The Tyranny of the Deck

Jourdan Urbach
Jul 2, 2018 · 8 min read

My transition from academia to the real world was pretty smooth, all things considered. Professors became bosses, due dates became deadlines, and classes became meetings. I didn’t expect anything traumatic; after all I had worked before — as a miniature lab rat in Boston and as a passionate but underqualified aspiring krav maga magnate in New Haven.

Realization of what a “deck” was and how it would affect my life came slowly. The first decks I interacted with were the“brand decks” and Series B pitch decks at Mimedia. I recall asking my boss, Chris Giordano, what made them so different from the powerpoint presentations I had done at school. He told me never to call them powerpoints, and that was good enough for me.

I recall being with my Mass Lab co-founder Jonathan during our first capital raise. We were swimming in decks. Short ones, for short attention span theater. Long ones, to codify our strategy. Decks to present and decks to email. Decks for our team and decks for investors. Pitch decks and financial decks and product decks and branding decks. Decks decks decks.

Little did I know, decks and I were just getting started. At McKinsey, decks were a way of life. Gene Zalazny and Barbara Minto had written the books, and their word was as good as law. Pride, self-respect, and overall happiness amongst consultants was as tied to their ability to “make pages” as anything else. Even outside of line consulting decks were inescapable: my colleagues at the New Ventures Competition and I received and read two hundred decks a year.

So what is the deck? Why has it become the de facto information sharing methodology of this century? And how do we learn to live alongside it in harmony?

A quick note before we dive in: Many of you have asked where you can see Urbach Letter back-issues. They’re available here along with other writing I don’t deem important enough for your inbox.

A brief history

In the business world, vertically-oriented presentations have been relegated to “reports” — the most boring of the boring. White papers, research, policy guidelines, this stuff gets written vertically. Pour one out for Microsoft Word.

Meanwhile, horizontally-oriented decks are the standard-issue communication tool for anything we don’t want ignored. Maybe it’s because we got lazy and decided we wanted to use the same material for presentation or independent reading(big mistake). Maybe we like the idea of an entire concept fitting on one horizontal computer screen. Regardless of the cause, decks are inescapable and if you can’t make a good one, you’re at a serious disadvantage.

The greatest article in the history of the internet on making good pitch decks is this one that Guy Kawasaki (chief evangelist at Apple) wrote in 2012. In it, he gives the blueprint for the professional modern pitch deck. Ignore it at your own peril. It’s been so influential that there’s an entire ecosystem built up around it.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to know what to do right — you also need to know what to avoid. Just like world leaders hide wolf whistles to fringe groups in their public communications, your decks are hiding signals that you either “get it” or don’t. Because investors rely so much on pattern recognition, these wolf whistles trip them off at a primordial level: if the founder doesn’t know their accountant doesn’t belong on the team slide, what else don’t they know?

8 Deck Disqualifiers

I’m not going to tell you how to design your deck in this Letter. Guy does a pretty good job of that. Instead, I want to highlight eight of the “disqualifiers” I mentioned above. These are the easily identified wolf whistles that professional venture capitalists and experienced angels use to sort through the chaff and instantly discard opportunities.

The problem with these disqualifiers isn’t just that they’re bad mistakes (some are): it’s that they bely a lack of understanding of modern entrepreneurship.

Note: we’re just talking about pitch decks here (for your startup or your fund).

  1. A deck longer than 10 (OK, fine, 15) main pages. You are not delivering deal paperwork. You are trying to convey a compelling narrative and get to a conversation. Nobody can track a narrative over 25 or god forbid 40 pages (a common length of decks I see daily). Your fear of leaving out a detail that might interest an investor should be trumped by your fear of an insta-delete when your target is unable to ascertain your business in the first 2 slides. Should you feel the need to disclose technical details, IP filings, detailed team profiles, or the like — do us all a favor and tack on a well-organized appendix behind your beautifully reductive 10 page deck.

Cool Thing of the Week:

CAMP Nano 22 Carabiner

Sure, carabiners are for rock climbers. Just like Wolf ranges are for chefs and Canon SLRs are for photographers and pickup trucks are for builders. The truth is, a tiny fraction of these cool tools are used for their true calling. My carabiners hold up hammocks and wrangle keys. And the heaviest lifting my RAM 1500 has ever done is moving a sofa.

In the world of lightweight carabiners, there’s a pantheon of three: the Metolius FS mini (23 grams), the Edelrid 19g (guess how much that one weighs), and the star of our show — the CAMP Nano 22 (guess again). Which is best? The Metolius is a lumbering leviathan of a carabiner, coming in at a full gram more obese than the CAMP Nano. It also has an overly stiff gate that makes it tough to use when your hands are tired. The edelrid is 3 grams lighter than our chosen hero, but almost unusably small — you can only get one finger on the gate, which opens a scant 19mm.

Get /Giphy With it:

Useful JPEG to send to colleagues:

Mandatory Self-Promotion

After years building startups in NYC, and a stint helping McKinsey & Co. develop their startup accelerator, I’m now leading the charge @ Brandt & Co., a boutique consultancy serving investors and founders in the early-stage ecosystem.

If you like the Urbach Letter, the best way to give back is emailing me copious atta-boys to print out and stick on my fridge.

The second best way is connecting me to your friends at family offices, VCs, and terrific startups. For investors, Brandt & Co. focuses on a class-leading diligence product to shine light on technically complex early-stage investment targets. For founders, we aim to prepare them for institutional scrutiny and provide the tools to help their companies grow and scale.

Jourdan Urbach

Written by

Veteran entrepreneur living in BK. Former researcher @HarvardMed @MITBROAD, CTO @MassLab, Consultant @McKinsey, now MD @brandtandco.