Startups

9 steps to a better startup executive summary

Your startup executive summary can be the difference between whether you get a pitch meeting or not. Here's how to make yours compelling and readable.
startup executive summary

A startup executive summary is a short document that makes a big impact. Sometimes known as a one-pager, a startup executive summary is a brief version of a business plan, and it’s often the only material investors evaluate before they decide to call you in for a pitch meeting. With the stakes so high, it’s essential that you create a summary that is concise, yet thorough, exciting, and well-written.

Trying to cram so much pertinent information into so little space is challenging. The secret is knowing what to prioritize. We’ve put together nine simple steps to help you craft a persuasive and informative one-pager that will help you land the big meeting.

Step 1: Understand what a startup executive summary is for

Before you even type a word, you need to understand the purpose and the logic behind an executive summary and what investors are looking for when they read one.

Popular venture capitalists and other investors are inundated with pitches from eager startups hoping for a partnership. An executive summary document is the easiest way for them to learn about and evaluate the potential of your company. If they like what they see, they might ask for your pitch deck or directly schedule a pitch meeting. If they don’t, they will probably toss it and never think about you or your company again.

Your summary document must contain—on one page—all of the information investors need to make this decision. Typically, this includes the following:

  • Your value proposition
  • A description of your product or service
  • An explanation of your customer base and relevant market factors
  • Your business model and future plans
  • Financial projections
  • Your funding request
  • Any other special or impressive information about your company and its founders

Creating your startup executive summary can be a clarifying exercise in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your company, which you can then distill into selling points. Ali Tamaseb, a VC at Data Collective, says “it is important for startup founders to understand how VCs look at and evaluate startups (which is mostly from the perspective of risk)…Preparing an executive summary can help founders create better pitches by making sure to talk about what the VCs want to hear.”

Step 2: Lead with the problem

Busy investors probably won’t read your entire summary unless you manage to grab their attention within the first 30 seconds. The fastest way to reel them in is by describing the need or problem that your startup wants to solve or is already solving.

Be specific. “Do not lead with broad, sweeping statements about the market opportunity,” says Guy Kawasaki. “What matters is not market size, but rather compelling pain.” Quantify this pain with examples and statistics to make the problem and its scope concrete.

For example:

Every year, public schools nationwide spend upwards of $X million replacing worn or outdated textbooks. This is a huge burden on already lean budgets and, ultimately, a futile one. Studies show that by the time the average science textbook makes it to publication, it’s already out of date.

Step 3: Present your solution

Once you have the reader’s attention, explain how your product aims to solve the problem.

Don’t get into product specifications or other details. Space is at a premium, and if investors really want to know how your product works, they’ll call you in to talk about it. Just provide a very broad overview, and quantify the difference you can make wherever possible.

For example:

We publish comprehensive online textbooks that can be updated in real time to keep up with new social and scientific developments. While a new hardback Grade 6 science textbook typically costs $95, our online version costs just $6.

Step 4: Show you understand your market

Clever business ideas are worthless unless there is a proven, well-defined market for them. Show potential investors that you have a good understanding of product-market fit and that there is a (hopefully large) market of people who will happily buy your product if given the opportunity.

Investors are checking to see if you understand the needs and concerns of your target customers. The better you understand your customers, the more capable you will be of creating a successful product or service that matches their needs.

While writing, keep in mind that your user base may not be the same as your customers. For example, if your product is a textbook, then the paying customer is actually the school board, not the students or even the teachers. Clarify who is making the purchasing decisions for your users and what their considerations are. Include specific customer personas if you have space.

Step 5: Explain what makes your company stand out

If you’ve truly stumbled on a great solution to a common problem, chances are that you aren’t the only one out there. Investors want to know that you’ve performed some competitive analysis, that you know how you stack up against competitors, and what selling points make you stand out.

What makes your company uniquely positioned to solve the stated problem? Is it your personal insight into the situation? Your innovative approach? A new technology you’ve developed? What are other companies doing wrong that you’re doing right?

Focus on the positives, including what your company offers, as opposed to the negatives, like the shortcomings of your rivals. Glean this information by researching your competitors, surveying your existing users, and test-driving rival products if possible.

For example:

While several major textbook companies are moving into the e-learning market, our omni-sync technology (patent pending) gives us a unique advantage: We can correct and update e-books in real time through constant, lag-less syncing.

Step 6: Prove you have a business model

The greatest idea in the world isn’t going anywhere without a solid business model. In this section, you’ll show investors that you have plans and the business chops necessary to execute them.

Hopefully, you have already written a business plan that you can pull these details from. If not, put down the executive summary and go write one. You need a business plan before you can pitch investors.

Distill your business plan down into a few brief sentences that include information about:

  • Your revenue model (per-unit sales, subscriptions, hourly services, etc.)
  • How your business can scale over time
  • A brief timeline — mention your future goals and a concrete timeline for meeting them
  • What your team looks like. Industry experts? Academics? Award winners? Do you have other prominent advisors or investors?

Don’t get into the weeds with details here — that’s what the pitch meeting is for. You just want a broad outline that proves you have a real plan.

Step 7: Disclose your financials

Finally, it’s time to provide the numbers. This is the last bit of information the investor needs to decide whether you’d be a good fit. Show them where you are, what kind of funding you’re seeking, and what you plan to do with it. This can be done in just a few bullet points:

  • Your current financial situation — how much money have you raised in previous rounds? What’s your monthly operating costs?
  • How much money you’re trying to raise — both overall and from this specific investor. Spend some time strategically deciding how much money to ask for.
  • What you plan to do with the money — break this down into percentages if you like: 30% for product development, 20% for marketing, etc.

This is one of the most important sections of your summary but also one of the briefest. Don’t couch your ask in a wall of text. List the most important numbers using a few bullet points.

Step 8: Format carefully

Busy investors see a lot of executive summaries and know how to quickly scan them for the most relevant information. If your summary is too long, too dense, or too confusing, investors will likely toss it on the spot.

Here are some tips for making your summary readable:

  • Use subheadings to make the page easily scannable.
  • Keep paragraphs short and to the point.
  • Cut out excess descriptions or jargon like “innovative” and “disrupt.”

Consult some templates and examples to get a better idea of common formatting.

Step 9: Nail the delivery

How you deliver your executive summary is just as important as the summary itself. If you can’t get an investor to actually open and read the summary, then that’s the end of the line for your pitch.

In the words of Guy Kawasaki, “One of the most important sentences you write will not even be in the executive summary—it is the sentence that introduces your company in the email that you or a friend uses to send the executive summary. Your summary might not even get read if this sentence is not well-crafted.”

Spend time finessing that sentence and the handful that come after it. Make the email short, professional, and to the point. Tell the investor who you are and why they should be interested in your company. Give them a compelling reason to open the summary and learn more.

More than 70% of cold emails are deleted before they are even opened, so pick an informative and enticing subject line.

Instead of sending your summary as an email attachment, send it as a secure link using DocSend. That way, you can track when (or if) investors open and read the summary and avoid pestering them with annoying follow-ups.

A startup executive summary is the first step toward a long-term relationship with investors

Writing a startup executive summary isn’t an easy exercise. It can be frustrating trying to condense the details of your company onto a single page.

Remember what’s at stake. This is the first interaction a potential investor will have with your company, so it’s a golden opportunity to win them over with your enthusiasm, organization, and professionalism. Spend the time to get it right, so you can start relationship-building in person.