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It’s Time to Rethink the Startup Pitch Deck (Here’s a Start)
On Tuesday, we put out two different sample pitch decks that we think can guide entrepreneurs as they try to communicate the information behind their companies. Although pitch decks are well-trodden territory online, we tried to introduce decks that were specifically designed for how they would be used in practice. In particular, we introduced a version that I lovingly refer to as the “super-short deck with kitchen-sink FAQs.”
You can see the example deck embedded at the end of this post, but in summary, it’s a very short document (five to seven slides) followed by an extensive appendix that maps to the most frequently asked questions a founder is likely to face.
What distinguishes this deck is that we think it’s designed for the way most seed stage fundraising conversations actually happen.
The days of walking into a VC’s office, putting up a deck on a screen, and then going into your song and dance are largely gone, at least for your first few interactions with a firm. In particular, this is very foreign when you are talking about pitching an angel investor or seed fund, especially if you have done your work to get a good, qualified intro.
Instead, this structure of a deck is super useful in the various interactions that actually happen. For example:
Often, first interactions begin via email. You may be able to open the door through an intro, but often, an investor would love to see a deck. This ask is sometimes made of the referrer, or else it’s made directly (e.g., “Can you send me a deck so I can see if this is a fit to ensure I don’t waste your time?”). Usually, this leads to a conundrum. Founders don’t love the idea of sending a full deck with all of their hard-learned information to investors with whom they’ve had very little interaction. But it’s also hard to say no to a request like this.
What you are able to do with the short deck is to send along the first 5-7 slides without the appendix. This should give the investor the gist of the status and progress of the company, and you as the entrepreneur can tell the investor that you have materials that go really deep into the details in a subsequent meeting.
As part of this, I’d also include a link to the LinkedIn (or Behance, Dribbble, GitHub, etc.) profiles of the team for reference. This just allows for a natural and appropriate level of information sharing via email.
Usually, your first few interactions with a VC are with one or two team members. In that context, what is the most natural thing to do? I promise you it is usually not to go slide by slide through a 15-20 page deck. Even if that’s how a VC is wired, I think founders can kind of guide these conversations to seem more like discussions and not a pitch.
In almost any scenario, when you meet someone to have a discussion, you start much more casually. You introduce yourself. You talk about how you know the person who referred you. You tell your story about how you decided to start your business and how you met your co-founders. It’s more of a narrative that initially doesn’t fit into slide form. From there, it’s usually helpful to have some structure, which is why having some slides is usually a good thing.
So, the setup for these meetings is something as follows:
“Let me tell you a bit about who we are and why we started this business. We can keep it conversational, but I have a handful of slides that can help guide the discussion.”
You should be able to get through the 5-7 slides pretty quickly. But along the way, an engaged investor will pepper you with questions. This will require some improvisation, but some questions warrant just a verbal response (even if you have a slide) to keep the conversation flowing. But in other instances, you’ll hit pause, and then flip to the FAQ slide and dig deep there.
(Oh, and if the investor isn’t asking questions or isn’t engaged, just end it and move on. Your time is too valuable, and early stage fundraising isn’t about convincing skeptics, it’s about finding true believers.)
If things go well, you leave the investor feeling like:
- There is a simple, coherent, and succinct story behind your company.
- You have exuded a mastery of the details of your business and good preparedness.
- The beginnings of a rapport has been built through the flow and authenticity of the conversation.
After the Meeting
After a meeting, many investors will ask for a copy of the deck. This is used for a document of reference and for sharing the story with one’s partners for feedback.
As a reference item, this format is again very helpful, because it’s very neatly organized by topic. Story matters a lot less for this purpose. And hopefully, this structure reinforces to the investor that this founder really has their act together as a result.
As a sharing deck, the short explainer-plus-kitchen sink deck leaves a good “blink” reaction as it gets passed around from colleague to colleague within the firm. If the recipient is checking it out while on the go, the fist seven slides allow them to get the gist really easily and quickly. They probably won’t dig deep into the FAQs in this context, but having them present again communicates that you have your act together.
For colleagues that have more time at the firm, they aren’t really looking through the story but instead focus on the details. Often, as a second opinion for a partner, I see my role here as digging deep into one or two questions that I have particular expertise on, so I can quickly get to the thoughts that the founder has presented and evaluate from there.
Later in the process: If there are further discussions, usually you stray away from the deck at that point and instead dive into specific questions. But if you are going through the process in a parallel fashion (i.e. with multiple investors progressing along similar stages in your fundraise), and you decide to create material to answer an important question that came up, this material can just be easily slotted into the deck without messing up any sort of flow. So this short-plus-kitchen sink structure is also very flexible later in the process if you are still using a deck.
Time to create the deck: I submit that this deck format takes a lot less work to create than some other formats. It’s actually pretty hard to think about how a story comes together in a coherent fashion, and the more you decide you want to say in your story, the harder it is to weave everything together. This structure allows you to focus hard on a five- to seven-page story, and from there, you can think about how to best communicate the discreet pieces of your business and strategy that are important to understand.
Warning: Don’t feel like you need to create every single slide in the templates we offered. This list is a superset of what you’d want to include, but it also might leave things out that are critical for your specific business. If you don’t have real meat around a question — or just think it’s not that important to include — don’t force it. I remember in the old days when a lot of founders wrote text-based business plans. I found that most of the content was useless because it was clear that a template was used, and thus many sections were filled just because they existed.
Less is still more, even in a set of FAQs.
(Note: At the time this post was published, SlideShare was experiencing an error displaying cover slides. Just click through and back again to refresh, or download the actual templates here.)