The same way that many recruiters see a never-ending stream of resumes coming through their pipeline, most venture capitalists (VC’s) have no shortage of pitch decks in their inbox to review.
Pitch decks are a lot like resumes. Most are never read word-for-word. They are, at best, scanned ever so briefly.
A lot of the same advice that’s given to job seekers with regards to their resumes applies to startup founders looking to craft the perfect pitch deck:
- Keep it as short and concise as possible, without omitting any important information.
- Structure the information in an audience-friendly format.
- Avoid typos at all costs.
- Do your best to grab the viewer’s attention upfront.
- Customize the document for each organization you share it with.
- Expect it to be shared.
- Allow the document to stand on its own.
In addition to making yourself aware of the general expectations a pitch deck carries with it, consider it’s purpose for the stage of your company. Are you raising money? If so, how much?
Generally speaking, the more money you are raising — and the further along your company is on the growth curve — the more substance VC’s will expect to see in your pitch deck and/or in the supporting appendix.
For most early-stage startups, 10-15 slides will suffice (less than ten is even better). In this tutorial, discover a framework for building a concise deck, based on the information most VC’s agree is important to include. Then, with this framework in hand, it's up to you to make your pitch deck compelling.
1. Cover Page
Target length: 1 slide.
Answer the venture capitalist (VC) concern: "Who is your company?"
Proudly display that company logo that you worked so hard on. Taglines are optional. Done.
2. Vision Statement
Target length: 1 slide.
Answer the VC concern: "What does your company do?"
Great startups often have great one-liners (some consider this the ultra-abbreviated elevator pitch). This is important for a number of practical business and marketing purposes, but also for your pitch deck. A great one-line, or two-line, vision statement will grab your audience’s attention, plant the initial seeds of curiosity, explain to a large extent what it is your company does, and give your audience something to remember you by.
Don’t shortchange yourself by failing to consider whether or not your neatly packaged vision hits on these key points. Rather, spend some time researching and testing your pitch messaging until you’re extremely comfortable answering the VC question above in ten seconds or less. Think of your one-liner as some amalgamation of your mission statement, your grand vision, and your tagline.
Some popular examples of great one-liners are:
3. Market Opportunity and Problem
Target length: 1-3 slides.
Answer the VC concern: "Why should I care?"
The market opportunity should adequately address a few areas. First, you should demonstrate that the market is large — preferably in dollars. VC’s like billions, not millions. Therefore, the arena you’re playing in should represent a sufficiently attractive opportunity, and it’s your job to convey that in a valid manner.
Next, detail the specific problem that your company is going to solve within the market you’ve identified. For a startup to succeed, the problem not only needs to be real, it needs to be painful for the customer. So, to the extent that you’re able to reflect that pain in your deck, you should do so; and the more painful it is, the bigger win your solution becomes. In addition, detail the existing solutions to the problem you’ve identified and highlight why they’re inadequate.
Lastly, in the process of painting the picture on market sizing and the problem you’re solving, make clear who your target market is by identifying your target customers: the people/companies currently feeling the pain.
Target length: 1-2 slides.
Answer the VC concern: "How does your company fix this?"
Your audience should be feeling the pain and seeking a solution. So, naturally, proceed to go into detail about how your startup is solving the big, expensive problem you’ve outlined.
In an attempt to minimize the guessing game, be clear on exactly how you’re solving the problem with your new product or service. Use screenshots, metrics, ROI calculations, usage data, etc. to support your proclamation of Problem solved! Also, provide information about the technology or strategic partners you’re relying on to solve the problem.
At some point in your pitch deck (this section is a good place for it), include evidence that supports the timing of your solution. In other words, answer the why now question: Why is now the time to invest in your solution (versus a year from now)? Is the market ready for a solution like yours today? If not, any potential investor may be quick to point out that you might be too early for adequate market adoption.
5. Traction and Goals
Target length: 1-2 slides.
Answer the VC concern: "How far along are you?"
The traction slide can, quite literally, make or break your pitch deck; it's critically important. Without some proof of product — market fit, your company is still an extremely risky proposition to any prospective investor.
VC’s, in particular, are typically geared to avoid involvement until some specified level of traction has been reached. Traction can come in the form of revenue, users, growth, a scalable product, and some combination of your other key progress indicators (KPI’s, which vary heavily based on your business model). Bottom line: don’t sell yourself short in outlining your progress.
In addition to traction, use recent history to set some (reasonable and attainable) goals for your company. Utilizing a timeline graphic is a great way to show both where you’ve been and where you’re headed.
