As the marketplace for business planning software matures, it is being cleanly divided into two separate branches. The first addresses the needs of established companies that are looking to validate the performance of the company and gain insights into decisions for growth, acquisitions and business valuation. The second more directly meets the needs of entrepreneurs and small businesses that are seeking initial or additional funding, or otherwise need presentation pieces to demonstrate business performance.The tools for mature companies are now termed "business intelligence" or "corporate performance management" software, and the tools for small business go by the historical name of "business planning software." Both categories utilize historical data to make forward projections that are charted graphically for quick comprehension (often through a management "dashboard"), though business planning software contains more descriptive text.

Little has changed in planning software over the 25 years since it was first introduced. It generally is a compilation of sample plans and templates, financial statement generators, graphical charting capabilities, and a means to produce a final document and presentation.

In the year since we last looked at these software systems, little has been enhanced -- the addition of Vista compatibility and tweaks to the user interface are the most common upgrades. The addition of collaboration tools over the Internet was the big news last year, but a cooling economy and tighter money markets have tightened the emphasis of the software to focus on the basics, rather than bells and whistles.

Still, it is a strong category that continues to sell well even in times of adversity or uncertainty. It also remains an important software category for accountants serving start-up, small and growing companies. Whether acting strictly as a consultant, as a corporate manager formally engaged in the planning process, or as the planner for a small business client, accountants will find one of the seven systems reviewed here to be tailored to their needs.

BIZPLAN BUILDER V. 10/2008

Jian offers a business toolset that spans activities from planning and human resources to marketing and safety, building each on the familiar applications of Microsoft Office (PC or Mac). BizPlan Builder is a well-designed foundation for the toolset, offering a project-based planning system that easily outpaces most of its competitors.

BizPlan Builder is built around hundreds of business concepts cross-pollinated from every industry, enabling the planner to quickly adopt proven ideas and include them in plans. Plans are organized by relevant business type and based on an intuitive but extensive interview system. Within each segment, the writer is challenged by a series of questions that cover the essentials, then provided with samples of text based on the responses given.

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 over 20 years to include not only a basic level for a quick snapshot of the financial health of the company, but more advanced intermediate and comprehensive levels. The intermediate financial model provides the linked financial statements favored by banks and has proven successful with Small Business Administration 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 for planning or investors. Both models offer quick-fill assumptions sections to quickly set up financial statements and run "what-if" scenarios.

Version 10 for 2008 has been overhauled extensively, 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.

Jian claims to have developed the first business planning software 20 years ago, and remains one of the most popular systems today for plan preparation, collaboration and presentation. Its simplified, template-driven format allows accountants to focus on the financials without sacrificing the quality of the text portions of the plan or the quality of the final presentation.

BUSINESS PLAN PRO PREMIER V. 11.0

Business Plan Pro uses a wizard-driven process supported by an expert help system and a library of more than 500 existing business plans to drive the top-selling business planning software in the marketplace.

There are two clearly differentiated versions of the software, 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 the library of 500-plus sample plans, 9,000-plus industry profiles for financial comparisons, and the ability to import data from QuickBooks. The Premier version 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. The Premier software also expands on the basic edition with e-mail-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.

Version 11.0 for 2008 is a significant update of the software, with better Vista compatibility and a redesigned user interface; a new chart editing tool with enhanced controls and 3D capabilities; a new plan set-up system with a "Keep It Simple" option to produce plans quickly; better tools for editing tables, publishing, task lists and outlines; an integrated management dashboard; what-if scenarios for cash flow; and a new Spanish-language capability.

Business Plan Pro remains a top-shelf application and the product that others aspire to become. Though not geared specifically toward accountants, its clean interface and extensive formatting options make it a powerful and effective tool. Accountants will want to focus on the Premier edition for its additional capabilities -- particularly the information on critical insights into payback periods and exit strategies, and its integration with Microsoft Excel.

PLANGURU V. 9.1

PlanGuru is a planning tool designed to help accountants build their business advisory practice by offering multiple-scenario projections for smaller clients or executive summaries for larger enterprises. Designed by New Horizon Technologies, a company that first built its expertise in accounting workpapers software, PlanGuru was introduced in 2000 and has held a steadily growing place in the accounting markets since.

PlanGuru Professional offers the ability to create budgets and forecasts, produce customizable financial statements and reports, automatically calculate financial ratios and break-even analyses, and import from and export to Excel and ASCII. Expanding on this, the Consultant Edition has added performance measurement tools to benchmark the client's performance; creates business valuations using three income-approach methods; added the ability to import directly from QuickBooks or Peachtree; and offers the ability to consolidate up to 20 analyses.

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.

