What differentiates pitch decks that inspire investors to open their checkbooks from those that leaves them apathetic and skeptical?
Developing a killer investor pitch deck to fund your business does not come effortlessly to most founders. Yet the quality of your pitch deck can determine whether your business accelerates at breakneck speeds or crashes and burns before it even gets a chance to prove itself on the market.
Many new founders adhere to a specific pitch formula touted by industry gurus and accelerators, but only a few successfully secure funding. Most don’t even pass the first evaluation round. So what are they missing?
While there is truth to some of the principles covered by your conventional cheat sheets lifted off the internet, we need to close the gap between weak, unmemorable pitch decks and winning ones that cut through the startup noise.
The success of your investor pitch hinges on your performance in a few key areas:
- Content – The information to be communicated
- Visuals – How the content is represented
- Delivery – Your gravitas as a communicator
At my presentation company HighSpark, we’ve developed million-dollar business pitches to investors for a variety of startups, and successfully secured multiple investment rounds—from the nerve-racking seed round to more mature funding stages. We’ll discuss the key ingredients and process for creating a winning pitch deck for investors.
Table of Contents
How to Develop Your Million-Dollar Investor Pitch Deck
Step 1: Acknowledge Pitch Deck Templates Aren’t Perfect
There’s an abundance of pitch deck templates available online, including the wildly famously “10-20-30” rule by well-known venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki, and 500Startups’ 10-page pitch deck template on Google Slides.
These are unmistakably valuable for first-time founders and new startups, but what do you do once you’ve put together the information they suggest? How do you then structure, design and polish your pitch to perfection?
While templates provide a reference for the essential parts of a pitch deck, the way we approach pitch decks should focus on key questions at the top of investors’ minds that we need to address.
Enter the Purple Cow Pitch Deck
The fundraising process involves speaking to members of a venture capital firm at different levels, starting from an associate and leading up to a partner who will approve a term sheet agreement. The more senior VCs have seen virtually thousands of pitches and they’ve probably seen one exactly like yours.
Legendary marketer Seth Godin coined the term Purple Cow, in his book by that title, to proliferate the belief that being remarkable is one of the key ways to stand out in a crowded sea of sameness.
We would do well to use this ethos when developing pitch decks for investors. Purple cow pitch decks need to exhibit these three traits to rise above other hungry founders:
If investors don’t immediately understand how your business works, you can be sure they’ll lose interest, fast. Ensure your story is coherent and you’ll keep your pitch out of the junk pile.
2. Commercial Viability
Make no mistake, most investors are in it to make a sizeable profit. If you can’t entice them with your business’s commercial potential quickly, you’ll lose out to other companies.
Each investor has a mental checklist they use to evaluate whether a company being pitched is a fit for their fund’s ethos and thesis. If you can get into their minds and cover all the stops, you’ll stand a much higher chance of succeeding.
Step 2: Align Your Pitch to Your Funding Round
Pitch for the Right Round and the Right Investor
One funding consideration that most founders forget about is that investors look for different things within pitches during different rounds of funding.
As an early stage startup, you might be raising a small sum of between $500,000 to $1 million to validate your ideas and develop your product. This is very different from a Series A or B round where the money you raise is expected to be used to expand and grow an existing business that has been proven to work. As such, what you include in your pitch deck needs to align closely to what the round might demand.
Investors may also have varying capital considerations when choosing to invest at their preferred stage. This impacts who you approach for your specific pitch round and how you might decide to tell your story.
From Seed to Series A and Beyond
Each fundraising stage tends to demand a slightly different type of story.
For example, a seed round investor pitch might not emphasize tremendous traction but instead choose to highlight the prior experiences of the team in a specific industry, or really dive deep into how the business model might fare next to regional competitors.
Investors that join during the early stage usually don’t expect heavy traction and typically try to get a good deal on your company’s valuation based on their expected potential return.
A few key slides that we’d see in a seed round deck (in no particular order):
- Team & Advisors
- Market Size
- Demo/How It Works
- Why Now
- Secret Sauce
- Business Model
These slides are meant to answer key questions that investors need to know to make an informed decision. These concepts sometimes overlap across slides, and you may not need each and every slide as long as these questions are answered:
Is the product viable?
You’ll have to demonstrate that your product has the potential to be wildly profitable, and that your team is capable enough to realize that success.
Slides: Problem, Solution, How it works, Why now
Can I trust them?
To develop an image of trustworthiness or credibility, you’ll need a strong team, preferably with some traction and realistic numbers.
