What Every Entrepreneur Should Know About Pitching
The following post is a summary of a series of earlier Heretic posts on the subject compiled into one comprehensive list — compiled by the wonderful folks at Unreasonable.is
Your pitch deck MUST start with a description of what it is that you’re doing. Your second slide (after the cover slide) is titled “What is NAME-OF-YOUR-COMPANY” (e.g. “What is eBay”). Explain in simple English what you’re doing. This is not the place to be clever, show off your extraordinary grasp of the English language or think that your pitch deck is a novel where you build tension and excitement in the first half and surprise the reader in the end.
If I (or any investor for that matter) don’t understand what you are doing in the first 10–15 seconds you already lost me. I know investors who don’t go past slide two if they don’t grasp what the company does.
Simple and obvious, eh? The crazy thing is, I get tons of decks which make me literally go “WTF?!” Let me illustrate the point. Here are two pitches which get it right (names and some product details have been changed):
What is ACME CORP?
- A unique coffee subscription business…
- 1) Rare, unique, single-origin coffee
- 2) Freshly roasted to order each month
- 3) A different coffee every month, curated by experts
- delivered monthly through the letterbox.
- A subscription-only business — sign up online — available for self-purchase or as a special gift
Moving on — pitch #2:
ACME CORP is an E-FASHION club that provides affordable trendy shoes, accessories and PERSONALIZED style recommendations to European Women!
Clear. They are a shopping club focussed on shoes for European women. Crisp and clear. No fancy language. Just the facts.
And now for something different — pitch #3:
ACME CORP is an online collaboration hub and development environment for makers, hobbyist and engineers.
I have mostly no clue what they are doing. Worse — as I actually know the team and their product — this isn’t even an accurate statement of what they are up to. What they build is Github plus a deployment system for Arduinos. Their statement is overly broad and unspecific.
So your first slide (not the cover — your first actual content slide) is the most important slide in your deck. It’s the slide where I decide if I want to see and hear more. It’s the slide which sets the tone for the rest of your interaction. And it’s the slide which forms my first image of you and your company. Spend time on it. Make it perfect. Pitch it to strangers who know nothing about your company and see if they get it. Show them just this one slide and then ask them to describe back to you what your company does. If they don’t get it, or it’s inaccurate, go back and revise the slide until you get it right.
The Team Slide
We all know that investors put their money into teams not ideas. Ideas are cheap and plentiful. Incredible execution is rare. Ideas evolve (yeah — sometimes they “pivot“). Great teams excel at this, mediocre teams fall apart. So you invest into people.
Which means your team slide better be good.
I can’t tell you too much about the composition of your team — as this is highly dependent on your idea and the industry you’re in.
Teams of one are usually a bad sign. If you can’t bring a team to the table when you ask for funding it just doesn’t reflect well on your ability to recruit. Teams that have a bunch of people listed as “will come on board once we can pay her/him a salary” don’t work. People who are not willing to take the risk are employees, not cofounders.
Don’t bullshit when you talk about your team. Sentences such as “X has 10 years of Internet experience” make me cringe, then laugh and then delete your email. Every man and his dog has ten years of “Internet experience” by now. Be honest, tell me what your team did. If your team hasn’t done anything interesting. Well, that’s something you should think about. You won’t be able to hide it anyway. “Y is a Ruby ninja?” I let your teammate speak with one of our portfolio companies for three minutes and I know if he’s a ninja or a backwater coder who still designs MySpace pages for his school chorus. Oh, and by the way: Nobody is a fucking ninja, superstar or what-have-you. Cut the lingo.
Lastly — and this shows your attention to detail — make sure the pictures you use have a common look and feel and don’t look like a collection of randomly selected vacation snapshots. Unless you’re all totally wasted in the shots. That might be funny.
Let’s Talk About Advisors
Typically you add them to your team slide. And most of the time you see something along the lines of a list of names a la “John Doe, Founder ACME Corp.,” sometimes with a picture.
