- Your deck should tell a story and like any good narrative, it should be compelling, credible and concise.
- Grab investors’ attention in your first slide and work to hold it as you describe the product, opportunity and team.
- Balance enthusiasm with reality; investors will see right through over-inflated promises.
How to build a captivating pitch deck
In many cases, your pitch deck will be your calling card: It’s what investors will see even before they agree to meet with you. Ultimately, preparing a pitch deck is an exercise in communications — you must tell a story that hits all the right notes.
When evaluating your startup, investors look for 5 key things:
A clear explanation of the problem you’re solving
The size of your market
The ability of your team to make it happen
But how do you squeeze all that information into a concise and compelling pitch deck?
“The best decks provide a narrative,” says Karin Klein, a founding partner at Bloomberg Beta, Bloomberg LP's venture arm. “The deck can show that a founder has thought through the critical aspects of her business. The deck also gives a glimpse as to whether the founder can sell, including if she'll be able to recruit the right team and win customers and partners.”
A typical VC or angel investor may see hundreds of pitch decks every year. They may take 2 to 5 minutes to read it before deciding whether to meet with a founder, which is why, VC Jean de La Rochebrochard, says it “must be both complete and short.”
While a stellar pitch deck won’t land you a term sheet immediately, you need to know what goes into the best of them, what’s essential, what’s optional and how best to communicate your proposal effectively. These eight tips will help you stay focussed:
1. Create a compelling and concise story
“The best decks have a cohesive story,” says Klein.
Most great stories grab their audiences right off the bat. Your pitch deck should do the same, opening with something relatable about why you’re passionate about the opportunity, or why others should be, says Klein.
In its 2004 pitch deck Facebook nailed it, leading with this compelling quote from the Stanford Daily, the university’s student newspaper:
“Classes are being skipped. Work is ignored. Students are spending hours in front of the computer in utter fascination. The facebook.com craze has swept through campus.”
This killer quote not only conveys excitement but also tickles the reader’s curiosity about what these college students are so fascinated with – it must be good? The founders followed this up with a concise, one-slide description of what the product is and how it works.
Not every founder will have such compelling material to open with. But take the time to distil the essence and impact of your proposal into a clear message.
“Simplicity is helpful and shows a clarity of vision and the ability to sell,” says Klein.
As you move past that opening slide, think about keeping your story concise. Ideally, your deck should be between 10 and 25 slides, with each one furthering the story about the exceptional opportunity you’re offering.
2. Can YOU describe your business?
Explaining what you do, of course, is critical to your deck and pitch and while that’s obvious, it’s surprising how often founders struggle with it, Klein says. “The inability to describe the product is an issue,” says Klein. “As a founder, you’re closest to what you’re building. It’s worth seeing if someone outside of your company can explain what you do after reading the deck.”
In the opening slides of its often-cited pitch deck, Airbnb left no confusion about what it did. “Book rooms with locals, rather than hotels,” the first slide proclaimed.
By the third slide, the reader knew exactly why that idea made sense. “Save Money. Make Money. Share Culture.”
“I want a deck that right off the bat, on the first slide, tells me what this company is about,” says Ariel Poler, a serial entrepreneur and prolific angel investor. “That starts with a good impression. From then on, I know what I am looking for. I know the context.”
What applies to the opening, applies throughout. Simply put, keep it simple. Don’t clutter your slides with too many charts or too much text.
3. Show, don’t tell
Of course, nothing increases investor confidence more than being able to actually see what your product does. “At Bloomberg Beta, we believe a product demo is more useful than slides,” says Klein. “One is a description of a thing, the other is the thing itself.”
Fear not, good slides can convey the essence of what a product achieves or looks like too. Klein recalls the successful deck of one tech-enabled startup in real estate, a sector famous for its “location, location, location” motto. “The deck included visuals so the reader could almost experience being in the locations,” she says.
Similarly, slide five of Facebook’s pitch deck showcased the product by using an image of a profile page, the core part of the social network at the time. The screengrab showed the main features of a profile, demonstrating the kind of information you could access about your Facebook friends.
