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Don’t Waste Your First Slide

By Joseph Flaherty

In my role at a venture capital firm I have the good fortune to see a few dozen pitch decks a month. Some are brilliant, and others require more time to bake, but almost all of them waste the first slide.

The modal pitch deck cover slide features the company’s logo, a tagline, and sometimes, a cliched clip-art pattern in the background. Like adding two spaces after a period or indenting a new paragraph, this convention is a holdover from an earlier era. Don’t think of the first slide as a cover sheet on a fax, but rather, as a billboard to sell your company.

Why should you care about this slide? It’s often on screen longer than any other.

Here’s How VC Meetings Often Play Out:

  1. The entrepreneur arrives at the VC’s office.
  2. An admin helps set up the computer to present. (You should always have a deck.)
  3. An associate/principal joins you and makes small talk until the VC arrives.
  4. When the VC arrives you kibbitz for a few minutes about the mutual contact that introduced you, or some shared interest to break the ice.
  5. Someone else from the firm will join the meeting at the last minute with no prior briefing on the company.
  6. Then, the entrepreneur starts the presentation by laying out a vision.

While all of this is happening, minutes pass, and it’s just your logo sitting in the background. Why?

Highlight Your Product On Slide 1

The VC knows your company name; it’s likely been on their calendar for a week or more. They’re probably less familiar with your client list or the nuances of your product. You’ve got a captive audience, so use this period of time to advertise your impressive progress.

Do you have great design or an interesting UX? Flaunt it!

If your product is a SaaS tool with a boring looking product, feature the logos of big-time clients to establish credibility.

Here’s an example:

Imagine a startup trying to enter the multi-billion dollar weight loss market by productizing the concept of “mindful eating.” In most cases, the cover of the slide deck would look something like this:

Maybe there would be some generic tech/mandala pattern photoshopped in the background. An ambitious variant might overlay the logo on a stock photo of some overnight oats. Still, most decks start off with a comically oversized logo and an anodyne tagline, not far off this purposefully bad example.

Would you want to join this team? Do you have any interest in the next slide?

We can do better.

A Better Example:

This app does not exist, has no relationships to these institutions, and is for illustrative purposes only. App design by Julie Kim & Ashley Engelhardt.

This version of the slide won’t win any design awards, but it adds a few important elements to the experience beyond the logo.

App Screens: Viewers get a rough idea of how the product works and the brand ethos. The viewer may think it is too cutesy, or not fully grok the user interface, but there’s a real product to contend with.

Note: There are dozens of inexpensive smartphone templates that non-designers can leverage to show off screenshots that make apps look so much more professional. Use them!

Logos: The addition of brand logos brings 3rd party validation to the project. Even if the logos are just for pilot customers, it demonstrates commercial acumen. If you have a boring or functionally invisible product, don’t be afraid to highlight more customer logos.

For example, venture capital is a product that’s hard to visualize, so at Founder Collective we show off the logos of some of our portfolio companies:

App Store Badges: The product is in the market, and this company can ship on multiple platforms. These tell the VC they’re not funding a vision, but a viable product. Badges may not be the right solution for all services, but something that quickly signals commercial availability is valuable.

Often you’ll be pitching more people than you expect. Graphics like these help them quickly establish a frame of reference for what you are building.

What About REALLY Early-Stage Startups?

Early-stage startups may not yet have many markers of success to showcase, but 3rd party validation comes in many forms. Companies that are just getting off the ground can use other proof points (and these aren’t bad for larger companies either):

  • A positive tweet from a celebrity user: Even someone famous in a niche technical area would carry a lot of weight.
  • A quote from a review in a publication: Whether it’s TechCrunch or a trade rag, a pull quote followed by the publication’s logo demonstrates an ability to drum up press.
  • A five-star rating on the app store: Quotes from anonymous users can be a great way to highlight what customers value in your product.

Unless your logo was designed by a Paul Rand + Ivan Chermayeff hybrid, there is almost certainly a higher value image to feature on your first slide.

Think of Your First Slide Like Your Homepage

Most startups would be well-served by scrapping their first slide and replacing it with a screen-cap of their website homepage. Take advantage of all the messaging effort you’ve already done for your site and apply to your sales deck.

Some founders will argue that they want to establish a vision before they jump into the grubby realities of product and sales. Fair enough, but aren’t people more likely to trust your bold vision if you’ve built a foundation that establishes your bona fides? Like a great movie poster, the goal isn’t to give away the plot, but you should try to pique interest from the first moment.

I don’t want to overstate the benefits of a well-crafted slide in the funding process. If you don’t have an impressive product or market traction, you can’t bling yourself into a Series B. However, if you’ve good news, like runaway user growth or a $20M run rate, don’t wait for the final third of the deck to tell people. The effect size of a slick starter slide is relatively small, but so is the effort required to benefit from it!

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