Your pitch deck will become the single most valuable communication tool to use with external audiences of all types and you will use it for multiple purposes. You’ll use it for presentations to investors and if you ever decide to pitch at a pitching event, you’ll obviously need one for that too. In the old days we actually wrote out a 20-30 page business plan. Today, your pitch deck serves as a summarized, and visual version, of a business plan.
- See related article titled “Why Participate in a Pitching Event”
- See related article titled ‘Don’t Waste Your Time on a Business Plan’ Doesn’t Mean Don’t Plan
There are a few different philosophies about the ideal flow of information in a pitch deck, but I usually prefer to use/see what I most often encounter. That is what I’ll describe in this article. For each pitch deck section, I’ve provided a couple of tidbits and things to consider. But I could write an article on each section by itself, so don’t limit yourself to the things I’ve mentioned.
This article explores just one of the topics covered in Chapter 4 (Your Fundraising Toolkit) of my bestselling book “Startup Success – Funding the Early Stages”.
You can listen to the pitch decks portion of the chapter now, and if you’re interested in the book, you can find it on Amazon here.
It’s Your Story to Tell
Before diving into the suggested flow of your pitch deck, I want to mention that your ultimate goals are to Tell a Story and Take the Audience on a Journey. The slides in your pitch deck are there to support your storytelling. You should also have a “backstory” or theme that weaves through your narrative and explains your original and continued drive/motivation. An article in the April 2016 issue of Entrepreneur magazine (titled “Five Ways to Tell Your Brand’s Story”) included a couple of examples that I really like:
- “The old way had to change”
- “Nothing else like this existed, so we built it”
- “We know your problem and have a solution”
The second key principle for a great pitch deck is to build the slides around a foundation of the most significant conclusions you want the audience to draw. Before typing words onto slides and deciding about the order of the slides, decide ahead of time what you think/desire the audience to conclude after reading/seeing/hearing your pitch deck. That’s your critical foundation, and the content in your pitch deck must shine extra light on these areas. Another way to think about it is to imagine your pitch deck could only support the 2-3 most important things you want the audience to conclude. That’s the foundation.
Below are some examples to make sure you understand what I’m referring to:
- This company’s market opportunity is HUGE
- These founders are total bad asses and winners I want to bet on
- Wow, they’ve got some unbelievable traction already
- Their solution is 10X better than anything in the market today
Typical Pitch Deck Flow
Now let’s proceed with your pitch deck flow, starting with the infographic below.
- What problem do you solve?
- Why is the problem worthy of being solved?
- See my related article titled “Vitamin or Aspirin – Which are you Offering“
- See my related article titled “Use Storytelling to Describe the Problem You Solve“
- What market are you in?
- How big is it? (see related article titled “Sizing Your Market“)
- How fast is it growing?
- Are there any significant market trends that relate to your strategy and will help you succeed?
- What is your offering?
- What value does it provide? (benefits, not features – see my related article titled “The ‘So What’ Rule“)
- What does it look like? (one product shot or screen shot, if elegant, professional and/or helpful to explain the value)
- Do you have any unfair advantage against competing solutions or alternative approaches to solving the problem? The focus hear is on the unfair advantage, not just basic competitive differentiation.
- How does it compare to the competition? (A 4-quadrant diagram is usually most effective, with your company in the top-right quadrant. You get to decide what the axis are. If this doesn’t work for you, consider a multi-column checklist with your company as the first or last column, or possibly a Venn diagram with you in the middle)
- How do you make money?
- What is your average transaction size?
- How do you acquire new customers (customer acquisition model)
- What evidence do you have that your business model is working? Revenue is often the best indicator, but there are numerous other ways to evidence traction.
If you don’t already have an established customer acquisition track record, see my related article titled “Establishing Valuation Before Revenue Traction” for additional ideas
- Who are the key members of your team and what are their roles?
- Are any of them specifically relevant to the opportunity you are pursuing (domain expertise, etc)?
- Advisors and board directors can be mentioned here, if needed
Call to Action
- What do you want from the person you are pitching to? It’s usually funding.
- Are you raising money? If so, how much and why is that the right amount? (see related article titled “How Much Should You Raise“)
- What will you accomplish if you get what you’re asking for. In other words, if you’re raising funding, what will you accomplish over time via the new funding. This is really important and you can get more insights in my article titled “Investors Write Checks for Outcomes, Not Activities“.
Pitch Decks During the Pre-Launch Stage
If you don’t have a shipping product and paying customers, you might be frustrated by all of the recommended things to include in each section. Don’t worry, every startup has a pre-launch pitch deck and you will too. Instead of communicating what you’ve already done, you’ll communicate what you are planning to do and what you expect to happen.