Slides: Team, Traction
Is it investible?
Your projected growth should be sizeable enough to garner the interest of VCs looking for an exponential gain.
Slides: Problem, Market size, Competitors
Is the model defensible?
Having clarity on why your product is different and how you can stay ahead of the game is something that differentiates good investment opportunities from great ones.
Slides: Secret Sauce, Solution, Business Model
On the other hand, companies heading for a Series A round should show recent milestones or traction gained since the seed round, an updated or new investment thesis along with new developments and forecasted growth to justify another round of funding. Other useful slides to have would be the SAM, TAM, SOM slide (serviceable addressable market, total addressable market, and serviceable obtainable market) and a Key Metrics Slide that acts as a report card for your first funding round.
As the market would have been more or less validated by this point, founders should avoid going into too much detail about their product unless there have been new developments that could affect the commercial value of the company.
Notwithstanding the new pieces of information you’ll include, the way you decide to structure this deck will differ slightly from your seed round. Essentially, validating your previous thesis will be one part of your message. The other piece will involve either sharing a new growth strategy, showcasing any previous successes, or a road map for moving along in your current direction.
Slides: Problem, Solution, Secret Sauce, Competitors
Step 3: Determine Your Investment Thesis
An “executive summary” has long been a key part of fundraising. But recently, this has been absent from investor pitch decks, appearing more often in the form of investment memos.
Investment memos were, for quite some time, the medium of choice for investor pitching, but these soon transitioned into briefer pitch decks. In our current landscape, VCs prefer to receive summarized pitch decks before they decide if they’ll take on a meeting to find out more.
Don’t Fixate on the ‘What’
A mistake made by many founders is that they tend to focus too heavily on explaining features of their product. The key details that really move the needle are often descriptions of your market potential, competitive positioning, and strategy ahead.
Leading companies like Linkedin that have fundraised large sums in our time now include what is known as an “investment thesis,” as explained by Reid Hoffman when describing his Series B round. Your investment thesis basically summarizes the key arguments for why you’re raising funds. Should the thesis play out as you describe, the investors can expect exponential growth from their investments.
The investment thesis should summarize the key points that will be communicated in the rest of your presentation so that investors can immediately have an idea of its potential, why you’re poised for success, and how well researched it is.
This is usually placed at the front of the presentation as a top-level summary of your argument on why your business is poised to succeed before they dig into the supporting details.
Show the ‘Why Now’
Another key message that many founders tend to forget to include is to describe the business landscape right now and why it’s ripe for success for a first-mover.
Have a think about whether the conditions in the market now create an ideal environment for the growth of your company. WIll these conditions stay the same for a long time?
A way to develop your “why now” slide is to describe the current factors and determinants that temporarily offer your business a window to catch one of these industry waves (new trends that disrupt old solutions), as opportunity hardly ever strikes twice.
This portion summarizes the strongest arguments, as well as the game plan you have to support the predicted growth and viability of your business. Whether potential investors agree with you or not, this should earn you a deeper funding conversation.
Step 4: Master the Elevator Pitch
The 60-Second Rule
A great way to start thinking about what to include in your pitch deck is to first craft the short, 60-second version of your pitch, also known as an elevator pitch.
An elevator pitch is important, especially when first meeting investors. Sometimes you only have 60 seconds to make a good first impression, which can determine whether they share your pitch with more senior venture capitalists. At this stage, it’s likely that the pitch will be more of a conversation than a pitch deck.
If you’re unable to deliver a clear elevator pitch for your business, investors may get the impression you might not be competent, or worse, don’t understand the value of what you’re offering.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
Your Business in One Compelling Sentence
In just one sentence, you should be able to describe the problem you solve, the advantage your product provides, the target market you cater to and what you can do in helping them achieve their goal.
The pitch should include a few key details that would pique the interest of an investor:
- How do you make money?
- Who will be your key customers?
- Who will largely use the platform?
- What is the key problem you’re solving?
- How are you different from others?
- Why is it an opportunity?
Now, that might sound like a mouthful. Hence, the key here is to remove unnecessary jargon to end up with a succinct pitch.
Using the abovementioned format, a good pitch would sound something like this:
Companies like XXX annually lose billions in man hours and cost because of bad procurement processes, but we’re here to help them save millions in procurement with our unique digital platform to help them source, purchase and analyze.
