Time is a precious resource and is something that business owners can't afford to take for granted, but when it's time to write a business plan, time is something we often underestimate.

If you want to keep your plans on schedule, it's vital that you begin with an accurate estimate of your timeline. There are a lot of steps to take before you can open or expand a new business, with each step often reliant on the steps before it. Having an inaccurate timeline can derail your plans, cost you unnecessary expenses and even scare away potential investors who understand how long setting up your plans should take.

Identifying Time-Crucial Milestones

Certainly, every step in your business plan is going to be important, but some elements are more time-critical than others, particularly the milestones. Milestones can vary from one business to another, but some of the most common ones include:

  1. Filing articles of incorporation or registering your business
  2. Securing licenses and permits
  3. Product development
  4. Securing a lease for your office
  5. Purchasing materials
  6. Hiring staff
  7. Marketing start date
  8. Official launch date of your business

All of the other steps in your business plan should lead toward or depend on at least one of these milestones. If your estimates for these dates are inaccurate, you're likely to lose time and money. For example, interviewing for staff shouldn't be done the week before your launch date nor should it be done six months too early.

Charting the Timeline of a Business Plan

A Gantt chart is a perfect way for planning the timeline of any major project, including a business plan. Most project management software products include Gantt charts, or you can use Microsoft Excel. If you use Excel, you can insert the Gantt chart as an appendix to your business plan and then update as needed as you approach your launch date.

To create a Gantt chart in Excel, first list all of your tasks and milestones in one column. Then, in the next two columns, enter the start date and end date for each. Alternatively, you can enter the number of days remaining until the start and end dates instead of the dates. Next, select "Insert Bar Chart" from the Insert menu and then click "Stacked Bar Chart."

Google Charts also has an option you can use for Gantt charts. After creating your table, select "Chart" from the Insert menu and then choose the "Stacked Bar Chart" option. Stacked bar charts are a bit more limited than Gantt charts. However, both Microsoft Office and Google Charts have tutorials on customizing these charts to create full-fledged Gantt charts.

Being Reasonable in Your Estimates

Launching a new business endeavor is exciting, and there is a tendency for business owners to be overly optimistic in their expectations. Some solid research at the beginning will give you good approximations of how long things take to happen. However, there are always more ways for a step or a milestone to be delayed compared to being pushed ahead in the schedule. It's better to slightly overestimate how long something will take rather than being too optimistic.

The Wisconsin Small Business Development Center offers guidelines on setting a timeline for a business launch, which can take nine to 12 months for many businesses, from the date you start your business plan to the date you open your business.

You should, for example, begin interviewing bankers, lawyers and accountants at least six months before your launch date. You should have your business structure in place, including a board of directors if you are incorporating, and have a budget finalized at least four months before the launch date.