First Steps: Writing the Executive Summary of Your Business Plan

In their book Write Your Business Plan, the staff of Entrepreneur Media, Inc. offer an in-depth understanding of what’s essential to any business plan, what’s appropriate for your venture, and what it takes to ensure success. In this edited excerpt, the authors outline what to include in your business plan's executive summary and why.

The first part of your business plan that anybody will see is the executive summary. It’s a brief look at the key elements of the whole plan—and it’s critical.

The executive summary should be only a page or two. In it, you may include your mission and vision statements, a brief sketch of your plans and goals, a quick look at your company and its organization, an outline of your strategy, and highlights of your financial status and needs. Your executive summary is the CliffsNotes of your business plan.

The summary is the most important part of your whole plan, so you want it to be as strong as possible because it's the first thing people read in your plan, and we all know the power of a strong first impression. This is where you want to wow people and make them think.

The executive summary has to perform a host of jobs. First and foremost, it should grab the reader’s attention. It has to briefly hit the high points of your plan. It should point readers with questions requiring detailed responses to the full-length sections of your plan where they can get answers. It should ease the task of anybody whose job it is to read it, and it should make that task enjoyable by presenting an interesting and compelling account of your company.

Here's a suggested format for an executive summary:

1. What's the business idea, what problem does it solve and how does it fit into the marketplace?

You’ll need to explain why your idea has merit and how it can solve a common problem by making things easier, faster, or cheaper for the prospective customer(s). No matter how brilliantly crafted, written and presented your business plan is, it will be difficult to win your investors, and later customers, with a bad idea. Therefore, you want to wow them first with your idea! If they’re not interested, no matter what your financials are, they won’t help.

2. How much will it cost, and how much financing are you seeking?

Provide a short explanation of how you’ll use any financing you seek. Tell investors why you need the money. Nobody wants to lend you money if they don’t know exactly why you need it. It’s not necessary to get into much detail here—just make it clear that you need it for x, y and z. You should also let the reader know how the investment will help the company grow and/or increase its profits. Why else would you be seeking funding? The best use of somebody else’s money is to buy or build something that will make more money, both for you and for that person.

3. What will the return be to the investor? Over what length of time?

In your executive summary, consider the following:

  • Friends and family want to get their money back someday but are not very interested in timing and returns.
  • Bankers look for free cash flow to pay back the principal and interest of their loan. They also look closely at management experience and marketing. They may ask for collateral. By law they have to be conservative, that is, risk averse, so they are not great candidates for risky financing.
  • Angel investors look for moderate rates of return, usually above the prime rate, plus some capital appreciation. They sometimes want to be involved at a hands-on level.
  • Venture capitalists seek annual compound rates of return in the area of 35 to 50 percent per annum. They seldom want to go longer than three to five years to cash out. They always want to know what the exit strategy is.

Don’t forget yourself: It’s a rare company that doesn’t have any investment from the entrepreneur or entrepreneurs who started it.

4. How will the ownership be divided?

When a business starts generating profits and plowing them back into the firm, value can build rapidly. Even if you aren’t in an industry likely to purchase buildings or patent valuable technology, the business derives value from the fact that it can generate profits into the future.

Spell out who owns what. If you have many equity investors coupled with a pile of creditors, this can get pretty complicated. For the summary section of your plan, a basic description such as “Ownership of the company will be divided so that each of the four original partners owns 25 percent” will suffice. If you have to negotiate details of exactly what any equity investors will get, there’s time to do that later. For now, you just want to give people an idea of how the ownership will be divided.

Additional questions you may want to consider answering in your executive summary include:

  • What is the management team?
  • What are the product and competitive strategies?
  • What is your marketing plan?
  • What is your exit strategy?

Give It a Happy Ending

The summary is the place to put your best foot forward, to talk up the upside and downplay the downside. As always, accentuating the positive doesn’t mean exaggeration or lying. If there's a really important, unusual risk factor in your plan—such as that one certain big customer has to make a huge order for the whole plan to work—then you'll want to mention that in your summary. But run-of-the-mill risks like unexpected competition or customer reluctance can be ignored here. Paint a convincing portrait of an opportunity so compelling that only a dullard wouldn't recognize it and desire to take part in it.

The key to the executive summary is to pick out the best aspects of every part of your plan. So extract the essence of each key part, and offer your readers a highlight reel of your business.

Edition: December 2016

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