Step 5: Develop Your Extended Pitch
Write Strong Key Headlines for Each Slide
As the famous ad man David Ogilvy once said, “Once you’ve written the headline, you’ve spent 99 cents of your dollar.” Writing a strong, succinct, and descriptive headline can immediately reframe your messaging into one that supports the arguments you set out to prove to investors. Here are some key qualities of good headlines:
Headlines should be benefits-driven
To avoid the feature or information dump, our pitch needs to highlight key benefits. If you think parading thousands of product features will get you a signed check, you could not be more wrong. Features are only interesting to investors if they tie back to commercial aspects like a proprietary function that helps you stand out from competition, or a market disrupting solution.
Bad example: AI-enabled dashboard with performance tracking capabilities and data-based insights
Good example: AI Engine helps business owners make decisions faster and more accurately
Headlines should be descriptive
Specificity is another hallmark of a good pitch/business case. If you can’t quote credible stats and numbers, it can be more difficult to sell a realistic story.
Bad example: The expert network market has massive potential
Good example: Unlock $480 Billion markets with a strong expert ecosystem
Headlines should be brief
A well-written headline should tell an adequate and compelling story by expressing all necessary ideas, even if the headline had to stand alone.
Clarifying your headlines and connecting them to the overall goal of your overarching pitch will help investors understand your proposition and increase your chances.
Bad example: Our platform allows supply chain collaboration between buyers and sellers of various sizes and industries so that they can save costs, create sales opportunities and simplify fulfilment.
Good example: One-stop supply chain marketplace to grow sales, optimise costs and simplify fulfilment.
Putting Together a Persuasive Narrative
Once you’ve developed each slide to be robust, clear, and on-message, the next step is to decide where it sits in the grand scheme of things.
Use an overarching story structure
A good way to start planning the overall narrative of your pitch is to use proven storytelling structures. The slides that you’ve come up with can be rearranged in any order as long as it gets your point across without overwhelming your audience.
Instead of just randomly adding each component of the pitch deck, ensure each slide flows into the next, either supporting or building on the other.
Put your best story and strongest points forward
The best way to whet the appetite of investors is to put your strongest points and proof of success up front. If you bury the lead too deep into the presentation, they may lose interest.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
Investors are notorious for their short attention spans. You’ll need to hook them from the beginning by keeping your introduction short, simple, and idiot-proof, so that even those outside your industry can make sense of it over email. Keeping it skimmable and mobile friendly also helps.
Handling Objections From Skeptical Investors
Meeting investors for the first time can be nerve-wracking. It’s a high-stakes moment where we only get one chance to make a good first impression. It’s not uncommon for time-strapped investors to stop a founder mid-pitch to ask difficult questions, poking holes in their business cases. How do we minimize or even avoid this entirely? Is it even possible?
In our experience, it’s not possible to predict what each individual investor will say or think. However, it’s very possible for us to make informed guesses as to what they might ask or object to.
Include the answers that you come up with within your extended pitch so they won’t get the chance to poke holes in your story. Preempting these reactions can take some time, but will be highly rewarding in the event the questions come up or you can head them off early.
The Bulletproof Pitch—Make Your Pitch Airtight
Imagine the perfect pitch. It’s the one where you enter the room, strike up a scintillating conversation, dive into your pitch uninterrupted and manage to successfully seal the deal with little to no questions from the investors.
By playing devil’s advocate and getting feedback from associates or other investors, founders can get very close to such an airtight presentation. This will help you anticipate potential questions and even incorporate the answers into the deck, keeping loopholes and points of contention to a minimum.
To Be Presented or Read?
This is such a key question that will affect the way you write and design your presentation, depending on how the medium will be consumed.
Pitch decks to be read via email
Example of an overly information-dense slide meant for reading
Sending out decks via email to score a first meeting is common practice. Usually sent in PDF format, these decks should contain enough information to demonstrate the viability of the business and generate enough interest to land a meeting. However, during the meeting itself, it’s recommended to reduce the information density and move towards a more visual approach.
Pitch decks presented live are brief and visual
Example of a briefer slide meant for presenting live
Live meetings are meant to stimulate conversation and build trust in the founding team. Ensure that your slides convey key messages without being too messy or crowded. Visuals should also be used in place of text chunks to support your explanation and storytelling narration.
Hybrid pitch decks (read and presented)
Hybrid pitch deck example
Most commonly, we see founders develop a hybrid slide document that can both be read and presented in person. For it to be effective, we’ll need it to contain enough information to give investors a deep enough understanding of the business, with breathing room for founders to elaborate on the story.
