I had an excellent encounter last night with a group of Duke students. It was hosted by Howie Rhee, who directs the Duke entrepreneurial program, and several others involved in this year’s Duke Startup Challenge, a startup contest that begins now and finishes this spring. There’s a $25,000 first prize.

I really like how they’re specifying the business plan for the contest. This may not be the final version, so check with Howie or the Duke Startup Challenge website; but here’s the rough idea we talked about last night :

  • No more than 10 pages of text.
  • The main financial tables (startup costs, pro-forma income, pro-forma cash flow, and pro-forma balance sheet) should be included but don’t count against the 10 pages.
  • Business charts, bar charts, line graphics, pie charts and so on don’t count against the 10-page limit.

As a frequent reader of business plans, and a frequent judge of business plan contests, I like this. Yes, the length of plans should be limited for the contests, but way too often the limit means that we lose the important financials. And I love having the financials made visual with some good bar charts.

Not that the 10 pages of text couldn’t be 15 or maybe even 20 (although I’d rather have 15 than 20, and 10 is fine). But without special treatment for the tables and charts, they are the first thing that the plans leave out; and the worst thing to leave out.

I am very impressed, by the way, with the Duke Entrepreneurship Program, and the startup challenge, and a really intriguing social entrepreneurship class I visited, taught by Christopher Gergen. The questions, the interest, the students themselves, all very impressive. Lucky Duke students.

Tim BerryTim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.