Biz Plan Software Grows Up

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As 2007 looms, the humble business plan is becoming more sophisticated, and its uses more elaborate. The industry remains split into three types of planning software: those based on spreadsheets, those that provide dozens of samples to imitate, and those that use a combination of wizards and templates to arrive at the final plan.

But beyond the process are a number of trends that are impacting how the business plan is prepared and used:

* Collaboration is growing in importance. The planning process has always been collaborative, even in small companies. But the availability of the Internet has allowed some packages to tack on better sharing and editing tools, from simple network access to the core document to the ability to divide the plan, assign roles, and monitor the progress of the plan. This is particularly helpful to accountants, as it enables them to work interactively with clients to craft each plan.

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* The financial analyses are more sophisticated. Software of old applications merely produced a set of financials and five-year projections. But the current generations are moving far past these simple benchmarks to incorporate business valuations, what-if scenarios, and other critical analyses.

* Customization is critical. There may have been a time when there was a "favored" format for a business plan. Today, new and unique business types are demanding more utility from such plans, and the ability to accommodate a break from tradition. This demand for greater control over the format and output of business plans is occurring not only within the businesses, but also within the financial institutions and business advisory services.

* Businesses are taking more time in the process. Planning has traditionally been a business of looming deadlines and fast-dash financials. But companies appear to be taking a more holistic view of the process, making updates more frequently, and making greater use of the plans internally than externally.

This review covers seven best-of-class packages, each of which takes its own unique approach or conceptual direction.

However, one thing that should be noted is that all the packages have had to come to terms with the dominant software packages that affect their clients' plans. This includes living and working with Microsoft's pervasive Office Suite, or at least some of its most commonly used elements. Several provide text in Word, financials in Excel, and presentations in PowerPoint, or can export files to these applications. There is also an increasing ability to export and import QuickBooks files, since so many small businesses and their accountants use this low-cost accounting software package.

All of the products reviewed here have significant strengths, have built a successful following in the accounting industry, and are worthy of consideration, depending on the needs of the client and the type of practice the accountant is seeking to build.

BizPlanBuilder

Jian is a template-based planning system built on Microsoft Excel workbooks for the financials, Word template documents for the text portion of the plan, and a PowerPoint template for plan presentation. The result is a well-designed, customizable planning system that outpaces most of its competitors.

BizPlanBuilder is built around a universal set of business plans, written from the investors' and lenders' points of view. Each plan type is divided into relevant sections for that type of business. Within each segment, the writer is challenged by questions that cover the essentials, then provided with samples of text based on the responses. This approach-using a smaller number of flexible plans rather than hundreds of sample plans-reduces confusion and makes it easier to create custom plans for unique businesses.

The financial statements have evolved to include a basic level for a quick snapshot of the financial health of the company, and for more advanced intermediate and comprehensive levels. The Intermediate model provides linked financial statements favored by banks and has proven successful with SBA loans. The Comprehensive model presents bottom-up or top-down scenario building suitable for evaluating a new product or service or developing a detailed budget. Both models offer quick-fill assumptions sections to quickly set up financial statements and run what-if scenarios.

Version 10 has been extensively overhauled, with the inclusion of a multi-user system that enables an unlimited number of users to collaborate over a network, server, or the Internet with complete access control and 128-bit security, simplifying the process of plan collaboration with clients. Other enhancements include a unique "investor scratch pad" and a "one-page sensitivity analysis" enabling potential investors to play their own what-if scenarios with the financial data. Finally, the "Equity/Ownership Give-Up" previews the deal and shows the owner's value with investment.

With 18 years of experience, BizPlanBuilder remains a very popular planning tool that serves a diverse range of industries with a simple but effective system for plan preparation, collaboration, and presentation. Its template-driven format allows accountants to focus on the financials without sacrificing the quality of the text portions of the plan.

BizPlanBuilder

Version 10 2007

Jian

Chico, Calif.

(800) 346-5426

www.jian.com

Price: $99.77.

Business Plan Pro Premier 2007

Tim Berry's best-selling Business Plan Pro focuses on a wizard-driven planning process supported by an expert help system and a library of more than 500 existing business plans. The 2007 version has worked to make that process easier through a redesigned home page and more tools to enhance ease of use.

There are two versions of the software, clearly differentiated, with the Standard edition geared toward start-ups and sole proprietorships, and the Premier version geared toward larger enterprises.

Both the Standard and Premier versions offer a library of 500-plus sample plans, 9,000-plus industry profiles for financial comparisons, and the ability to import data from QuickBooks. Premier builds on this with the ability to import data from Excel spreadsheets, a business valuation analysis tool, more detailed cash flow planning, and plan-versus-actual financial tools. This version also expands on the basic edition with email-based collaboration tools that allow the plan to be created by a team, multiple plans to be combined into a single document, and plan outlines to be centrally stored for use by distributed departments.

New features for 2007 offer a more detailed plan review, plan set-up with a more powerful Help Wizard with new menus, and a redesigned home page featuring easy-to-access resources, interactive instructions with definitions at the click of a button, more tutorials, and free online training. Users also have more control over color palettes, headers, footers, formatting, and fonts for greater control of the finished plan.

This package clearly lives up to its billing as a top-shelf application, with a sophisticated EasyPlan wizard system and formatting options that generate a clean and effective business plan. While both editions offer similar features, accountants will want to focus on the Premier Edition for its additional capabilities, particularly information on critical insights into payback periods and exit strategies.

Business Plan Pro

Premier 2007

Palo Alto Software

Eugene, Ore.

(800) 229-7526

www.paloalto.com

Pricie: Standard single user, $99.99; Premier single user, $199.99.

PlanGuru Version 8

PlanGuru is a tool designed to help accountants build their business advisory practice by offering multiple-scenario projections for smaller clients or executive summaries for larger enterprises.

PlanGuru is offered in two versions: Expanding on PlanGuru Professional, the Consultant Edition adds Performance Measurement Tools to benchmark the client's performance, and creates business valuations using three income approach methods. And an add-on special tool, Business Analyzer, creates detailed snapshots of a business beyond what is offered in the financial statements.

The Professional Edition imports and exports Excel and ASCII text files, while the Consultant Edition incorporates the ability to import data directly from QuickBooks and Peachtree accounting software. Projections can be made for one, two, or three years on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis for up to five years, and can be started mid-year. The program can store an unlimited number of companies with an unlimited number of projections for each, with up to 10 prior periods for reporting and analysis.

Enhancements in Version 8.0 are focused on ease of use, with easier ways to change assumptions, the ability to move lines in the spreadsheet up and down, and improved reporting features. The Consultant Edition features updated engagement tools, a summary of significant assumptions in the engagement tools, a new "Direct to Equity" business valuation method, and a goal-setting feature to enhance client input to the plan.

While it may not have the text tools of other planning systems, PlanGuru offers an excellent approach to the basics of business planning and scenario building. Its focus on client service and effective engagements, and its position as the only planning system built specifically for accountants, make it an indispensable tool.

PlanGuru Version 8

New Horizon Technologies

Santa Fe, N.M.

(888) 822-6300

www.nhorizontech.com

Price: Single machine pricing, PlanGuru Professional, $199.95; Consultant Edition, $399.95.

PlanMagic Business Advanced Edition

The PlanMagic Business's planning product, works work seamlessly with Microsoft Office 97 and up to produce, update, and present business plans. It differs from other planning products in its nearly completed, industry-specific business plan templates and its fully automated financials where consecutive years are pre-filled by using increase percentages or previous year averages.

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