Depending on the situation and how/when you intend to use the pitch deck, you should make revisions to it as your story evolves and gets used for different purposes.
Step 6: Design Your Deck
Does Your Pitch Deck Look Like Windows 95 or iOSx?
Aside from a strong, compelling story, the visual aesthetic and design of your presentation is a crucial element. The value of the first impression you make on investors with a professional-looking deck cannot be denied, especially when most of them have seen thousands of presentations in varying design styles.
Presenters in the 21st century are constantly adjusting their presentations to adhere more closely to the “image first” presentation style, à la Steve Jobs, but we should still make our own modifications to optimize for pitch decks targeted at investors.
Google CEO’s Sundar Pichai presenting a keynote. Notice the large visuals with little text popularized by Steve Jobs.
Emulate Steve’s Brevity, but Don’t Go Overboard
Always optimize your presentation to match the intended use. In this case, if your presentation is meant to be sent out after a conversation as reference material, having only a single word on your slide will not help you very much.
Adapt the best practices of modern presentations, such as using relevant images along with limited text, but ensure that you don’t take brevity too far in this context.
What can you remove?
The second part of the design process involves deciding what to remove from the presentation to ensure brief and powerful messaging.
In general, start by removing unnecessary images and slides that do not contribute to your business case. You should also cut down on industry jargon and excessive text to ensure that your pitch deck is concise and easy to understand at first glance. Supplementary information can be stored in the appendix section of your deck and referred to only when necessary.
Command Attention With Visuals
“But I’m not a designer, so how can I get it done?”
Turning text into visuals that captivate is no easy feat for most founders. Sometimes hiring a freelancer makes more sense. However, there are a few key principles that any non-designer can seek to understand to develop visual, persuasive investor pitch decks.
Choose the right images
Selecting the right image to represent your key message can be challenging, especially if you lack design experience. A simple trick when doing this is to first decide on the keyword for your slide, and then select a relevant image based on that.
The best times to use visuals to represent your messages instead of text are when you are describing complex concepts or looking to evoke a feeling. User interface mockups or images of potential users allow your investors to see and imagine your solution.
A Branded Color Palette
Selecting the right color palette that communicates a brand’s individuality is one key element of putting together a strong, branded pitch deck.
Identify your brand’s accent color
Coca Cola’s brand color is red. Panasonic’s is blue. Your brand should likely have a color that represents it too. This acts as a good starting point to injecting consistency and life into your presentations.
Example of a legibility-focused color palette used on a slide
Create a simple, legible palette
Using your brand’s accent color along with a neutral color is one of the easiest ways to develop one that looks aesthetically pleasing, fast. The only key rule here is to ensure that there’s adequate contrast between your text and the background color so it’s easy to read.
Example of adding overlays for legible contrast
Layouts are by far the most challenging part of designing pitch decks. I’ll be sharing some key layouts that we use all the time, along with a grid system that allows you to develop functional design layouts very quickly.
Grid layout design for presentations
Uniformity is one of the key principles of design. Applied to presentations, we end up with a grid system.
Splitting your slide’s canvas into equal parts is a foolproof way to end up with various usable layouts that just make it look more professional. Here are some ways to do it:
Equal split per point
An easy approach to layout is to split the slide into equally sized sections to frame your content, as in the case of team slides.
For team slides, the key focus is usually on their headshots, roles, and relevant experience. These can make the slide look very cluttered if not arranged properly. Breaking the slide into equal parts leverages the universal principle of uniformity in design that is pleasing to the eye and also makes the information easy to digest. Generally, this works if you only feature core team members and leave advisors for a separate slide.
You’ll find this useful when showcasing transformations. Typically, I suggest using this for comparison slides or before/after depictions of your solution.
Putting It All Together
Congratulations! If you’ve followed each of the steps outlined here, you should have a pretty decent investor pitch deck on your hands.
That said, there’s simply no better way to develop a better pitch deck than to get feedback directly from the horse’s (investor’s) mouth. As much as we try to anticipate how each individual investor might react or object to our pitch, only real practice with potential investors will help you validate these hypotheses.
So, get out there and pitch your best! And good luck!
To recap, you’ll need to:
a) Acknowledge pitch deck templates aren’t perfect
b) Align your pitch to your fundraising round
c) Determine your investment thesis
d) Master the elevator pitch
e) Develop your extended pitch
f) Design your deck
Think we missed anything here? Got any questions? Feel free to let us know in the comments.