Pitching Your Startup

As an entrepreneur, you’re a salesperson above all else.  You have to pitch constantly – to potential customers, partners, investors, suppliers, and even family members.  If you can’t pitch then you can’t close deals, which means you you’ll have a heck of a time succeeding.  There’s an art to pitching in a way that gets people excited and interested.  In this chapter, you’ll learn important tactics, such as why it’s important to have two versions of your pitch, a surprisingly simple way to figure out if your pitch is working, and how to get your audience to understand your business idea in less than three seconds.  Put these practices into place to wow your audience at any stage of the game.

Don’t Bury the Lead

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Journalists use the phrase “bury the lead” when they don’t hook the reader in the first line with the most interesting fact or insight.  The same is true for your pitch – don’t bury the lead.  The first 30 seconds of your presentation is your chance to hook the audience.  The way you handle the opening will set you up for a smashing success or a painful flop.  You’ve already won half the battle if you can immediately grab the audience’s attention.

There are many ways to make your opening attention-getting and memorable, but a story is the most common.  To do this effectively, tell an emotionally-charged story about your history, your mission, or your product.  Your story should make the audience say either “wow” or “me too.”  Stun them with your story of struggle and triumph that pulls at their heart strings, blow them away with your technology, or get them to relate to the frustrating pain that you solve.

Whatever you decide to do, don’t bury the lead.  Make your opening exciting, captivating, and memorable.

Be Simple, Not Simplistic

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Why do we always overcomplicate things?  Especially comes to presentations, big words and dazzling animations are more likely to confuse and distract your audience than gain their confidence.  Follow the K.I.S.S. rule – keep it simple, stupid.  As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  Leave the esoteric, sophisticated language to academics and keep your audience engaged.  In business, it’s a thousand times better to be simple and understood than complex and confusing.  That’s why top businesspeople – Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, among others – have a knack for taking complex issues and explaining them in a way that a fifth grader would understand.  An audience’s attention span is notoriously short, so don’t make them try to figure out what you’re saying.  Simplify and make sure you’re understood.

Simplicity is the objective, but don’t just dumb it down.  The difference between dumbing it down and distilling complexity into simplicity is night and day.  You get to simplicity through complexity.  Once you have your arms wrapped around the issues, simplify.  Less is more.  Focus on the core ideas.  Use graphics instead of text, and avoid slideshow animations.  Tell stories, employ use cases, and use everyday language.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

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As an entrepreneur, you will be out of your element often.  At the beginning, when you have to do everything yourself, you will always feel like you’re behind the eight ball.  You will have to learn how to do so many things along the way – talk to customers, build technology, handle suppliers, conform to industry norms, manufacture your products, and everything in-between.  A hallmark of the serial entrepreneur is the ability to exude confidence, even in moments of extreme uncertainty.  Often, successful entrepreneurs’ favorite war stories are about these moments of extreme uncertainty when a bluff paid off.  Take risks and be bold, but don’t make promises you can’t keep – you won’t get a second chance.

Acting the part is especially important when pitching your startup to investors or prospective employees.  For example, you might be asked to predict where the market is going over the next two years, when you might not feel comfortable predicting what will happen in the next two weeks.  It’s important to reassure your audience, and convince them that you have the special insight required to build a winner.  Be certain about what you don’t know, and fake it till you make it.

Find the Hot Buttons

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Long gone are the hard sell days of scripted, uninterrupted presentations.  Face-to-face selling today requires a consultative approach.  Rather than steamrolling your audience, you need to probe in order to uncover needs.  Salespeople call these needs or problems “hot buttons.”  On a sales call, your mission is to find the hot buttons, and then demonstrate how your product fixes them.  For example, let’s say that your plan is to present five problems that your product addresses.  In probing, you discover that only one of the five areas is a hot button.  Realizing this, focus all of your efforts on the hot button and forget the other four talking points.  Above all, engage with your audience, understand what motivates them, and respond to those motivations.

This agile presentation approach works with all kinds of audiences, even investors.  In the meeting, rather than barreling through your pitch, pause frequently and ask probing questions.  Find their hot buttons, and then leverage this information to lead them to the conclusion that your company belongs in their portfolio.

Name it and Frame it

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How can you convey your idea in three seconds or less?  One tried and true way is to relate your business to one that is already well-known. Rather than trying to explain that you sell coupons for a limited time at deep discounts for extreme sports and outdoor adventures, you can simply say you’re the “Groupon of extreme sports.”  Instead of trying to explain that you’re building a directory of all nonprofit organizations that volunteers can use to find, rate and review nonprofits, you can simply say that you are “Yelp for nonprofits.”  If your comparison is a good one, it will take a few seconds for your audience to understand what you do.

