by Ted Needleman

I n the old TV series, “The A Team,” Hannibal Smith, the A Team’s leader, had a favorite expression. Rolling his cigar around in his smiling mouth, his character was often heard to exclaim, “I love it when a plan comes together!”

In business, it usually pays to be proactive, rather than reactive. In turn, this requires that you have a plan. 

There are several kinds of software that you can use in this planning process, ranging from a simple word processor to Excel. There is also a slew of specialized software designed to assist in the task of business planning — seven of which are reviewed in this article.

Business planning, however, is not a single, specific task. Depending upon who will be using the plan, and for what purpose, a business plan can be a financial projection and synthesis based on sophisticated probability theory, or simply a comprehensive document that details a proposed business or expansion. Both of these tasks fall under the umbrella of business planning, but the software needed to accomplish them is very different.

How we tested

To give you an idea of what’s available, we’ve tested a variety of applications, ranging from the very complex to the fairly basic. In performing each review, we looked at what the program is designed to accomplish, and how difficult or easy it is to actually accomplish the desired result.

While these applications range in cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars, none are particularly difficult to install. Using them is a different story, though. Some of the more comprehensive analysis products require a good understanding of the types of variables that are involved in a specific business or company. That puts the use of these applications, at least initially, more in your province than in your clients’ unless they are very financially sophisticated.

Regardless of the cost of the application, none of these software products needs a super-powerful PC as a base. At the same time, the more powerful applications, such as Acumen, will probably run a bit better on a higher-end PC than an old Pentium 3 — though many of these applications will run very nicely on a Celeron-based laptop or other modest PC.

Why spend the money?

In reading the reviews that follow, you may find yourself thinking that it hardly pays to buy a product that does boilerplate business plans. While we don’t doubt that many accountants are quite capable of churning out a business plan or creating a complex spreadsheet, the criteria to use in evaluating any of the products we’ve reviewed is not the price of the application, but the opportunity cost of doing it yourself. Just how much billable time do you want to give up to reinvent the wheel?

Finally, just as these application encourage you to think creatively, we also encourage you to think outside the box.

Many of the boilerplate-type plan writers are also terrific tools for coming up with marketing materials for both your firm and its clients. The same technique of describing a business or service, its products and staff are just as applicable to creating a marketing piece.

Acumen Financials Acumen

If your or your clients’ need for business planning includes sophisticated financial simulation and analysis, then Acumen Financials is probably one of the first products that you should be looking at. While far from inexpensive, Acumen Financials allows you to easily input a wide variety of variables, define their relationships, and alter their values to determine the effect of changes in business and policies.

With a lot of work you could probably cobble together something similar to Acumen Financials out of Excel. This ap­plication, however, is not a spreadsheet, nor a template to be used with Excel or another spreadsheet. Rather, it is a sophisticated financial modeling system. You can use Acumen Financials with current Excel models, though. An import menu allows you to bring in XLS files and extract formulas for use in Acumen models.

Using Acumen is not a task for the faint-hearted, or analysts with little time to spend on the application’s somewhat steep learning curve. This time is necessary, not because the application is poorly designed but, simply, because it’s very complete and comprehensive. A well-written and illustrated “Getting Started” guide helps, but plan on spending at least several hours building and tuning your first few models.

Most of the preliminary work is accomplished in the Model Editor. This is the place where you enter the variables and the formulas that describe their relationships. It’s likely that, before you ever get to this point, you’ll have spent a considerable amount of time analyzing the business to determine what these variables are. The sample model included in the documentation provides a very good jumping-off place, both for building your initial model, and for figuring out what kinds of variables you’ll have to include in the model. Obviously, the more complete your model is, the better it will reflect the effects of your “what-if” experiments.

Once you’ve constructed your initial model, you’ll need to define the constraints and range of each of the variables. This information will be used to construct the model sliders, which are the interactive controls that let you play with different values in your analyses. You can move these sliders during your simulations, or use the application’s Auto Generate Scenarios capability to generate a range of value scenarios to evaluate.

We also really like Acumen’s split-screen interface. A vertical pane on the left side of the screen uses a Windows Explorer-like display to show you what options are available. Clicking on plus and minus boxes expands and contracts the choices that are displayed. 

