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Pitching Not Bitching

Pitching not Bitching

I see a lot of pitches. A lot. I’m not saying I see more than anyone else but the range is probably atypical, and covers hardware, software and service businesses. So I thought this would be a good place to air some peeves – the sort of stuff that gets between a promising project and funding. It might be enlightening, it certainly is honest, and includes some recent road crash propositions that, once I provided feedback, have had interesting reactions.

You see when someone delivers a pitch to me I guarantee they will get feedback as I don’t believe in a polite “not for us” or “we aren’t focusing on this area at the moment”. And I’m not your family or your school mate from the Friendship Stop, so the feedback is going to be pretty raw, but it will be constructive. I’d say sorry about that, but really I’m not. I’m giving my time and brain space and I’m assuming that you want a considered reply and you’re not simply sending your CV all over town hoping for a “yes”. Now I recognise that these decks arrive wrapped in hope and expectation, yet that wrapping often has a very thin skin. Sorry about that.

If we assume that the content of the deck is central to the first stage of a funding process, and I believe it is, then it is important that the story is coherent, interesting and engaging. You might get funding in spite of the presentation but the odds are heavily against you.

I’m not going to give you some pot formula for how to construct your deck, or a simple ratio of time to slides, or an acronym that provides false hope to a bad story, but I will offer you some observations that you might find insightful or enlightening. Many of you will ignore it I know because if someone doesn’t “get it” you simply have to move on to someone who does. Did you really buy that when your incubator mentor said that to you? Oh dear.

I better get to the good stuff because I know your attention span is already straining. But before we move on I want to make the point that you’re asking to spend someone else’s money and that requires a little humility in with the enthusiasm and belief. So remember that your responsibility as a CEO/team looking for financial support is to provide credible but ambitious opportunity to investors and not attitude.

I got this, trust me” This is very common and is the “I’m the expert in this field and not some bloke googling” which I have heard more than once. Here’s the thing, I don’t trust you yet and incoherence in your presentation will turn many funders off and probably make me want to do some research at a minimum. I’m very good at it and if I turn up data that refutes your central premise then I’m going to ask you to support your claim. Understand this is your failure and not mine.

“42% of our addressable market…” My two favourite statistics quotes are: “88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot” – Vic Reeves; “I shall try not to use statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts, for support rather than for illumination” – Andrew Lang. If you quote numbers, quote sources. If you don’t have sources then don’t quote those numbers. It will take me but a second to type it into the sage that is Google, and then I’m going to see the raw data that disavows your assertion. If you need data (and you do), make sure it’s quoted and relevant, preferably primary data.

“We only need 1% of the market” This comes up a lot. It says to me you have no idea of your market. You’ll invariably pitch that the “market is worth $40Bn or some such, so with 1% of the market in five years I’ll get a 40,000% return. No. A bit of research would show you how fragmented your market is and the top 5 companies probably only represent 20% of total market revenue. The spend necessary to challenge the incumbents so rapidly is going to be huge too. Either you are pitching for unobtainable levels of funding or you have an amazing go-to-market plan and I’m wondering why I haven’t heard it before this crazy slide. Don’t do it. I want to see market fragmentation analysis, CAGR’s and outstanding strategy and a very clear differentiation that is at least partially proven.

“We have no real competition” Yes you do. Even if you are creating a whole new market you have competition for funds. There isn’t a magic barrel at the end of your presentation rainbow full of unallocated cash. If you have a unique proposition for your target marked you still need to overcome the inertia that inevitably prevents budget being reallocated in mid cycle.

“Everyone we have spoken to is fired up about the possibilities” So you can see immediately that my first question will be “who have you spoken to?” I hope your answer references a significant survey of people in your demographic and, preferably, all align with your defined target persona…

“Our prime persona is…” Flavour of the year, and quite rightly so. What I don’t need is a mood board. What I want are a rational set of assumptions that underpin your selection of persona characteristics. Now your plan for go-to-market better reference back to your persona or I’d start packing your laptop bag If I were you.

“Our partners are…” These aren’t folks you spoke to once at a conference or a business speed dating event. Partners have strategic involvement and have mutual goals, at least in part. Committed partners are different from a partner slide with a half-truth logo salad on, for a start there will be fewer of them and you’ll be able to name your senior-level contact.

