Spelling Counts

So I’m reviewing business plans this morning, and I’m struck one more time by the number of typos and inconsistencies that I find.

When I teach my classes on entrepreneurship, I always have at least one student protest my statement that “Spelling counts.” Especially when they’re not native English speakers. “It doesn’t affect the meaning! And it certainly doesn’t affect my ability as an entrepreneur!”

Sorry, folks, but spelling does count. Not because correct spelling is a virtue in and of itself — William Shakespeare couldn’t spell his own name, when he wasn’t busy taking credit for the Earl of Oxford‘s plays — but because of what it says about the person sending me the document. Usually the CEO.

If you send me a document that says “Our plan estimates there costs to be…” or “the product and it’s derivatives,” you are telling me that (1) you don’t have good attention to detail, or (2) you’re in a hurry, and (3) you don’t know when to ask for help. None of those make me want to invest in you.

Ditto for other errors and inconsistencies. If your executive summary says you’re raising $1.3 million, but page 17 says you’re raising $1.5 million, I’m not going to care which number is right — I’m going to care that they’re different. If your month-old printed plan lists four founders, but your new PowerPoint presentation lists three, I’m going to wonder what happened to the fourth person… and he or she is guaranteed to be my first reference call!

(All of these errors are from real business plans. And note that running spellcheck wouldn’t catch any of them!)

When you’re sending out a business plan for investment, you’re supposed to be putting your best foot forward. Remember when your mother said “You only get one chance to make a first impression”? She was right. If my first impression of you is a document with errors in it, that colors my opinion of you and your company. If you’re not going to sweat the details here, what are you going to do when negotiating a sales contract, or an employment agreement, or preparing a presentation for a key client?

Also, you want me to be concentrating on the substance of your plan, not the appearance. Stumbling over inconsistencies (like flipping back to compare two numbers that ought to match, but don’t) take me out of the “flow” and make me think about the document, not the content. Not a good idea.

Nobody says that you, yourself, have to be a champion editor and proofreader. That may not be your strength (especially those non-native English speakers mentioned above). What I am saying is that, if it’s not your strength, get help! One of the key skills of a successful CEO is being able to recruit talent… this is your first test. Ask your spouse. Ask your friends. Ask your professional contacts. If all else fails, pay someone. But by the time you commit your plan to print (or PDF), it should be a compelling narrative of your vision for your company… not a minefield of distracting errors.