A Plan Of Action

Whether you’re starting or expanding a business, you have to be aware of every scenario that could wreck your venture. A solid business plan can be just the map you need to avoid potential minefields. And if you’re looking for funding, investors will want to see a well-prepared business plan before they even think about loosening the purse strings. They’ll want to see, in a polished and well-organized format: a cover sheet, table of contents, executive summary, organization plan, product or service information, market analysis, strategy, financial analysis, charts to support your market and financial analysis, and legal documents. Each section must go into detail on many subtopics, from staff responsibilities to your customer service provisions.

We tested four software applications that are supposed to help you evaluate your business worthiness. Each program has step-by-step instructions with examples, and simple word processing and spreadsheet tools where you need to enter text or numbers. There were underlying similarities in the packages, but they varied in their quality of instruction, ease of use, interface polish, and the program flexibility to let you perfect your work.

Palo Alto Software
Business Plan Pro 2003 comes with a great book, Hurdle: The Book On Business Planning, and the software has an appealing and efficient interface with well-written instructions. We liked the ability to switch between the Wizard Task view and Plan Outline view in the left pane without disturbing the central work area. The views show instructions in the top pane and the things you click or write in the bottom pane. You get a sense of accomplishment in the Wizard Task View when completed items check themselves off. And you can skip to different topics on the list, which is handy in Plan Outline View, where you can expand the subtopics. You can even import categories from QuickBooks.

One of the selling points of Business Plan Pro 2003 is that it contains more than 400 sample plans, but they’re not on your disk. Instead you choose a title from a menu then connect to the Web to get the plan as a PDF (Acrobat) file in a funky viewer. It then offers to open the plan in Business Plan Pro 2003. A note told us that the plan we would see had features from the ($300) Premiere edition of the program, and that those features wouldn’t work in the ($100) program we were reviewing.

Business Plan Pro 2003 has a larger hard disk requirement. It needs Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.5 and Acrobat Reader 5 for all the kludgy file-passing. Internet Explorer and Acrobat Reader are included in the box, but we would prefer a single, competent program without all the time-wasting hoops to jump through. All in all, Business Plan Pro 2003 will help you create a thorough business plan with relative ease.

Out of Your Mind and Into the Marketplace
We were skeptical of Automate Your Business Plan when we saw its plain-Jane appearance upon opening the application, but the moment