Pitching @ the partner meeting

I’ve been at several technology startups in Europe — one wild success (rapid growth, multi-billion Euro acquisition), one disaster (delisted from the NASDAQ, eventually acquired for less than cash-in-the-bank) and one somewhere in the middle — but I’d never founded one myself.

Here are a few things I experienced pitching a partnership for the first time and things I’d do differently the next time.

Context

Our 6 person startup was doing a seed round, and I was leading the fundraising for the team.

As part of a long process — most of which was a string of ‘nos’ from angels and VCs — I eventually got a hook into a very well-funded and respected VC firm, after working up from a cold call I made into an associate.

I had my partner champion, who was really supportive. Went through a rapid-fire string of meetings with the firm— including ones with our 6 person team. They did a bunch of checking about me in the background. Then they invited me in to the Monday partner meeting.

I had zero idea what the meeting actually was. I figured it was just a formal stamp of approval, but I Googled it to be sure. About the only thing I could find was this (great) piece written from a US perspective. And I started to get freaked out. I just couldn’t find any tips on how to handle it.

Prep

1:1's: Our partner sponsor took care to have me meet as many of the partners in advance (4 of the 6). Which was great. It made a huge difference. Next time around I would push hard for this, under the guise of wanting to know the firm better. And I’d factor in considerable time for this.

Call-ins: One entrepreneur I sat next to at a networking event had pitched the same partnership. Smart, passionate kid with a neat product. The experience had genuinely scarred him (and been unsuccessful). The partner who had brought him in didn’t even attend in person — he phoned in — and the guy got savaged by another of the partners. We got lucky — our sponsor was there, even if he said nothing. Next time around I would absolutely guarantee the partner who sponsored me was there, and I’d seriously wonder how serious someone is if they proposed I pitch without them even being there.

Timing: They invited us to pitch on the last slot in the day. Didn’t realise this until we got there, but that can be a real issue. The last to go may stay top of mind, but more than likely you will arrive to an exhausted room. Next time around I would insist on an early slot. It’s the first negotiating point in the relationship, and I’d push hard for it.

Place: I had only had meetings in small rooms at the firm previously. But when I showed up we were taken into an enormous boardroom. Huge faux-oak table, a ton of empty chairs, dairy creamer and instant coffee on a side table — about the coldest environment you could imagine sharing your vision with a handful of people. As someone who really likes to visualise success scenarios, next time around I’d understand exactly where it was gonna be, who would attend and who would dial in and picture the whole scene in advance.

Printouts: I’m all for protecting the environment, but older VCs like to print stuff. And if they’re gonna look at paper, you want to make sure they have your printouts. I arrived to see them all leafing through an old version of our presentation, and they were unable to follow along with what was on-screen. Next time around would have taken all their copies away and just brought my own to give them.

On the day

Energy: Our partner sponsor told us to expect interruptions and loads of questions. We braced ourselves. I did deep breathing exercises in the toilet beforehand to control my temper. A co-founder and I had hand signals planned to keep us to time, when we were peppered with questions.

But the wave never hit. One guy’s eyes closed after about 5 minutes. Several others looked exhausted. Most just slumped and flipped through the printouts over and over. A general partner stood up and walked around, clearly trying to rouse himself awake. Next time around I would stand up from the first second. I would amp up the energy — to a level that is out of the comfort zone for an introvert like me — just to get the room jump-started. Have to assume they’ve been through 8 pitches already that day.

Anecdotes: The only times anyone ever really engaged was when I interrupted my scripted and honed pitch to include personal insights.

The highlight was actually when I gave the story behind my motivation for starting the company. People leaned forward. A couple smiled. They could tell what they were hearing was something genuine, and they were thankful for it. → Next time around I’d take more frequent stock — at points in the presentation — of the energy. And if questions aren’t coming, I’d go off-script a bit and get their attention. Even ask them a question. Better that people connect with something — anything — than everything gets covered.

Support: I came with one of my three co-founders (the other two had day jobs they couldn’t escape from). My co-founder was terrified of presenting. So he said nothing. It was awkward, but we still put him to good use. I would periodically nod toward him and say stuff like ‘Jo spotted something really interesting in the cohort metrics which led us to …’ and put words in his mouth, so it felt like he was part of the pitch and was some silent genius.

He also acted as time-keeper and note-taker. He had all the signals prepped for when I went to too long on any point — as we’d practiced it together so many times — and he also jotted down the body language of each person on every single point. Next time around I would absolutely do this again. We assumed at the end that we’d failed — as the room was so flat — and as we sat in a grim coffee shop dissecting the day, the only consolation was had were the notes on parts of the pitch got people leaning forward or writing notes. Felt like info we could use again in another partnership pitch.

If you’re pitching, I hope you’re successful (and I hope this helps in some way)!