There are lots of different ways to lay out a business plan. The sample layout in Step 2 is just one of many, and you'll want to investigate several before going ahead with your own. It probably seems like an awful lot to have to know, even if you happen to be a biz whiz, but never fear-once you get working you'll find ways of breaking up the major sections into manageable little subsection morsels.

No matter which business plan format you choose, a few cardinal rules apply. Avoid these common errors and you'll get a leg up on the competition:

  • Don't wait until the last minute to start writing. You may be able to toss off a college essay by popping caffeine pills and staying up all night, but the business plan is a major undertaking. Schedule in plenty of real work hours over the course of several weeks. The main reason is because of this: if you tell an angel or VC in person about your idea, he/she will say "Sounds interesting! Send me a business plan tomorrow." In other words, they'll already expect it to be done. You try whipping out a 40-page document overnight, complete with research and financial analysis.

  • Don't worry about originality. Many people think they need an idea that'll blow the socks off investors, but investors actually pay more attention to the strength of the management team. A unoriginal idea put into action by the best set of managers ever assembled is going to do better than a great idea in the hands of poor managers. So concentrate on finding good people (whether they're your CEO or on the Board of Advisors).

  • Try not to be a windbag. That means keeping the plan well under 50 pages. Fifty pages might seem like plenty, but not when you think about all the stuff that has to go into them. So just stick to the essential facts, no fake enthusiasm, and keep it focused. Demonstrate a unique opportunity, and clearly set out your capital requirements.

  • Don't put them to sleep with dull formatting. Some of the VCs looking at your biz plan might well be college kids fresh out of Harvard - kids whose primary baby sitters were Bob Barker and video games. You know how notoriously short their attention spans are, so make an effort to jazz things up a little with tables, charts, bullets, and other graphics.

  • Avoid inappropriate packaging. The last thing you want to do, after turning out a brilliant business plan that took hundreds of man hours to put together, is have it specially bound in a calfskin leather booklet that springs back like a bear trap when someone tries to open it. Fanciness is not very important. The investor wants something that's easy to read and lies flat on the desk, so three-ring and spiral bindings are best.

  • Before you send your business plan to anyone, proofread the executive summary carefully. These are business people, not English teachers; however, we assure you that Bill Gates will not give you money if you have typos in the executive summary. To beat, kick, shoot, and quarter a dead horse: the fewer mistakes you have, the more professional you'll look.