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By now, pitch decks have a fairly standard format of 10–12 slides that investors expect founders to roughly adhere to: thesis, vision, problem, solution, traction, team, timing, market, competition, financing, and risks and challenges.
The slides in your deck may or may not correspond directly to each of these elements, but each of them should be covered. Some founders will choose to follow this sequence slide-by-slide (one slide for thesis, the next for vision, and so on). You are unlikely to garner criticism for following that structure, but when it comes to putting the elements together, you have options. You might let your company story lead the way, weaving these elements into a narrative. Or you can consider the pitch deck modularly, where each of the elements falls into a different category that you can then work through with more flexibility. We will cover each of these strategies here, and we hope you’ll read through both of them, as they will give you different insights into what you want to convey. You should ultimately design the deck that best demonstrates your company’s mission, optimizes the flow of your story, and fits your presentation style.
It’ll also be helpful to refer to decks created and used by founders who have successfully raised venture capital, to see how they have treated these elements—don’t miss our list of great pitch decks in Appendix C.
At the top of your deck, include the key takeaway message that captures your company’s who, what, where, how, and why. Some people might just call this an elevator pitch, others will call it a value proposition (or “value prop”), others a mission statement. We think it’s helpful to consider the thesis to be a distilled version of the larger value proposition your company offers. Whatever you call it, this is how you introduce your company. Typically your thesis appears at or near the beginning and end of the deck, and possibly at another key point midway through.
It’s crucial to have this statement not just for your pitch deck, but to help you introduce your company to investors through email, and in any situation where you might only have fifteen seconds (like, the time it takes to ride up a floor in an elevator) to intrigue an investor, a potential employee or customer, a reporter, or anyone else.
If you can’t yet explain who you are and what you do in 25 words or fewer, just give it time and give yourself a break. This one-sentence description of your company is asininely hard to produce. You’ll brainstorm for weeks, eventually think you have something kind of cool, and then everyone you share it with will tell you that it sucks, and you’ll go back and start over. Arguably, the best way to come up with this thesis statement is to finish all the other slides first, and come back to this at the end. Working through your company story will also help a great deal, because the story forces you to consider how you want to frame your company’s mission and vision.
Tor Grønsund provides helpful templates for coming up with a thesis (he calls it the value proposition), along with some great examples.
What is your company’s vision for its future—and what will be this company’s role in how the future plays out? At what scale? For individuals, a community, a nation, the world?
One way of looking at explaining your company’s vision is through specific outcomes within a set period of time. What will this project/product/company have achieved in five years? In five years, what crucial problem will it have solved (or be on its way to solving)? Let your audience know where you’re headed.
Try to explain your company’s vision in a single line. In “How to Nail Your Startup’s Vision Statement,” entrepreneur David Henzel lays out the difference between the mission and vision statements and provides helpful strategies for developing each of them. He calls the vision statement “the north star of an organization.” You can find a great example on slide two of YouTube’s 2005 pitch deck, “Company purpose”: “to become the primary outlet of user-generated video content on the internet, and to allow anyone to upload, share, and browse content.”*
Before you dive into your product or the service or technology your company is building, you need to clearly explain the problem that that product, service, or technology is solving. The best strategy here is to think of the problem as a pain point in the lives of your customers. You don’t want the problem to be too abstract, but rather connected to the emotional lives of real people—emotional pain is what motivates people to change from whatever they’re doing (or not doing) now to embracing (and paying for) your solution.
important Figuring out the problem and how to describe its significance may be the most important part of your pitch to spend significant time on—and it’s the most common place where founders go wrong. In fact, leaving out the problem or pain point slide altogether is something of a classic mistake new founders make. You can’t go into a pitch meeting and suddenly start talking about what your company is doing and how it does it. You have to start with why. If you haven’t stated the problem, emphasizing its scale and importance to your customer, you’re not ready to move on to showing investors how you plan to solve it.
Start with a statement of the problem: “10 zillion tons of CO₂ are being dumped into Washington State’s clean water supply every year, and by next year every person and animal within a 100-mile radius will be dead.”
Notice that in this very fake example, the problem stated is clearly huge. This problem needs to be solved. It affects a lot of people, and the people it affects are very affected. A poor problem statement might be something like, “100% of human people have to wait 30 minutes for food delivery when they could be waiting 25.” In this example, the scale of the problem might be large, but the effect of the problem is insignificant.
You should also clarify whether the problem is a new one for customers or an existing one that you’re addressing in a new and better way. For the latter scenario, emphasize why current solutions are ineffective or inadequate, or why this problem has not yet been solved. For example, has the market been ignored? Or is a technology only now emerging that can allow a solution to be developed? Note that this may overlap with the timing slide, which you can move up in the deck if timing is closely related to your problem and/or solution.