Here’s the deal — advisors provide two signals for an investor:
- Instant credibility if you have “brand name” advisors
- A strong support network
The first one only works if you have truly recognizable names which are relevant to your field. Sergey Brin works, a random director at a large company doesn’t. The second one is trickier. In pitch presentations I often wonder what those people actually do for you — as often the entrepreneurs either just rattle down the names of the advisors on their slide or even glance over them and say something to the tune of, “and we have a bunch of awesome advisors.”
If you want to make your pitch stronger I recommend you make sure that your advisors are relevant (no, your dad’s buddy from the plumbing shop down the road most likely doesn’t count) and that they are actual advisors and not only people with whom you emailed once. You can spend 15 seconds in your pitch describing the relationship you have with your advisors. (e.g. “We assembled a team of relevant advisors with deep expertise in X, Y and Z. To leverage their expertise and network we meet with them every month for a one-hour session and can also ask for advice via phone and email anytime in between.”)
By the way, there is something to be said about the celebrity advisor. As awesome as it might be that you got Tim Cook from Apple to be an advisor I instantly ask myself how much time you actually get out of him — he’s busy as hell. So you might want to anticipate that (silent) question and address it head on in your pitch.
The Dreaded Finance Slide
The one slide that is made up out of one hundred percent pure fantasy. And yet it seems (and it is) so important. Everybody knows that whatever you write down on your finance slide is not reality but (in the best case) wishful thinking. That includes your investor.
Why bother? Simple. The finance slide shows your investor that you understand the fundamentals of your business. That you have a clue. That he can trust you with his money.
So what do you need to know about your finance slide? As so often in life the answer is: it depends. Here’s my personal take. For starters you want to show a one-year plan which covers month-by-month revenue and costs. Lump costs into broader buckets and don’t fall into the trap of pretended accuracy by showing off precise numbers. Nobody will believe that you really know that your marketing costs will be precisely $6,786 in month eight. You’re much better off eyeballing these numbers. Also don’t present endless lists of minutia details such as your telecommunication costs per month. Show your business literacy by presenting ballpark numbers that make sense (e.g. salaries should come as fully loaded head counts — not doing this is a strong indicator that you don’t know the fundamentals of running a business).
On the revenue side you want to do a couple of things. First of all explain your business model (this is something you might want to pull out on its own slide). Then give me your assumptions — sometimes it makes sense to work with scenarios (best, base and worst case). And then use this model to validate your revenue assumptions bottom-up. If you say you will have 5,000 customers in month three, what does that mean in terms of customer acquisition per day, how does that influence your cost model, etc.
This is probably the most useful part of putting together your financials. It allows you to make an educated guess about your model and will, if done right, feed you tons of information back into your own thinking. Weirdly a lot of entrepreneurs don’t do this and then fall onto their face when, in a pitch meeting, their savvy investor picks the numbers apart and points out the gapping holes (something I like to do — it really shows if someone thought hard about their business or if they are only wanna-be entrepreneurs).
And then you do the same for year two and three — this time on a quarterly basis.
Above all, do this for yourself, not because you need to do this for your investors. Use this exercise to validate your assumptions, to get a deep understanding of the underlying logic of your business. Your startup will be better off for it.
The Business Model Slide
You have a business model, right? Or at least you pretend to have one? If you don’t and you believe you can get by, by using a variant of the “we’ll figure it out” phrase you better have stratospheric growth and millions of users.
Here’s the thing about your business model slide in your pitch deck: If you spend time to make it clear, concise, easy to understand and grasp, I am so much more likely to believe that you have at least a foggy clue about what you’re doing. If you, in contrast, do what I see so many startups do and give me a single bullet, hidden on one of your other slides which reads something like “Freemium Model” and that’s it… well, that’s a strong indicator that you haven’t thought about this a whole lot, that you are essentially clueless about your business and that I really shouldn’t trust you with my money.
