As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, there are more business plan templates, lists of suggested business plan content, and samples out there on the net than you can shake a stick at. There also are free on-line (commonly offered by banks in case you’re seeking a loan) and commercial software products intended to help you develop a business or marketing plan.
Business PlanMaker Professional Deluxe
In this post we look at one such commercial offering called “Business PlanMaker Professional”. We’ll call it BPM for short. In case you don’t get the hint, the package also has the word “Deluxe” on it. The vendor, Individual Software Inc., claims that BPM is the number 1 best-selling business plan software for under $50.
We purchased it at our local Staples store for $49.99, indeed under $50.00. For some unknown reason, the copy we bought just months ago is Version 9 instead of the Version 12 currently offered on the web site at http://www.individualsoftware.com/software/business_planning/business_planmaker_professional/ 
Old stock? In any case, the differences described on the manufacturer’s web site for later versions appear to be tweaks rather than a major redesign, so we believe that most of what we say here will still be relevant. If not, our apologies to Individual Software and we hereby offer to correct any factual errors.
I’ve purchased half-a-dozen of these planning software products over the years, and BPM is very typical of how they work. However, most of its competitors are priced from $100 to $250, so you have to expect that BPM is an entry-level product. In my opinion, it is a low-end product with serious limitations.
Excessive claims? You decide.
The claims made on the box are, in my opinion, a little over the top. Among over things, BMP will “ensure financial success”, “beat the competition”, “achieve your goals”, and “receive funding”. Full points for benefit-oriented copywriting!
How it works
The software uses a series of wizards that prompt you to enter information about your company, income, expenses, etc. This process tries to replicate the face-to-face meetings that a management consultant would use to learn about your goals and your business concept.
Here’s what a typical editing screen looks like.
You can click on the tabs across the to move from wizard to wizard. An outline of the business plan down the left side lets you navigate from section to section. The large window at the bottom is where you edit the text of your business plan. Above it is a window that provides explanations and hints.
An essential feature included in BPM is the ability to re-order, delete and add new sections to the outline. A Table of Contents is automatically generated based on the outline.
When you’re done working on your plan, the software creates a nicely formatted version for printing. You can also save it as a Word or PDF file. A “review” feature checks for conflicting numerical data and incomplete sections, meaning blank sections and charts.
These features are all pretty typical, and contribute the bulk of the value of using this type of product. Marketing and business plans are long and complex documents, so being able to quickly jump between sections and having charts and tables automatically generated from your input data can save lots of time.
Want help with financials? Hmmm.
One of the main reasons that people buy this type of product is that they think it will let them develop pro forma financial statements without requiring help from an accountant. This is true only to an extent. In this release of BPM, you can only use up to twenty line items for expenses, and you have to define them yourself. The software explains that this is so that the income statement will fit on a single page when the plan is printed. However, if you can create an income statement that meets GAAP or IFRS accounting standards (yup, we now use IFRS in Canada), you probably don’t need a software wizard to help.
Other more powerful software products include budgeting tools that roll your various estimates into a summarized income statement. Some even let you track your actuals, and compare them to budget.
A few other limitations
As to be expected, BPM has some other limitations that more powerful products don’t. For example, you can’t add to the spell checker. Since every industry has its own jargon, you may get tired of clicking “Ignore”. The cover page is quite plain and can’t be edited; it is automatically produced.
In general, BPM’s approach seems to target those focused on finding investors. Just like resumes and cover letters, a one-size-fits-all business plan format doesn’t work for all audiences: you need to tailor them for investors, lenders, and internal management purposes.
General issues with business planning software
However, I find that all business and marketing plan development software products seem to suffer from some general issues.
First and foremost, giving someone who doesn’t play the violin a Stradivarius won’t turn them into a concert violinist. This type of software can’t produce a high-quality business plan if the person using it doesn’t know how to plan a business.
Filling in the blanks just isn’t enough
These types of software products feature dozens of standard and optional section headings, charts and diagrams. This implies that following a fill-in-the-blanks approach is sufficient to get the job done. In reality, you need to set goals, do your research, and think through your business thoroughly. The software doesn’t help with these tasks.
And you have to know which blanks to fill in
Every management consultant I’ve worked with has his or her own client interview processes and business plan templates that they developed over time. Naturally, some are better than others, and probably none are perfect for every business. My own marketing plan template is based on the American Marketing Association’s model.
It is likely that many of the sections, headings and charts in the software are irrelevant for your purposes. But if you’re just filling in the blanks, how do you know what you can safely ignore, or if vital information is missing?
If you complete every section and chart that’s included in the software, you’ll waste loads of time on unnecessary content that clutters up your plan. While strategic marketing plans often run to a hundred pages or more with multiple appendices, there’s a school of thought that the ideal business plan length is a dozen pages or less. The thinking is that you can always give potential investors more detail later if they’re interested in the opportunity.
Crummy sample plans aren’t useful
Another major selling feature is the inclusion of dozens of sample business plans. As one of BPM’s competitors points out, if you developed a winning business plan, would you post it on the Internet? Or allow a software vendor to distribute it with their software? As a result, the quality of the sample plans is usually questionable.
I looked at two examples from the library included with BPM and, in my opinion, both were pretty poor. I suspect one was written by a student as a class assignment; it rambles on for 50 pages with quite a lot of background data of little applicability. In the end, there isn’t much substance — no concrete business strategy, vague descriptions of the proposed offerings, no competitive review, no sources for data, and the inevitable conclusion that: “we’ll capture significant market share within three years because we’re better than everyone else”. That’s not an example you want to follow!
So, do these products have any value?
Sure they do.
Business planning products are a fast way to document a business concept after you have thought it through. They allow you to focus on the writing since they take care of the formatting.
Although business planning software products produce nicely formatted documents, you can also export to Word and put on the finishing touches. Personally, I’ve never been able to complete an entire plan without using additional software such as Word, although the more sophisticated the business planning software, the less need for additional software. At minimum, I use Word to make a fancy cover page with logos and contact information (consultants often like to add their own as well as the clients), and PDF editing software to merge together files.
Some people find it useful to use planning software to capture and organize information during the process. Drafts are handy for discussion.
But frankly, these products are probably most beneficial to consultants who use them regularly to improve their productivity; someone who uses the same software regularly learns it inside out. But if you’re an entrepreneur writing just one business plan, you have enough work to do to produce a well-thought-out business plan; struggling a marginally-useful product like Business PlanMaker Professional just adds to the burden.