Business Plan Software Review
Why Buy Business Plan Software?
The top performers in our review are LivePlan, the Gold Award winner; BizPlanBuilder, the Silver Award winner; and Business Plan Pro, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing software to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 business plan applications.
Why Do I Need a Business Plan?
Whether you are applying for a small business loan or pitching your product idea to a venture capitalist, a business plan is a necessity. In fact, the Small Business Administration, or SBA, has very specific criteria for what must be included in a business plan, which is required as part of the SBA loan process. Other financial institutions that provide small business funding typically follow these same requirements. These plans have a minimum of 25 pages, include in-depth information in nine different sections and require you to project the success of your company during the first three to five years of your business.
Research shows that approximately 543,000 new businesses start each month, though only one-third make it past the five-year mark. One of the key reasons that lead to the success and survival of a business is having a business plan that outlines each goal and the steps needed in order to reach them. Business plans act in large part as a blueprint to help you keep on track as you work through establishing and growing your business.
If the idea of creating a business plan scares you, here's some reassurance: Business plan software is designed to help you through each part of the creation process, including market research and identifying funding options. These programs take the guesswork out of the process so you can create a professional business plan and secure the funding you need to launch your dream. We tested and ranked the best programs, paying special attention resources available to entrepreneurs after the business plan-writing process is complete.
What We Found While Testing Business Plan Writing Programs
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of the typical consumers. We obtained the software programs in our comparison from the manufacturers, in some cases, and purchased other applications. The manufacturers also had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. The results of our evaluation were not provided to manufacturers in advance of publication.
Ease of Use
When testing business plan software, we looked at how easy it is to navigate through the program without having to consult any of the help options. Applications that made the step-by-step process easy to work through without requiring you, the user, to do too much of the work yourself received a higher score than those programs that put the onus on the user to create and then format. Programs, such at the top-ranked LivePlan, ask basic questions, such as your company name, tax ID number and current monies available, which it then inserts into a ready-made template. This means you don't have to come up with filler text because the program has it ready for you.
Other programs, such as BusinessPlanToday, let you write every word of your plan, giving you sample language that you can copy and paste or use as a guide for your own text. However, this method might be a little more challenging if this is your first time creating a business plan, since some of the language may seem foreign.
Plan Tools & Types
We scrutinized the document-creation tools that were included in each of the software applications on our lineup as well as the number and type of business plans featured. These tools are important to ensuring a clean, professional plan free from grammar and spelling errors. We were surprised to discover that some of the most basic, yet important, features are not always present. However, all our top 10 business plan applications all include spellcheck, print preview and image import capabilities. Only a handful, however, include autosave, meaning the program automatically saves as you type without requiring you to press a save button. In addition to our top three ranked software solutions, Plan Write for Business also includes this feature.
One important feature we looked for is the ability to import financial information directly from your accounting or spreadsheet programs, including QuickBooks and Excel. This tool makes it easier to include current financial information, which in turn makes it easy to create projections, some of the most vital sections of your business proposal. Each of the programs we reviewed has the tools to help you create financial reports from scratch within the program itself, but it is much easier if you can import these numbers. Enloop is one of the business plan creation programs we reviewed that include financial importing.
Another feature that isn't very common is the ability to collaborate with other users in real time. This means you and your partners can log in and update the master business plan simultaneously without having to save and send a copy back and forth. Only three programs on our lineup of business plan software have this capability, including iPlanner.NET.
Types of Business Plans
In addition to evaluating the tools within each software application, we looked closely at business plan types to ensure that the basic business plan templates were included as well. These templates include plans for start-ups, funding or investment plans, and feasibility plans.
Start-up business plans serve to help a new owner remember each step and remain on task throughout the establishment phase. These business plans contain specific sections, including product or service descriptions, time lines for adding employees and advertising strategies. Basic financial information is also included to help new business owners stay on budget as they launch their business.
Business plans created for funding, often referred to as funding or investment plans, need to include the right sections and detailed financial information in order to be compliant with investor and loan application requirements. These plans are just a step up from basic start-up plans and are the most commonly written documents. Many people use the terms "start-up" and "funding business plans" interchangeably, but there are differences.
A feasibility business plan helps you determine if your business idea has what it takes to be successful. This type of plan examines cost as well as market strength, consumer need and competition in depth. Feasibility plans help you quickly determine whether your business idea will be good or if there is a risk for potential failure. These plans help you avoid the costly mistake of investing time, money and resources into a business venture that never had the potential to succeed. The best business plan programs will include feasibility as part of the overall business plan, especially if it will be used for securing investment funding or if it's part of a start-up plan.
Several of the business plan software programs we reviewed include feasibility plans as well as templates as part of the basic, start-up business plan package. iPlanner.NET has a separate, feasibility template available, but it is offered at an additional cost beyond the basic business plan package that includes templates for start-up and funding plans.
As you create your business plan, one of the critical sections you'll need to include is market analysis. This section identifies your competitors, how you differ from them, and the stability of the current business market for your products and services. Some of the best databases require you to pay a monthly subscription fee, and, often, these are not cheap, especially if you plan to use the database a couple of times. Several of the business plan applications we reviewed give you access to these databases so you can find this information without having to pay extra. Ultimate Business Planner is one of the services on our comparison that have this feature available.
In addition to market-analysis tools, business plan services often connect you to legal representatives and resources or provide help in identifying potential funding sources. These typically are included in your purchase price. Business PlanMaker charges an additional fee to help you connect with a legal representative if you need any legal help or advice.
