When it comes to writing a business plan, getting started is the biggest challenge.
So how can you avoid staring at a blank page for hours on end? Start with a business plan outline.
With anything in life, an outline can give you the clarity you need to tackle an overwhelming task. This is especially true when drafting crucial documents for your success, like a business plan.
In fact, businesses with clear plans are 16% more likely to succeed, showing more focus and commitment than businesses without plans.
But I know, a business plan is a huge document and it can be confusing to create an outline, too. That’s why I’ve gathered all the information you’ll need to write a business plan outline. No sweat.
Read on for answers to all your business plan outline questions or jump ahead for some handy templates.
Click to jump ahead:
- What is a business plan outline (and why do you need one)?
- What format should you choose for your business plan outline?
- What are the key components of a business plan outline?
- Business plan template examples
- Writing tips to ace your outline
What is a business plan outline (and why do you need one)?
A business plan outline is the backbone of your business plan. It contains all the most important information you’ll want to expand on in your full-length plan.
Think of it this way: your outline is a frame for your plan. It provides a high-level idea of what the final plan should look like, what it will include and how all the information will be organized.
Why would you do this extra step? Beyond saving you from blank page syndrome, an outline ensures you don’t leave any essential information out of your plan — you can see all the most important points at a glance and quickly identify any content gaps.
It also serves as a writing guide. Once you know all the sections you want in your plan, you just need to expand on them. Suddenly, you’re “filling in the blanks” as opposed to writing a plan from scratch!
Incidentally, using a business plan template like this one gives you a running head start, too:
Perhaps most importantly, a business plan outline keeps you focused on the essential parts of your document. (Not to mention what matters most to stakeholders and investors.) With an outline, you’ll spend less time worrying about structure or organization and more time perfecting the actual content of your document.
If you’re looking for more general advice, you can read about how to create a business plan here. But if you’re working on outlining your plan, stick with me.
What format should you choose for your business plan outline?
Most business plans fit into one of two formats.
The format you choose largely depends on three factors: (1) the stage of your business, (2) if you’re presenting the plan to investors and (3) what you want to achieve with your business plan.
Let’s have a closer look at these two formats and why you might choose one over the other.
Traditional business plans are typically long, detailed documents. In many cases, they take up to 50-60 pages, but it’s not uncommon to see plans spanning 100+ pages.
Traditional plans are long because they cover every aspect of your business. They leave nothing out. You’ll find a traditional business plan template with sections like executive summary, company description, target market, market analysis, marketing plan, financial plan, and more. Basically: the more information the merrier.
This business plan template isn’t of a traditional format, but you could expand it into one by duplicating pages:
Due to their high level of detail, traditional formats are the best way to sell your business. They show you’re reliable and have a clear vision for your business’s future.
If you’re planning on presenting your plan to investors and stakeholders, you’ll want to go with a traditional plan format. The more information you include, the fewer doubts and questions you’ll get when you present your plan, so don’t hold back.
Traditional business plans require more detailed outlines before drafting since there’s a lot of information to cover. You’ll want to list all the sections and include bullet points describing what each section should cover.
It’s also a good idea to include all external resources and visuals in your outline, so you don’t have to gather them later.
Lean business plan formats are high level and quick to write. They’re often only one or two pages. Similar to a business plan infographic, they’re scannable and quick to digest, like this template:
This format is often referred to as a “startup” format due to (you guessed it!) many startups using it.
Lean business plans require less detailed outlines. You can include high-level sections and a few lines in each section covering the basics. Since the final plan will only be a page or two, you don’t need to over prepare. Nor will you need a ton of external resources.
Lean plans don’t answer all the questions investors and stakeholders may ask, so if you go this route, make sure it’s the right choice for your business. Companies not yet ready to present to investors will typically use a lean/startup format to get their rough plan on paper and share it internally with their management team.
Here’s another example of a lean business plan format in the form of a financial plan:
What are the key components of a business plan outline?
Your business plan outline should include all the following sections. The level of detail you choose to go into will depend on your intentions for your plan (sharing with stakeholders vs. internal use), but you’ll want every section to be clear and to the point.
1. Executive summary
The executive summary gives a high-level description of your company, product or service. This section should include a mission statement, your company description, your business’s primary goal, and the problem it aims to solve. You’ll want to state how your business can solve the problem and briefly explain what makes you stand out (your competitive advantage).
Having an executive summary is essential to selling your business to stakeholders, so it should be as clear and concise as possible. Summarize your business in a few sentences in a way that will hook the reader (or audience) and get them invested in what you have to say next. In other words, this is your elevator pitch.
2. Product and services description
This is where you should go into more detail about your product or service. Your product is the heart of your business, so it’s essential this section is easy to grasp. After all, if people don’t know what you’re selling, you’ll have a hard time keeping them engaged!
