Startup Pitching 201

This is the 2nd post in the “Startup Pitching” series. In this post, we’ll go over intermediate-level (201) techniques.

1. Dead seagulls

Let’s say you are talking about pollution after an oil spill. What works better: slide after slide with tables of numbers and nested bullet points of text or…

Dead seagull covered in oil


Humans respond to images at a primal, emotional level. Your slides should have few words (aim for 6 or less) and powerful images. You need to not only communicate the logic of your presentation – you need to connect to the audience emotionally. Images are critical for doing so. High definition photographs tend to connect better than cartoons. Clipart almost never works.

2. Front-load credibility

Funders are cynical. They have to be because about half of all angel/VC investments lose every penny invested. Similar rates of failure (to-achieve-results vs financial return) are common in the nonprofit funder world. Any claim you make is therefore treated with suspicion. But… if you place some major credibility-enhancing facts into your second or third slide, the audience spends most of the presentation positively inclined to you and more likely to believe your claims. Examples of good content to front-load:

  • For “I have an idea” concepts: Interviewed over 100 potential customers, 75 of whom have signed a letter of intent saying they will buy our product if we can build it.
  • For pre-seed companies: “We’ve secured pilots with these major players in the industry…”
  • For post-revenue companies: “And I’m happy to say we’re not just an idea, we have our first paying customers, they are…”
  • For any company: if you have people on your team who the audience would recognize as world-class “Our team includes one of the world’s top engineers in this field” or “This isn’t our first rodeo, this management team has built and sold 3 companies in this vertical.”

3. Plant seeds, don’t tell it all

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

― Thomas Jefferson

If we go back to the dating analogy from the last post: you’ve just met that special someone at the bar/event and you get your chance to speak… do you tell them your whole life story? If you try… things won’t go well! Your job is to tell them just enough to earn the privilege to spend more time with them.

So, simplify your pitch. If your product solves 10 pain points then in the pitch focus on the top 2-3 most important ones and simply hint at the others. This sets you up for questions during the Q&A period that you want to get.

4. No BS financials

Almost every slide deck any funder has seen has a slide that looks just like this…


The numbers go up and to the right and resemble a hockey-stick curve.

Guess what? If everyone has a slide just like this, then you are not differentiated.

Another typical slide looks like this…

Typical slide financials

Mature companies have lots and lots of data to back up their projections. But a startup has almost no data. All you have is… pure BS. Show a slide like this and you’ll have to defend it. It is hard to defend BS :).

So don’t. Don’t even show a slide like either of the ones above. Instead pick the top 3 numbers that describe the economic engine of your company. Show the audience that you know what drives your costs, what drives your revenue, and how to attain profitability. If you show them this information and they ask questions, now you are on solid ground.

Something more like this:

Like other companies in our sector…

Our biggest cost is customer service, which scales up a little slower than 1:1 with our number of customers.

Our revenue is driven by the number of active subscribers we have.

Because retained customers are much more profitable than new customers the key to profitability is high customer retention.

The content here inspires confidence. It inspires questions you can easily defend because they will be based on the information you’ve worked hard to learn about your market.

Some people object that the purpose of the financial slide is to convince the funders there is a big enough financial opportunity. No! That is the purpose of the Market Size slide!

5. The one (maybe two) number rule

Most people can’t hold multiple numbers in their heads. You can put as many numbers on a slide as you like, but people won’t process them. In fact, if you show too many numbers they’ll almost certainly process the numbers incorrectly!

Less is more.

If you have multiple numbers, think very hard how to boil that down to the 1 number (at most 2) that gets at the essence of the matter.

Here is the normal way (BAD!!!!). These are the projections for a royalty-based investment fund.

too many numbers

This brings up lots of uncomfortable questions. How is each of the scenarios defined? Are these multiples attractive? Some of those IRRs (Internal Rates of Return) are very unattractive…

Now compare that to this…

Each company in the portfolio that succeeds generates a 1x return for our investors.

This dramatically simplifies things. The story it is telling is “Wow! If they can get even one company to succeed I get my money back. That mitigates a lot of the risk. And then I get multiples for each company after that.”

That is the power of simplifying your numbers.

6. Use relative values

People have a tendency to site absolute values for industry-specific metrics. However, the only people who might know if these numbers are good or bad are people with deep domain knowledge. Everyone else in your audience (which is probably everyone in your audience) has no idea what these numbers mean. So you’ve wasted their time and/or confused them.

People don’t know what to compare your numbers to. So make it easy for them. Don’t give absolute values, instead convert them into relative values. Here are some examples.

  1. Turn “We added 1,000 customers over the past year” into:
    “Our customer base has doubled in the past year”
  2. Turn “20 customers in the 1st month” into:
    “We acquired as many customers in our first month as our competitors had after two years.”
  3. Turn “We spend $1.24 on materials” into:
    “Our gross margins are 75%.”
  4. Turn “523 people responded to our initial emails” into..:
    “Our initial emails conversion rate is 5x the industry standard.

7. Prep for Q&A

Amateurs “wing it.” Professionals prepare. Here is how to prepare for your Q&A session.

  1. Consult with teammates and mentors to create a list of the 3-7 high-priority questions your audience will ask.  
  2. Create a slide (or set of slides) for each. All the same rules of good slides from before still apply (ahem… DEAD SEAGULLS!!!)
  3. Try to have each team member standing on stage answer at least one question during Q&A. Do this by divvying up question areas. This lets the audience start to realize just how much smarts are on your team.

Next post in the series: Advanced (301)| View all posts in the “Startup Pitching” series

3 thoughts on “Startup Pitching 201

  1. Pingback: Startup Pitching Checklist – Paul G. Silva

  2. Pingback: Startup Pitching 101 – Paul G. Silva

  3. Paul, I’m going to disagree on point 4. I hate top-down market slides, because they are even more BS than the projections. I like both the chart and the spreadsheet extract as long as the key revenue and cost drivers are also identified. And those drivers (e.g. number of customers) have to be related to a total addressable market (e.g. how many potential customers there are).

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