by Dave McClure
The events of the past few years have forced companies to re-evaluate every aspect of their businesses. And they are discovering to their shock that many strategies no longer work -- if indeed they ever did.
Business planning softwareAcumen
BizPlan Builder 2003
Budget Maestro 5
Business Plan Pro 2003
PlanWrite Expert Edition 6.0
Up Your Cash Flow 2003
Business analysts note that the rising economy of the 1990s made even unworkable strategies look profitable in the short run, and that as many as half of the businesses in operation today may have no sustainable, long-term value.It is in this environment that business-planning software is gaining new respect. From its beginning as Lotus spreadsheets and word processing templates, these packages have evolved into essential planning tools with rich feature sets and very capable analytic engines.
As with many categories of software, there are a number of different packages that contribute to the business plan. Some software focuses on a single part of the plan, such as the financial statements or cash flow. Some software is geared to start-ups looking for funding, while others are focused on decision support systems for executives. Some are better suited to large enterprises, while others serve the small-to-midsized enterprise markets.
This review examines seven business planning software packages that offer varying levels of sophistication, customization and analytical power. It is intended to present one or two leading software packages of each type.
Acumen Financial Solutions Inc.
Acumen is a financial analysis and planning tool that is designed for use by accountants and other planners who serve the SME market. Specifically, it is designed to enable the senior management of those enterprises to quickly determine how changes in business strategies will affect key financial indicators.
Created by Three D Graphics, a company with extensive experience in development, charting and graphics software, Acumen combines a proprietary spreadsheet engine with graphic indicators and sliders to quickly and easily make complex financial variables easy to understand. Acumen Financial Solutions is a subsidiary of Three D Graphics.
The system makes no use of rows, columns or cells, relying instead on data input in the background (with attendant creation of appropriate formulas) to produce graphic representations that are easy to grasp. Though it uses a spreadsheet engine that is different from Microsoft’s Excel, Acumen imports from Excel so that prior spreadsheet investments are not lost.
Three aspects of this software stand out as important for accountants. First, the use of slider bars to accompany the charts, graphs and gauges makes it easy to manipulate variables and note their effect. Second, the software makes it easy to perform what-if operations not only from the top down (if we change variable "x," how does it impact the bottom line?) but also from the bottom up (to achieve a specific result, how must the variables be changed?).
The package is designed to assist in crafting effective strategies by offering what-if scenarios that not only look forward but also back to determine what the effect would have been had the company elected to use a different strategy or variable.
Third, the software is incredibly flexible because scenarios and reports are literally built by the accountant from the ground up. While offering extensive help and suggestions, the program allows for exploration of the bottom-line sensitivities that occur with the combined variances of volume, costs and prices. For many accountants, this "blank page" approach and the program’s intuitive data entry and presentation style will prove much more attractive than traditional "fill in the blank" planning software.
This is not a business-planning package in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a business-planning tool for the accountant to help make sense of business strategies for executive clients. And it can be invaluable in determining the negative effects of revenue recognition, asset impairment, and excess overhead absorption -- issues currently under serious scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission for small businesses of every size and kind.
BizPlan Builder 2003
Jian Tools for Sales Inc.
Jian’s BizPlan Builder is a full-service plan development package that has raised over $1 billion in funding for its customers, but also serves well as a cash forecasting and management tool. Entrepreneurs favor the product, now in its 14th year, for its easy navigation and flexibility.
Designed for use within Microsoft Office, BizPlan Builder uses a series of Excel spreadsheets and Word documents built around five types of business plans -- concept, service, retail, product and Internet. For each segment of the plan, polished and well-written sample text is presented for editing. Once the user has worked through each of the sections, the "assemble" button pulls the document into a finished plan.
Financial statements are built in one of three levels -- basic, intermediate and comprehensive. The basic level provides a quick snapshot of the financial health of the company. Intermediate provides the linked financial statements favored by investors. The comprehensive level presents management information, including the cash flow forecasting system and bottom-up or top-down scenario building. The intermediate and comprehensive levels offer a quick-fill section in order to set up financial statements and what-if scenarios.
Unique to BizPlan Builder is its compelling support documents. These include a worksheet for planning office space needs; invitations to join the board of directors; a press release template; guidance and forms needed to manage stock options; and a host of other vitally important documents that most other planning programs simply overlook.
All of the guidance for using the program is found on the CD or in the program’s "Experts’ Comments," and is available for each section of data entry.
New for the 2003 version are drag-and-drop customization, the ability to turn expert comments on and off, the ability to tab from variable to variable, information on plan presentation, and a section of templates for cover letters to investors and lenders. Version 8.1 is essentially the same as Version 8.0, released in 2002, though it does correct some Windows installation issues.