The results of each analysis run can be displayed in different formats. Acumen has excellent graphing capabilities —Three D Graphics, Financial Systems’ parent company, also sells the excellent Amigo 2000 graphing and charting utility. You can also generate summary and detail reports, as well as display speedometer-like gauges. All of these display options are intended to do one thing — help you zero in on the variables that are important in maintaining the profitability of the business.

Acumen is not a casual product. For one thing, it’s too expensive for just a one- or two- time use unless you are going to really be able to bill your client for the extensive learning period in addition to the time spent in developing and running the model. However, that learning curve is really an investment. If you are a die-hard financial modeler, learning how to use Acumen will be time well spent. It will give you (or your sophisticated client) a terrific tool to use in maintaining and improving profitability.

PlanWrite Expert Edition Business Resource Software

With fewer new businesses being started these days, business plan writing software is not quite the hot item it was during the Internet boom. Still, most lenders and investors want to see a well-written business plan before extending a load or credit, or making an investment. The right package can make this tedious process a lot easier.

As with two other applications in this roundup, BizPlan Builder and Business Plan Pro, Business Resource Software’s PlanWrite Expert Edition generates a business plan from boilerplate text that’s dependent on the answers that you give to a wizard that guides you through the creation process. At each section, you can either enter your own wording describing the topic, use the example (boilerplate text) provided, or edit the boilerplate to more accurately reflect your own expression.

We found that PlanWrite’s boilerplate usually required more editing than that of either of the other two similar products we tested. Having said that, though, few users will be happy using only the text that any of the three applications provide. We also found that the charts and graphs generated by PlanWrite are of somewhat lower quality than those generated by the other two applications. That shortcoming is mitigated by the fact that PlanWrite provides a lot more strategic sections, including ones such as “options to abandon,” and “propensity to attack.”  We particularly like the inclusion of a “milestones” section.

For most users, the less expensive edition will serve as well as the more expensive Expert Edition that we reviewed. The big difference between the two is the addition, in the more expensive Expert Edition, of an Expert System Knowledge Base that offers comments based on your input culled from what BRS Inc. claims are 100-plus strategy experts.

To be honest, we didn’t find the supplied comments all that insightful, but perhaps some of your less-sophisticated clients might have more appreciation for this feature. In our minds, if the combination of you and your client don’t have enough understanding of the proposed business between the two of you, your client is probably better off not making up a business plan at all. Still, getting another opinion never hurts, and there’s always the chance that the Knowledge Base will present something that neither you nor your client considered.

Our Expert Edition also provided more charts, though it wasn’t clear exactly which of the charts that were included in our business plan would not have been included had we been using the less expensive version.

If you are considering this application for use by a client, they may get more use out of the books that are included with Jian’s or Palo Alto’s applications, which are very similar in structure and operation. PlanWrite’s manual is quite usable, but it really doesn’t delve much beyond the basic operation of the software.

On the upside, we really like the idea of an audit of the finished business plan that PlanWrite provides.

Budget Maestro 5.7 Centage Corp.

To Centage, business planning means budget-driven modeling, starting with a current chart of accounts, and applying a variety of increments and decrements to each account over a period of time, often several years. Many users perform this process, either using the current year’s figures or performing zero-base budgeting using Excel. If your budget models are fairly straightforward, Excel is an excellent tool for this purpose.

On the other hand, if you really like to put the figures through a wringer, Budget Maestro 5.7 is definitely a better way to go. As with Acumen, Budget Maestro is a modeling system, not a jazzed-up spreadsheet. It was written with just one purpose in mind — financial modeling.

Budget Maestro is available in several versions, with the least expensive version, a single-user desktop, priced at $2,495. That’s without shipping and without any of four options. These options consist of Multi-Currency, Inventory Needs and Management, Manufacturing Edition, and an Extended Period Pack for longer-range modeling and forecasting. The Budget Maestro package itself is also available in two additional multi-user configurations, the three-user Small Business Edition and the 10-user Enterprise Edition, priced at $5,995 and $12,995 respectively.

All versions of Budget Maestro will work with the Micro­soft Database Engine or SQL. Set-up is just a touch more complex than the other packages we tested, but should not present a problem to anyone sophisticated enough to actually use the application.