With that being said, what does a great business model slide look like? It really depends on what your business model is (or you believe it is to be precise — these things tend to change). What I look for is a clear expression of your model, the underlying assumptions and the way the model works out. Often this can be neatly expressed in an info graphic — showing where and how the money comes in, how the value chain looks like and what the margins are alongside the chain. Here’s an example: it’s not perfect yet much better than simply expressing your model as “we take a 25% margin.”
Spend some time on your business model slide. Make it clear and concise. The litmus test is: Show someone who doesn’t know anything about your company just this one slide and ask them to explain back to you your business model. If they get it and they get it in its entirety you are off to the races.
You know that you always have to have an ask in your pitch, right? It might be for money, it might be for partnerships or just feedback — but never ever leave an audience without asking for something.
There’s a lot of art and science to asking. Here’s my view on the science piece: Let’s assume you pitch for money. Don’t start your pitch with your ask. By putting your ask first you A) rob yourself of the wonderful poetry of a well delivered pitch (as everyone only thinks about the dollars), B) you might loose a good chunk of your audience who might not fall into your price bracket (believe me, more often than not they gladly invest if they just hear you out and get excited by your company) and C) you will have every investor judge every single slide against the dollar amount you put up.
That said, don’t just close your pitch with a “We’re raising $500k. Thank you very much.” but give me a bit more detail what you need the money for and how long it is projected to last (pro tip: Make sure you budget for enough runway — raising for too short an amount of time is a classic beginners mistake). You want to say something like: “We’re raising $500k which will go towards building out our engineering team, building our Android app and getting the first wave of marketing out which should get us to 500k users. The round is projected to last 12 months and will validate our milestones.”
A Word About Design
One question I get quite often about pitch decks is: How much text should be or need to be on the slides? This can be a tricky question — you will both present the deck to an audience (in which case you tend to want to have less text and more emphasis on your delivery) and you’ll send the deck to investors via email (in which case a slide with just an image on it won’t work — the recipient doesn’t have the context of your verbal presentation).
Guy Kawasaki famously formulated the 10/20/30 rule: 10 Slides, 20 Minutes, 30 Point Minimal Font Size. This is a great starting point — and what I would recommend for your in-person investor presentation. But it might not work for the deck you want to email.
Here’s what I would do (and have done): Start with a slide deck where each and every slide can stand on its own. Assume you give the slide deck to someone who has no context about you and your startup. And at the same time — treat your deck like a deck and not a word document. Keep text short, reduce it to the bare necessity, cut out unnecessary language. Keep the whole deck short — one should be able to flip through your deck in a few minutes and digest the whole thing in 10–15 minutes.
Once you have this, which will be the deck you send out to investors, you take the deck and cut out all the words which are not necessary for an in-person presentation. This will give you the deck that you present. Keeping the two decks in sync with regards to slides, order and design will make it easier for someone who saw your deck recognize it in your pitch.
The best pitch deck fails to deliver if your overall flow isn’t right. Flow has as much to do with the logical order of your slides as it has with a certain level of theatrical drama (tension/relieve) and your personal delivery.
Guy recommends ten slides in the following order:
- Your solution
- Business model
- Underlying magic/technology
- Marketing and sales
- Projections and milestones
- Status and timeline
- Summary and call to action
Personally I think this is as good an order as most. Some people like to talk about the team earlier (as investors invest into people first and foremost), others have specific slides talking about some intricate issues specific to the business they are pitching.
For me, it comes down to a logical order: talk about the problem you’re solving first, then present the solution (the tension and relieve arch), and what feels good for you. I prefer a slide deck that is a bit off but comes with amazing in-person presence over a great slide deck and an uninspired presentation any day.
Note that you want to have a bit of drama in your deck — yet it’s not your school play where you try to outcompete Shakespeare. Don’t spend half an hour on building tension and then, TADA!, present your solution. In the end it’s all about balance.
And hey, send me your deck and I’ll provide honest, direct feedback. I won’t bite. Promise.