Three Rules of Pitching for Early Stage Startups

Startup Standup: Academy Edition, Serbia

Startup Standup: Academy Edition, Serbia

If you're an early stage startup fortunate enough to get in front of a potential investor, then you're halfway there. You believe in your product, you solved a problem, and you have abundant passion, so what could go wrong? Your pitch is what.

Your presentation slides aren't in a logical order, which means your story doesn't flow, and your passion gets so, err, passionate, it comes across as aggression (I'll advise on how to hone your passion in a later post). Early stage startups have it tough. They're juggling lots of balls and cannot be good at everything. There's nothing wrong with not knowing everything, but there's something dreadfully wrong with not finding out HOW to do something.

Ultimately, what matters is that you've done your homework, know your market and that an investor knows how much return she'll get on her investment and the risks involved.

"Return: The potential return (AKA upside) on an investment in your business. Risk: The risks that might prevent them from getting that return on their investment." – Joe Garza, Founders Institute Blog

However, here are just three points that early stage startups should be aware of when they create their pitch deck for investors.


1. Keep it simple, don't overcomplicate it.

Don't run before you can walk! I recently worked with two startups who have a long-term goal to release further products or to provide a service based on the success of the first. It was great that they had vision, but they were so excited by it they had crammed four products into the solution and product slide, which complicated and confused what their actual ONE live product was. What they should have been promoting, first and foremost, is an initial product that COULD lead on to the later product or service, dependent on its success.

Concentrate on your current product and keep your future vision for later in the deck. As presentation guru Nancy Duarte once said, 'Don't be afraid to kill your darlings'. You don't need to include everything just because you have an emotional attachment to it. I remember this every time I think I'm getting too attached to workshop content or my own presentation content. I might love a particular exercise, but does it really help others to achieve their goal? Think of your audience, always.

Example 1

Example 1

Example 2

Example 2


2. Your problem and solution must be clear.

Your product or service should solve an existing problem. This problem and your solution should be seen no later than the third and fourth slide in your presentation (the slide you use to 'hook' your audience and your summary slide being a higher priority here). One answers the other. I've sat through pitches and not known what the original problem was until the sixth slide, by which point my brain has been distracted trying to connect the dots by itself, and then I've missed the business model or product slide. It's like having a Google Hangout with a bad connection: your message becomes distorted because 50% of the content is lost.

How the big boys do it.                                                                                                                                                            Image: Maurizio Lacava

How the big boys do it.                                                                                                                                                            Image: Maurizio Lacava


3. State your biggest assets – but keep it logical.

"Your job during the pitch is to say what your biggest assets are, and emphasise what your advantages are over others in your market." – Dave McClure, 500 Startups

Thanks, Dave, sound advice and I agree – as long as you keep it logical! Pitches should tell a story: covering past, present and future (or beginning, middle and end). You wouldn't show a potential buyer of your house around starting with the rooms on the second floor and then come downstairs to the hallway, then into the garden, and then back up to the attic. Think about logical flow. Each slide in your presentation helps build on the information of the previous slide. Remember, you may know your market, competitive advantage and your business inside out (if you don't, then don't even start thinking of your pitch until you do!), but it's your audience's first time to hear your story. Help them understand, take them metaphorically by the hand and lead them through it.

pitch past present future infograp Mar17.jpg


I was recently invited by career consultation specialists NASSCOM to deliver my Pitch Power workshop at their 10,000 Startup Warehouse in Bangalore – a space for entrepreneurs to learn, work and give their companies a real boost. An interesting mix of startups attended; most of them were bootstrapping or had completed a 'family and friends' funding round, and one was fortunate enough to have secured an angel investor. But ALL were at a stage to pitch their startup at events and put themselves in front of potential investors. There was just the question of their pitch decks.

Participants completed group exercises and peer coaching to understand how their current slide deck flowed, what was missing, and whether each slide did its job properly. Each attendee also participated in one-to-one coaching with me. It was a full-on day that had made an impact.

A few days after the training, when I was back in Tokyo, I received an email from one attendee who hadn't had much luck with investors so far. Following the workshop, he had made changes to his deck ready for a venture capital (VC) meeting the very next day. He reduced the busyness of his slide content, brought his problem slide to the top, followed it directly with the solution slide and then his product slide. He only focused on showcasing the one product and pushed the information on the future products to a later slide. He said that just by organising his slides differently he was able to tell his story with more fluidity. Consequently he nailed a second meeting.

I love hearing that workshop attendees have reaped the rewards just because they invested a day's training in themselves. Training is the one item for a startup that is never budgeted for, always pushed to the bottom of the pile, ignored. But I urge founders to look more closely at their skills and knowledge gaps and address them as you would any other problem. Find a solution. You can't be great at everything and it could save you valuable time. Time that is better spent being awesome and growing your business.