Tyler Tate

@tylertate

Startup Cheat-Sheet: How To Create a Winning Pitch Deck

So, you want to wow investors with an amazing pitch.

You may be tempted to jump straight into Keynote or Powerpoint to get started. Don’t do it! Here’s the secret to a great pitch:

It’s not about the slides; it’s about the story.

So how do you tell a compelling story about your company to investors?

First, figure out which type of story you should be telling and make that narrative into a sandwich, emphasizing the key point at the beginning and again at the end. Next, use your problem and solution statements to emotionally and intellectually engage your audience, and be sure to adequately address all the expected areas in the deck. With all that in mind, you’ll be ready to follow a three simple steps to craft your winning deck.

Choose the right story to tell

The first and most important thing to decide about your pitch is which story you should be telling. Fiction may have seven plot archetypes, but pitches tend to fall into one of four narratives, listed here in order of strength:

  • Traction. This is the story you want to be telling. Maybe your revenue or user base is growing really fast (> 20% month-over-month), or you’ve closed deals with a major customers or partners. If you have traction that will impress investors, then tell a traction story.
  • Team. Maybe you don’t have wow-factor traction yet, but you and your cofounders are successful second-time founders or have a management team with impressive pedigree. In that case, tell a people story.
  • Technology. Or perhaps you don’t have strong traction but have created a technological breakthrough in an important field. Then you could tell a technology story.
  • Vision. This is the story of last resort. If you don’t have impressive traction, a highly regarded team, or a technological breakthrough, then you have to fall back on a vision story of how you want to change the world.

Be realistic in your self-analysis of what qualifies as “impressive.” Every founder thinks they have an awesome team and technology; the question is, what will investors think? If you’re not sure which story you should tell, then get some feedback from investors or other founders. (Andrea Barrica, a former 500 Startups pitch coach, wrote a blog post discussing these four narratives and other pitching tips.)

A pitch that didn’t go according to plan from HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Make a sandwich

To capture investors’ attention and help them remember you, open the pitch with your company’s single most impressive achievement to date, and then highlight that achievement again at the very end. This what Dave McClure likes to call the “traction sandwich” (though it could also be a team sandwich or technology sandwich).

Open the pitch with your company’s highest achievement.

If you’re telling a traction story, then call attention to your traction in the first 30 seconds. If it’s a people story, then open by highlighting your awe-inspiring team. You want to capture the audience’s interest at the very beginning so they sit up and pay attention, and then leave them with that One Thing To Remember at the end.

Invite investors into a conspiracy

Once you’ve decided whether to tell a traction, team, technology, or vision story and have a good idea of your opening and closing, the next step is to develop a strong problem and solution narrative. This as a key opportunity to get your audience intellectually and emotionally engaged with the problem you’re solving. One of my advisors, Joe Malcoun, once told me this in an email:

I recently heard someone say that a great pitch is one in which you create a conspiracy and then invite the potential investors in on being part of the solution. Present a problem in a way that they are arguing for a way to solve it before you even tell them how you intend to do so. It makes sense. When smart people are confronted with a real problem they go into solutions mode quickly. That’s where you want the investor before you share your own vision.

It’s certainly easier said than done, but has the potential to make your pitch exceptionally engaging if you’re able to pull it off.

Answer the right questions

We’ve talked about the opening and closing, and the problem and solution statement. What else needs to be in a good pitch deck? Guy Kawasaki’s list of 10 slides is a solid start. I’ve added a couple more, bumping the list up to a dozen:

  1. Title. Your company name and one-line description.
  2. Problem. What pain point are you solving?
  3. Solution. How are you tackling the problem?
  4. Secret Sauce. What’s the underlying magic of your solution?
  5. Business Model. How do you or will you make money?
  6. Traction. How much revenue? How many customers?
  7. Market Opportunity. What’s the size of the market you’re tackling?
  8. Competition. Who are the other players in the space?
  9. Team. Who’s on the management team?
  10. Roadmap. What are your plans for the future?
  11. Ask. How much money are you trying to raise?
  12. Summary. Company name, and summary of key metrics.

Some of these are more important than others. For instance, Problem and Solution almost always appear toward the beginning, while Roadmap and Ask might be omitted until you go in for a partner meeting. Also, the number and order of slides isn’t what matters; what’s important is that you tell a compelling story. Story first, slides second.

An infographic of Guy Kawasaki’s 10 slides.

Follow these three simple steps

Now that you’ve chosen a story to tell, honed your product and solution narrative, and know the questions your deck needs to answer, how do you go from these abstract concepts to a real, live pitch deck? Here’s a simple three-step process I learned from Eric Bahn, my 500 Startups mentor:

  1. Write your story as a series of one-sentence bullet points. Let each bullet address one of the 12 topics listed above. Try to make the bullet points flow together cohesively to form a cohesive paragraph.
  2. Turn each bullet point into a slide, using the bullet point sentence as the headline.
  3. Add one piece of supporting matieral to each slide. It could be a visual such as a chart or photograph, or it could be a key metric that reinforces or illustrates the main point.

If you follow these steps, you will have a clear, concise pitch deck that an investor can quickly skim the headlines and come away with an accurate understanding of your company and pitch.

Here’s an example—a pitch deck I created for Crema.co while in 500 Startups. Notice how the headlines flow together like a paragraph, and how each slide focuses on a single idea.

Make a few different versions

You may want to create a few deck variations to serve different purposes:

  1. Email deck. This is the deck you send to a potential investor by email at the beginning of your interaction. The purpose is not to get a check; the goal is to pique their interest enough to get a meeting. Keep your most impressive slides, remove any slides that introduce more questions than they answer, but get it down to under 10 slides. I recommend using DocSend to share the deck so you can track who actually views it.
  2. Investor deck. This is the full-size deck you present at the investor meeting, and then email them afterwards as a follow-up. It should be the most detailed of the three.
  3. Demo day deck. While the first two decks are designed to be consumed in isolation, a demo day deck is intended to be accompanied by your polished verbal pitch. In this case, you want to avoid the impression that you’re simply reading the slides. My advice is to take your normal deck and delete all the headlines, leaving just the supporting visual on each slide. This creates a healthy dynamic where the audience can focus on you rather than the screen. Here’s a video of my demo day pitch for a side-by-side comparison with the deck above.

Andy Spark has created a list of public pitch decks for additional inspiration.

Get lots of feedback and keep iterating

Despite all the advice in the world, creating a great pitch deck is hard work. To make the process as efficient as possible, get feedback early an often—including at the bullet-point stage. Then, start practicing your pitch in front of others and keep iterating. Most decks are never “done”, but constantly evolve.

By figuring out which type of story to tell, crafting your problem and solution as a conspiracy that you invite the investor into, and using the three-step process to create a coherent, focused narrative, you’ll be armed with a winning pitch. Remember: it’s about the story, not the slides.

Other Startup Cheat-Sheets

This is the third post in my Startup Cheat-Sheet series. Here are others:

  1. How to Incorporate Your Company
  2. How to Close Your First Investor
  3. How to Create a Winning Pitch Deck
  4. How to Hire Employees & Advisors
  5. How to Get Into an Accelerator
  6. How to Run a Crowdfunding Campaign
  7. How to Track the Right Metrics
  8. How to do Cohort Analysis
  9. How to do Inbound Marketing
  10. How to do Outbound Marketing

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