Version 9.1 is a new Vista-compatible version that provides a number of improvements in reporting; calculation of projections; the import and export of data from Excel, QuickBooks or Peachtree accounting systems; and an upgrade to a true networking version. Other key enhancements are the ability to compute amounts in one period based on current-, prior- or subsequent-period amounts of another line item, and the ability to define margins on the reports.

PlanGuru's focus is clearly on the basics of business planning and scenario-building. Accountants will particularly appreciate its straightforward interface and its very robust and flexible set of projection methods. These features, and the fact that it is the only planning system designed specifically for accountants committed to client service and effective engagements, make it a very attractive option.

PLANMAGIC BUSINESS ADVANCED EDITION V. 10.0

PlanMagic Business 10.0 is a system designed to work seamlessly with Microsoft Office 2000 and up to produce, update and present business plans. It differs from other planning products with its nearly completed, industry-specific business plan templates and its fully automated extensive financials.

PlanMagic Business produces the text in Microsoft Word, the financials in Microsoft Excel and the plan presentation in Microsoft PowerPoint. An included guide to business planning covers subjects such as organizational structure, financing (owners' equity, foreign capital), marketing (market analysis, business goals, marketing strategies, advertising), operations (business identity, business location), business financials (projections, historic analysis, ratios) and more.

The financial statements automatically calculate and pre-fill consecutive years using increased percentages or previous-year averages. The product lines and products wizard allows entry in groups, while the sales estimates can be entered in units, amounts or in bulk.

The financials also offer a personnel plan wizard, a categorized income statement, a detailed cash flow statement, 45 automated charts, dashboard charts, and macros for printing and export.

The Advanced Edition offers extended financials which include additional assumptions, detailed advertising and promotion plans, ROA/ROE/SGR analysis tree, a detailed break-even analysis per product line, financial summary, unlimited what-if scenarios, annual dynamic sensitivity analysis (best/worst case scenarios) for five years, and even an exchange-rate multiplier.

Version 10.0, released in December 2007, offers substantial updates to the interface, templates and financials. It provides two generic plan templates (one for products and one for services) plus a third template selected by the user from the list of 32 plans covering advertising agencies, banks, call centers, casinos, cleaning services, clinics, consultancies, day/child care centers, debt collection agencies, dental clinics, employment agencies, farms, insurance brokers/agencies, lease companies, manufacturers, not-for-profits, real estate agents, record companies and veterinary clinics. For retail operations, PlanMagic Retail 10 and Retail AE 10.0 offer the same functionality fine-tuned to accommodate the needs of the retail industry.

PlanMagic Business 10.0 offers an economical and functional product that accountants will find useful for its real-world orientation and flexibility. It provides stronger multinational language support than most planning systems, with plan templates in German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian and Russian. Accountants and business consultants will like its strong focus on financials and detailed income statement, as well as its straightforward and well-structured presentation style.

PLAN WRITE EXPERT EDITION V. 10

Plan Write Expert Edition remains a business planning tool geared to consultants as well as individual business planners, with extensive support from expert systems and artificial intelligence. Its focus in recent versions has been less on changes to the interface or inner workings of that system, but rather on boosting its collaboration capabilities.

Plan Write is built on the published business models of over 100 experts in marketing, planning and strategy that include Michael Porter's Five Forces Model, the Competitive Advantage Model, the Boston Consulting Group Matrix and the GE Business Screen. It offers templates, wizards and extensive help through hyperlinks. It also provides insights into factors that will help the business to succeed, performs a consultant-level interview and analysis, identifies strengths and weaknesses in strategy, and produces a series of more than 35 charts to validate strategic and competitive positions.

Navigation of the program is accomplished through eight buttons on the left side of the screen -- Resources; Interview, with the initial business analysis; Narration, for text entry; Charts; Financials, for projections; 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 prior to printing.

In place of the standard prose and spreadsheet format is an extensive expert knowledge system based on the planner's responses to an interview survey. Additional questions guide input of the financial data. And in the expert edition, the final plan is compared to the expert database to flag problem areas and to help guide the creation of a stronger, more concise plan.

Plan Write has had standard collaboration features for several years, but has added the ability to utilize Microsoft Word to assign specific sections of the narrative portion of the plan to others. The result is that consultants or planning managers can generate a customized Word document that guides the client to provide written information about their business/product/service, and then automatically imports their responses back into the appropriate sections of the plan.

Plan Write Expert Edition is a knowledge-based system aimed at the collaborative development of business plans. Where other planning systems are geared toward individuals or investors, Plan Write Expert Edition is tailored to the kind of consulting that accounting firms are engaged in with their clients.

