Software Review: Business Plan Pro 2003

by Patricia Fusco

Having the right tools in a toolbox makes the difference between a job well done and having to pay someone to come in and undo what's been done. Business computing tools are no different — it pays to have the right tools in your toolbox.

A business plan is just one of the many essential tools that every small business needs to get started. But writing a professional business plan requires painstaking work and effort, unless you happen to have a copy of Business Plan Pro 2003 in your business computing toolbox.

Palo Alto Software, the company behind Business Plan Pro, was founded in 1983. During the 1980s, the company focused primarily on consulting and market research. First born as a simple template, Business Plan Pro 2003 has evolved to become an extensive planning tool for large and small companies alike.

Since its release in 1995, Business Plan Pro has won the hearts and minds of businesses around the world and is regularly on Amazon.com's "Top Ten" list of best-selling business software titles. The most recent versions, Business Plan Pro 2003 and Business Plan Pro 2003 Premier, were released in September 2002.

The basic Business Plan Pro 2003 package is priced at $99 and is designed for small business startups or for smaller companies with more limited operations and planning resources. Priced at $299, Business Plan Pro 2003 Premier is made for larger enterprises. It expands upon the same basic application, but includes e-mail collaboration tools that allow business plans to be created by a team.

Business Plan Pro 2003 comes with a copy of Hurdle: The Book on Business Planning, written by Tim Berry, principal product author and President of Palo Alto Software. The book is designed to help entrepreneurs manage their business plans by keeping things simple, specific and realistic. While the book is a nice compliment to the application, it's Business Plan Pro that really steals the show.

In the Lab
We recently put a copy of Business Plan Pro 2003 to the test. Installing the program was easy, no glitches in the setup at all. In a matter of minutes we were into the program and ready to start using the Easy Plan Wizard.

Much like tax reporting software, Business Plan Pro's Easy Plan Wizard takes the user through a series of general and financial questions that when answered form the basis of a business plan outline. Depending on the responses, additional sections are added to the business plan. For example, responding "yes" that our business startup would have a Web site, resulted in adding another section to our business plan outline.

Each completed response also resulted in another task being checked off from our list of items to do. We were presented with a very logical, step-by-step order in preparing our business plan. Plenty of examples are provided each step of the way. With a single click, these examples could be pasted into our business plan and modified to suit our business.

Moving through the program was easy — we could readily navigate our way to any part of our business plan once the outline was completed. We created a monthly cash flow projection based on a series of business assumptions, then changed the math, and the chart was automatically adjusted to show our revisions.

Analysis is presented in monthly, three-year and five-year formats, with key ratios compared to those of over 8,000 industries. Tables used in the analysis include general assumptions, break-even analysis, sales forecast, personnel, market and sales analysis, profit and loss statements, balance sheet, business ratios, cash flow, startup costs and business performance milestones.

It was very easy to customize our business plan, adding our own logos and graphics to the final report. Text can be imported from Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Financials can also be imported from QuickBooks, this option is one of the first elements we setup at the beginning of our business plan outline.

Intuitive isn't the word for it, Business Plan Pro 2003 almost wrote the entire business plan for us. This program is set up with the right tools and formats required for making a presentation to banks, venture capital firms, angel investors, and even the Small Business Administration.

For testing purposes, we transformed our plan into a PDF to make it easy to print and e-mail. Users can also post a business plan to a free password protected Web site to share with partners or potential investors.

Final Word
Business Plan Pro 2003 comes with more than 400 sample business plans that can be referred to before, after, or during the process of creating your plan. From aircraft instruction to wedding consultancy, we found many examples of professional business plans that represented real world business ventures.

One minor nitpick lies in its charting and graphing limitations when using a monochrome laser printer. It was difficult to tell the dark shades, from the medium and light shades. As a result, improved gray scaling wouldn't hurt the application. But all in all, Business Plan Pro 2003 earns high marks for usability and flexibility.

With its integrated templates, books on business planning and Internet Web planning, its extensive context-sensitive help and other features, Business Plan Pro 2003 should be a part of any small business computing toolbox — especially for those that take business planning and analysis seriously.

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Apr 8th 2003
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