Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Choosing the Best Business Plan Software

Choosing the the most appropriate business plan software may be a challenging task. Just what are the characteristics that you should be looking out for?

The use of such business plan software to support you with all levels of creating a business plan has become a popular option over the last decade. While there are a variety of successful firms that create business plans, they are often a very expensive option when compared to using a simply piece of software. The problem is that as this type of software as become more popular, there are more potential options to choose from. Here are some quick tips to keep in mind when choosing your next piece of business plan software.

1. Industry Specific Templates
It is important to make sure that your business plan software has industry specific templates. These templates provide a variety of benefits. The first, and most obvious, is that you will have one or more templates to follow when you create your business plan. Second, you know before you purchase the software that it can provide a solution for your specific industry. Finally, these templates can be used during your planning sessions to ensure that you gather and analyze all of the data that you will need. This prevents you from needing to stop working on your plan to conduct additional research or analysis later.

2. Get Support
It is important to make sure that your software offers some form of support. You never know what might go wrong and there is nothing worse than getting almost done with your business plan, only to find out that there is a problem that you cannot fix. It doesn't matter how good the software is, you must be able to get additional help when you need it.

3. Plan Ahead
There are many different reasons that you may need to create a business plan and certain types of business plan software are designed to excel in certain areas. By knowing why you will be creating your business plan, you will be able to better research the products that would be the best fit.

4. Editing
Editing is an issue that many people overlook, however it can prove to create a lot of hassle in the long run. Some software allows you to do all of the editing within the software, while others will force you to export the data to some other software. If you need to export it, it is important to make sure that the complimentary software that is needed to do so.

5. Automation
Some pieces of software will use a lot of automation, while others will have almost none. There are a variety of different ways that automation can used ranging from auto-templates to performing complex equations. Make sure that your software does all of the automation that you want it to, and don't pay for additional automation that you either don't want or don't need.

By now you are hopefully a bit more clear on what to look out for. So whether you are looking for business finance, venture capital, angel finance or simply just to start your business with solid foundations. Choosing the right software should support you in doing so.

Cloud software and your business

There may be a whole host of reasons why you choose cloud technologies for your business, whether its the flexibility of being able to work wherever you have access to the net, the afford ability of only paying for those services that you need, the security of being rest assured that even of your computer crashes, your data is safe, or simply having constant access to the latest version of a specific accounting software program or the latest in business planning software. Whatever your reason, Cloud computing is transforming the way we do business. 
Whatever type of cloud service you are considering, cloud computing provides an opportunity to review and improve existing business processes and reinforce best practice.
Assessing service providers
Before implementing cloud computing in your business, you need to consider the following issues:
Data protection - how will you protect your data, and what measures has the service provider put in place to ensure that your data is secure? What level of responsibility will the service provider take for any data loss and what are your legal obligations for your data?
Business continuity - in the event of service downtime, a security breach or loss of data, how will your business continue to operate? What back-up systems do you have in place? What level of support and financial compensation will the service provider give in the event of an incident?
For more information, see the pages in this guide on data protection and cloud computing and business continuity and cloud computing.
When choosing a service provider you should also consider:
  • what service availability guarantees can the provider give?
  • what penalties and compensation will they incur if the service is interrupted?
  • how much will the service cost and what are the options for upgrading or downgrading your service requirements?
  • what are your legal obligations if you want to end the contract early - eg change providers?
  • what level and types of support will your service provider offer?

Make sure your business is ready to work 'in the cloud'
To be able to work effectively 'in the cloud' your business needs a fast internet connection. Cloud computing works most effectively when you can upload as much data to the provider's servers as you download from them. SDSL (symmetric digital subscriber line) internet connections are preferable to ADSLs (asymmetric digital subscriber lines) as they support faster upload speeds.

Business software on the cloud

A fairly new phenomenon and taking the business world by storm, is that of cloud computing. With a range of applications from business plan writing to small business accounting software, stock management, word processing, budgeting and a hoist more, small businesses especially can only benefit from the flexible availability that this technology provides us. Cloud computing gives business a way of managing data, hardware and software requirements using resources on the internet. Documents, emails, customer information, business applications and other assets are all stored online - 'in the cloud'. This makes them accessible from any computer or mobile device with an internet connection and a web browser.
A very simple example of cloud computing are email providers like Yahoo, Hotmail or Google. Instead of running an email client locally on your computer, you access your emails from any computer, anywhere in the world, by logging on to your account over the internet.
Software as a service is one of the most common forms of cloud computing. Examples of web-based software that's available 'in the cloud' include services like office software, customer relationship management systems and tools that support collaborative working.
Cloud computing gives greater flexibility, letting you adapt your IT needs to meet the changing requirements of your business and the market place. For more information see our guide on cloud computing.
The advantages of cloud computing include:
  • reduced IT costs - including capital expenditure and operational costs
  • the use of a 'pay-as-you-go', subscription-based business model
  • scalability of service to meet your business requirements
  • access to the latest technology over the internet because it's a hosted solution 
  • more flexible working practices - eg mobile and virtual working
  • enterprise-level back-up through professionally managed data centres
  • a more environmentally friendly approach - eg reduced utility costs and hardware redundancy
The disadvantages of cloud computing include:
  • Data protection - loss of data by service providers, unauthorised access to your data, or malicious activity like hackers or viruses tageting providers.
  • Business continuity - it is possible for service providers to lose data, suffer denial of service attacks, or go out of business. How will you manage such risks and how will you minimise the impact on your business?
  • Service 'lock-in' - it may be difficult to change providers once you have committed to a service. When choosing a service provider, look for an established product from a reputable vendor. You should also look at the contractual and technical restrictions that may affect future software decisions.
See our guide on how to comply with data protection legislation.
With cloud services, it is no longer necessary to install and set up software across the business yourself. All your 'business applications' will be provided and managed over the internet. This differs to the more traditional approach of managing all your IT requirements, both software and hardware, inhouse.
Cloud computing can help businesses make the most of limited IT budgets, while the level of professional support they provide can help the business develop more quickly. However, cloud computing may not be suitable for every business - so look at piloting cloud services with non-critical applications or business processes first.

The benefits of business software

For example, software might be able to help your business by:
  • cutting costs by automating routine tasks
  • improving customer service levels, perhaps by using an internet-based system that customers can access - eg allowing customers to renew their car insurance online or check the status of an order without needing to contact any member of staff directly
  • increasing your profit margins by helping your employees work more efficiently
  • enabling you to exchange information electronically with suppliers or partners - helping your business to communicate and collaborate more effectively
It might be useful to document your business processes to help you identify possible benefits of software investment. See the page in this guide on choosing and buying software.
Don't forget to ask your employees - they will have ideas for how your business processes could be improved by IT.
Once you have listed the key software investments you could make, prioritise them and work out which would give the best returns.

Hardware upgrades

New software may need new or upgraded hardware to run properly. Try to choose software that will run on your current hardware. If this isn't possible, include hardware upgrade costs in your budgets.
Alternatively, look at outsourcing your software requirements, eg cloud computing - this will help reduce both your software and hardware costs. See the page in this guide on cloud computing - software as a service.

Planning for the future

Don't just focus on your current needs - look at your plans for the future and any expansion they might involve.
Ideally you should develop an IT strategy to cover your needs for new systems over a period of about five years. Part of the strategy should deal with how your software can cope with increases in customers, employees and/or your products/services.