As with any complex and comprehensive modeling application, Budget Maestro has a bit of a learning curve, but we found ourselves able to go beyond simple models in a surprisingly short period of time. A large part of the credit for this is the very straightforward design and interface of the software. It’s not as easy to use as some of the other applications we reviewed, but it’s also not overly complex. You will have to put some effort into mastering the software to get the most out of it.

The price of Budget Maestro puts it out of consideration for the casual user. At the same time, there are plenty of CFOs who do exactly the kind of modeling that Budget Maestro was developed to perform. Years ago, when we were performing these kinds of tasks, we would have given a lot to have Budget Maestro. If you or your clients have the need and the budget for it, Budget Maestro 5.7 is an excellent value.

Up Your Cash Flow Granville Publications

Up Your Cash Flow has been available for years, and has built a considerable following. The application was among the original budgeting applications, and, as with several of the other products reviewed here, is a budgeting system, rather than a spreadsheet add-on. For the most part, Up Your Cash Flow does use a familiar spreadsheet-like matrix as its user interface, so new users should find it easy to understand and use.

The simple-looking interface covers a sophisticated and comprehensive planning tool. To keep the primary user interface simple, Up Your Cash Flow has placed some of the controls at the top of the screen, with others on the bottom. This is a bit confusing at first, but you soon realize that the top controls offer a selection of different types of reports, while the controls at the screen’s bottom let you edit and control specific sections of the pro-forma financials. Up Your Cash Flow has a very complete selection of reports and analyses, and can even calculate such items as dividends that will have to be paid if the projection proves accurate.

We found it pretty easy to control the assumptions in the model, as well as set the calculations of the individual accounts. Up Your Cash Flow even has a few special features for contractors that take advantage of the percentageof completion method of accounting frequently used in this profession. The application works with most popular accounting packages, so that you can import the chart of accounts and balances to start building your budget model.

While Up Your Cash Flow doesn’t offer quite the utility and capability of Acumen or Budget Maestro, it also doesn’t cost anywhere near the price of those products. If you are looking for a good bridge between the entry-level PlanGuru and the multi-thousand dollar budgeting tools, Up Your Cash Flow might be just right.

BizPlan Builder 2004 Jian Tools for Sales Inc.

Business plan writing software really hit its stride during the boom days of the Internet company explosion. Those days seem to be behind us, but business plan writers were useful before the Internet boom, and they remain useful after the bust as well.

Jian was one of the first vendors to offer this type of software. The vendor’s original BizPlan Builder was introduced more than a decade ago, and incorporated a technology that was just emerging at that time —wizards — to walk you through the process of creating a detailed business plan using boilerplate text. The software incorporated your answers to a variety of questions into this boilerplate, and the text was edited in a word processor.

The current version works in pretty much the same way as those early offerings — it’s hard to improve when you have it right the first time. BizPlan Builder 2004 requires that Microsoft Office be installed, as it used MS Word as the word processor and Excel to construct the financial statement pro-formas. The process of building a business plan is the same — just let the wizard walk you through a series of simple questions that result in customization of the plan and financial statements. These plans and statements are targeted to a specific type of audience, whether it be a small business loan, venture capitalists, or other investors or regulators. This is reflected in the language of the boilerplate and the format used in constructing the plan.

At the retail price of $99, BizPlan Builder 2004 is a great value if you have a need for this type of software. It even comes with a free book, “Business Black Belt,” by Burke Franklin, Jian’s president. Franklin is also featured in a set of videos on the CD, which are kind of a business pep talk in a box. He’s an excellent speaker, but your clients are a lot more likely to get something out of the extra book and videos than you are.

Actually, BizPlan Builder 2004 makes an excellent gift for you to bestow upon your clients who are thinking of starting a new business, or expanding a current one. The manual is excellent and it touches upon almost every important aspect of the business planning process. The financial statement pro-formas are somewhat simplistic, but if, in your judgment, they aren’t going to be detailed enough, or truly suitable for the intended purpose, it’s easy enough to edit them in Excel.

The only real problem with BizPlan Builder 2004 is that it creates its business plans largely out of a boilerplate. If the recipient of this plan is getting a large number of similar business plans, the odds are that several of them will have been created using this popular software, giving your client’s plan a “me too” look.

Still, Jian’s BizPlan Builder 2004 is inexpensive enough to keep in your consulting toolkit, on the off chance that it will prove useful. At the very worst, you can use it to produce a quick and dirty proto­type business plan that you can later extensively customize.