ROSETTA BUSINESS PLANNER V. 8.4

Rosetta Business Planner is a planning tool for consultants that features a strong focus on business metrics and analysis. Tightly integrated with Excel and Word, it's one of the few financial analysis and planning packages specifically crafted for the global business markets.

Rosetta Business Planner Plus is a slightly more robust version for larger enterprises, with fewer limitations and special features for comparative analysis and goal-seeking. Version 8.0, released last year, offered the ability to work more closely with Excel 2003 by allowing the user to dynamically link cells in one program to another. This, along with the use of Word 2003 and a template for written portions of the plan, gives the software the flexibility it needs to easily deal with multiple languages and currencies. The latest upgrade, to Version 8.4, has added Vista compatibility and a stronger business plan template in Word format.

The format is very straightforward, as befits a spreadsheet style that may require extensive customization to meet the needs of a unique business case. Analyses provided include valuation, break-even analysis, exceptionally strong what-if analyses, ROA/ROE analysis, EVA analysis, expense/budget analysis, survival ration analysis, actual-vs.-plan analysis, and profit center analysis.

Though geared toward business managers who may not have extensive financial analysis or planning experience, Rosetta Business Planner Pro will be of interest to accountants that have international clients or U.S.-based clients with international operations. In this arena, its ability to easily handle differences in multiple units, languages and currencies make it an essential tool for global accounting firms.

ULTIMATE BUSINESS PLANNER V. 4.0

Ultimate Business Planner is a step-by-step planning system aimed at entrepreneurs and small businesses. Integrated not only with Microsoft Office but with QuickBooks as well, it uses more than 1,000 sample business plans, enhanced start-up resources, small business loan information and other assets to help get companies up and running or attract further financing.

Ultimate Business Planner 4.0 builds on the company's Ultimate Financial Forecaster, making extensive use of built-in calculators to determine bad debt, amortization, depreciation, payroll burden, interest, line of credit balance, and cash requirements. These forecasts are melded with plain-English interviews, instructions, advice and output. Final plans are then published as exports to Word and Excel, as PDF files, or as imports to QuickBooks. The result is a stand-alone planning system that combines speed, accuracy and solid financials to output a finished plan with over 65 reports and charts.

The interface, like that of other planning programs aimed at entrepreneurs, is simple without being spartan. The navigation is via tabs at the top of the screen, the displays are colorful and easy to follow, and the plan itself is built to be customizable. The basic financial system easily creates projected P&Ls, cash plans, balance sheets, financial ratios and more. A built-in plan review tool examines the output to avoid costly mistakes and oversights.

Version 4.0, released in January of 2007, improves the user interface further to emulate the look and feel of Microsoft Office. It expands the projection horizon for financials from three years to five; adds pie charts and other graphic elements to reports; includes more formatting options; and updates the list of business resources and SBA loan information available to planners.

Ultimate Business Planner is an effective planning system that is geared toward the less-experienced planner. This focus does not lessen in any way its usefulness to accountants, particularly those who work with small business clients -- and especially those using QuickBooks for accounting -- or in divisions or units of larger organizations. Accountants will appreciate its simple elegance and strong financial underpinnings, wrapped in the familiar Microsoft Office interface.

Dave McClure is the president of Kent Associates, in Alexandria, Va., an independent testing laboratory and evaluation service.

Vendor Information

Biz Plan Builder V. 10/2008

Jian Inc.

(800) 346-5426

www.jian.com

Pricing: Single user -- $149.97; each additional -- $49.97. Upgrade -- $69.97.

Business Plan Pro Premier

V. 11.0

Palo Alto Software Inc.

(800) 229-7526

www.paloalto.com

Pricing: Single user -- Standard, $99.99; Premier, $199.99.

PlanGuru V. 9.1

New Horizon Technologies

(888) 822-6300

www.nhorizontech.com

Pricing: Single-machine pricing -- Professional, $299.95; Consultant Edition, $499.95. Site licenses available.

PlanMagic Business Advanced Edition V. 10.0

PlanMagic Corp.

www.planmagic.com

Pricing: $99.95; Advanced -- $199.95.

Plan Write Expert Edition V. 10

Business Resource Software Inc.

(800) 423-1228

www.brs-inc.com/

Pricing: Download -- $219.95; shipped -- $229.95.

Rosetta Business Planner V. 8.4

Rosetta IT Solutions

0044-1942-814-814

www.rosetta-it.com

Pricing: Rosetta Business Planner -- $346.00; Business Planner Plus -- $563.00.

Ultimate Business Planner V. 4.0

Atlas Business Solutions Inc.

(800) 874-8801

www.bptools.com

Pricing: Downloaded -- $99; upgrades -- $49.

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