“We have an impressive advisory board” Nice to see them. I am going to ask you the last time the board met on your project. I’m also going to pick someone at random and ask when was the last time you spoke to them, on what topic and what the outcome was. If the guys you want to work with don’t have a clear idea of how you want to engage with their expertise and networks then they aren’t advising you and no-one will be impressed by their name on a slide. Remember it’s a small world and one of us might just pick up the phone and call them. Build your advisory board from expertise that will regularly engage with you and not folks collecting “advisory roles” regardlesss of how impressed you are with their celebrity.

“We are using BlahTeam as our inbound technology” This is going to be radical but automation tools should not drive your go-to-market strategy. Tools have their place and some recent ones have transformational impacts on targeting and prospect tracking. BUT, they aren’t the only thing you need. Filling up a bunch of email in-boxes isn’t the same as prospecting and pretty soon you are going to fall foul of data protection legislation, if you haven’t already destroyed your vestigial brand. The numbers of high quality suspect clients just aren’t in the world that make blind in-bound marketing tools work to deliver early stage business. Hand deliver your early clients. Put that in your deck. Smart selling isn’t a numbers game, its a coherent and empathetic pitch to a very select and well researched list.

“Our CxO is a serial entrepreneur” This is of no interest to me over a great proposition. The mantra of “fail early, fail often” is not an indicator for future success. A Centre for European Economic Research paper (https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/90815/1/777058081.pdf) analysed the experience of 8,400 startups and showed that entrepreneurs who have experienced failure previously are less likely to survive not more, and serial entrepreneurs odds of success are no better than new entrepreneurs. Why is that? A Harvard Business Review article of 576 UK–based entrepreneurs in a variety of industries (https://hbr.org/2011/04/why-serial-entrepreneurs-dont-learn-from-failure) showed that over-optimism survives business failure exceptionally well and, in fact, few who experience failure seek to objectively analyse the reasons for the business demise, often putting them down to factors beyond their control.

“We will return to you $xxmm” Guaranteed returns are alchemy. The very famous odds of providing economically valuable return to an investor are little better than 1 in 10 even when backed by the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator (http://www.businessinsider.com/startup-odds-of-success-2013-5?IR=T). This isn’t central to your proposition because there are too many factors involved. Nice ambition but no guarantee.

“Our five year projection shows…” Numbers, numbers, numbers. Now we may not know your market well but we do know numbers. The more you provide the more we will focus on them – is that what you want? Conversations about five year projections are for later and speculative anyway. You need to know your forecast numbers, and your assumptions but your initial pitch is about excitement for your enterprise and not whether you have properly accounted for fixed costs.

“I’m asking for 300k for 20% of the business” No, this isn’t television and the comedy that is Shark Tank or Dragons Den. Don’t get into a valuation discussion unless you already have revenues. You need to have an ask, and know where it will take you, but don’t offer percentages of equity. Your offer is likely to be convertible in any case and your investor will drive the valuation discussion.

“We pulled a 3 day sprint to get ready for the pitch” No. It’s disrespectful. You can’t give your best unless you are well rested and have reflected on the task before you. Working crazy hours destroys productivity and increases errors, and well as damaging judgement. I’m not impressed that you asked for my time only to turn up exhausted. Don’t do it.

“Here’s ten slides on the market and its dynamics” Please no. Seriously, I might start looking around the room for something sharp or heavy. This is not a tutorial and the requirements are actually quite simple in outline. Focus on clarity with some very simple things that never confuse the picture; convince me that you have identified a credible and sizeable opportunity; that you had taken large strides to validate the opportunity; that you have the expertise to exploit it; you know your competition and have a viable market entry strategy. These shouldn’t be long conversations. It’s ok if there are still some unknowns as long as they are everybody’s unknowns and not just yours.

As you race from one pitch to the next you should be asking the fundamental question “why didn’t they get it?” It’s a question you should ask during rehearsals with your advisors. What did you miss when you failed to garner interest?

Now I understand that advice is like opinions and a$$holes – everybody has one, and I would always counsel startup teams to focus on the quality feedback that resonates with them, up to a point. Be open but evaluate from your frame of reference, unless you come up against a subject matter expert who can overshadow your own research. You still have to determine whether their view is simply entrenched and yours is evolutionary but it’s worth listening and not dismissing.

So what can you hope to achieve from a pitch? A second meeting. Its a two-way fit so this is also your chance to ask questions.Good luck!

I’m interested in your experiences in pitching and whether any of the above resonates with you, either as an entrepreneur or as an investor, so do comment below.

This is the third in an occasional series about startups.

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