I wrote an article titled “Your Initial Business Plan is a Huge List of Assumptions“. The examples of important assumptions I describe in that article are what you’ll include in your pitch deck. The quicker you can validate the assumptions, the quicker you can update your pitch deck accordingly.
Slide Titles & the Glance Test
Don’t title your slides “Problem”, “Market”, “Solution”, etc. That’s missing a huge opportunity. Instead, what is it that you want the audience to conclude for each slide? A short version of that is the best title. Also make sure to use my “So What?” rule to make sure you’re getting to the best possible message.
Here’s another trick. When you’re done with the slide titles, copy and past them into a document by themselves but in a sequenced list. Imagine your audience only saw that list. Does it seem exciting and compelling? Does it flow correctly? Where are the high points of most excitement. Sometimes starting and ending with these high points can be a good strategy.
These two tips also help with what I refer to as the “glance test”. If you’re ever required to email your pitch deck to a prospective investor before being able to present it, they usually will give it a quick glance by flipping through the slides. When I say “quick”, I literally mean 20-30 seconds in order to determine if they want to go back to the first slide and spend 4-5 minutes giving a closer review. During their quick glance, they will mostly read the slide titles, look at any diagrams/graphics/graphs as well as any big, bold text. Titling the slides as I’m suggesting here will dramatically help you pass the glance test.
In highly simplified narrative form, the final result might flow something like this: “There is this really hair-pulling problem in a huge market. We developed an ideal and unique solution, figured out an efficient model for making money (business model), and have evidence (traction) to validate that our business plan and long-range vision are sound. We’ve assembled the perfect team and just need $250K (call to action) to achieve our next significant set of milestones and continue on a track to make you a lot of money in return.”
Some investors/VCs like to learn about the Team first. If the experience and credentials of your team is one of your biggest selling points, then I can see the benefit of covering it first. If not, then I prefer to first get the audience super excited about the problem you solve and the way you go about solving it. Then you don’t have to hide behind any team deficiencies and hopefully you’ve already secured some solid advisors to help show how you’re shoring up the team gaps. And never forget that if all else fails, traction can save the day because it’s almost impossible to argue with evidenced traction!
Another possible augmentation of the flow is to insert a Summary slide immediately before the Call to Action. On this slide, list the three most significant or impressive aspects of your pitch. Just don’t include “soft” items like team passion or commitment. This approach is convenient when your Call to Action relates to fundraising but the audience for a particular pitch isn’t an investor.
Most sections will only have 1 slide. The solution section is the one that might have 2-3 slides because you might decide to drop in a screen shot and might decide to show how the solution compares to competition. Maybe also for the Business Model or Traction section if you have more important things to say than will fit on a single slide. Your objective is not to jam as much info as possible on each slide but rather the important info. And your narrative dialog can fill in any gaps.
What about financial projections?
Some startups like to incorporate 1 slide for this. I usually recommend having 2-3 slides for the backup section (see more about that below) that pertain to operational and financial projections.
If you decide to incorporate it into the main pitch deck, consider my idea above about the Summary slide and put both the financials and the Call to Action after the Summary. Keep any financial projections in the main deck section high-level and graphical to help tell your story. If the investor wants to “double-click” on them, you can have additional details in the Backup section.
What about your exit strategy?
I don’t personally like including this in the standard pitch deck because it come across like you’re potentially too anxious to sell the company as soon as things get interesting. I think it’s better to show how you’re going to build a great company and let interested investors ask the exit strategy question. Check out my article titled “Answering the Exit Strategy Question” for more insights.
What about a backup section?
I think it’s fine to include material in the backup section. This usually represents the things you wanted to put on the main slides for a given topic/section but couldn’t find room and couldn’t prioritize it higher than the other content you put on the slide. The reason to have it in the backup section is to be able to respond to a specific question where the added content is helpful when answering. The last time I raised a Series A, after about the 15th investor meeting the backup section was longer than the main section.
Charts and graphs, roadmaps, financial projections and the like can make for good backup section content. But if you ever need to email the pitch deck to a prospective investor, you might want to remove the backup section. Remember, your objective is to get a face-to-face meeting and you don’t want them making their full decision based on your emailed pitch deck alone.
Easy, right? Now you just need to fill in the proper content for each section. At a minimum, take your existing pitch deck content, arrange it this way, and give it a try to see what you think about the new flow. It must feel natural and get the desired reaction from the person/audience you’re pitching to. If not, refine and repeat until it does. Also remember to keep the So What and Yeah, Right rules in mind as you make bold or important claims.
I didn’t cover anything related to pitch deck format and style. If interested in that for an on-stage demo day presentation (different than an investor pitch deck that can have more detail and is typically viewed from 2-10 feet away), check out this great article by Kevin Hale.