There have been millions of words written and probably millions of classes taught on how to pitch a startup idea. But, with each new batch of presentations I see, it is obvious that we have no universal standard of excellence. Every crop requires coaching, even up to the last minute. Some hit the mark and some just don’t. This essay adds a few more words on this particular subject, with emphasis on the importance of matching your pitch to the viewers at hand.
Among the presentations I saw last week were some that anybody could understand, e.g. a Christmas movie filmed in the summer in Canton, GA, and others that required a deep understanding of the nuances of a particular technology segment, e.g. IP management in music distribution. With respect to the latter category, a polished presentation by a credible entrepreneur can win you over on first impression, but no checks are written until somebody really gets the idea.
How do you accomplish your mission of conveying your concept to the point that funding follows? First, you’re clearly better off if you are pitching to someone who is already experienced in your market segment. The title above is what you suffer if you are trying to educate a generalist on a topic that requires years of relevant immersion to comprehend and evaluate. You may get to the right recipient by pitching to the masses and stumbling on a lucky connection in the audience, either someone already in your field of interest or a person who knows a guy who knows a guy. Preferably you first try to enhance your odds by looking for investors who are in similar companies, who clearly have pertinent staff expertise, and who have dry powder for more such deals. Most VC’s and practicing angels are pretty open about deals they will entertain and those they won’t. It’s not hard to research them and then to exercise your connections to arrange meetings with the ones where neither your time nor theirs will be wasted. If you win over a lead investor of that nature, perhaps broader funds will pile on based on their faith in that leader. Everyone is happy.
That said, even if you are talking to people who speak your language, you still have to pay attention to the fundamentals of any investment proposition:
Have you defined a product or service that addresses an unmet need in your market and can be delivered at a palatable price? What proxies do you have to support that? Are you creating a market on your own, or do you have competitors to help you? Do you have a clear grasp on what behavior you are changing or what process or product you are replacing? Purchasing decisions are not necessarily based on merit; they are affected by inertia, history, sloppiness, and other idiosyncrasies of bureaucracies or of irrational individuals. You may be totally blind to what folks would consider a substitute for your offering. Don’t drink too much of your own Kool-Aid.
Is your offering repeatable and therefore easily scalable from a lab experiment to a business of consequence? If you can replicate your process over and over again with ever decreasing skill sets in the field and less dependence on remote decision making, you have a more convincing story. Creativity gives way to uniformity when you really earn your way into the big leagues.
Are your numbers believable? Of course you made them up, but at least make up numbers that show you are raising enough money to enable your venture to reach escape velocity either via revenue or highly likely subsequent rounds of financing. And, do a waterfall analysis to be certain that a potential investor can make a venture-like return on the deal. If you don’t address those key metrics up front, you can be sure a VC’s summa cum laude MBA analyst will do the calculations for you, and without the benefit of your innate enthusiasm for the deal.
How do you actually start your business? That’s not a simple question and often calls to mind the proverbial chicken-and-egg issues. Exactly how much to have to prove in order to win an investor or your pioneering customers? Where do you get the financial and human resources to reach that proof point? You’ll hear the term “de-risk” more than you can imagine. Money and talent aren’t normally available for an idea that has both development and customer risks. It will seem to you as if investors only want to take a chance when you’ve already proven you have a viable product and have 5 years of recurring revenue booked. I’m not meaning to sound pessimistic, and I have written essays specifically on the topic of “starting the start.” What you should do on day one is not always obvious, and all your subsequent days must fall in line with those earliest key decisions.
How long do you stay in stealth mode? It does you no good to get PR when you as yet have nothing to sell. There’s a period of time when you must keep your cards close. You should line up you strategic partners and investors, your key team members, and your early wins in a sequence such that when you make some news you can cash in on that notoriety. Your goal is not to impress your family and friends or to stroke your ego, it’s to sell. Have something to sell please before you go out placing second in public pitch competitions. After a while, even your own kids, if you have any, will be smart enough to ask the hard facts about how your business is doing. At a surprising early age they will be subject to peer pressure about what mom or dad do every day. Press coverage won’t pay their tuition bills.
Finally, is your offering contemporary? Activities of years and month past are less important than what is happening now. Yes you need to show financials that encompass your history, but you’ll lose people if anything about your pitch is stale. Artificial intelligence and monetizing data are so 2017. Nearly 99% of the plans I have seen this year lead off with blockchain. Find something in your technical roadmap that includes that, and you’ll be good to go. There’s a new term for that – “blockwashing.” Never go out unwashed, lest you risk literally pitching into the wind.