John Cradden explains how to craft basic business documents from business plans to proposals, memos and letters.
Whether you aim to create a business plan that offers a clear path to success, a business proposal that gets potential investors inspired, a simple memo for your colleagues or a letter that won’t get ignored, crafting any good business document is all about communicating clearly and effectively.
No matter what stage your company is at, having a formal business plan is probably the most important business document you could create.
“A business plan can set yourself and your colleagues concrete goals and benchmarks for success”
There’s nothing wrong with a loose set of ideas in the back of your head, or else a rough outline of your business’s short, medium or long-term goals, but taking the time to properly research your market and your proposition could deliver a range of insights that could drive growth.
A business plan can set yourself and your colleagues concrete goals and benchmarks for success. It will help you figure out your human resource requirements and help you recruit the right talent. And, of course, it will be invaluable when it comes to seeking investment or other financing – which is often the primary purpose of most plans.
But what should a business plan contain? There are a number of key elements:
- Executive summary: This should provide a snapshot of your business plan, including your aims and company profile. It should allow the reader to see at a glance what the business is about.
- Description or overview of the business: What does the company do, what products or services does it sell and what markets does it sell into. You should include a description of the industry you’re in and the current health and outlook of your business.
- Analysis of your audience and market: Who are your competitors and what are their strengths and weaknesses, and how do you plan to differentiate your business from them and offer better value? How much market share are you aiming to capture? Some plans might include a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) or a PESTLE analysis (political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental factors).
- Marketing and sales: Sales and marketing is what helps create customers for the business, so it’s crucial to show a coherent strategy that will drive revenue and growth. This should include strategies around distribution, communications, market penetration and sales.
- Research and development: This is where you can expand on your products and services, including features, benefits, and advantages over competitors.
- Staffing and operations: This is important because many investors say they invest as much in the people as they do in the business itself. This section should include an outline of the company’s organisation structure, details about the ownership of your company, profiles of your management team, and the qualifications of your board of directors.
- Financials: The focus here should be on your financial projections for the business, including for sales, costs and the likely returns. This is especially important if you’re looking for funding, as potential investors will want to the expect returns and other sources of funding.
There’s lots of help in the form of business plan templates to get you started, such as from the Local Enterprise Office, Thinkbusiness.ie, Enterprise Ireland, the banks or accounting tech firms like Sage.
Business proposals are often confused with business plans, but the aim of a proposal is to sell your product or service rather than the business itself. So it’s all about searching for new customers rather than for investors to fund your business.
There are generally two types: solicited or unsolicited. In a solicited business proposal, the other organisation asks for a request for proposal (RFP). When a company needs a problem solved, they invite other businesses to submit a proposal that details how they’d solve it.
Whether the proposal is solicited or unsolicited, the steps to create your proposal are similar. It should include three main points: a statement of the organisation’s problem, the proposed solution, and pricing information. HubSpot has a good business proposal template.
A business memo is a document designed to communicate something within a firm. In some ways it’s very similar to an internal press release: sharing brief yet important information quickly to a number of people at once.
This information could be about changes to staff, upcoming events like meetings, or shifts in everyday operations or workflows. It can also be used to announce solutions to a problem and provides instructions on its implementation, although the solution itself should already be approved.
The memo should convey its message concisely and efficiently, so the formatting should allow it to be quick and easy to read. It’s not unlike an email in many ways, in that it’s headed by a date, the names or group of recipients, name of the writer/sender, a subject line, and then the body of the message.
Tech firm Grammarly has some good suggestions about business memo writing, while HubSpot has some useful templates if you need them.
In the pantheon of basic business documents, formal letters might seem a bit old-fashioned, but it’s still a crucial form of professional communication whose purpose is often to create a good first impression.
Examples of business letters include job offer letters, sales letters, investor interest letters, resignation letters, business circulars, shareholder letters, letters of recommendation and so on.
A business letter should include your contact address (unless it’s contained in letterhead), the date, the recipient’s address, some kind of salutation or greeting, followed by the body of the letter and finally a closing salutation like yours sincerely, etc. A typed and printed letter should always contain a handwritten signature.
Depending on the type of letter, it’s often a good idea to include at the end a call to action statement to bring together the points you’ve made and encourage the recipient to take action. This can be asking a question, encouraging a discussion or a particular response, like a reply to the letter.