Start-up summaries: writing the most important documents in the business world
I love writing for start-ups: it’s raw business, full of big ideas and interesting characters. But it’s also a big responsibility, because small actions at an early stage can have a major bearing on the future of a company.
Write a great investor pitch, first advert or trade presentation, and the business could be on its way to establishing itself as a major player in a new but lucrative niche. Get it wrong, and the business will stagnate when it needs to be growing. Start-ups can’t take that, they need momentum and they need every document they commission to be as good as it can be.
Nowhere is this more true than with the executive summary. This is a key document for any start-up: the one page explanation of the founders’ business plan, ambitions, target market and unique abilities.
One page that has to grab investors, incubator admissions tutors, prize judges and early commercial partner.
One page that also has to fit in plenty of relevant facts to show it isn’t just fluff, and showcase big ambitions without them looking fanciful; give some details to make the founders look enthusiastic but not naive, and highlight some successful near competitors that aren’t a direct threat…
As a writer, it’s a challenge and a pleasure to pack all that information into about 400 words. Of course, these summaries are usually divided into sub-headings such as Aims, Plan, Projections, and so on. There is plenty of good advice on how to lay out your executive summary, and the exact headings you choose will depend on the strengths of the start-up. But what about the actual words.
What I find useful is to approach the executive summary as I would a big news story. You need a punchy intro that not only grabs the attention, but also makes clear to the reader that this is a major opportunity. Because yes, even a one-pager won’t get read if people don’t think it’s worth it.
After the intro, you need to lay out the facts in a way that flows and continues to entice. Each characteristic needs to sound as awesome as it possibly can – without sensationalising. And you need to fit in a lot of key points, without the whole thing ending up looking more like a list.
An old editor of mine used to tell me, when composing an important news article, to imagine I was telling a friend a story in a pub. This is almost literally true of an executive summary, but instead of a friend in the pub, it’s a potential investor the entrepreneur meets in a lift.
Sure, it’s slightly long as an elevator pitch, but hopefully the random money-man or -woman will be piqued enough by the first half, that they’ll ask about the founders and their fiscal projections after reaching their floor of choice.
Once you have a first draft, you need to polish your one-pager like a budding journalist would their first front page splash. Read through and edit. Clip sentences down; inject simple, powerful words instead jargon; kill cliches; and bring the most interesting and best snippets to the fore of paragraphs.
Then read it out loud, get someone else to read it, and do it all again. Because it’s the most important piece of writing your little company will ever produce.
My friend Abraham Bobrovsky, co-founder and CEO of Kimata Networks, told me recently that his one-pager actually helps him remember what his start-up is really about.
“It really helps me keep focus on the key things,” he says. “At a time when so many advisors and potential investors tend to talk at tangents, think outside the box and throw up new possibilities, it’s important to know what your core values and markets are.”
Abe and I even found that some of the ‘power words’ we came up with in pitches and one-pagers laid the foundations for defining his app – which, by the way, is a really cool mini-games concept. These words will also help the entrepreneur remember his pitch, so that he or she can recite all the main points around them without sounding scripted.
The ‘one-pager’ really is the most important piece of writing a company will produce or commission. Everyone involved in an early stage business wants to give their best, to ensure that they don’t miss their shot at success. The writer should be no different.