Planning, Startups, Stories


Tim Berry on business planning, starting and growing your business, and having a life in the meantime.

Don't Shade Your Eyes, Summarize

What if you had to take the classic business plan, developed for an MBA-level venture competition, and shrink it down to 10 pages?

Last Friday I spent a fun and fascinating day as a semi-finals judge at the University of Oregon New Venture Competition. My part of the program was evaluating four ventures developed by MBA students from Clemson, Northwestern, Penn State, and Michigan, along with three other judges. That was one of five flights, so there were 20 teams, selected from more than 100 entrants.

The new rules for this year gave them 10 pages for the business plan, plus up to 10 pages for appendices. The judges loved it, of course, because we have to read all the plans. The teams had mixed feelings.

Summarize. In this context, the venture competition, with teams of smart MBA students, it should have been duck soup (although that particular expression isn’t that popular at the University of Oregon, because the home team is the Ducks).

Keep the highlights. Stick to the headlines. Summarize. I don’t care if you’re the next big thing, with an unimaginably exciting new idea and a great team, you can still create a meaningful summary in 10 pages.

Start with a one-page summary. Then tell a story about the need, and your solution, your market, your secret sauce, your strategy, and your great team. Add in a financial summary, and don’t forget to highlight your capital needs, valuation, and exit strategy. If you do no more than 3 paragraphs in any one of these 10 main topics, you ought to be able fit that in 10 pages using a lot of bullet points and white space. Make it an attractive document that the judges, who tend to have older eyes, can read. Leave some space for some snappy graphics, a bar chart or two, and then include the financials in more detail in the appendices.

Some of the teams struggled too much with the page limitation. Some chose the dark-side option, filling the page with dense, small text. Some skipped important topics.

As we get used to these competitions, with page limitations growing more common, I’m expecting more teams to realize that there ought to be a master plan, from which these summary plans, and the presentations, and the elevator speeches, are just alternative output.

Once they get that, they should then start thinking more about the combined communication impact of the plan, the presentation, and the other elements. Can they summarize strategy briefly in a plan, and then explain it more in a presentation? I think so.  The plan and the presentation obviously overlap, but they both don’t have to cover exactly the same territory.

So today my business plan judging marathon month continues. After the event in Portland over the weekend, this evening I’m going to a three-hour meeting of the Willamette Angel Conference, reviewing business plans, listening to presentations, doing due diligence on plans.  On Thursday I leave for Houston, to judge the Rice University Business Plan Competition.