The Tyranny of the Deck

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

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

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.
  2. A ridiculous TAM. The infamous TAM. The “Total Addressable Market.” Everybody’s got their big deck pet peeve, and this is mine. My nightmare goes something like this: “According to ACME Research, there are 300 million Americans. One in four owns a dog, so there are 75 million dogs, each eating two cans of dog food per day. Therefore there is a 150 million can per day in Total Addressable Market for us. If we realistically only capture 2% of that market, we will do $1.5B in yearly revenue!” Kill me now. Your TAM should be based on realistic reach projections from your growth plan, not a fungible small percentage of a giant pot you have no plan to penetrate.
  3. Death by adjectives. Are you by any chance a proven team with a proven technology in a proven market? The glowing standard-issue adjectives that you think apply to your business are tired, incorrect, or both — ”patent-pending,” “revolutionary,” “innovative,” “scalable.” This is like when people describe themselves as “fun,” “outgoing,” and “unique” on their Tinder profiles. Swipe left.
  4. Citing any version of “Viral Marketing” as a growth strategy. Virality cannot be planned, and its influence in the current world of pay-to-play social exposure has been severely neutered. Any sort of word-of-mouth or “organic” growth is just as bad. Your growth strategy must demonstrate how money from investors gets turned into users, or it’s irrelevant. “Viral” is on my personal bad deck bingo board between “proven” and “conservative.”
  5. Disclaimer Overload. We could do a whole Letter on this — but let’s hit the high points. You, the founder, are not Gary Cohn, and you do not need a paragraph-long disclaimer in all of your email signatures. If you send a PDF, it will get forwarded. Password protect documents and send the password separately if you don’t want them to make the rounds. This goes in the same bucket for me as requiring NDAs before having a discussion about an idea. The only effect it has is telegraphing “amateur.” I have seen these disclaimers make their way into decks, executive summaries, and even a promotional one-pager I recently saw. Please make it stop.
  6. Putting your accountant and lawyer on the team slide. I know it sounds unreal, but this happens. If your team slide includes anyone other than key C-suite or technical hires, it’s a massive red flag. Do not include your office manager (what are you doing with one if you don’t have enough senior hires to fill a team slide?). Do not include advisors and try to pass them off as team members. And please spare us your lawyer, accountant, and bookkeeper on the team slide. This has all really happened. Don’t be a statistic.
  7. Forecasting the tsunami. OK I’ll be the first to admit, getting the forecast slide right is hard to do. You need numbers that are big enough to signal a venture-scale business but small enough to not get laughed out of the room. My advice? Keep the world “conservatively” out of it, set the first year sales at $0, and find your way to $100–150MM by year 5. Do not forecast the fastest sales ramp in the history of Earth, and do not set corporate growth rates like 20–30% yr on yr expecting that to get anyone interested in giving you their money to lose.
  8. Weird Terms. Perhaps the richest category on the list, everybody has their favorite story on weird raise terms. Maybe you’ve got an uncle who asked you to get his $40k from the friends and family round back “when you can” — let’s leave that out of the deck and structure it as uncapped convertible debt instead. Do you have a particular fondness for PIK toggles as applied to your $4M-pre raise? Let’s scratch that one too. Oh, and would you and the rest of the founding team like to take “just 5%” of the raise off the table to compensate yourselves for all that hard work these past 2 years? Save yourself the trouble, shred the deck.

Cool Thing of the Week:

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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:

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Useful JPEG to send to colleagues:

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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.

Written by

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

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