Editorial Note: We earn a commission from partner links on Forbes Advisor. Commissions do not affect our editors’ opinions or evaluations.
A business plan is a document that lays out a company’s strategy and, in some cases, how a business owner plans to use loan funds, investments and capital. It demonstrates that a business is already producing income and has a plan to continue doing so moving forward.
A successful business plan is well-written, realistic, concise and, most importantly, convinces financial institutions that approving your business for a loan is a smart choice.
Here’s what you need to know about each section of a business plan and how to write a plan that will earn a lender’s stamp of approval.
Featured Partner Offers
$5,000 to $250,000
$6,000 to $250,000
Time in business
$5,000 to $500,000
Time in business
What Does a Successful Business Plan Include?
A successful business plan outlines your entire business and effectively explains how it makes money and why it is likely to succeed. This is especially important if you’re trying to get a small business loan.
The content of a business plan should vary from company to company, but there are a few common sections that will help lenders better understand your business and help you qualify for financing.
An executive summary concisely summarizes your business plan—usually on one page. The goals of this section are to inform the reader about the business as a whole, summarize what is contained in the rest of the document and capture their interest. That said, the best use of this section may depend on the age of your business.
- Startups. Startup owners typically use the executive summary to discuss the business opportunity, their target market and their planned strategy for building the business. The section also may touch on relevant market competition. Startup companies in particular should use the executive summary to build a lender’s confidence in the business.
- Established businesses. Companies that have been in business for several years usually orient their executive summaries around past achievements and growth plans. In this case, the section may begin with the company’s mission statement and provide information about business operations and financials before outlining future goals.
The industry analysis section of a business plan defines the business’ industry and mentions current trends—with a focus on risks and opportunities. The section also informs the reader about how the industry works and where the business fits in the industry as a whole.
This section should start by defining the industry, as well as what products and services it provides, and what consumer demand it fulfills. Next, identify the most important influences in the industry. In the case of a bank, this may include applicable government regulations; for a clothing boutique, it may be consumer trends and budget.
The industry analysis should also define the company’s intended niche in the industry.
The market analysis zooms into the specific market niche mentioned in the previous section. Market analysis aims to detail the segment of the broader market the business is intended to fit within. For example, a fashion brand or boutique may target high-income consumers.
Use this section to explain how the segment differs from the wider industry. In the fashion boutique example, a market analysis may reveal that high-income consumers in the fashion industry pay substantially more for brands that are considered exclusive.
Also, describe the size of your business’ niche and how it fits into the wider industry. This should include a mention of how many existing businesses operate in this niche and how they target consumers.
A competitor analysis explains what competitors in your niche do and informs the reader of the current market environment. Start with an overall assessment of your competitors. Then, discuss the most relevant competitors for your niche. When conducting a competitor analysis, ask yourself the following questions:
- Where do your ideal customers currently shop?
- How do these competitors differentiate themselves?
- How are competitor products and services priced?
- Why do customers choose those products or service providers?
Using the example above, many clothing boutiques compete by providing higher quality products or a unique, luxury shopping experience. If your store has a single location, your competitors might be another clothing store with a similar price-point or signature style.
Target Market Segmentation
In the target market segmentation, you’ll identify your business’ target market and describe how you will meet its needs. This section aims to instill confidence in the lenders by providing a clear and objective strategy for building revenue.
Begin the section by informing how your products or services meet your shoppers’ needs. Next, explain how consumers can access your products or services—including a brief outline of your marketing strategy and how it is tailored to your target clients. Contrast this to your competitors’ strategy as defined in the previous section. After reading this portion of the business plan, the lender should know exactly how your business intends to compete.
Services or Products Offered
Use this section of the plan to explain what your business offers its ideal customers and to contrast your product and service offering to that of your competitors. Start by defining your product and service offering, including pricing. Also, inform the reader what equipment or materials you need to provide your products and services. For instance, a fashion apparel brand needs access to textile manufacturers.
Marketing Plan and Sales Strategy
Now that the lender understands what you offer, explain how you plan to market it in greater detail. This section outlines how you’ll attract and convince consumers to buy from you. The goal is to provide a flexible and realistic marketing and sales plan that convinces the reader you know how to attract consumers.