When stating the problem your company is addressing, keep in mind that you may choose to make your personal connection to the company’s mission clear, or even lead with your personal connection, if that is part of your story. It is very important to investors that you are able to convince them that your insight into the market is contrarian (you’re seeing something differently), and demonstrate how you were able to arrive at that insight; this often comes out of the founder’s personal connection to the problem, though it may be based in past work experience, research, or something else.
Now that you’ve set up your problem as deeply important to a significant number of customers, transition into what your company is doing or building to solve this problem, and what makes your product or service different.
If you are selling a product and have mock-up images, you can show them now—but you’ll likely be interrupted by an investor saying, “Wait, can I see it?” or “Whoa! Is this live?” If you were planning on delivering a live demo at the end of the pitch, you might have to adjust your flow and do it now. If you don’t have a demo, you’ll have to explain that the pictures are just a mock-up and the real thing doesn’t exist yet (building it may, of course, be a milestone you’re trying to reach through this fundraising round).
important Remember to focus on how it solves or resolves the pain point, and the benefits it provides to users, not simply its sweet features. Typical benefits include saving customers time or money, but the more detail you’ve put into explaining your pain point, the more specific you can be about how the solution will help them.
Explain why your solution is unique, superior, and poised for endurance in the marketplace. You may bring up your personal connection to the problem or the customer community here again; good storytellers will be able to connect their company’s unique position in the marketplace with their own or their founding team’s intimate connection to the problem. Why are you more likely to benefit your users and gain traction than those who have attempted to solve this problem before?
important Finally, express to investors your deep commitment to solving the problem. Remember, the average time to an IPO is 11 years. Investors need to know that you’re in it for the long haul. This could be stated explicitly as you demonstrate your personal connection to the problem (“I suffered with this problem and will do everything I can to make sure no one has to again.”) or how you plan to solve it (“My entire career has prepared me to put this solution into action. All I want to do now is see it through.”) or it might not be specific to any one slide—just make sure you’ve found a way to express your commitment honestly.
If you have any traction—that is, if you’ve acquired any customers, or proven that people would buy your product or service if it were available—don’t delay in sharing that with investors!
Especially when pitching to investors you think are skeptical that the problem you introduced is worth solving (if investors don’t know your secret), this is where you hit them with the numbers they need to hear. If they under-appreciate your target market (they don’t think your idea will scale), and you tell them you have 50K people using your app or visiting your site every day, they’re going to have to open their eyes. (And then grab their partners, because you probably have yourself a deal.)
If you’ve acquired any customers so far, discuss the strategy that led you to acquire these customers and how that strategy will lead to continued customer growth moving forward.
Include information about sales and marketing plans, acquisition costs, and lead conversion rates.
If possible, highlight a few case studies of current customers, including quotes about the value your offering has provided.
If you haven’t yet acquired customers, use projections and show the underlying assumptions you used to create those projections.
At this point, perform a live demo if possible, or provide a link to a demo login. Save technical details for the appendix or takeaway handout if you’re using one.
The team slide may not seem like the most important thing in your deck, but especially at the early stages of your company, your core team is your most valuable asset, and this is your chance to prove it. The team slide can cover any relevant connection your team members have to the pain point (you’ve already discussed your own), as well as the relevant experience your teammates have had that makes them uniquely suited to solving your stated problem.
important Investors know that the number of companies that die because of team dissolution is far greater than those that weren’t able to reach product-market fit. What can you tell them that will give them confidence that this team is devoted to the project and has what it takes to see it through? Also remember that your ability to bring talented people on board with you is something investors are explicitly looking for. “These amazing people could be doing anything, so why are they devoting themselves to this particular project?”
This is also a chance to demonstrate that you’re not on an ego trip: show investors that you know a founder is only as promising as the team they’ve brought together.
To keep momentum, you can wait to get into your team’s story until after you’ve discussed any traction you have. Or, if you don’t yet have traction and can position your team’s story as extremely important to the future success of your company, you can bring up your team after or as you discuss the pain point and solution. No matter what, at some point in your presentation, you need to demonstrate that this team has the vision, experience, and skills to ensure your project’s success.
When discussing your team, you can also include any key advisors or stakeholders who might be of interest to your audience.
caution At the same time, never exaggerate the role that advisors or others play, or their responsibilities to your company. Investors talk and will do their due diligence on all the players you mention.
If there are any roles or skill gaps in the company that need to be filled, you can mention those here, or when you cover your milestones (are there financial milestones you’ve set in order to hire the next superstar?) or your risks and challenges.
Make sure to answer these questions:
If your product is so great, why hasn’t anyone come up with it before now?
If this problem is so compelling, why hasn’t it been addressed before now?
If people haven’t been motivated to address this problem in this way before, why will they be now?
Timing is also a question about the market for your product. Be sure to answer what in the market has changed—either the problem, new technology, or new dynamics—that allows your company to enter the market and thrive.
As you can probably tell, timing is very closely related to the pain point, solution, traction, and your team’s fitness for solving the problem. Depending on your storytelling style and where among these elements your company really shines, this element may appear on its own slide after you’ve discussed those other elements, or it may appear earlier.
