Economic recessions are no time to be plowing into software development unless the company either needs the cash flow from a new version to keep going, or the product is so outdated that an update is mandatory. Otherwise, the money is better spent in beefing up product support and planning for marketing when the economy recovers.That's a pretty basic rule, and one that holds true in particular for business-planning software. We have not seen many substantial changes in the software, and don't expect to see much other than patches and a change in version name for 2009.
Yet times of economic distress are when business-planning software is most needed. Companies looking to maximize their cash flow need planning tools to help do that. And times of employee layoffs and downsizing are when most new small businesses are created - the class of businesses that most desperately need a plan.
This is a time when accounting firms should be scouting for startups and others to bolster their small business practices, and honing their business-planning skills to move quickly when an opportunity is found. Fortunately, the field of business-planning solutions is not particularly crowded or expensive. In fact, the packages that make up the top levels of business-planning software all offer excellent features and benefits, even if they do take different approaches to the planning process.
For 2009 we looked at seven different business-planning solutions, each of which can rightfully stake a claim to being a best-of-class product.
BIZ PLAN BUILDER
In contrast to many other business-planning products, Jian has maintained a substantial upgrade schedule for Biz Plan Builder that provides incremental improvements, updates to business templates and a compelling reason to own the most current version.
Jian offers a complete line of planning and management tools that spans the spectrum from planning and human resources to marketing and safety, building each on the familiar applications of Microsoft Office (PC or Mac). The plan is edited in MS Office, with spreadsheets in MS Excel, and the entire plan is then compiled into a book for effective communication.
In Version 11, the core concept of BizPlanBuilder has not changed - the ability for someone writing a business plan to draw on hundreds of business concepts drawn from every industry and quickly adapt these proven ideas for use in the business plan. In addition, BizPlanBuilder steps away from the familiar model of having the planner choose from hundreds of business plans. Instead, the plan is built on a small number of templates that are more flexible and customizable.
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 also more advanced intermediate and comprehensive levels. The intermediate financial model provides 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 11 of Biz Plan Builder for 2009 has expanded the multi-user document management system introduced last year, added real check-in/check-out collaboration over a network, updated the business plan template, and revised the financial models with valuation and deal analysis tools.
Jian is gradually re-inventing itself away from the template-driven model that it introduced more than 20 years ago. Instead, BizPlanBuilder moves with each generation toward a more flexible and intuitive planning system that is built on a knowledge base, rather than rote templates. This format should appeal strongly to accountants, as will the extensive and linked financial sections for the plans.
BUSINESS PLAN PRO PREMIER
Business Plan Pro uses a wizard-driven planning system, an expert help system and a library of more than 500 business plans to produce both simple business plans and more advanced plans with cash flow management and integrated Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.
The Standard Edition is designed for use by startups and sole proprietorships, and accountants and larger enterprises will likely find the more advanced Premier version to be of greater value. 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. The Premier Edition 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. Premier 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.
Business Plan Pro also offers strong advice and expert ideas, including copies of Tim Berry's Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan and Guy Kawasaki's Art of the Start books, a one-year subscription to Inc. magazine, research data for thousands of industries and localities, a free company logo from HP Logoworks, and discounts on incorporation services.
Version 11.0, which was introduced last year, brought a significant update of the software - 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. The Spanish-language option is of particular value to accountants who wish to develop the plan in English and then publish in Spanish for clients.
Business Plan Pro remains the industry's top-selling off-the-shelf application for planning and analysis. 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 has two significant strengths that make it attractive to accountants. First, it was designed specifically to help accountants build their business advisory practice with a strong emphasis on budgeting and forecasting. Second, it offers the look and feel of a spreadsheet without the need to build and maintain formulas or macros.
Designed by New Horizon Technologies, a company that first built its expertise in accounting working papers software, PlanGuru was introduced in 2000 and has held a steadily growing place in the accounting markets since. The Professional version offers the ability to create budgets and forecasts, produce customizable financial statements and reports, automatically calculate financial ratios and breakeven analyses, and import from and export to Microsoft Excel. Expanding on this, the Consultant Edition adds performance measurement tools to benchmark the client's performance; creates business valuations using three income-approach methods; adds the ability to import directly from QuickBooks or Peachtree; and offers the ability to consolidate up to 20 analyses.
The Professional Edition imports from and exports to Excel and ASCII text files. The Consultant Edition adds the ability to import data directly from QuickBooks and Peachtree accounting software. Projections can be made from one to three years, on a monthly, quarterly or an 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 10 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. New features of note for accountants include the ability to attach supporting schedules for line-item details and the ability to calculate cash flow on the direct method. The Consultant Edition contains additional upgrades, including faster imports from Quickbooks and a revision of the engagement tools to reflect the latest changes to the American Institute of CPAs' Guide to Prospective Financial Statements.
