I’ve heard thousands of pitches from hopeful CEOs of startups in a vast array of formats. Many investors have strong views on what to include or not include in a pitch deck.
But in my experience, I see that the founder is telling a story, and you can’t be formulaic about a story, so you should shape it in a way that reflects your business and team.
I do have some key advice though, that applies to all pitches and could increase the chances that an investor pays attention to you. These apply to the deck, the market analysis and the meeting itself.
Put your most important information first. Give everyone in the room a reason to pay attention in the first 2-3 slides. You can’t expect them to keep hanging on until you give them the reason to be interested in you. Try to tell them why they should listen with one simple message. What that message is will vary depending on what is the biggest strength of your business. Generally it’s one of three things:
I am regularly asked, “Should I have a team slide in the front or back?’ It depends on how strong your team is. If everybody on board is new, save that slide for later. If your results are still early, but you have an A+ team in terms of experience, put that in the front.
If you already have strong traction with your market then this should be one of your leading slides. Paying customers (especially happy ones) are the ultimate measure of your success so tell the potential investors about them immediately.
This is the ‘why now, and why you’. If you can explain the product or service in clear, simple terms and there’s a powerful answer to those two questions, then this is your message to put at the front.
Now we come to the rest of your deck. Focus on metrics. They’re critical to telling the story.
Metrics make it easy to convey what’s going well in your business: they distill the whole thing into a language others can understand. The quantitative story becomes more important as you move from early stage to a more mature business, until eventually the numbers are doing almost all the heavy lifting. Investors will tell you they want to see your vision, but I’ll tell you this for free: your vision is easier to see when numbers back it up.
Do you have great sales efficiency? If so, include a slide on that and give a short narrative around it. There are limits to this as a tactic, however. Don’t put up something ridiculous like “We grew 1000%” or “We have an infinite CAC/LTV ratio” — it doesn’t encourage investors to take you seriously.
THE MARKET ANALYSIS
Lots of decks include a huge Total Addressable Market (TAM). That’s not useful in a pitch; billion-dollar markets are everywhere.
What is more important is outlining what the problem is that you’re solving and what the solution is that you’re suggesting. Think about your market from a concrete, bottom-up perspective. Take the perspective of your actual customers (real or imagined, depending on what stage you’re at) and try to outline the specific sector you’re going after instead of a generic TAM. Use customer use case examples to explain what they’re actually doing with the product.
Secondly, mention your competitors. Being transparent about risks as you see them reveals that you’re thinking about the business beyond the pitch. I have often asked tough questions in pitch meetings and the answers sound canned and pre-packaged. To an investor, evidence of thoughtfulness is crucial to understanding the team — it shows them that you can see where the gaps are.
When it comes to the meeting day itself, here are my best pointer.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
It sounds obvious but know who you’re pitching to. At the most basic level, make sure it’s a qualified meeting; the chances of convincing a later-stage investor to do a seed investment is zero.
More specifically, you should know your potential firm’s portfolio of current and past companies — successes and failures alike. Have they invested in businesses similar to yours? Are there any deals you know have gone sour that would be good to avoid mentioning?
On a deeper level, try to research the actual partner you will be talking to. The firm may operate as a team, but you have to convince a specific person to bet their career on you and if you can find things in common with them, all the better.
Pretend it’s a seven-minute meeting.Two universal truths of first pitch meetings are 1. You need to deliver a tight, focused presentation, and 2. The goal isn’t to get a term sheet — it’s to get to the second meeting.
The first couple minutes of any meeting involves some light chit-chat. Once you’re at that stage, pretend you only have five minutes to get through your pitch. Technically, you might have as much as an hour in the room, but pretending you only have five minutes will give you focus. Remember that your goal is just to get that second meeting: you don’t need to cover every single detail in minute exactitude.
LEAN IN TO EGOS
Bear in mind that most people have egos – many like to think they’re the smartest one in the room – especially investors! During your meeting, someone will likely challenge you on something: even if they’re dead wrong, don’t argue with them. You’re not going to get them to invest by arguing with them. Even if you win, that means they lose, which won’t endear them to you. This doesn’t mean you can’t take questions head-on and discuss them. The difference is in the approach – take it an opportunity to engage and to teach someone something rather than being defensive.
You might occasionally run into someone who’s just decided to treat you poorly. In those (hopefully rare) cases, move on and don’t think twice. It’s probably their issue and you don’t want their money anyway.
LEAVE THE DEMO IN YOUR POCKET.
This might be controversial, but I always advise against giving demos at a first meeting. They’re time-consuming, and investors may not understand enough about your product at first brush to justify burning those precious minutes setting up and executing your demo. Also, the demo doesn’t do as good a job of answering “Why you? Why now?” as you should be able to. If your investor asks, be ready to give it, but otherwise keep it in your pocket.
You should never walk into the room alone. Bring a co-founder with you who can take notes, not just on what was said in the meeting but on your own delivery, what questions were asked and was anything brought up that your deck didn’t cover?
You should be able to learn something from every pitch. There’s no rule against practicing your pitch too. Find some smart friends to act as investors who’ll give you honest feedback. Consider asking your pretend investors to bring along friends you don’t know, and practice giving your pitch in front of strangers. Take notes, learn, iterate: it can only help.
Originally published in the Startups Magazine