For the most part, experts recommend telling a bottom-up market story: how many customers there are for your offering, how much revenue you can get from them, and how you plan to capture them. Make it clear whether you’re disrupting an existing market or inventing a new one.
Doing a top-down market analysis can also be helpful, and involves determining how much of an entire market you would be able to or plan to capture. You can do both.
The purpose is to show that your target market is either already large or will be large. But avoid high-level generalizations like, “We’re entering an $X billion market.” You need to do enough research to understand the size and potential of your target market. For all your data points, provide a clear, justifiable background as to how you arrived at the numbers. For more on how to calculate market size, we recommend reading steps one through five of Bill Aulet’s Disciplined Entrepreneurship.
The purpose of this slide is to answer the following question: If your product didn’t exist, what would customers use instead?
Educate yourself on current, past, and potential competitors in your space, and be prepared to explain what makes you different, and what will make you more successful than your competitors.
There are two parts here:
The first is demonstrating that you understand the competition. List specific company names if possible, and cast a wide net. Include direct and indirect competitors, legacy companies, potential entrants, and customer alternatives. (Be thorough. You don’t want your investors knowing about competitors before you do.) List each competitor’s strengths to show that you understand the challenges they present.
Then, show your competitive advantage. Given the landscape, why are customers going to choose you? Avoid feature list comparisons—every product has features that its competition doesn’t. Instead, focus on strategy: networking, execution, understanding market needs, founder-market fit, business or growth planning, and so on.
cautionThe one thing you never want to say to investors—nor believe in your heart of hearts—is: “We don’t have any competition.” This attitude will not serve you, and it won’t be accurate.
important When you’re building something entirely new, there may not be any companies doing exactly what you’re doing. But for every product or service, consumers have the choice to buy or to use or to do something else. Who does Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, say is his company’s biggest competitor? Sleep.* This is an important lesson. Some competition won’t be other companies. (At Holloway, we consider our biggest competitor to be a cup of coffee with an expensive human expert, or hours of Googling.) Competitors don’t have to be doing what you’re doing or even be as good as you. Just ask yourself: what would people do to solve their problem if you weren’t around?
These slides cover the amount and goals for your fundraising; the milestones you plan to achieve at each funding stage; your go-to-market plan; and growth projections for revenue, customers, and users. Show outcomes for the next one to two years, and include any assumptions underlying your projections. Also include your revenue, if you have any, and current or planned pricing models.
The important thing here is to relate the amount of money you’re raising to specific milestones you need to reach. For example, how will this number get you to cash-flow positive within a year? How will this $500K pre-seed get you to a point where you can raise a $1M+ seed?
Risks and Challenges
Your audience is going to poke holes at perceived and real weak spots in your plan. Anticipate and be ready to address the hardest questions you might get asked—don’t pretend it’s going to be easy.
Demonstrating an understanding of challenges builds trust with investors. Describe any legalities, technology, value chain, or other obstacles that put your vision of success at risk. For example, Airbnb knew that marketing to change behavior would be their biggest challenge—they knew they’d have to convince people that renting out their rooms to strangers could be safe. Spotify knew they’d have to (and they continue to) spend a lot of time and money working out legal issues with producers and artists. Present your biggest challenges, and then explain how you will overcome them.
You may have discussed any skill gaps in your current team earlier in the deck, but if you haven’t yet, you can bring that up here and explain how you plan to source and hire key team members you still need.
Including challenge areas in your company story adds a human element that can help encourage empathy from your audience, and it demonstrates self-awareness, which is definitely something investors are looking for. It’s also important because investors, if they know the industry, are thinking about these challenges as well. Address how you will handle the elephant in the room instead of pretending it isn’t there.
Telling Your Company Story
Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.Dr. Howard Gardner, Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education*
Building an emotionally captivating story for your company is essential in getting investors’ attention—and ultimately in getting them to open their wallets. Founders who concentrate solely on the mechanical details or functions of their product and ignore the story of what it will do and why it matters do so at their own peril. How you frame your company and anticipate the motivations of your investors is the difference between a successful pitch and a disappointed walk home. Storytelling lets your audience make inferences and come to conclusions without being told how to think or feel about your offering.
important Let’s say that again: if you can’t get an investor emotionally interested in what you’re building, they will not invest in your company. An investor’s emotional response will dictate how the pitch goes. If they aren’t excited in the first few minutes, they’re going to be looking for evidence to justify their lack of excitement. If they are excited, they will be looking for confirmatory evidence. The best investors recognize emotional bias, but many will not. This is an unconscious behavior, and if you underestimate the impact of emotions on decision-making, you’re actively selling yourself short and reducing your chances of getting someone to invest in you. And remember, figuring out how to get people emotionally invested in your problem and solution will serve you not just in securing investment, but in recruiting and hiring employees and in reaching customers. Investors know that.
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