Expand on your description in the executive summary, going into detail about the problem your customers face and how your product/service will solve it. If you have various products or services, go through all of them in equal detail.
3. Target market and/or Market analysis
A market analysis is crucial for placing your business in a larger context and showing investors you know your industry. This section should include market research on your prospective customer demographic including location, age range, goals and motivations.
You can even include detailed customer personas as a visual aid — these are especially useful if you have several target demographics. You want to showcase your knowledge of your customer, who exactly you’re selling to and how you can fulfill their needs.
Be sure to include information on the overall target market for your product, including direct and indirect competitors and how your industry is performing. If your competitors have strengths you want to mimic or weaknesses you want to exploit, this is the place to record that information.
4. Organization and management
You can think of this as a “meet the team” section — this is where you should go into depth on your business’s structure from management to legal and HR. If there are people bringing unique skills or experience to the table (I’m sure there are!), you should highlight them in this section.
The goal here is to showcase why your team is the best to run your business. Investors want to know you’re unified, organized and reliable. This is also a potential opportunity to bring more humanity to your business plan and showcase the faces behind the ideas and product.
5. Marketing and sales
Now that you’ve introduced your product and team, you need to explain how you’re going to sell it. Give a detailed explanation of your sales and marketing strategy, including pricing, timelines for launching your product and advertising.
This is a major section of your plan and can even live as a separate document for your marketing and sales teams. Here are some marketing plan templates to help you get started.
Make sure you have research or analysis to back up your decisions — if you want to do paid ads on LinkedIn to advertise your product, include a brief explanation as to why that is the best channel for your business.
6. Financial projections and funding request
The end of your plan is where you’ll look to the future and how you think your business will perform financially. Your financial plan should include results from your income statement, balance sheet and cash flow projections.
State your funding requirements and what you need to realize the business. Be extremely clear about how you plan to use the funding and when you expect investors will see returns.
If you aren’t presenting to potential investors, you can skip this part, but it’s something to keep in mind should you seek funding in the future. Covering financial projections and the previous five components is essential at the stage of business formation to ensure everything goes smoothly moving forward.
Any extra visual aids, receipts, paperwork or charts will live here. Anything that may be relevant to your plan should be included as reference e.g. your cash flow statement (or other financial statements). You can format your appendix in whatever way you think is best — as long as it’s easy for readers to find what they’re looking for, you’ve done your job!
Typically, the best way to start your outline is to list all these high-level sections. Then, you can add bullet points outlining what will go in each section and the resources you’ll need to write them. This should give you a solid starting point for your full-length plan.
Business plan outline templates
Looking for a shortcut? Our business plan templates are basically outlines in a box!
While your outline likely won’t go into as much detail, these templates are great examples of how to organize your sections.
Traditional format templates
A strong template can turn your long, dense business plan into an engaging, easy-to-read document. There are lots to choose from, but here are just a few ideas to inspire you…
You can duplicate pages and use these styles for a traditional outline, or start with a lean outline as you build your business plan out over time:
Lean format templates
For lean format outlines, a simpler ‘mind map’ style is a good bet. With this style, you can get ideas down fast and quickly turn them into one or two-page plans. Plus, because they’re shorter, they’re easy to share with your team.
Writing tips to ace your business plan outline
Business plans are complex documents, so if you’re still not sure how to write your outline, don’t worry! Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when drafting your business plan outline:
- Ask yourself why you’re writing an outline. Having a clear goal for your outline can help keep you on track as you write. Everything you include in your plan should contribute to your goal. If it doesn’t, it probably doesn’t need to be in there.
- Keep it clear and concise. Whether you’re writing a traditional or lean format business plan, your outline should be easy to understand. Choose your words wisely and avoid unnecessary preambles or padding language. The faster you get to the point, the easier your plan will be to read.
- Add visual aids. No one likes reading huge walls of text! Make room in your outline for visuals, data and charts. This keeps your audience engaged and helps those who are more visual learners. Psst, infographics are great for this.
- Make it collaborative. Have someone (or several someones) look it over before finalizing your outline. If you have an established marketing / sales / finance team, have them look it over too. Getting feedback at the outline stage can help you avoid rewrites and wasted time down the line.
If this is your first time writing a business plan outline, don’t be too hard on yourself. You might not get it 100% right on the first try, but with these tips and the key components listed above, you’ll have a strong foundation. Remember, done is better than perfect.
Create a winning business plan by starting with a detailed, actionable outline
The best way to learn is by doing. So go ahead, get started on your business plan outline. As you develop your plan, you’ll no doubt learn more about your business and what’s important for success along the way.
A clean, compelling template is a great way to get a head start on your outline. After all, the sections are already separated and defined for you!
Explore Venngage’s business plan templates for one that suits your needs. Many are free to use and there are premium templates available for a small monthly fee. Happy outlining!