PlanGuru's strength is that it was built for accountants. Reports comply with AICPA reporting standards. The engagement tools in the Consultant Edition automatically draft the accountants' report and procedure checklists. No other planning and budgeting tool in the marketplace offers this combination of structure, usability and focus.
PLANMAGIC BUSINESS ADVANCED EDITION
PlanMagic Business 10.0 is a system designed to work seamlessly with Microsoft Office to produce, update and present business plans. It produces the text in MS Word, the financials in MS Excel and the plan presentation in MS PowerPoint for a tightly integrated and impressive plan.
PlanMagic Business differs from other planning products because of its nearly complete, industry-specific business plan templates and its fully automated financials. An included guide to business planning covers subjects such as organizational structure; financing (owners' equity and foreign capital); marketing (market analysis, business goals, marketing strategies and advertising); operations (business identity and business location); business financials (projections, historic analysis and ratios), and more.
The financial statements automatically calculate and pre-fill consecutive years using increase 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, a financial summary, unlimited what-if scenarios, annual dynamic sensitivity analysis (best- and worst-case scenarios) for five years, and even an exchange rate multiplier.
Version 10.0 updates 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 broker/agencies, lease companies, manufacturers, nonprofits, real estate agents, record companies and veterinary clinics. For retail operations, PlanMagic Retail 10 and Retail AE 10.0 offer the same functionality but are fine-tuned to accommodate the needs of the retail industry.
PlanMagic Business 10.0 is attractive for its strong multinational language support, with plan templates in German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian and Russian, and for its multi-currency capabilities. Accountants and business consultants will like its strong focus on financials and its detailed income statement, as well as its straightforward and well-structured presentation style.
PLAN WRITE EXPERT EDITION
Plan Write Expert Edition provides a 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; 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 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 help to guide a stronger, more concise plan.
Plan Write has had standard collaboration features for several years, but has added the ability to utilize 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 or product or service, and then automatically imports their responses back into the appropriate sections of the plan.
Plan Write Expert Edition is a knowledge-based system that is 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 often engaged in with their clients.
ROSETTA BUSINESS PLANNER
Rosetta Business Planner is one of the few financial analysis and planning packages specifically crafted for the global business markets.
The planner itself is a tool for consultants that focuses on business metrics and analysis. Tightly integrated with Excel and Word, it provides a baseline for monitoring the company's performance against plan. 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 8.2 offers the ability to work more closely with MS Excel by allowing the user to dynamically link cells in one program to another. This, along with the use of MS Word and a plan template for written portions of the plan, gives the software the flexibility it needs to easily deal with multiple languages and currencies. The upgrade to Version 8.4 has added MS 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 ratio analysis, actual-vs.-plan analysis, and profit-center analysis.
Though it's geared toward business managers who may not have extensive financial analysis or planning experience, Rosetta Business Planner Pro will be of interest to accountants who 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
Ultimate Business Planner is a step-by-step planning system aimed at entrepreneurs and small businesses. Integrated not only with Office but with QuickBooks as well, it uses more than 1,000 sample business plans, enhanced startup 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 MS 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 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. And a built-in plan review tool examines the output to avoid costly mistakes and oversights.
Version 4.0 improves the user interface further to emulate the look and feel of Office. It expands the projection horizon for financials from three years to five (or 60 months); 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 ideal for accountants whose clients are using QuickBooks and for startups that may emigrate to that platform after they launch. Its straightforward accounting and planning underpinnings are bolstered by the familiar MS Office interface and by its plan review tool.
Dave McClure is the president of Kent Associates, in Alexandria, Va., an independent testing laboratory and evaluation service.
Biz Plan Builder
Pricing: Single user - $129.95; each additional user - $69.95; upgrade - $69.95.
Busines Plan Pro Premier
Palo Alto Software Inc.
Pricing: Single user - Standard, $99.99; Premier, $199.99. Discounted upgrade pricing available.
New Horizon Technologies
Santa Fe, N.M.
Pricing: Single machine - Professional, $299.95; Consultant, $499.95.
Jefferson Valley, N.Y.
Pricing: PlanMagic Business - $99.95; Advanced - $199.95.
Plan Write Expert Edition
Business Resource Software Inc.
Pricing: Expert Edition - download, $219.95; shipped, $229.95.
Rosetta Business Planner
Rosetta IT Solutions
Westhoughton, Bolton, U.K.
Pricing: Rosetta Business Planner - $346.00; Rosetta Business Planner Plus - $563.00.
Ultimate Business Planner
Atlas Business Solutions Inc.
Pricing: Download - $99; upgrade - $49.
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