PlanGuru 5.0 New Horizon Technologies

If you’ve been looking at Acumen or Budget Maestro with longing, but just can’t justify the outlay, you might want to consider PlanGuru from New Horizon Technologies. We won’t say that this $99 application is the equal of those other two much more expensive budgeting systems; it’s not. At the same time, for anyone who has ever had to construct an extensive budget model in Excel, PlanGuru is a lifesaver.

The software is easy to install and use. If you already have budget models that you or your clients have created in Excel, you can import them into PlanGuru, and modify them to your heart’s content. The import capability also works with many of the popular accounting software products, so you can use your clients’ accounting data as the jump-off for your model with little or no re-keying of data. You can make projections for up to five years, and project the first three years on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis.

PlanGuru does have its limitations. For one thing, while there’s adequate online help available, there’s really no other documentation. The start-up tour through the program helps, but this application would really benefit from a decent manual.

The user interface is also somewhat rigid. We actually like the way it’s designed, with tabs near the top of the screen for financial projections, historical data and the like, and a second set of tabs on the bottom that let you quickly switch between the income statement, balance sheet and non-financial items. If this presentation is not to your liking, for less than $100 you can learn to live with it.

Probably the most limiting aspect of PlanGuru is that it offers only five basic projection methods. These cover a lot of terri­tory (fixed amount, percentage of another category, function of a non-financial item, trend based on historical data and adjust prior period amount). If your model doesn’t use one of these approaches, however, you may have to construct it in PlanGuru, export the model to Excel, and rewrite some of the assumptions and rules.

PlanGuru easily makes up for these small annoyances with features that you wouldn’t expect in a program at this price. The reports are attractive, if not particularly fancy, and you can either customize them to some extent, or export them to Excel or Word for massaging. You can also export them in Adobe PDF format. This very popular electronic format offers a compact way to distribute the reports electronically, while making these reports difficult to alter.

If you typically create budget forecasts in Excel for your firm or its clients, you can stop now. Invest $99 in PlanGuru and save yourself hours of effort.

Business Plan Pro 2004 Palo Alto Software

Palo Alto Software is another vendor that’s been in the business of providing business plan- generating software for more than a decade. The original product, Business Plan Toolkit, was released in 1988, with Business Plan Pro following in 1995.

As with several other applications in this roundup, Business Plan Pro 2004 generates a business plan from boilerplate text and standard pro-forma financial statement templates. The software comes in two versions, the $99 Pro, which is the version we tested, and the $299 Premier version, which provides more tools and facilities for collaborative use of the application among a group.

Conceptually, Palo Alto’s Business Plan Pro 2004 is very similar to Jian’s BizPlan Builder, even to the point of both including an additional book on business planning. Palo Alto’s is called “Hurdle: The Book on Business Planning,” and is written by Tim Berry, a former consultant and founder of Palo Alto Software. Rather than being a manual for the software (one of these is also included), it’s a step-by-step guide to the components of a standard business plan, explaining what most recipients expect to see contained. It’s a great refresher if it’s been awhile since you’ve prepared a business plan, and your clients will love the straight-to-the-point style.

The manual is also well written, though it covers both the Pro and Premier versions, so on occasion we became a bit distracted. As with similar software, wizards walk you through the process, using your answers to ongoing questions to decide what boilerplate is brought into the internal text editor.

Business Plan Pro 2004 uses its own text editor and quasi-spreadsheet, but can export to Microsoft Word and Excel files for you to perform additional editing and formatting. Unless your client has some very unusual requirements, you probably won’t need to, as the software does an excellent job formatting the reports and providing attractive graphs.

Business Plan Pro 2004 seems to have a somewhat wid­er selection of pre-defined types of business plans than Jian’s BizPlan Builder, while Jian’s product is a bit more flexible, at least in comparison to Palo Alto’s Pro version, in structuring the pro-forma financials. Palo Alto’s more expensive Premier version extends the forecasting capability and adds some additional graphics. Since we did not review this version, we can’t comment on whether the additional capabilities are worth the additional cost.

As with Jian’s BizPlan Builder, Palo Alto’s Business Plan Pro 2004 would also make a great gift for those clients starting or expanding a business. If you are in a quandary over which to buy, the $99 on both applications means you can either flip a coin, or just go ahead and buy both.

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