Last Friday, I went to one of Paul Grant’s startup seminars at the British Library: this was an all-dayer, and featured no-punches-pulled insert sessions from an angel investor (Colin Coghlan) and a specialist startup lawyer (William Robins from Keystone Law). It was very good to get a rather more ‘political’ take (in terms of influence & negotiation) on the UK angel-entrepreneur interface (from Colin) and on term sheets (from William): in both cases, what I learned was the kind of thing you just don’t find in books or websites. Perhaps the most valuable knowledge ends up ‘tacit’ simply because it’s hard to find a way to write it down, eh?
Anyway, another highlight of the day (apart from exits, which I’ll blog about another time) was Paul Grant’s discussion of how to write effective executive summaries. But… having heard his reasoning and seen the example he gave (a cycle helmet company, which I found fascinating because I started up a children’s protective headware company a few years ago), I can’t help but think that there’s silently been a presentation step change behind the scenes. To be blunt, a startup shouldn’t really consider anything like the stuff Paul is talking about to be an “executive summary” for anything apart from scrawnily historical reasons, because….
- …it’s not aimed at any “executive” (i.e. a senior manager in a corporation)
- …it’s not a “summary” (i.e. a succinct, neutral-tone rendering of a tree-killingly-thick business plan)
Let’s be clear: whereas traditional MBA / VC-centric business plan writing is withering on the vine, the new funding mindset has it that competition and customers all change so rapidly that startups need to prefer agility over strategy to survive (and hopefully thrive). Given this, a properly contemporary startup may well not ever have (or need) a conventional business plan, preferring instead to start small & loop fast. But whatever company you’re trying to build and however you’re trying to do it, you still need something more than sheer telepathy to get your story across – even if business plans are dead, information still has to flow.
Hence, I think the kind of document Paul is talking about might more usefully be thought of as a one-page sales flyer targeted at angels, using page layout conventions to structure verifiable financial information. Yup, it’s an “angel flyer” (pun deliberate), and the right kind of application to use to construct your own one would be a desktop publishing programme, such as (the open source) Scribus. As Paul sees it, such a document needs to cover exits, the market pain/problem, opportunity, past company milestones, management profile, and basic financials.
As with all financial promotions, UK entrepreneurs have to comply closely with the terms of the FSMA (2000), which of course means disclaimers aplenty (don’t forget to read the FSMA 2005 amendments relating to High Net Worth Individuals too).
Having just migrated my startup’s traditional (double-spaced, neutral language, business-plan-centric) executive summary over to something close to Paul Grant’s suggested (DTP’ed, sales-tinged language, iteration-centric) angel flyer format, the advantages and disadvantages are pretty clear to me: what you gain in improved information density and presentation, you lose in focus.
Really, an angel flyer feels to me a bit like a YouTube video pitch and a PowerPoint presentation crunched down and welded together by a salesman: which is not to say it’s a bad thing per se, but rather that it’s trying to harvest the best body-parts of the business plan corpse, the pitch deck corpse and the live pitch corpse, and to then assemble them together (Victor Frankenstein-style!) into a hybridized living thing. “It Lives!”, yes: but I suspect it’s not yet a beautiful genre.
But perhaps we’re just at the start of a whole new business art form here: in years to come, maybe angel flyers will become not only studied and refined but also celebrated and collected. So, if your own angel flyer is still a little ragged round the edges, relax – good art always takes time to perfect, eh? 🙂