How to Write a Great Business Plan

How to Write a Great Business Plan” has been one of the most downloaded articles on Harvard Business Publishing since 1997.

Harvard Business School professor William A. Sahlman‘s article on how to write a great business plan is a Harvard Business Review classic, and has just been reissued in book form. We asked Sahlman what he would change if he wrote the article, now a decade old, today. Key concepts include:

  • A business plan can’t be a tightly crafted prediction of the future but rather a depiction of how events might unfold and a road map for change.
  • The people making the forecasts are more important than the numbers themselves.
  • What matters is having all the required ingredients (or a road map for getting them), not the exact form of communication.
  • The best money comes from customers, not external investors.

Bill Sahlman: Writing a business plan is a seminal moment in the life of a new venture. Doing so entails committing to paper a vision of the factors that will affect the success or failure of the enterprise. People take the exercise very seriously and get emotionally invested in what they produce.

In that context, the article was written to give insights into how to think about the role of a business plan and its relation to new venture formation. I tried to explain that a business plan can’t be a tightly crafted prediction of the future but rather a depiction of how events might unfold and a road map for change. I emphasized the notion that successful entrepreneurs constantly seek the right mixture of people, opportunity, context, and deal. They anticipate what can go wrong, what can go right, and they try to balance risk and reward.

Over the years, I have received many e-mails from folks trying to craft a business plan. They want feedback. Actually, they really want me to say that they are on the right track. I explain that I would need to get to know them and their opportunity much better than what is possible in an e-mail and that the written document is not as important as the people writing it. It’s not science—it’s art and craft.

Click here for the entire interview.

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