A compelling business plan is essential to every new and growing business.
It’s the primary document that prospective investors use to evaluate the potential of a business, going hand in hand with a business pitch deck.
A well-designed business plan should:
- Outline your company goals and purpose
- Describe the problem (or “need”) your business is going to address
- Summarize your solution and unique selling points
- Analyze your market potential
- Differentiate you from your competitors
- Describe your business model
- Outline your marketing plan and growth strategy
- Detail your financials
- Introduce your team
More than all of that–it should inspire confidence in your investors and motivate them to back your company and its vision.
This is where an effective business plan design can have an enormous impact.
While the structure and content of a basic business plan should remain standard, beautiful design and effective visual presentation will make your plan stand out above the rest.
Follow these simple business plan design guidelines and you’ll be locking down investors left, right, and center!
Start with a business plan template
Building a business plan from scratch takes time.
It takes time to do market research, put together financial projections, analyze your customer base, create competitor breakdowns….the list goes on.
The last thing you want to do is spend precious time formatting the resulting document.
Save time by building your business plan from an existing template, and customize it with your own content.
With a clean, consistent structure and clear headings, this template is the perfect starting point:
Then you’re free to customize the template with helpful visual elements like charts, tables, and diagrams, that will make your pitch impossible to resist.
Let’s jump into how to design business plans with some basic best practices, then review what charts to use where (with some specific use cases).
Best practices for business plan design
1. Make your business plan skimmable with bulleted lists, bold text, and a clear type hierarchy
Business plans need to be understandable at a glance. Don’t rely on investors dedicating time to dig into the details of your report. What they really want is something that will help them understand your business quickly and without much effort.
Take a look at this snippet of the business plan template from above:
What stands out to you?
To me, the large green headers pop out first, making it easy to scan through the sections to find what I want to focus on.
This is because there’s a defined type hierarchy, giving more visual weight to the headers over the body text.
Next, the unique selling points of this business–superior quality products, unique glass carving and brass inlays, and excellent service–jump out. Because they’re presented in an indented list, they’re easier to see at a glance, which will likely make them more memorable.
Finally, I’m drawn to the bolded stats–“top 30% of the industry” and “4 out of 5 households spent money on renovation”.
Key statistics like these can go a long way towards convincing your investors that you’re worth their time and money. If you’re going to include them within larger paragraphs, make sure they stand out by increasing their font weight.
To sum up: make your report skimmable. Draw attention to important takeaways with indented lists, bolded text, and a clear type hierarchy.
2. Keep your business plan format clean and consistent
A messy, inconsistent business plan design is instant investor repellent–making clean, consistent formatting absolutely essential!
The last thing you want is for the appearance of your document to distract from your content.
What should you consider when formatting your business plan?
First, it’s a good idea to lay out your content based on an underlying framework. That is:
Create your business plan on a one-column or two-column grid
If your business plan contains only text, stick with a single-column layout that reinforces the linear flow of the document. If your business plan includes some supporting data in the form of charts and tables, use a two-column layout to juxtapose text with its corresponding data.
Use page margins to set text at a readable line length
When we read long passages of text, the ease at which we read depends on how the text flows on the page. Something called line length (the number of characters in a horizontal line of text) plays a huge role in readability, and is something you should consider when formatting your business plan.
To dictate line length, designers and typesetters play with the width of page margins (the edges of a document that don’t contain any text or images) with the aim of maximizing readability.
It’s generally accepted that the ideal line length sits somewhere between 40 and 90 characters per line. Any longer or shorter and you’ll find that something feels “off” about your document.
How do you achieve this in your business plan?
If you use a single-column layout, use nice wide margins (1 ½ to 2 inches) to limit your text to less than 90 characters per line.
With a two-column layout, you might need to use narrower margins (possibly as little as ½ an inch on either side) to make sure there’s enough space for at least 40 characters per line of text.
The last thing to remember about margins and line length–don’t play around with them from page to page. Use consistent margins across your whole document.
Number your pages and include a table of contents
“Skimmability” comes back into play here. A table of contents is crucial to help readers navigate your document and quickly find specific sections that are of interest to them.
It’s a good idea to include page numbers, main section headings, and section subheadings here for easy reference.
Keeping these tips in mind will ensure that your business plan design feels clean and professional and doesn’t distract from your content. You want your information, not your formatting, to be the focus!
3. Use descriptive titles and annotations to spell out chart takeaways
Since your business plan should be backed by solid data, you might want to include some of that data as evidence, in the form of charts, tables or diagrams. Even simple visuals can communicate better than long paragraphs of text.
I’ll touch on some specific types of charts commonly used in business plans next, but first let’s review a few general chart design tactics.
Use strong chart titles and chart annotations to emphasize key takeaways
Avoid generic headers whenever possible. Maximize your chart’s value and impact by providing takeaway messages right in the title.
In the same vein, add direct annotations to data points or trends that support your case.
Repeating key messages within a chart, in the title, annotations, and captions, may improve viewers understanding and recall of those messages.
4. Use one feature color to tie your business plan together
Color should be used with restraint in professional documents like business plans. Instead of adding color solely for aesthetic purposes, think of color selection as another tool to highlight information you want your reader to focus on and to tie the document together.