4. Don’t exaggerate the market opportunity
Every founder likes to boast that they’re tackling a billion-dollar opportunity, or more. If that’s what you're doing, great but you better be able to explain to investors why.
Generalities and overinflated potential risks leaving the impression that the entrepreneur “doesn’t know the market or is trying to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes,” Klein says.
Poler, who has invested in the likes of AdMob, AngelList and Change.org, agrees. He’s met founders in the healthcare field who say to him: ‘“Look, healthcare is a trillion dollar- industry,’” he says. “‘Well yeah, but you’re doing knee replacement. That’s not a trillion-dollar business.’”
Regardless of how big your market actually is, investors want to know you’ve put a good deal of thought into understanding the opportunity. Klein remembers being impressed by one founder who didn’t have a defined market segment for her product, but came up with a smart workaround, showing that adjacent markets were enormous.
5. Be honest
A great deck doesn't pretend that you're right and everyone else is wrong. You must be honest not only about the strengths of your product, but about the challenges it will face too. Plus, if your competitors are doing things really well, don’t try to hide it.
“If you have a unique approach or a unique angle that’s going to give you an edge, you should show that,” says Poler. “That’s going to win you investors. But don’t pretend everyone else is an idiot and only you get it.”
As you explain what’s different about what you do, famed investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman recommends you consider pitching by analogy. This helps to give clarity around what you’re offering in the context of the current market. In LinkedIn’s case, he called the service a “professional people search 2.0,” much like eBay was “goods listings 2.0” (replacing newspaper classifieds) and PayPal was “online payments 2.0” (replacing bank payments).
6. Demonstrate that you and your team are right for the job
You have to convince investors that you have the right team to execute on your vision. This means highlighting professional backgrounds and successes, however that alone may not be enough.
“Obviously you want to feel that the team has done things that make you feel they will do this well,” says Poler. “But you should explain why they are the right team to do this specific project. It's less about what credentials and whether or not they have the generic skills to do this, but why they are relevant to this particular business.”
The team slide for LinkedIn pitch, for example, showed an impressive bench that in addition to substantial entrepreneurial chops and technical expertise already had experience in the then-nascent world of social networking.
You should also consider your team’s diversity. “When everyone looks the same on the team slide,” Klein says, it could send “a negative signal.”
7. Focus on substance over slickness
It sounds strange, but a very slick and highly produced pitch deck can be a red flag to investors. “If I see something that's too polished, I worry the entrepreneur doesn't have their priorities straight,” says Poler.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t work hard on your deck. But focus on substance. “We shudder at the idea of founders spending lots of time making fundraising presentations,” Klein says. “Whether perfect or otherwise, give us anything you've already made — financial model, deck, background materials. It helps us make sure our conversation is more of a discussion.”
Before you send the deck, make sure to get rid of the “version 36” file name first.
8. Know your audience
Now you have a deck you are proud of, what do you do next? Figure out which investors may be the right fit for you and your business.
“So many entrepreneurs seem to just ignore this point and go like, ‘Okay, let me go to the top 25 investors and boom they just hit send,’” says Poler. Finding the right targets for your pitch is “more important than anything that's in the deck or how good the deck is,” he adds.
Among the things you need to research about potential investors: areas of interest, investment thesis, targeted investment size, existing portfolio, and investment climate. You’ll also want to pay attention to what the ecosystem says about how those investors treat founders and who they are as people.
“Ask yourself, ‘Who is going to have open ears and be receptive,’” says Poler. “If there's no chemistry, you're wasting your time and your money.”
Takeaway: be concise, relevant and honest
Keeping your deck concise and relevant is key to success when it comes to pitching to investors. Ensure you tell your story in a compelling way, with evidence to show your product and why investors should get excited about it.
But remember you could have the best pitch deck in the world but if the investors aren’t the right ‘buyers’ then it’s wasted. Do your research and pitch the to the VCs that have potential and expertise in your market or product area, it’ll save you a lot of time and effort and gives you a much higher chance of getting investment.
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