. Even if you’re starting your business with your own savings or using credit card debt, it’s a good idea to plan on how you will use the funds until you start making sales.
These are the places where you will sell your products. If you’re selling online, your online store is a sales channel. If you also have a physical store, that’s another sales channel.
What will you do to market your business? If you plan on buying advertising, list the types of advertising you plan on doing here. Remember, different target markets might need different types of marketing activities to get your product in front of them.
Budget and sales goals
How much is it going to cost to run your business? What sales goals do you need to reach for your business to be a success? Don’t sweat the details to start and just think in broad strokes to get a rough idea of how your business will work financially. You can refine the details later.
What are the major tasks you need to accomplish to get your business up and running? This will help you stay on track and meet your goals. Make sure to assign milestones to people on your team so you have real responsibility and accountability.
Even if you’re starting out with just you, write a few quick bullets about why you’re the right person to run this business. If you need to hire key people in the future, list those positions as well, even if you don’t know who specifically will fill those positions right now.
This Lean Plan looks pretty good—one of its strong points is that it’s built to help you visualize data. I used LivePlan to put it together. But, you don’t have to that. You can put together your Lean Plan on your own with a simple Word doc.
What to do after completing your Lean Plan
Now that you’ve saved all that time writing your Lean Plan, what should you do next? Here are a few steps you can take.
Expand into a traditional business plan
Hopefully, you’ll embrace Lean Planning as a better way to do business plans. A Lean Plan will serve you and your business better than anything else. After all, it’s all about your success in business and using the right tool that will get you there.
However, there may be a time when you need to expand your Lean Plan and create a more detailed business plan. Lenders and investors often want to see a complete business plan, if only to prove that you’ve taken time to think through all the details of getting your business up and running.
A complete business plan expands off of what you already wrote in your Lean Plan, but just provides more detail, market research, and expanded financial forecasts.
Review and revise
The ultimate key to a successful business plan is to remember to go back and revise your plan as things change. Your sales goals might need to be adjusted or you might need to adjust your expense budget. Perhaps you’ll decide to sell to a different kind of customer. Your Lean Plan is a great place to document those changes and will help you track your progress toward your goals.
When you update your plan, you’re setting new goals to strive for. You’re also ensuring that your business strategy is documented and ready to share with new business partners, investors, and employees. I’ve found that sharing my company’s Lean Plan with employees improves transparency and gives everyone the big picture of what we’re trying to do. It ensures that everyone is moving the company in the same direction.
Download our Lean Business Plan template
If you want to get started on your Lean Plan right away, you can sign up for LivePlan or download our free Lean Plan template. It’s in Word format so you can get started right away and put together a one-page Lean Business Plan. With that, you will be well on your way to a better business strategy, without all the time and hassle of a long detailed business plan.
Your Lean Plan is your guide to building the business you want and your key to finding success. And, thankfully, it’s so much easier and faster than traditional business planning. If you want a more in-depth introduction to Lean Planning, check out my article here, and feel free to ping me on Twitter @noahparsons if you want to chat.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018 and updated for 2021.