Adapted from an article originally published by the author in Inc. Magazine.
Entrepreneurs seeking to engage with investors usually offer up written materials. Usually they offer whatever they have on hand. Smart investors should insist on a crisp “one-pager” executive summary. They are kind of a hassle to create, and that is exactly the point, and what makes them so vitally important.
What is the purpose of an Executive Summary?
An executive summary serves several purposes:
- It provides a condensed quick reference guide to a business in a format the typical investor is going to find familiar.
- It is a chance for an entrepreneur to demonstrate both the clarity and completeness of her thinking as well as her communication skills.
- It is a piece of "collateral" that an investor can use to discuss a company with other investors and solicit their input - it reduces friction by saving investors the trouble of having to re-summarize the company themselves – while keeping the entrepreneur’s original description intact.
- It gives time-pressed readers an easy way to quickly absorb the concept of a business vs. having to read many pages of documentation.
How much weight should investors give the one-pager?
They should count for a lot. Executive summaries are the basic currency of the start-up investing world. Done well, they can be the only material a potential investor will read before deciding whether to engage further. Nothing beats a face-to-face meeting if an entrepreneur can get one, but the executive summary should be their ticket to getting that meeting. A good executive summary can create investor-to-investor traction because it can server as the tool investors use to pass the opportunity along and seek input.
Is it OK if they just give you a slide deck?
No. Investors absolutely need a one-pager to start with. They will also need a slide deck, but the one-pager must be present. Why? For one important reason: the process and discipline of preparing a very good one page executive summary will really clarify and tighten an entrepreneur’s thinking. The process of writing it will make them far more cogent in talking about their business—both in person and when using their presentation deck.
If the quality isn’t great, does it mean you shouldn’t give a meeting?
Well, it is your time to allocate, and you may want to give the meeting anyway, but you are going to want to plan on being in mentor/advisor mode. A sloppy or bad executive summary is always a big red flag. And justifiably so: an entrepreneur has all the time in the world to prepare his executive summary. He’s had access to mentoring and advice received through networking. If after all that, he cannot pull together a good one-pager, it raises questions. Investors should wonder—Does he care enough about this project to bother? Was he unable to network or do the needed research or be bothered to find help? Is he un-coachable? Is he a poor communicator? Is he a fuzzy thinker? The list of potential negative inferences is long (and there are pretty much no positive inferences.) Good investors worth having involved in a company see a lot of executive summaries and plans every month. The sheer volume teaches them to look for signals to help figure out where to most efficiently spend their time. A low quality summary is a strong signal to focus elsewhere.
What should you look for in executive summaries?
The executive summary should include most of the same topics from a basic slide deck, but the details must be tightly packaged and sparingly-worded to fit on one page, or at most, the front and back of a single sheet. The typical format includes a box on the right with the company name, logo, URL, number of employees, key players and advisors and important investors. Along the bottom of the page a short, wide box shows at-a-glance financials: gross revenues, expenditures and net for the current year and the next 3-4 years. The middle of the page includes short 200-400 character paragraphs on the following topics:
- One Line Pitch
- Business Summary
- Management Team
- Customer Problem
- Target Market
- Sales/Marketing Strategy
- Business/Revenue Model
- Competitive Advantage
The one-page executive summary isn’t easy. In fact, entrepreneurs may get incredibly frustrated trying to boil down their big idea into only one data-intensive page. But the discipline of doing it and figuring out how to pull all the key answers into one place is really valuable. Insisting that entrepreneurs take the time to do it properly is not only going to serve them well, it will serve you well too.