Why pitching is hard, and how to do it right!

A year and a half ago I was finally able to make the leap from working full time as a software developer, to running startup programs by joining How to Web. The first major project I took on was running the pre-accelerator MVP Academy, after previously running InnovationLabs an accelerator for students, which helped me get my bearings.

We took it upon ourselves to deliver the best pitches that ever came out from a program in the CEE region. We did such a good job that we managed to land a story in Tech Crunch, which also got me my first twitter followers which were not my friends.

Though there are multiple factors that helped us get there, a no bullshit approach and help from Tak and Jon from Techstars (which deserve special thanks), I would like to share with you the cook book we used to make great pitches in a non sales oriented culture.

The companies that we worked with were kind enough to share with you some of the learning experiences that they went through. Please note that companies pivot often at early stage and what they do now may be different.

1. The pitch is a tool

This is a big lesson to take home: the pitch is not an objective, but a tool for reaching an objective. We found out that acknowledging this from the start makes a big difference in the final outcome, and in the rhythm with which the pitch is progressing.

The pitch should be a representation of your business or product, and it will be as solid as your business is. You may put on a good show on stage where you have control of everything you will say, but at the first question from your audience everything can crumble down and you will not reach your objective. Lesson number one could also be rephrased as: no bullshit in the pitch!

For example SafeDrive, a mobile app that stops drivers texting while driving, was looking for an investment at the time of the pitch. We tailored the presentation around market size, product traction and investor opportunity. We also detailed what are the next steps in developing the business, so the investors know on what the money would be spent.
Accelerole, who, at the time, were developing a system to manage contractors, wanted to get leads to companies that would agree to be beta testers. So we focused the pitch on product value, benefits for the customers and the team experience with these types of customers. We also inserted a detailed product demo to enforce the product value.

2. Write the text first

Do not underestimate the value of writing things down. It will allow you to structure the information in your mind and find out where are the gaps. Do NOT focus at all on slides, delivery, idea flow or tone at the beginning. Your brain works incrementally and can easily see step 2, only after it made step 1. Help him out.

Start with the following basic structure:

  • Problem — what are you solving and for who
  • Solution — how are you doing it
  • Competition — who is a threat for your product, and why your solution is better
  • Market — what is the market
  • Team — why is your team well suited to solve this problem
  • Ask — what is the next objective in your growth, and what do you need to achieve it

Just fill in with a few lines for every category and then read it back to see if it makes sense. Iterate and optimize until you are satisfied on the content.

Here is one of the first iteration for the “Problem” component for Accelerole:

In my agency, we were billing mostly time, so that was the most limited and precious resource. I had no way to see after who did what, where exactly my incomes and expenses were.
Why did I care? Because I might have lost lots of money… and you are still doing it!
This is because you have a highly variable workload. You are not in the office, you don’t do deals, you don’t have incomes in the next months. Other times you work hard and think, man, this seems like a great month in terms of profitability. But is it? You still have employees and your incomes are usually later on than your paycheck day.
In this kind of service business, uncertainty can get you bankrupt.

It was hard to get, long and it missed the point. The next one was more simple, more to the point, but it was not expressed in a natural language and kept the focus on the pitcher, and not on the customer.

As most medium size agencies we had:
highly variable workload billed by-the-hour or project based
a team of 7 employees plus 25 collaborators
3 online tools (for CRM, Project Management and Invoicing)
plus the “this will do for now” excel spreadsheet where we were struggling to bring all this data together
And even though I was spending more than 100$ monthly on these online tools and several hours in each of them, they did not help me make fast growth business decisions.

In the next iteration we ended up with a very concise, easy to understand paragraph:

We noticed that most of our clients and partners face some interesting challenges. They have a highly variable workload, they have a ratio of contractors to employees of 5 to 1 and they use multiple online tools to manage this processes.
It was very difficult for them to choose in time who is the best person to contract for a new job in terms of reliability and expertise.

See how this ended up in the final pitch below:

3. Add specifics for your product

Make a list of what is different and interesting about the members of your team, your background, your business or the market you are getting into. See what pops out and is unique for you. From those select only the things that are relevant for your current product or business.

For Catwalk Fifteen, an application that allows users to get instant fashion advice, Traction was the specific. They had 600.000 opinions expressed in their app from under 2000 users. And they we’re growing at 30% month over month.

Cloudhero, a cloud automation platform, had one founder that already sold a company, and built two more. We allocated special room in the pitch for this.

In the case of SafeDrive, they were tackling a problem with a huge impact: texting while driving, which causes 1 in 4 car accidents. We looked and saw that texting while driving causes more deaths than drunk driving, and we put this in the pitch.

4. Find a hook for your pitch

Good pitches have a hook that gains the attention of the audience, and buys the speaker 20–30 seconds of patience. Every pitch will have highs and lows depending on the content being delivered. Some parts will be more spectacular than others, but the some of the boring parts are essential. An important objective is to keep the audience interested and engaged throughout the pitch. Adding hooks in the pitch before these lows will improve the quality of your pitch considerably.

Claudiu is developing InnerTrends, an analytics product for SaaS companies. The space is crowded and everybody thinks they know something about it. We had to make them listen, so we used his experience as a consultant as a hook to gain credibility and the audiences attention:

Hello. My name is Claudiu Murariu and I have been a web analytics consultant for the last 7 years. I work with companies like Orange, Telekom, Intel and Samsung, to help them understand their users. User behavior is complex and only by understanding it you can control growth.

5. Get Targeted Feedback

Feedback is mandatory as it helps you spot things that you are missing and adjust your direction. However we saw there are two important things most of us are missing:

How to ask for feedback

We noticed that non-targeted feedback is not useful, even when it comes from experts. It will de-focus you and you will end up bouncing between the same variants.

Before asking for feedback on your pitch set the proper expectations:

  • Be very specific on the thing you need feedback on
  • Do not let the conversation go astray.
  • Chose only one topic: content, delivery, slides or rhythm.

All of the above will ensures consistency from one respondent to the next, and will allow you to move forward. Here is a short video on a real feedback session with the CEO of SwipeTapSell, Laurentiu Adrian Trif. Part of it is in Romanian, with English captions.

How to listen for feedback

People are proficient at noticing when something is wrong, but they are very bad at identifying what is wrong. Your respondents will try to provide solutions to the problems that they see, but these are opinions and they will always differ. You need to listen for the problems that they identify.

Look for ques like: “I don’t understand”, “why”, “what”, “how”.

Do not focus very much on feedback that starts with: “you should”, “I think”, “maybe”, “I believe”.

Later on in the game you will also look at: expressions of confusion, boredom, excitement and any reaction that contradicts your expectations. Keep in mind that you will exhaust the feedback you can get from one respondent. Once this happens, move on to some one else.

6. Play around and experiment

After you have the basic components done, you can do the slides, go off script and play around with the components. You can change the order of the chapters, omit some and add others, add jokes and put in the artistic side that you see in the good pitches. This is the part that turns good pitches into great pitches and is very dependent on the experience of the pitcher and the intrinsic characteristic of the speaker. We noticed that working with someone greatly improves the results. After you have rehearsed for so many times, your thought process is very different from everyone else that hears your pitch for the first time: no matter how good of a presenter you are. You need outside help!

Mark from Catwalk15, a mobile app that helps you get instant fashion advice, found an innovative way to add some artistry specific for their product. He combined the on screen demo with on stage live results, by dressing up with a bright purple shirt and sun glasses and then doing some tweaks to Check out the video below on how

Do you need pointers with your pitch? Drop me a line bellow!