You shouldn’t need more than a single color (ideally one of your brand colors) to achieve this in a business plan.
In business plan charts, color should be used only to clarify trends and relationships. Use color to emphasize single important data points, differentiate between real and projected values, or group related data:
In the rest of your business plan, keep color to a minimum. At most, use it to make headers stand out or to highlight key points in long-form text, diagrams, or tables.
The nice thing about a keeping document colors this simple? It’s hard to mess up, and without any complex design work, it creates a sense of cohesion and unity within a document.
When and how to use charts in a business plan
Charts, tables, and diagrams should be used in a business plan to summarize and present research that backs up your ideas and strategies. Wherever an investor might doubt the validity of a claim, it’s a good idea to include supporting data in the form of a summative visual.
Let’s review some specific use cases for business plan charts.
1. Aid understanding of market size and market share with area charts and pie charts
A market potential analysis is a fundamental pillar of your business plan. Market size and market share are two major components of a market potential analysis.
These numbers are typically in the millions and billions (the bigger the better, really), but most people have trouble grasping the meaning of such big numbers. At a surface level we can understand that one billion is one thousand times larger than one million, but we often struggle to comprehend what that really means.
This is the perfect opportunity to add some visual aids to your business plan.
Use bubble charts to represent market size
Bubble charts are useful for showing general proportions among numbers. Check out this one from our redesigned version of AirBnb’s first pitch deck:
Without having to think about the absolute values of these very large numbers, we can quickly see how they relate to one another.
While bubble charts are good for making quick, general comparisons, they’re less useful when it comes to precise measurements. To help readers make slightly more accurate judgements of proportion:
Use pie or donut charts to represent market share and market composition
Pie and donut charts are the industry standard for showing market share and market composition, since they’re the most widely understood method for representing part-to-whole relationships.
The way Uber breaks down their market with a simple donut chart makes their biggest segment (a key takeaway) really stand out, while the subtler differences between the smaller segments are still evident.
When you present a market analysis, use pie charts, donut charts, or bubble charts to aid the reader understanding proportions and part-to-whole relationships.
2. Use histograms and bar charts to represent demographic distributions in market segmentation summaries
Another part of analyzing market potential is about identifying and understanding target customers. This means segmenting customers by geography, interests, demographics…really anything that might affect purchasing behaviour.
Two standard metrics that most businesses include in a market segmentation summary are customer age and gender. These data are easily summarized in a histogram, with bars that represent age group distribution.
Bar charts can then be used to contrast the key behaviors and lifestyle choices of the top consumer segments.
Histograms and bar charts are standard features of a market segmentation summary. Use them together to identify and present information about top customer segments.
3. Use organizational flow charts and summary tables for budget breakdowns and financial summaries
The financials section of your business plan will get a lot of attention from investors. Simple bar charts and pie charts won’t suffice, as they can’t present financial data in very much detail.
If your business has already been operating for some time, investors will expect a detailed report of revenues and expenses. Tables are usually the best choice for this kind of financial summary, as they provide an unbiased view of the numbers and allow investors to look up specific values.
If you’re interested in highlighting a particular trend, however, you may want to include a line chart featuring a smaller snapshot of your financial data:
If you’re just starting your business and you don’t have any detailed revenue data, you can still provide useful information about your budget. Outline higher-level budget allocation with an organizational flow chart.
4. Outline major milestones with a Gantt chart
Investors will want to see that you have a concrete plan in place to help you reach your revenue goals. When formulating your goals, use the SMART principle to provide investors with a very clear vision of how you intend to achieve them.
Use a Gantt chart (a sort of modified bar chart) to outline the major milestones and phases of your business strategy. Try to include a multi-year plan, broken down by quarter and by project or department.
5. Differentiate yourself from your competitors with a comparison matrix or Magic Quadrant
Every business plan should include an analysis of the competitive landscape–an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of competitive businesses.
In terms of visuals, this competitive analysis is typically summarized in a SWOT matrix.
While the SWOT matrix does have a place in the world of business communications, it’s not necessarily the best way to present your competitive landscape. The SWOT matrix doesn’t make it easy to see at a glance the key characteristics that differentiate your business from your competitors.
To highlight those offerings that set you apart from your competitors, a comparison matrix is more effective:
Alternatively, a “Magic Quadrant” can be useful when you’re focused on comparing across two main metrics (key differentiators):
This kind of visual presentation is particularly effective when your business occupies an existing gap in the market.
A business plan is the one key document that every young business needs to present their vision to potential investors.
The quality of a business plan can make or break a young business, so make sure you follow these easy design tips to make an effective business plan:
- Make your business plan skimmable with bulleted lists, bold text, and a clear type hierarchy
- Keep your business plan format clean and consistent
- Use descriptive titles and annotations to spell out chart takeaways
- Use one feature color to tie your business plan together
- Summarize supporting data in charts and tables:
- Represent market size and market share with area charts and pie charts
- Use histograms and bar charts to represent demographic distributions in market segmentation summaries
- Use organizational flow charts and summary tables in financial summaries
- Outline project milestones with a Gantt chart
- Differentiate yourself from your competitors with a comparison matrix or Magic Quadrant chart
If your small business doesn’t have a dedicated design team, but you still need a professional business plan to present to investors–build off of a pre-designed business plan template: