A great pitch is essential for any startup founder. A pitch isn’t only useful for a pitching competition, it’s how you will get investors, customers, hire rockstars and build a community that will power your startup for years to come.
Getting your pitch right and knowing it inside out is essential. It’s so important that Techstars dedicates a full third of their accelerator program just to pitching. A pitch isn’t just for demo day, it’s for the life of your company.
Everyone knows what a pitch is, but if you’ve never done it before, it can be a very daunting experience. A pitching competition or demo day isn’t an easy thing to do, but think of it as a forcing function for nailing a pitch that will help a lot of other areas of the business.
We’ve come up with some simple rules that helped Cledara win the pitch competition at SaaStock for Best Startup on the day we launched in October 2018. Members of the Cledara team have won Web Summit’s MoneyConf ‘Best Startup’, pitched on stage at Mastercard’s Annual Customer Summit after Steve Wozniak and done numerous other events, including one in New York with Gary Vaynerchuk and Ariana Huffington.
We’ve helped founders with their pitch at Techstars for the last 7 years and have also been through Techstars as a participant. We hope this guide helps you too!
As a founder, you’re going to be thinking of your business every day. What you do, why it’s important and how you do it is really, really clear to you. Understanding what a company does when you’re not in it, can be surprisingly difficult, especially when you’re not just trying to understand one company, but ten companies, back to back, pitching in 3 minute slots.
Until people understand what you do, they will not listen to anything else you say. They’ll be lost in their own thoughts trying to decipher your business. Therefore, helping people understand what you do very simply right at the top of the pitch is essential if you want to get any of your other messages across.
The best way to do this is to practice your pitch with the team, your cofounders or advisors and ask them to let you know which parts of the pitch weren’t clear or a little long. Either is a red flag for something that can be shortened, or removed entirely.
In my experience, the easiest way to be understood is by telling a story. And if you can make the story about you, or a person, stories become personal and people will engage. Stories are also memorable, which makes it easier for you to get the pitch started well and will help the audience recall what you do.
A simple structure to try is starting your pitch with:
“Hi I’m Leanne, Co-Founder of [Startup name] and this is my friend [Person’s name]. [Person’s name] has [describe problem]. This means that [describe impact of problem in a relatable way]. As a result, [Person’s name] [quantify impact] every year. And [Person’s name] isn’t alone, [explain that there are a lot of other people with the same problem and quantify market size].
This kind of introduction was super popular in the early days of Techstars in London. It seems to be used less now, but I think it’s a reliable way to get started and still use it today. The only word of warning is that if ten pitches in a row use the same structure, the audience is going to notice.
Your startup is probably awesome, otherwise, why dedicate yourself to it? Not only is it awesome, there are probably a whole truck load of reasons why it is awesome, why it’s the right idea at the right time, why your product features are special and you may want to namedrop everyone on the team that’s working so hard to make the dream come true.
Don’t do it. In a 3 or 5 minute pitch, you can fit surprisingly few ideas and still be understood. This often means ignoring the guidance set by the organisers. They may give you a checklist of things they will be judging you on, but if they can’t understand what you do, they won’t listen to you anyway, so always say less things and make sure they’re all simple.
Unless your numbers are obviously awesome, don’t include them in your pitch, even if it’s on the pitch competition checklist. People love to try to quantify startups - how many customers, how much MRR, how many team members as it gives them a framework to understand where you’re at in the journey and how excited they should be about you. It also gives them a chance to easily dismiss you as there will always be a company with bigger numbers.
Your job as a founder is to skate where the puck is going. To describe a future version of the world where a massive, relevant problem has been solved and a lot of value and opportunity unlocked. Putting metrics in your pitch is a narrative violation - inevitably quantifying things today will show that we’re not in that exciting future world yet and it stops people from buying into your vision.
Once you’ve taken out all the extra ideas and made sure you’re telling a story, what should you include? I think the heart of every great pitch is about talking about the problem.
Talking about the problem is important and way more important than your solution. Most people know that the solution you have today isn’t what you will end up with at IPO and the key messaging and features that unlock product market fit are probably things that you don’t know yet. That’s ok, because startups that fall in love with their problem, rather than solution are usually more likely to succeed.
When talking about the problem, it’s good to think about answering three questions, what megatrends make the problem relevant, why does it need to be solved now (and perhaps, why couldn’t it be solved before) and how big is the market for the problem?
For example, at Cledara, when we talk about the problem, we talk about the $400 billion enterprise software market that is all becoming SaaS, that people are wasting $30-60 billion on unwanted, forgotten and unused SaaS every year and that it’s getting more and more complex to manage due to bottom-up selling (think Slack) and remote working.
Once you’ve covered the problem, the other key things to cover on the pitch are the three T’s. You don’t want to go into too much detail, but you do want to demonstrate that you’re special and exciting.
Team is all about explaining why you and why the team is uniquely positioned to solve the problem. This could be because you’ve built a great startup before and know how to build companies, because you have some unique insight or expertise in the space, or because there’s something memorable that makes you stand out. For example, the co-founders of Goin used to design and sell magic tricks and sold to David Copperfield. It may not have much to do with millenials saving (the problem Goin solves), but enough to pique the audience’s curiosity and make them stand out as high performers.
Tech isn’t about explaining your tech stack, or explaining the technically challenging problems you solve, but instead demonstrating that you have some. Show some screenshots of the product, or an animation of it in use and quickly highlight some of the key features. Mention that it’s live, or in beta, or in test, or whatever state it’s in as long as you can demonstrate that you are executing on it, that’s enough.
Traction isn’t what you think it is either. It doesn’t have to be about revenue or customers, but it’s always about momentum and progress. It’s about answering the question - what proof points do you have that there’s a problem to be solved. You can talk about pre-registrations, startup awards, being featured in the press, web traffic, partnerships you’ve done with companies that people will recognise - really anything that can act as social proof.
There’s nothing worse than a great pitch with a weak finish. You’ve nailed your story telling and you’ve engaged people. The next thing is that you need to let them know what to do next. Think of pitches of baiting a hook. You might be hoping to close a deal (or catch a whale…), but you have to lure them first. This means the call to action should usually be about continuing the conversation or trying your product.
If you’re at a conference, let them know where they can find your booth, or let them know where else they can find you. If the call to action is about using the product, consider sharing an offer code or let them know how they can have a demo.
Nigel Verdon, co-founder of Railsbank, refers to this quite eloquently as the ‘SFW Test’ (So F’n What…). Why should the audience care? Why is it relevant to them? For example, if you’re a fintech startup, pitching in a room full of banks, you might want to touch on how you could work together or how you make their life better in some way.
The best way to do this is to keep the structure of your pitch, but always have a slide towards the end of the pitch that you’re comfortable changing to fit the audience. That way you don’t have to re-write and re-learn the whole pitch, but it will resonate with different audiences.
Slides exist to reinforce what you’re saying, conveying emotion and to give you a visual queue to help remember your pitch under pressure. They’re most certainly not an investment memorandum or an offering document. The pitch deck you use on a stage needs to be different to the deck you use to raise your round. The pitch deck does not need to stand on its own without someone talking and so it shouldn’t have too many things on each slide to distract people.
For example, Cledara’s pitch starts by borrowing a line from Marc Andreesen and adding our own spin - ‘Software is eating the world, but we need to make sure that we don’t choke!’. The image below is our first slide - it’s big, bright and fun, so it gets people’s attention and the metaphor of Pacman eating San Francisco is pretty appropriate to what we do.
Startups are hard, and it’s a game of lots of small compounding wins adding up to something massive. At Cledara, one thing we always talk about is the power of the ‘1 percent-ers’. A great example of this is making sure that it’s easy for people to find you after a pitch. Make sure you go to the event afterwards and consider wearing something that is memorable.
If you’re one of 10 white dudes in a black hoodie that pitched that day, literally no one is going to know how to find you afterwards. This doesn’t mean wearing something crazy, even a badge with your company icon on it can work. One of the coolest examples of this I’ve seen though is Stefan, the CEO of Itembase who explains he’s a viking (from Denmark…) and pitches on stage with a viking hat. You can bet that people remember him!
Giving a great pitch can increase your chances of winning, but it doesn’t guarantee victory. Pitch competitions are subjective by nature and not winning doesn’t mean a loss. By pitching, you’re already a winner - a room full of people that didn’t know about your company are now potential fans and advocates. So keep putting yourself out there and build your company one potential fan or customer at a time!
We hope you enjoyed our guide to pitching. If you think we missed anything, or would like help with your pitch, let us know on Twitter at @CledaraHQ.