How to pitch your startup like a rockstar
One of the most important yet underrated things a startup founder has to do is a pitch. Pitch investors, pitch clients, pitch potential hires — the list goes on. It’s an essential part of moving your company forward, yet so many founders don’t know how to explain their business in short form elevator pitches. They say things like, “I hate talking to investors,” or worse yet, they can’t clearly explain what they do at all. We call that ‘Founder Head.’ It means that the founder is so caught up in the daily grind and deep activities of their business that they can’t resurface to a place where outsiders can clearly comprehend what they are working on. Essentially, the founder’s head is so up in the clouds or deep in the sea, the whole business sounds much more confusing than it actually is.
Why is that? Founders and founding teams have this problem so often it should be diagnosed by startup doctors. It comes from a place that is completely normal and understandable, but it needs to be cured before you start telling people about what you are working on. Otherwise, the result is often a black-hole-inducing pitch that leaves the audience comatose.
So, how does someone create a killer pitch?
Here are the steps you should follow:
Step 1: Who’s your audience?
Step 2: Outline the pitch
Step 3: Design your deck
Step 4: Practice makes perfect
Now let’s look at each step closer.
Step 1: Who’s your audience?
Always start here. Without knowing your audience, you can’t truly craft a memorable pitch. Are you pitching customers about why they should use your product or are you pitching investors about why your startup is going to be a unicorn? Those are two entirely different messages with audiences who have different goals. Your customers want to be successful in their role and for their business. They have budgets and managers and product demands. They need to know more about how the product works than investors do. The investors, if they are VCs, are trying to make money for their investors and themselves. They need 1% of their portfolio to make 99% of the returns. They need you to be a differentiated product with innovative technology and a team that can scale in a giant market. The upside needs to be huge, but they don’t need to know the nitty-gritty in a first pitch meeting. They need to get excited.
Also, think about the different goals of attendees of different types of events. A demo day audience versus a conference room of investors have different norms and needs
To make sure you clearly define your audience ask yourself two questions:
Who am I pitching and am I speaking in their terms?
What is their goal and am I reaching it?
Step 2: Outline the pitch
Never, I mean NEVER, start designing your pitch deck first. Start with bullet points. Always. You’ll save 80% of your time when creating the pitch deck itself.
An example of this for a demo day deck would be:
Intro - one-liner of the company
Problem - today we are seeing an 80% decrease in understandable pitches
Market - and this is a huge problem because the market for pitchers is $100B
Product - this product fixes pitches with 99.9% accuracy
Team - the team has pitched 5,000 times in the last 12 months
Traction - and our product has grown 10X in 3 months
Vision - join us and fix pitches forever with our notable investors
Exodus - one-liner and logo of the company with a founder email address
Step 3: Design your deck
Yes, actually have a designer (of some kind) design your deck. This is a pitch after all. You want the people you are pitching to look at you with confidence and flare, right? You want them to think you know what you are doing, yes? Well-designed decks, just like well-designed websites, increase trust with their viewers. Ask your friend, fellow founder, or use a deck design service and you will not regret it. From there you can simply make your edits and use the initial structure of the designer to keep it looking pretty, clean and simple.
Just remember these deck design tips:
Show, not tell - make your deck visual
Easily understood - every slide should be understood in 1-3 seconds (we sometimes call this the ‘Mom Test’ - is the slide easy enough your Mom could understand?)
Add a CTA (call to action) - what do you want your audience to do? Invest? Download your app? Email you? Let them know at the end, or add your email to every slide. That’s what we ask of 500 Startups accelerator companies for San Francisco demo day. Add your logo, website, and email to the top right of every slide.
Here are a few decks you can reference:
Mixpanel raised $65M with this deck.
Don’t copy the design, but here’s Foursquare’s first pitch deck.
Step 4: Practice Makes Perfect
Okay, so there isn’t anything that is truly perfect, besides maybe a Fibonacci sequence in nature, but really the goal here is to push towards perfection.
You should be practicing your pitch 100 times before giving it to your first investor or potential client. Even then you should be pitching the easiest investor or smallest client first, building up your experience to the smarter investors and bigger customers. Iteration is key during these early stages of practice pitches. Make small tweaks to improve clarity and make the pitch so easy a caveman could do it.
Think of your pitch as a waveform. You want to entice and excite, but you can’t make every slide or bullet point a joke or surprise. You need to start with an attention grabber and methodically move through the pitch in a way that keeps attention high and distractions at a minimum. Use Easter Eggs, or market-specific surprises, to hold attention. Recently, I was told by a founder in the social impact space that served the deaf community that only about 30 to 45 percent of the English language can be understood through lip reading alone. That surprised me and showed the value of their product. That’s a good Easter Egg.
Other things to remember when practicing your pitch:
Talk like a normal person, don’t be overly pitch-y.
Do research on the person and firm you are talking to in order to ask good questions.
Start strong, end strong. Capture attention and hold it.
Don’t share everything, in a first meeting your job is to incite excitement.
Only use the time you need, don’t fill time just because. Investors and business people, in general, will respect that you value their time. Also, you have other pitch meetings to get to anyways, right?
Be confident and guide the meeting, but also listen and observe your audience carefully and take cues to if they are interested. If not, you need to alter your course and ask questions or take steps to engage further.
Videotape yourself and pay attention to how you stand (best to plant your feet unless you walk the stage naturally), where your hands are (not in pockets), and how good your eye contact is when scanning the crowd (or empty chairs if you don’t have one).
Time yourself and make sure you slow down the pace of your story and enhance your voice during important points or slides.
Don’t memorize your pitch word for word. Know the key points and be practiced enough that you can observe and react to the audience.
Overall, people remember stories. Your pitch should be fluid from one point or slide to the next and tie together from beginning to end.
If you go through all these steps, you will be in a much better place with your pitch. Remember, lean into your secret sauce or superpower. Know what your presentation strengths are. Are you powerful and aggressive, thoughtful and clever, or smart and comedic? Is your core story about a founding team that created Google Analytics, or a machine learning technology that’s never been seen before? Knowing your personal and business strengths and doubling down on them is what will move your pitch from the 80% of forgettable follies to the 20% of practiced poignant pitches that investors and decision makers remember.
Tristan Pollock is a startup advisor and pitch coach who has seen and given over 5,000 pitches in his career as a startup founder and investor. He raised $10M for his last startup and has invested $30M through his time as a Venture Partner at 500 Startups. If you need help creating or refining your pitch deck for investors or customers, drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or say hello at @pollock on Twitter.
Also, here’s my long-standing, highly regarded, and somewhat funny Art of the Pitch presentation that goes slide by slide through all of these topics and even includes some slides from my own pitch decks I’ve used to fundraise and sell tens of millions: https://www.slideshare.net/TristanPollock/the-art-of-the-pitch-by-tristan-pollock