Online Business Planning Tools Researched and Recommended - Part 1
The internet is a blessing and a curse when it comes to research. The blessing obviously is all the great info out there. The bad news is how does anyone sort through all the items to focus on what can help.
A simple search will provide an abundance of tools available on-line for starting and operating a business. The following compilation was created by a team of professionals who sifted through all the tools to provide the “best choices” in the following business planning and research categories. All sites are free and have been researched by the MSU Business Library and/or are recommended and used by the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center (MI-SBTDC), a business counseling team.
A well-structured plan is important for success and presentation to potential funders.
Excellent resources to help you get started include:
- Four Steps and a Leap: Northern Initiatives' step-by-step guide to business planning
- SCORE Business Plan for a Start-Up: "how to" guide from Service Corps of Retired Executives
- SBA's Business Planning Resources: U.S. Small Business Association's guide to business plan writing
- Michigan SBTDC Business Plans: downloadable layout includes guidelines and suggestions
Both start-up and existing businesses have a variety of financial needs. Time spent analyzing what those needs are, and planning how to meet them will contribute greatly to the success of any business.
The Northern Lakes Economic Alliance (NLEA) offers several tools to aid in the financial planning process:
- Financial projections and worksheets
- Financial Projection Templates (SCORE): numerous Excel templates including balance sheet, profit and loss statement, financial ratio, amoritization schedule and financial diagnostics
- Michigan SBTDC Cash Flow Spreadsheets: blank forms are provided to help complete financial plan documents
- Tax Forms and Licensing
- Michigan Business One-Stop: Michigan business tax and licensing information
- IRS.gov: Federal tax information portal for business
- Position and Wage Information
- O*net On-Line: U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored resource for occupational information
- Other Resources
- SBA FAQ's: the U.S. Small Business Association offers extensive information and articles regarding small business financing
- Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center: IRS Small Business Advantage gives you the information you need to stay tax compliant
- Understanding small business needs and capital access: a report was published by Michigan State University Center for Community and Economic Development
- Equity Financing and Dilution Calculator: this tool helps entrepreneurs understand the impact of raising money for an early stage venture.
Market research will help you realize your product’s potential in a given market and its prospect for success. Additionally, information gathered during this process can help you identify and define marketing opportunities and problems; generate, refine, and evaluate marketing actions; monitor marketing performance; and improve your understanding of your industry as a whole.
Useful resources include:
- Michigan Market Maker: mapping guide to businesses and markets of agricultural products in Michigan
- U.S. Commercial Service: U.S. Commercial Service's industry-specific Market Research Library
- BizJournals: business and industry news from 40 different markets around the nation
- Canadian Company Capabilities: searchable database of more than 60,000 Canadian businesses
Customer Profiles and Demographics
When you consider becoming a business owner, assessing customer demographics can make or break your efforts. The key is to target customers who will be most receptive to your product, service, and marketing message by researching characteristics like age, location, income, education and more.
Useful tools include:
- American Factfinder: population, housing, economic and geographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau
- County Business Patterns: from the US Census Bureau
Identifying and learning about competitors in small communities can be difficult and may require a great deal of primary research (i.e. talking directly to people in the local business community).
The secondary sources listed here are a good place to start:
- Manta: nation-wide registry of businesses searchable by industry and location
- ThomasNet: product sourcing and supplier directory
Analyzing key factors relating to your industry is critical. Whether lifecycle, history or financial performance, an in-depth review of trends can help you operate efficiently, react proactively and maintain healthy levels of production.
A good resource to help you get started:
- Economic Census: U.S. Census Bureau's economic profiler of national and local economies
MSU Extension has had a unique partnership relationship with the regional economic development organization Northern Lakes Economic Alliance for more than 20 years. Recognizing the strength of combining resources, this partnership focuses on economic development, entrepreneurship growth and community infrastructure throughout a four-county region in the northwest Lower Peninsula, specifically Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties. As a result, NLEA utilizes resources offered through MSU Extension and the NLEA provides leadership to state-wide programs sponsored by MSU Extension.