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Business Planning Software

Once a business idea is selected, it is highly recommended that we sharpen the concept by a detailed planning process. The result of this step is a comprehensive business plan, with its major components being the marketing "mix," the strategic plan, operational and logistical structures, and the financial proposal. The purpose of the business plan is to recognize and define a business opportunity, describe how that opportunity will be seized by the management team, and to demonstrate that the business is feasible and worth the effort.

While this may seem a daunting task to first-time entrepreneurs, many "veterans" have found that there are software packages that can help to organize and format the material required for a comprehensive plan. These packages are particularly helpful to those who are intimidated by starting from a blank piece of paper.

So is there a downside to purchasing software that has most of the text "in place?" The text is not always well-written, "fill-in the blanks" tends not to produce very fluid copy, and the parts you write may be in a different style than the words surrounding it. Some experts suggest that the real usefulness of such packages lies in the examples, when they are in a business similar to yours.

The sales leader in "plan-ware" is Palo Alto Software's Business Plan Pro (BPP, paloalto.com). We have tried several packages that are comparable to BPP; you should evaluate a few to find which might fit your unique style best. Figure a price point of about $100 for all. Others to consider would be:

* Business Resource Software's Plan Write (brs-inc.com/)
* Planware's PlanWrite (planware.org)
* PlanMagic's Business (planmagic.com)

In addition to BP software, you may want to consider online services.

* SmartOnline (smartonline.com); $30 to $70 per month
* Fundable Plans (fundableplans.com); $40 per use

Some of the factors that you would want to consider in your evaluation are:

User-friendliness ? easy to get productive quickly; self-guiding, not having to go back-and-forth with instruction manual or help screens; "wizards available for some functions.

Interface ? the package works with the other software that you will need in the process, such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Support ? free technical support by telephone or email; useful help screens; program updates; and, resources such as articles and links that assist in the business planning process.

Features ? functions beyond the basic "fill-in-the-blanks" templates, such as PowerPoint templates; market research data; industry codes; lots of rich examples; and, assistance with the more technical aspects of the plan, such as finance and strategy.

One of the dangers of using such packages is that your focus may shift from producing a complete and convincing plan to simply filling out the templates. Their real value lies in their support of getting it in writing.

Many entrepreneurs insist that their business concept is so clear in their heads that the written plan can be produced after start-up; this attitude "short-circuits" one of the major benefits of producing the plan. The discipline of writing a plan forces us to think through the steps we must take to get the business started, and, to "flesh out ideas, to look for weak spots and vulnerabilities," according to business consultant Eric Siegel.

A well-conceived business plan can serve as a management tool to settle major policy issues, identify "keys to success," establish goals and check-points, and consider long-term prospects. The plan must realistically assess the skills required for success of the venture, initially and over the long run, and match the skills and interests of the team to these requirements. Test the plan, and an accompanying oral presentation, on friends whose business judgment you value. Let them assume the role of a prospective investor or lender.

John B. Vinturella, Ph.D. has almost 40 years experience as a management and strategic consultant, entrepreneur, author, and college professor. For 20 of those years, Dr. Vinturella was owner/president of a distribution company that he founded. He is a principal in business opportunity sites jbv.com and muddledconcept.com, and maintains business and political blogs.

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