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Write Like You Mean It — Build a Business Plan that Works

With our 2018 Application period open for only two more weeks, the IH2O team put together this list not because we’re an outrageous bunch of pedants (it’s actually a “quibble” of pedants, but anyway…), but because we think good writing and communication is a core skill for any entrepreneur. Making yourself understood as fast and as accurately as possible puts you above 90% of the competition whether you’re selling, pitching, or hiring. The rules below are designed to help you through the 2018 IH2O Application Form (applications due November 1st), but tuck them away for reference every time you put pen to paper.

Keep it Simple. Really simple. “The Tweet Rule”

The shorter a sentence is, the easier for the reader. While there are all sorts of drawbacks of Twitter, the length of the format is not one of them. As an experiment, see what happens if you try to keep all of your sentences to under 140 characters. Subordinate clauses are overrated. Your writing will become clearer, more logical, and a far more effective tool for information transfer. That last one was 103 characters.

Think, then Write

If you’re anything like us, you want to charge in and trust that the triumvirate of your brain, your hands and your keyboard will sort it out. Take a minute to plan the answer. Draft offline. Use a pen (remember them?). Make sure the logic is there and you’re covering what you need to cover to tell the best story possible. Then write. Then rewrite. Remember Mark Twain — “I’m sorry to write you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a shorter one.”

On the Utilization of Jargonizationary Linguistications

Confused? Then you feel exactly the same way as your judge will feel when she tries to pick her way through a thicket of unnecessarily complex word choices. Always avoid jargon. Jargon is inevitably the result of a field of study trying to justify their existence by using fancy words that only those “in the know” can understand (see Jason Zweig’s “The Devil’s Financial Dictionary”). I include in this the word “disruptive”, unless you’re absolutely certain that’s what you mean.

Ask “Is there a simpler, more direct way to put this?” The answer is almost always yes. Never use a bigger word when a simpler word will do. It doesn’t make you sound smarter, it just gets in the way of what you really mean. Good prose should be like a window — if it’s clean enough, you don’t notice it.

If In Doubt, Use Bullets. If Not In Doubt, Use Bullets.

When writing an IH2O application, the bullet point is your friend. It helps judges understand where to locate a cluster of information that will be pertinent to the argument being made. This might include the breakdown of an ROI calculation, or a risk mitigation strategy.

When a judge opens your application in our platform with half an hour to run before our judging deadline, and with two more applications to go after yours, make life easier for her. Help her to identify the information she needs to make a decision on how well you have answered that question. If she has to dig through paragraphs of prose to do it, you’re not playing the odds. Give yourself a margin of safety on the side of clarity.

Follow the Breadcrumbs, and Do the Basics Well

The guidance questions are there for a reason. If you answer those well, you will be in the top third of applicant companies. Write clearly. Think logically. Sell the story. Make it easy for the judges to give you the points.

More broadly, and far more importantly, this applies to your company. Research shows that doing the management basics well gives companies a big advantage. Base your decisions on data, talk to your customers, design great meetings. All this matters. It will make your company more effective, and crucially it will make people want to work for you for a long time.

Team, Plan, Revenue — Team Wins

We have designed our application form as a level playing field. There is no advantage for later stage, revenue-generating companies over companies at the planning stage. Earlier stage companies can win by having a strong plan. This should be based on as much data as possible, especially when it comes to understanding customer needs.

Try to demonstrate adaptability. The need for adaptability in building a startup is why team is so important. An “A” team can take a “B” idea and make it work through iteration. A “B” team can take an “A” idea and screw it up. Make sure we know you are the people to make this company work.

Identify a Beach, not a Coastline – or a Continent

For those of you who have followed our work for a while, we bang on about this endlessly, and with good reason. Lack of focus is the number one reason why startups fail. Show the judges you have an ability to focus by identifying a beachhead market. Show that you have segmented your market to find your highest potential customers (those with the biggest problem to solve), and that you are building your initial offering to serve those customers. Remember to ask yourself the following:

“Where is the set of customers that share a similar issue that need a solution and will be willing to pay for my solution — however imperfect — now to solve (at least some of) that pain?”

Show the judges that you are moving towards an answer to this question. “North America” is not a segment. “Professionals” are not a segment. “Agriculture” is not a segment. Be specific, and all sorts of things will start to go your way, not least your place in the IH2O ranking.

Best of luck to all our 2018 applicants, and we hope this is useful. As ever, any and all feedback welcome. We look forward to seeing what you’re working on.