BizPlan Builder is a high-value, comprehensive business planning solution that will be very appealing to those who need to cover the full range of planning activities. While other programs may present stronger management-decision support capabilities, none can match it for its usability, customizing capabilities and extensive array of supporting documents.
Budget Maestro 5
Few documents are as critical to the business management and planning process as the budget -- and management of the bottom line is what Budget Maestro does best.
The software is available in three versions: the Desktop Edition with a single-user license for smaller companies, a one-to-three user Small Business Edition, and the multi-user, multi-location Enterprise Edition that offers collaborative budgeting and planning processes.
The software is intended to be an out-of-box solution for a wide range of industries, including service industries, retail, high-tech, nonprofit and government. A manufacturing-specific module is available to meet the special requirements of a manufacturing operation.
Budget and actual data can be imported from and exported to any general ledger software that can output to Excel or ASCII text, including mainframe and Unix/Linux systems. Data that is entered is subjected to an Auto Adjusting Technology that checks the accuracy of computations, and the financial reports provide full drill-down capability for detailed analyses. Three general classes or reports can be automatically generated: Financial Reports, Management Reports, and Management Lists (lists of items without their financial details).
Forecasting is supported for up to five years on a monthly basis, though an optional Extended Period Pack can extend this to up to 15 years. Historical data is maintained for up to two years, extendible to five. Zero-based, accrual and cash-based budgeting are supported, with both top-down and bottom-up allocation of expenses.
An exceptionally well done planning tool for accountants and non-financial managers, Budget Maestro 5 in the Desktop Edition uses the Microsoft Desktop Engine, which is included with the software. The Small Business and Enterprise Editions use Microsoft SQL Server, and may require coordination with the company’s IT department.
Budget Maestro is useful in a small business environment, where its speed and flexibility can cut annual budgeting time to a minimum. But it is even more powerful in a complex or diversified environment. Here, the software allows individual locations or departments to independently create their budgets, then rolls all of these -- regardless of inherent difference -- into a single report with supporting balance sheet, income and cash flow statements.
Business Plan Pro 2003
Palo Alto Software
Business Plan Pro is the best-selling business plan package available in the retail markets. More robust than its competitors, the program’s strength lies in its extensive library of more than 400 sample business plan templates, segregated by industry, and in its excellent analytical capabilities.
After customizing the setup for the needs of both the accountant and the client, an EasyPlan Wizard is used to work through the writing of the plan, section by section. Sample plans can be used for guidance but are not necessary, since the software offers extensive built-in help and examples. The wizard poses questions for each section, and then assembles the answers into an outline. Data for financials and analyses can be imported from the 2002 version of Business Plan Pro or from the 2002 or newer Intuit QuickBooks products.
Once the wizard is complete, Business Plan Pro generates an outline, tables, charts and analysis for the finished plan, which can then be printed for use in a format acceptable to both the Small Business Administration and banks, or be exported into Microsoft Office, an RTF document, a PDF document or an HTML document.
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, market analysis, profit and loss, balance sheet, forecasting, personnel costs, business ratios, cash flow, startup costs and historical performance.
The basic Business Plan Pro 2003 package is designed for the startup, or for smaller companies with more limited operations and planning resources. For larger enterprises, Business Plan Pro 2003 Premier expands on this base with e-mail-based collaboration tools that allow plans to be created by a team, multiple plans to be combined into a single document, and the ability to save the plan outline centrally for use by distributed departments. For even stronger collaboration, plans can be uploaded to SecurePlan.com, a password-protected Web site, for secure distribution to partners and prospects.
Business Plan Pro 2003 earns high marks for usability and flexibility. While some accountants may find its lock-step approach to the plan too confining -- particularly in the interview process -- there is much value in the ability to export the data, financial statements and analyses into Excel for advanced scenario-building.
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 part of an accountant’s toolkit for business planning and analysis.
New Horizon Technologies
PlanGuru is a tool designed to help accountants build their business advisory services by offering multiple-scenario projections for smaller SME clients or executive summaries for larger enterprises.
The tabbed, spreadsheet-style interface provides for easy navigation, while wizards handle data entry chores for set-up and a how-to guide steps the planner through instructions for most of the functions. Data can be imported directly from Quickbooks or Peachtree using an optional import module, and the program imports from and exports to Excel or ASCII text.
As with other planning tools, the flexibility of the software lies in the fact that the accountant builds it from the ground up and can choose the data to be used. Projections can be made for one, two or three years on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis for up to five years. 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.
Five basic projection methods are available, plus special methods for items such as trade receivables and payables, inventory, notes payable and income taxes. The package defines two separate income taxes, and automatically calculates 21 different financial ratios in addition to breakeven.
