When I started helping entrepreneurs plan new companies, I discovered something curious—there was a lot of confusion about what, exactly, a business plan should look like. A business plan was once a lengthy, prose-based document written with word processing software like Microsoft Word, similar to a 40+ page college term paper. Sophisticated entrepreneurs and investors moved away from that format, but the typical entrepreneur on Main Street didn’t get the message. That’s no surprise, since many books on business plans still recommended a term-paper-style business plan. Were the books simply out of date?
To make sure, I decided to ask the experts. I surveyed over 50 people, including venture capitalists (VCs) from leading firms like Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, noted angel investors such as the backers of Method and serial entrepreneurs like John Osher, creator of the Crest SpinBrush. The results: 95 percent recommend that startups use a presentation format, not a term-paper-style plan., Here’s why the pitch deck has taken the place of the text document:
- A term-paper-style business plan takes too long to read. In this age of rampant Attention Deficit Disorder and communications overload, asking someone to read a 40+ page paper is pushing it. Why burden someone whose help you are seeking? And why take the risk that your plan won’t be read at all?
- A term-paper-style plan takes too long to write and update. Writing 40+ pages of prose takes months. Plus, a business plan isn’t a static document—startups modify their plan continuously. Updating a page or chapter of text can take hours. Updating a bullet point or graphic in a slide presentation takes minutes.
- Pitching in person is far more persuasive than sending a document for people to read. A deck is made for presentations, while a term paper is about as useful in a pitch as a doorstop. When you deliver a presentation in person, you can see how people are reacting, modify your pitch on the fly, address concerns or confusion immediately, and get feedback.
- Presentations force startups to set priorities. If you are working with a 40-page plan, you can drop in every great idea that comes to mind. But when it comes time to explaining your ideas—and to executing those ideas—you’ll have to focus. Culling your ideas down to those worthy of inclusion in a short presentation is a great way to start prioritizing.
Still don’t believe me? Sequoia Capital is the venture capital firm that backed Google, Yahoo, YouTube, eHarmony, LinkedIn, and PayPal, among many other winners. On their Web site (http://www.sequoiacap.com/ideas), they offer the following advice: “We like business plans that present a lot of information in as few words as possible … 15-20 slides … is all that’s needed.” And finally, New York Angels is one of the leading groups of angel investors in the U.S. They’ve invested over $20 million in 65 early-stage, New York-area technology and new media companies. At www.newyorkangels.com you’ll see the following suggestions about the format of business plans: “Slideshows with under 20 slides are generally most effective … Use the limited time you have for your presentation to emphasize the compelling factors about your investment opportunity and save unnecessary technology details for future meetings…”
 There are exceptions, such as requirements from some lending organizations like banks or the SBA, but they typically lend to companies with at least three years of operating history, not to startups.
 Most of the others said they like to see a two- to four-page executive summary.