The business plan creation applications we reviewed are very self-explanatory, though at times you may find that you have a question or two, or you may wish to connect to a live mentor or service representative. Each of the programs we reviewed offer email or online support forms. We were surprised that not all of the services provide telephone support while even fewer offer online chat.Each of the business plan programs in our lineup has FAQs, so if you have a question, you can check the company's webpage to see if your question has already been answered. However, we found that applications which had video tutorials were much more helpful in understanding not only the process of creating a business plan, but in better understanding each section of the proposal and why it is essential to the overall plan. These tutorials feature seasoned entrepreneurs and also include helpful tips in starting and growing a successful start-up business.
Online Business Plan Services
Hiring a professional to create a business plan for you can be expensive, usually costing a minimum of $1,000. However, they also come with a guarantee, ensuring that each part needed to secure funding is included, error-free and professionally formatted. This means you don't have to worry about a key section missing or that your plan doesn't comply with the standard formatting requirements. Since many professional business writers have a master's in business administration and years of experience in business and as entrepreneurs, they understand the ins and outs, what impresses investors, and how to position you and your business as unique and above the competition.
When choosing which online business plan service you want to use, carefully examine the samples of business plans listed on their website. Several services have pages that hint at which industries they specialize in and the level of professionalism and expertise you can expect. However, it is important to understand that a quality business plan isn't written overnight, so most services can't deliver a finished plan to you within a few days, something to keep in mind if you're under a tight deadline.
Types of Plans
One advantage to using a business writing service is that you can have your plan tailored to your specific needs. Whether you need to determine feasibility, project long-term growth or require an immigration plan for sponsoring works from outside of the United States, business plan services have the flexibility to include content to accomplish multiple purposes. Some services create more than one type of plan without charging you additional fees. Most business plan software programs let you draft the content for these plans on your own, but often the requirements are complex and overwhelming; it may be easier to have a professional take care of it.
Consulting & Research Services
Business plan writers often have access to some of the best and most current market research materials, which can help position you and your business above your competitors.
Professional writers are also usually connected with investors, such as angel investors and venture capitalists. In some cases, the software may grant you access to online databases where you can look up this information on your own. Approximately eight of the applications on our lineup offer access to expert guidance or a mentor. Having a physical mentor with established relationships is helpful when you approach investors for funding. iPlanner.NET will provide this service for an extra charge rather than including it as part of your purchasing fee. Also, Plan Write for Business doesn't employ mentors itself, but it will help connect you with a mentor in your area, but you may be required to pay for the service of these mentors.
We reviewed several business-writing professionals and found that some of the best include MasterPlans, Capital West Advisors and Wise Business Plans. Each of these services can create a professional plan, ready for you to provide as part of your SBA loan application, or when presenting your proposal for other types of financial assistance. As part of their services, each of these companies can help you with pitch presentation tips, training you in the best way to present your proposal to potential investors. You can find more information on these services as part of our business plan articles.
Funding Options for Small Businesses
Business plans are part of every investment proposal, including small business loans and alternative investment opportunities. Government-backed, or SBA loans, involve lots of paperwork have very specific requirements. SBA conditions are some of the toughest, but even traditional bank loans and other business funding options require a business plan to prove the viability of the company and demonstrate the financial outlook is favorable before approving the loan request. Each of the business plan programs on our lineup are formatted to meet these requirements.
SBA loans are not the only types of business loans or business funding option available. There are several different avenues that even with very little start-up capital, or a rocky credit history, you likely can find some funding for your fledgling company. Here are a few of the best companies we looked at as solid business financing options:
Small Business Loans: Government-backed loans are not the only business loan options available. Most financial institutions offer bank loans that can be used to help establish or grow you company. SmartBiz, for instance, offers several good small business loans quickly.
Small Business Loans for Women: More small business owners are women. As a result, financial institutions have created loan programs specifically for women entrepreneurs. Accion is one of our picks, a non-bank lender with over 20 years' experience servicing small businesses.
Alternative Small Business Loans: If you find that you have very little capital or don't qualify for a small business bank loan, don't fret: There are other options to acquire funding. Our alternative small business loans site has several organizations that specialize in funding small businesses that are in a tough spot when it comes to collateral or credit history. Lending Club is one such organization that offers alternative small business loans.
Business Lending Exchange: If you are having a hard time finding a source of capital beyond your local bank, business lending exchanges work to help match you with an investment opportunity that's right for your particular business venture. Connect Lending is one such exchange that considers your funding need and business industry and matches you with a loan or alternative funding opportunity that most closely aligns with your business goals.
Our Verdict & Recommendations
A professional and well-written business plan is essential to the small business loan application process. Each of the software applications we reviewed follows the stringent SBA requirements for creating a business plan as part of the loan application process. The best business plan writers, including our top picks, LivePlan, Business Plan Pro, and BizPlanBuilder include the most important tools for creating any document, including spellcheck, autosave and preview capabilities. They also give you the ability to import financial information directly from your accounting program, including QuickBooks and Excel, making it that much easier to include your business's financial history and create several years of projections.
All of the programs we reviewed give you tips to help you succeed beyond the initial months of launching your company. The best software programs include access to market research databases and help you connect with both legal and financial resources. A handful of services, including PlanMagic, also help you prepare for and refine your pitch to potential lenders.
While a business plan alone cannot guarantee you financial success, research has shown that having and following a good business plan is one of the best ways to survive and thrive beyond those initial critical three years.