Reports for most common functions can be generated automatically, and customized using the internal features for headings, descriptions, fonts and page breaks. For additional formatting flexibility, the document can be exported to a word processor. And the final version can be output in PDF format for posting or sending via e-mail.
Two optional programs for PlanGuru are worth noting. The Business Analyzer benchmarks a company’s financial position by comparing it to comparable industry data, then prepares a presentation-quality report with commentary. The Engagement Tools are designed for the accountant who needs to perform forecasts and projections that are in compliance with American Institute of CPAs standards and requirements. The tools produce documents that include the accountants’ report and procedure checklist, etc., in Microsoft Word.
PlanGuru is a quick and simple accounting tool that has built a strong following in the three years since its introduction. While it is not a comprehensive plan and strategy builder, it does offer an excellent approach to the basics of business planning and scenario building that is, in most ways, better than its competitors.
PlanWrite Expert Edition 6.0
Business Resource Software
PlanWrite Expert Edition 6.0 is designed to quickly and easily generate business plans that can help entrepreneurs and start-ups gain funding. PlanWrite is one of a suite of products intended to help test an idea, write a business plan, create a marketing strategy, evaluate pricing, write a marketing plan and close more sales.
The steps to create the plan are straightforward. A wizard guides the planner through a series of dialogues covering the enterprise, competition, products, distribution, sales, pricing, the environment and other factors. Additional questions guide input of the financial data. Each section of the plan is contained in a separate folder -- text, financial projections, charts, milestones and the complete business plan in a single view.
Navigation is accomplished through a simple set of buttons -- narration, for text entry;
financials, for projections; charts; milestones to measure the plan’s success; plan audit to check for completeness and spelling; and view, to see a fully formatted edition of the plan.
The resounding strength of PlanWrite lies in its analysis capabilities. Using an expert information database built on the work of more than 40 experts in marketing, planning and strategy. The software provides a full-text analysis of the product or service and its market potential, with hyperlinks to information that influenced the analysis. It also provides insights into factors that will affect success, and a series of more than 35 charts to graphically demonstrate how the product or service stands up to proven marketing models.
Formatting of the plan is accomplished with a built-in word processor and spreadsheet, with customizable fonts and formatting tools. Financial data can be input from and exported to a number of external spreadsheet formats. The final plan is suitable for printing, export to a word processor in RTF format, a PDF file, or publication in HTML format on the Internet.
Collaboration capabilities have been enhanced with PlanWrite Central, a sharing tool that allows a password-protected copy of the plan to be placed on the PlanWriteCentral.com site, an FTP site or internal network server. Multiple users can work on the plan, with access given to the full plan or to specific sections.
Plan Write Expert Edition is designed for a specific purpose, and scores well for speed and usability. While it may not be robust enough to meet the needs of enterprise planners, its strong analysis features and links to expert advice make it highly valuable to accountants who work with small enterprises and new ventures.
Up Your Cash Flow 2003
Granville Publications Software
Up Your Cash Flow 2003 is a smart forecasting and management tool that views cash flow as the critical element in business planning. It can present how anticipated activities will affect a company’s ability to meet payroll, pay bills, satisfy loan obligations and achieve desired levels of profitability.
While its functionality is geared towards the generation of cash flow projections, Up Your Cash Flow is also able to automatically project lines of credit based on accounts receivable levels, inventory levels or any data you choose -- useful information in a loan application. The program generates 30 financial reports for use in a business plan.
Cash-flow plans are created with an interview-style system that prompts the user for information in a profit-and-loss screen called the Planning Center. From the Planning Center, other elements of the program -- sales, expenses, cost of sales and reports -- are accessible at the click of a button.
Trial balance data can be imported from any ledger or bookkeeping program that exports to Excel, and also from popular programs that include QuickBooks, Peachtree, Timberline, MYOB, BusinessWorks, Creative Solutions, ACE, GoSystem Audit, ProSystem fx and Clarisys.
Power features abound in the core of the software: automated multi-year forecasts using trending; consolidation of multiple entities; automated roll-forward to one, two or three months; automated what-if analyses with global updating; and business valuation capabilities using four different
approaches. Expenses can be entered in four default departments with 250 items, expandable with another five for a total of nine departments.
While Up Your Cash Flow has always been a strong management tool, much work has been done in recent years to enhance its usability and navigability. That effort makes the software much easier to use, and has also led to the development of a powerful new feature -- the One-Hour Forecast. Using a preset model on a single screen, an accountant can create a complete initial forecast in one hour. This forecast can either be used for client meetings and discussions, or as the basis for a more detailed forecast.
Up Your Cash Flow is an exceptional tool for both its perspective and its flexibility. And it offers a unique capability to compare a plan to actual results on a continuing basis, making the business plan more effective and useful to management.
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