Pitching advice for startups

Last weekend was the 10th Startup Weekend event. A sell out, with 118 people attending. From their 1-minute pitches, 15 or so teams were formed Friday night, who dutifully worked their way through their idea(s) before presenting in front of judges Sunday night. Most of them had a working product and some even had revenues by that time.

Earlier on Sunday afternoon I presented to the attendees on what the judges love and hate in pitches. Here are my slides, and also if you want to watch my talk, it was also recorded (20 minutes).

Here’s my basic advice:

  1. Know the criteria your judges (VCs or whatever) are judging you on. For Startup weekends it’s 3-fold: the business model, customer validation and execution & design.
  2. Start with the problem – preferably a huge, global problem. A problem that you just have to scratch, the itch is that strong. Define, describe and explain it, clearly. For if you are not solving a problem, you are not creating any value, and if you don’t create value for a customer, they are not going to pay, and if they are not going to pay, you ain’t got a business. So, on your first slide – explain what the big hairy problem is. And how you’re going to solve it.
  3. Explain how you have validated your solution – what evidence do you have that customers have this problem, like your solution, and will use and pay you for it? Surveys are nice, but usage of your piece of tech is better. And actual dollars from paying customers (not your Mum!) is best. Only when people are parting with their cold, hard cash do you know if there may be a business in it.
  4. Explain why you and your team are going to be the ones to solve this problem. Investors mainly invest in people (not an idea), because they understand that ideas can change but you remain. Above all the other opportunities they pass on, they have to believe that you have the determination and grit to keep going, when the going is really, really tough. Which it will be, often. So provide evidence of your toughness under pressure, and how the super blend of your amazing team is perfect for the challenges ahead. This should come across in your voice, your manner and your tone. You sound confident, but not overconfident. Strong.
  5. Don’t do crazy valuations or overly confident projections. Banish all ‘hockey stick‘ cash flow and revenue charts, showing slow, low revenues then some astounding take off to amazing heights after only 18 months. Rarely, if ever, (never?) do startups actually take off like this. It can take years of trial and error, pivots and tantrums, to get to a position where you are even paying your way, let alone making super normal profits. It did for AirBnB (who launched 3 times), Google (who had no business model for years) and many other very successful unicorns.
  6. Beware the ‘China number’ syndrome. ‘Oh, the market we are entering is a $20 billion market… if we’d only grab 0.05% of it, we’ll all be multi millionaires!’ This is lazy. Tell me how you are going to get your FIRST paying client, and why they will pay, and then tell me how you are going to get your 10th, 100th and 1000th… Explain, in detail, your customer acquisition strategy, and how you will scale.
  7. Do a great demo of the tech you have built, but better to do this through screen shots, not through live demo, which is fraught with problems in a live environment in front of 100+ people and judges looking on. Make it swish, have a great UX and show off the elegance of your solution. Mention what you would next do, and like to do next, given more time.
  8. In your slides, don’t inflict death by powerpoint. Use images rather than words. Use as few bullet points as possible, with a large easy font. Not too fussy, the slides are supposed to be a visual aid, not a crutch for you to lean on. In a 4 or 5 minute pitch, you may have 6 to 8 slides.
  9. Enjoy it. Smile! Engage your audience and the judges. Allow your passion to shine through.
  10. Practice, practice, practice. You should be able to nail your presentation after a few run throughs (at least half a dozen), and your timing should be bang on. There is no excuse to be rushed towards the end. Take things out if they are peripheral. You can always refer to other points during Q&A time. Aim to be word perfect, no ums and errs, no awkward moments, just one strong, believable logical argument with evidence.

Hackathons, like Startup Weekends, are a great way to condense months of learning into a 54 hour period. All the trials, tribulations & tantrums are smashed into 2 days… little sleep, anxiety, things breaking, things not working, arguments, chaos, and even triumphs… I highly recommend them.

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