The sales strategy section of your business plan should also include the company’s revenue goals and explain how your marketing and sales department will achieve them. Provide in-depth details on the marketing and sales challenges you’ll face and how to overcome them. While this information is always relevant, it is particularly important to lenders reviewing your loan application as they will want to know how you plan to make money.
The operations plan details your company’s day-to-day operations. This detail-oriented section should comprehensively explain how your business will operate, beginning with a list of your company’s daily activities.
As a high-end clothing boutique, your daily operations may include:
- A manager reconciling sales receipts and inventory numbers
- Stylists researching future trends and sourcing new inventory
- A marketing team building an online and social media presence
Notes: This section is more about your business’s daily processes rather than its organizational structure—which is the next section.
Use the management section of your business plan to tell the lenders who does what in the company and how they’re compensated. Help the lenders better understand the people behind the company by including biographical and background information on the company’s owners and key executives.
The best way to present this information is often with an organizational flowchart. You can also include other information about the company in this section, like your mission statement and values.
Your financial plan tells a prospective lender two things: how much you plan to spend each year and how much you’ll earn in revenue. This section is the most important for most businesses, as it can make or break a lender’s confidence and willingness to extend credit.
Always include the following documents in the financial section of your business plan:
- Cash flow statements
- Income statements
- Capital expenditure budgets
- Balance sheets
Most lenders ask established businesses for at least three years of financial data, and some may ask for five. Preferably, include as much financial data as possible. If you’re a startup, include estimated costs and projected revenue, and supplement your data with industry averages or financial data from competitors.
Your business plan should always include an exit strategy in case things go wrong or you simply decide to close up shop. This may include everything from taking on new partners to selling your business or even declaring bankruptcy. Having an exit strategy is another way to show lenders that you have thought about the risks involved with your business and are prepared for them.
The appendix of a business plan normally contains financial information and other documents the reader may need to gain a comprehensive understanding of the business. Established businesses typically include financial statements and projections, at a minimum. In contrast, a startup could include the research they conducted to make the business plan.
Also consider including relevant resumes, marketing materials, letters of recommendation or references. For ease, your appendix should have a table of contents directing lenders to the most important documents.
What Lenders Look for In a Business Plan
There are five things that lenders typically look at when making business lending decisions: character, capacity, capital, conditions and collateral. By understanding these key considerations, you can draft a business plan that speaks to a lender’s interests and concerns.
A business’ character includes subjective, intangible qualities like whether its owners are perceived as honest, competent or determined. Stated another way, lenders want to know that you are honest and have integrity. These qualities can be critical for evaluating candidates because most lenders don’t want to lend to someone they don’t feel they can trust.
To evaluate the character of you and your business, lenders look at your personal credit history as well as your business’ financial history. Use your business plan to bolster your character by including ample financial records, letters of recommendation and other relevant documents.
Lenders want to know that you have the ability to repay the loan. They evaluate this by looking at your business’ financial history to see how much revenue you have generated in the past and how much profit you have made.
Lenders might also judge your capacity based on your business’ financial projections as well as your personal credit history and household income. Where relevant, lenders look at your management team to see if they have the experience needed to grow your business or keep it on a path toward success.
When reviewing your loan application, lenders read your business plan to see how much money you need to borrow and how you will repay the loan. They also look at your financial statements to see how much cash you have on hand and how much debt you are carrying.
Likewise, lenders often prefer business owners who have made larger personal financial investments in their enterprises. A personal financial investment reveals your commitment to the business and demonstrates you have the resources to pay off a large loan.
Ultimately, a lender’s biggest concern is whether your business can realistically succeed. So, they judge your company’s chances of success using your business plan as well as current market conditions. A good business plan can improve your lender’s confidence by convincing the lender that market conditions and your business strategy increase your odds of success.
In some cases, lenders want to know that you have something of value that they can use to secure the loan. This can be property, equipment, inventory or even receivables. If you don’t have any collateral, lenders may still approve a loan if you have a good credit history and a solid business plan.
Find the Best Small Business Loans of 2022