Startups Shouldn’t Write Prose

September 25, 2013

I read a good number of blogs. I still like magazines. I love books, and I wish I could find time every day to read the newspaper from front to back. I also have great respect for academic writing.

Formal prose, however, has no place in a start-up. While I was working on Brontes Technologies during my second year in business school, our team entered both the Harvard and MIT business-plan competitions. Both contests required the submission of a written business plan. Our plan was 42 pages. It was obsolete before it was even completed.

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The judges seemed to have skimmed it, as did our academic adviser, but I don’t think they really read it. Even if they didn’t read it closely, they read more of it than anyone else ever did. We shared it with some investors, but it was clear they never read it. We never referenced it again ourselves. We never gave it to new staff members to help them understand our business. We never edited it as our business changed. We never really used it in any way. It was little more than academic.

No matter how gifted a writer you are, slide presentations, or decks, are a better way to get your message across. Quick to read and easy to edit collaboratively, slide decks are a much more concise way to express an idea for discussion and decision making. Prose is great for one-way conversations, but it
falls short for any type of engagement in a group. Ultimately, prose is not agile enough for start-ups.

Start-ups need to move fast, organize their goals succinctly, and edit on the fly. I’ve never seen a start-up go back to rewrite the marketing section of its business plan after rethinking its marketing strategy. I have, however, seen many start-ups in the same situation rip up the marketing slides in their slide deck and insert the updated ones.

This concern doesn’t apply just to business plans, either. Prose should be used sparingly in all types of business communications–annual plans, formal specifications, etc. As an investor, I’ve noticed that I have a very strong bias against teams that send me executive summaries. I rarely read them when they are one page long, and, unfortunately, most are four pages. This is your opportunity to make your company’s narrative inspiring and compelling–don’t waste it by submitting the equivalent of War and Peace. When I get an executive summary, I immediately ask for a deck, which I find much more energizing (when well executed) and digestible.

I think the formal business plan is a relic of the start-up business-plan competitions that originated at academic institutions. If you apply the academic mindset to a start-up, then it probably does make sense to start with a written thesis on the opportunity. Unfortunately, it took me a full year to write my undergraduate thesis, and I don’t remember anyone ever reading it outside of the professors responsible for grading it. I would encourage academic institutions to replace the traditional business-plan competitions in favor of pitch-deck competitions.

As for entrepreneurs, my advice is to discourage your team from writing prose whenever possible. If you want to tell a story, tell it in a compelling and concise narrative slide deck. If you have an argument to make, do it live in a team meeting. If you want to codify what has been agreed to on any aspect of the business, build concise slides that are easily digested, shared, debated, and edited as a group. If you want to slow your business down, stifle real-time discussion, and prioritize the argument over the outcome, write prose.

A version of this blog was originally published in Inc. Magazine http://www.inc.com/magazine/201310/eric-paley/writing-advice-for-start-ups-and-entrepreneurs.html-

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11 Responses to “Startups Shouldn’t Write Prose”

  1. Jennifer Jordan Says:

    I agree. But a great slide deck is an artful work of compromise. Too many stick the text of war and peace in bullet points- a round file offense. Others are too image heavy and the reader is left to speculate. A clear concise message and compelling image, chart, metric on each slide is the happy but not always easy middle.

    • epaley Says:

      Jennifer – thanks for commenting. I totally agree. When people try to turn a deck into a word doc they completely defeat the purpose. Treat a narrative as a narrative and tell it in a compelling concise way. Codify learning and priorities as concisely as possible. Otherwise no one will read or understand them.


  2. You are right, Eric, business plans are pretty much worthless documents. I only wrote one once, in business school, and it was a joke.

    However, given this, many reach the unfortunate conclusion that knowing how to write is also unimportant. I get countless communications filled with nonsensical abbreviations and contractions, misspelled words, split infinitives, jargon, cliches, and just bad English usage. And that is worse than well written prose.

    English is my second language — maybe that’s why I take how something is written so seriously.

    Bullets are fine, but you have to speak when presenting. If you don’t know how to write, you won’t speak well either.

  3. shyduroff Says:

    there are those who can write, but are lousy speakers, and fair-to-good speakers who just can not write. the new case presentation spectrum often requires a number of roles played by individual creators. i was the original proposer back in 1989 of the mit 100k competition when it was a proposed 1 (one) k award to a student or student team for best new business /idea/, not b-plan – but it overnight developed into the original mit 10k (then 50k, 100k, et cetera) and it was clear from the first few years to about 1995 or so (my opinion) that b-plans per-se of nearly any length were just not in future going to cut it. i have a metric buttload of stuff to say about the attitudes of many judges, reviewers & critics who have participated in so many similar but different competitions over the past 26 years, as well as numerous other entities’ similar, different come-on services offerings, and what it comes down to i think is regard at all for the individual proposer’s idea itself, and, sadly, in many instances, the individual speaking or writing …
    i’ve been writing a play about this, based on 25+ years of data.
    it isn’t going to be nice to a lot of people in this business, but of course personal and institutional names will be kindly changed.
    some bottom line queries: how many ideas have been summarily blown off by un-qualified reviewers? how many talented people have been shuffled off the start-up track due the biases of judges? how many start-up teams have not themselves been sufficiently looked at, let alone studied and properly advised and mentored for their potential outside their initial efforts as entrants
    into the tech start-up competition game? i suggest there’s much more potential `out there’ we’re missing because we haven’t the will to read and explore what people are really trying to say in even their simplest precis to maybe an executive summary (in stoopid elevator pitch mode), and that in our gross and lofty haste we’re missing something, and that at a high rate …

    – r, aka: richard shyduroff, co-founder & co-director, the mit e-club
    ——–

    eof;
    .

    • epaley Says:

      Richard – First, I love that the founder of the most storied competition commented on this blog. Thank you. Also as a 2003 runner-up thanks for creating the MIT competition. It was a great experience for us.

      You’re raising some really important issues, particularly at the earliest and most fragile stage of companies. The only caution that I’d raise is that the ability to inspire is a critical aspect for startup success. Perhaps that is over-emphasized in the competition, but it is certainly important DNA to have in a startup.


  4. While reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the old UPS advertisements where the narrator was drawing on the “white board.” You could write a lengthy description of the plan, or you could explain it in a few artful pen strokes and with a few chosen words. The latter is definitely more powerful.

    • epaley Says:

      Nick – Totally agree. The next question becomes how to you codify it and share it with people not int he room. Do you write 10 pages about the discussion and ask people to edit it or do you put together the key points concisely on a few slides and ask for input from others?

  5. jordancooper Says:

    i use prose all the time on my blog to share ideas related to wildcard. it’s one of the key tools i use to recruit the most talented thinkers and creators into our team and mission. i think this is wrong

    • epaley Says:

      Jordan – I’m a big believer in Content Marketing. I blog, read a ton of blogs and invested in Contently. Prose is great for marketing. My argument is that it is very inefficient for internal collaboration/leadership and also for inspiring investors or partners.


  6. Here’s another reason why this is right: an effective deck is WAY more difficult to create than a business plan. If one follows the ‘rules’ of keeping it to 10 slides and three or less points per slide, it takes tremendous thought, effort and creativity to pull off. The discipline of that, itself, is more valuable, I think, than the exercise of writing a business plan.

    A great deck says a great deal about the person who created it.


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