Sample Business Plans Suck

The original title of this piece was “business plans are made, not found.” It comes from my childhood memories of the Wheaties ad campaign of the 1950s. The slogan was “Champions are Made, not Found.”

The same applies to business plans. You make one, you don’t find one.  You develop your own.

This comes up a lot these days because — I think– of sample business plans. The spread of sample business plans is a real problem for the greater good of better business planning. And unfortunately, I might be part of what caused the problem. Gulp.

I started sample business plans at Palo Alto Software in 1987 with the first “Business Plan Toolkit,” which included the original versions of Acme Consulting and AMT, the computer reseller, which I had written for clients.

Digression: If you’re curious, google one or the other and see how widespread they are. By the way (and not the point of this post) but there are a few with permission (the SBA, for example, has permission to use AMT as a sample on its site) but there are a lot of people just copying and calling it their own. Seems like there are hundreds of them out there. Only a very, very few have permission. Most are pirates. End of digression.

The idea of including sample plans was as something that came with the business planning product to help people understand what a business plan looks like, what it covers, and how it comes together. We included 10 real sample plans in late 1994 when we released Business Plan Pro. People liked the samples, so we included more.  We polled the users and came up with real plans from real businesses to make it 20 sample plans with our version 2 in February of 1996, and 30 sample plans with version 3, in May of 1998. People really liked sample plans as part of the product.

Then the idea spread.  People started buying and selling sample plans.  Our life as market leader became very complicated when a competitor bought 100-some sample plans from a book compilation and included them as Adobe PDF files with some business plan software. They didn’t tell their customers that the plans were just electronic documents, didn’t work with their software, and most didn’t even have financial information, but they did cause a stir in the market.  We had to work like mad to get 250 real plans, all of which worked within Business Plan Pro and had financial data, to compete. We sponsored business plan competitions, and paid our customers, looking for real plans.

So the race was on. By this point we had our version 2002 (equivalent to version 5) of Business Plan Pro out. People started selling sample plans on the web, most of them poorly-disguised knock-offs of our sample plans exported from Business Plan Pro and massaged slightly. We’ve had several legal battles with people using our work to compete against us. We’re up to 550 sample business plans with Business Plan Pro now, and, frankly, I hate it.

Here’s the problem: when it was two sample plans or even 10 sample plans, people generally understood that they were supposed to give you an idea of what a plan is.  Now with hundreds of sample plans available, some people naturally think their own business plan is supposed to be one of those 500.

Frankly, as author and professional business planner, I hate this idea.  People are buying and selling finished business plans as if they were term papers (also a bad idea) for college students. It’s really spreading, and it’s a bad idea.  Not just wrong because of plagiarism, but wrong because it doesn’t work and clouds business planning.

I get the question all the time: “Do you have a plan for x x x …”

Which brings me back to the title of this post.  I want to tell everybody that finding a business plan you can use is a really, really bad idea. You make a plan, you don’t find one. Obviously, every business is unique.  Every business plan is unique.  You don’t want to find a business plan because even if it happened to be a plan for a business very much like yours, it would never have the same owners, the same management team, the same strategy, and probably not the same market or location either.

Sure, I recognize that a sample plan can help in several ways. You can find out how somebody else defined the units and prices in a business, what their expense projections were and for what categories, and how they described their market.

But I strongly recommend you start at zero, and write your own plan. Refer to samples for some hard points, perhaps, but start with an empty plan.  If you’re using Business Plan Pro, the wizard takes you through the process step by step, tells you what you need to include and why at every step, so you just tell your own story and do your own numbers.  If you start with somebody else’s plan it’s going to be very hard to distinguish your own ideas from theirs.  You’re going to end up with a hodge podge of rehash.

I just can’t believe people are buying and selling sample business plans as stand-alone documents, but they are.  It’s bad enough that we have samples readily available for editing and modifying within the business plan software, but then you have several websites selling finished sample plans without any software, just as Word documents or worse.  Most of these are the same plans recirculated, essentially stolen, but even that isn’t why they are a bad deal.  It’s like buying a novel as a Word file and trying to get it published, it’s a bad idea.


  • Tim Berry says:

    Hi Lisa, I saw this comment, and if you’re talking about our software, published by Palo Alto Software, the good news is that it lets you use samples as examples while also empowering you to make your business plan your own, not just canned rehash. Also, 90-day money-back guarantee too, so don’t keep it if you really don’t want it.

    I’d urge you, though, that if you really need business planning don’t look for a ready-made plan, use the tool to create your own plan. Every real business plan is unique — sort of as this post suggests — so use a tool to make it easier to do, without compromising the value of the plan itself. Tim

  • Lisa says:

    I wish I would have read this before buying the software!

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