Don’t show me an ugly business plan (baby) – literally

One of the jokes in the early-stage investing business is: How do you tell an entrepreneur that her baby is ugly? Of course, we’re usually referring to the “idea”—but too often we also mean the physical document itself. So if you have a great idea, make it pretty.

I really enjoy this passage from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999):

Ephipyte Corp’s business plan is about an inch thick, neither fat nor skinny as these things go. The interior pages are slickly and groovily desktop-published . . . The covers are rugged hand-laid paper of rice chaff, bamboo tailings, free-range hemp, and crystalline glacial meltwater made by wizened artisans operating out of a mist shrouded temple . . .

The actual content of the business plan hews to a logical structure straight out of Principia Mathematica. Lesser entrepreneurs purchase business-plan-writing software: packages of boilerplate text and spreadsheets craftily linked together so that you only need to go through and fill in a few blanks.

Don’t get me wrong—you don’t have to hire a monk and a graphic genius to prepare your business plan. The goal of the document is to get someone interested enough to want to meet with you.

There are several pitfalls you must avoid if your plan is going to get past the initial reading:

Bad Writing – Write well—or if you can’t, get someone who can to “finish” the product. Most investors are pretty well-educated people—and, yes, they do care about subject-verb agreement, proper punctuation, and all of those grammatical niceties that you might think are optional. Your business plan has a theme, paragraphs have topic sentences, and good writing trumps trash. Many investors will read only the first few pages, some will read only the first sentence of each paragraph—whatever the case, you only have one shot here. Don’t lose it because you scorned liberal arts in college.

Poor Design – Make your plan appealing to the eye and easy to read. In this era of self-publishing, there’s no excuse for poorly designed and unattractive documents. Not all readers will care if your document is really ugly, but those who do will likely dismiss you as lazy or sloppy. Avoid multiple fonts, outlined or shadowed text, strange page layouts, etc. Many entrepreneurs think that their idea is enough, but there’s no doubt about it—presentation counts.

Errors – Ditto with typos. How many times do you have to be told to proofread, and to get someone else to proofread for you? I’ve seen business plans with upwards of 30 misspellings (errors even beyond what automated spell checkers would allow).

Unclear Structure – Organize your document thoughtfully (there are many free publications on how to structure business plans). Choose a logical format and flow—and stick to it. Remember, your business plan may have the elements of a thriller, but you can’t save the best stuff for the end. Think of it as structuring a good speech: tell the reader what you’re going to teach him, teach him, then remind him of what you just taught. Start with a two-page executive summary that covers the three key stories about your business (more on this in Issue Five).

Excessive Length – Keep it short. If you can’t say it in 20 to 30 pages (not including financial projections, résumés, etc.), then put the detail in appendices. Remember, your goal is to pique interest and get a meeting, so be sharp and to the point.

As with your financial projections, getting an expert eye to review your plan is time and money well spent. By the time you finalize your document, you and your team are probably so close to the material that you’ll undoubtedly miss not only typos, but also obvious inconsistencies and thematic faults. Don’t take any chances.