There are a few formats you can use to frame your concept properly.  You can say “X for Y,” where X is the comparable company and Y is the new category or space. Alternatively, you can say X meets Y, where you are combining services of both X and Y companies.  To elaborate, you can say X for Y, but with Z, where Z is your special sauce.

As effective as this tactic can be, it can also go horribly wrong.  Choose your comparison carefully, and pay attention to whether it helps or hurts your cause.  If you find yourself failing, then reframe and try again, or don’t frame it at all.  It won’t work for every company.

Simple and Standalone

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Your slides need to be a complement to your speech, not a substitute.  The last thing you want your audience to do is to read your slides instead of listen to you.  So you have to make your slides visually stimulating, with very little text.  The trouble with this minimalist style is that your slides will contain only a fraction of the detail you cover during the presentation, making it hard for audience members to review later.

This creates a dilemma – how do you keep your presentation slides simple and clean, but leave audience members with a comprehensive, stand-alone presentation?  The answer is surprisingly straight-forward: have two versions of your presentation.  Create a clean version to use during your presentation, and an elaborate version that you can give to audience members after you pitch.  Your take-home version should include all of the details that you cover in your speech.  Using this strategy, you can even tack an appendix onto the end of the deck that goes into greater depth and detail.  Your goal for the standalone deck is to make the presentation understandable and exciting for all readers, even those who weren’t in the room when you pitched.

Tease, Don’t Teach

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People have the terrible habit of wanting to jam every imaginable detail onto their presentation slides. This usually happens is because people are underprepared – they don’t know the materials or they didn’t have enough time to put together a decent slide deck.  Either way, sitting through one of these presentations is painful.

When you present the focus should be on you, not on your slides. Putting too much detail the slides causes your audience to stop listening and read for themselves. They can probably read faster than you speak anyway. Remember, you’re selling the sizzle, not the steak. Don’t teach, tease. Use your slides as a complement to enhance what you’re saying, not a substitute.

Guy Kawasaki came up with the 10-20-30 Rule: No more than 10 slides, no longer than 20 minutes, and no smaller than 30 point font.* Realize the 10 slide rule only counts for the main presentation. You can have as many backup slides as you need.  This might sound impossible if your current presentation is a monster, but keep condensing and improving until you’ve distilled only the most important points and complementary visuals possible.  Your audience will thank you.

Make It Stick

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As advertising execs know better than anyone, repetition is the key to build brand awareness.  The same is true when you present.  A watered down message won’t stick.  To keep your takeaways from getting lost in the mix, limit yourself to a maximum of three key messages.  Relate all aspects of your presentation to at least one of the messages, and reiterate the key takeaways often.  One way to do this is, as the expression goes, to tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

Imagine this: you’re about to give your presentation when an investor tells you that she’ll fund your round under one condition – three people, independently polled, must be able to tell her all three of your key messages.

Before your next presentation, ask what two or three messages you want the audience to take away from your presentation.  Chances are, about the same time that you start to feel like an idiot from repeating yourself so many times, the message will start to get through.

What Did I Just Say?

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New acquaintances tend to be overly agreeable, so it can be hard to tell if you’re any good at pitching.  Rarely will someone come out and tell you that they don’t get your business concept.  A great way to get to the bottom of it is to ask, right after your spiel, “What did I just say?”  Especially when pitching a new business or idea, founders are often alarmed to discover that they lose most people they pitch.  Sometimes, the responses you get will be so different than what you pitched that you’ll wonder if you speak the same language.

As frustrating as this can be, take it as a learning opportunity.  Your listener didn’t get it because you pitched it in a way that didn’t makes sense, didn’t resonate, or wasn’t interesting.  Figure out what caused the confusion and find a way to make it better.  Keep working on your pitch, and soon you’ll know how to quickly convey even the most complex ideas.

Asking your listener to repeat what you said puts him on the spot, so a good way to ease into it is to explain your reasoning. Say something like, “I’m trying to improve my pitch and was wondering how it sounds. Would you mind telling me what I just told you?”

Use the Use Case

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A use case is a great way to help your audience understand how your product or service will be used by your customers.  Typically, the use case is told as a story that showcases the pain you’re solving, and walks the audience through your product experience.  The miracle of a use case is that it allows your listener to understand, with great clarity, the problem you target and the benefit of your solution.  It takes a nebulous, theoretical concept and makes it concrete and tangible.  Through the use case, your offering becomes an imaginable solution to a definite problem or need.  For example, if you are pitching a radical new science that helps to manage emphysema, don’t lose your audience by diving into hardcore science.  Instead, explain how the large oxygen bottles that patients have to lug around are frustrating and embarrassing.  Then highlight how your solution will markedly improve the lives of those living with the disease.

There will be times when, no matter how detailed your explanations, your audience simply won’t understand.  A use case is a great way to hammer home your value, and help your audience appreciate why what you’re doing is so important.