Below is a great example of a simple yet effective timeline-approach from the team at Buffer (see their full deck):
If you’ve been generating revenue for some time and, thus have some solid financial data, the goals portion of your pitch deck should take the shape of more formal financial projections. That said, building too many assumptions into your financial projections would typically render them meaningless to a VC. So, don’t waste your time if you’re not quite there yet.
6. Business Model
Target length: 1-2 slide.
Answer the VC concern: "How do you (or will you) make money?"
As simply as possible, describe your business model and (if you have them) the source(s) of your revenue stream(s). Whether you’re utilizing an ecommerce, freemium, software-as-a-service (SaaS), pay-as-you-go, B2C, B2B, or ad sales model, make it clear what direction(s) you’re pursuing. Of course, as often happens with startups, things may change, but without a current plan in place to generate significant revenue, you’ll face some pretty long odds on securing funding.
If you have a tiered pricing model, include a graphic or table that illustrates your approach. In particular, VC’s will be interested in the pricing axes you’ve chosen to scale with. So be prepared to defend your reasoning.
Below is a screenshot of Salesforce’s pricing model for their SaaS business:
7. Competitive Landscape
Target length: 1 slide.
Answer the VC concern: "Who are you competing with?"
The best competition slides utilize a matrix, diagram, or chart with company logos so that the playing field can be visualized and competitors segmented with relative ease. So, take your list of direct and indirect competitors and turn it into a simple, compelling infographic. A graphical representation helps identify differentiation points in much less space than text alone.
The pitfall to avoid with the competition slide is to assume that, because your startup is so unique and innovative, you have little or no competition in the marketplace. It’s always best to overestimate and really do your research on current competitors, as well as potential entrants to your space.
Target length: 1 slide.
Answer the VC concern: "Who are you working with?"
A fairly obvious, but not-to-be-overlooked, component of your pitch deck is your team slide. Be sure to highlight the most pertinent information for each founder and/or C-level employee (provided they’re not extremely well-known figures) as it relates to your current undertaking. In other words, focus on the experience each member brings to the table that translates well to your current industry, business model, or product.
Put your collective best feet forward. Round out the slide with your Advisory Board, Board of Directors, and optionally, any key future hires. Keep in mind that headshots are always a nice touch.
9. The Ask
Target length: 1 slide
Answer the VC concern: "How can I help?"
As you’re wrapping up your pitch, be clear about what it is that you’re looking for. Most of the time, this will be some sort of funding (either equity or convertible debt). Provide as much information here as you’re comfortable sharing (and being shared without your permission).
As an example, you might note that you’re seeking a $1 million convertible note, $250 thousand has been committed, there is a $3 million valuation cap, and a 20% discount. On the other hand, you might simply indicate that you’re raising money without relaying any specifics whatsoever. Either way, it’s your call.
If you’re not fundraising, and you’re looking for key introductions or advisors, the same rules apply: be clear about your ask.
10. Contact Information
Target length: 1 slide (optional).
Answer the VC concern: "Who should I contact if I’m interested in learning more?"
Be mindful of the fact that your contact information will likely be forwarded on and shared without your direct knowledge. That said, make it extremely easy for any interested party to get in touch.
Target length: As many as you need.
Answer the VC concern: "Where can I find more information?"
Despite the fact that the goal is always to be as concise as possible throughout your pitch, it’s a good practice to build links into your deck that lead to supplemental information. The easiest method for doing so is to append additional slides as needed, which are complete with tables, charts, numbers, analysis, or any material that you think may be useful at the end of your pitch deck. Place this after "The Ask."
Putting it All Together
The most important concept to bear in mind as you build your pitch deck is that the sum of the whole should follow the format of a well-told story. While I’ve presented the framework above in a certain order, the slides should be ordered in a way that best supports the story of your company and your pitch. For example, if your team is one of your biggest assets, it may make sense to move that slide to the beginning of the pitch. Present all of your information in the most logical flowing and advantageous format possible.
The next most important concept to bear in mind is that great pitch decks are — like most great things — a matter of opinion. If you get advice from five VC’s, CEO’s, or Advisors on your pitch deck, you’re likely to get five completely different opinions on what works and what needs to change. At the end of the day, however, it’s your call.
Note: This article is aimed at first-time founders of early-stage companies. Expand on this framework in areas such as financials and marketing for later stage companies (see LinkedIn Series B sample below).
- Great pitch deck examples: Pitch Envy.
- More great pitch deck examples: The Best Startup Pitch Decks.
- Warning, pitch deck mistakes to avoid: Top 10 Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Investors.
- Pitch case study: LinkedIn Series B Pitch to Greylock.
- Graphic credit: Slides designed by Chance Smith from the Noun Project.