Team, team, team, product, market, traction are what we look for in a startup when we invest in seed stage companies. Yep, three teams. At this stage, team is at least 3x more important than anything else.
However, the first introduction I receive to a startup isn’t a personal meeting, it is through their pitch deck or teaser deck, so we’re going to do a deep dive into the team slide and talk about what investors actually notice and look for when evaluating the team portion of your deck.
First up: What Job Titles Indicate to a Startup Investor?
A good pitch deck should include all your senior leaders. I also generally like it when there is a bit of information about the rest of the team (if there is anyone in addition to the founders/senior leaders). It doesn’t need to be a photo and description, simply something along the lines of “we also have 2 developers and a data scientist.” Knowing the complete makeup of the team helps me understand what you are working on, how you’re prioritizing your resources and where the holes are. Every early stage startup we invest in has holes in the team! It is ok. For your senior leaders and founders provide more context than just title — give us a quick highlight reel, two quick bullets.
It’s all about balance
If they’re a part of your team and in your pitch deck I’m going to look at their titles. The first thing I check is if there is both a technical co-founder and a business side co-founder. In general, I am looking to see if the founders have complementary skill sets. For solo founders, have you made a hire to complement yourself yet?
If there are a whole bunch of business side people (CEO, COO, CFO, CRO, VP of Sales, VP of Ops, etc) I immediately start to wonder who is doing what at this early stage? It will undoubtedly be a question I ask in a first meeting. It’s ok to be heavier on one side than the other but at the earliest stages of a company, I prefer to see skill sets that are obviously complementary, not redundant.
What a full C-Suite says
We invest at pre-seed and seed stage. At this point in a company’s lifecycle, no one can possibly have a full C-Suite that is set to last several rounds. In fact, when I see a lot of “c” titles in an early stage deck it’s a bit of a flag for me. I wonder how many of the people listed are actually full-time, what all these people are actually doing, what the cap table looks like, how are you thinking about resource allocation and exactly how high is your burn? An overcrowded c-suite at this early stage is often a precursor to future team issues and is something we spend a lot of time digging into during diligence. If they aren’t full-time and have 0 intention of ever becoming full-time, I may not include them in the deck or move them to an advisory role in an appendix slide. Typically, the companies we invest in have two or three really solid co-founders/early hires.
My red flag: CFO
Picture this: you’re diving into the preliminary layers of a pre-seed or seed startup’s pitch, and suddenly, there it is — the Chief Financial Officer, a role synonymous with fiscal mastery and strategic financial planning. But this phase of a company is all about building, selling, iterating, agility, adaptation, and lean operations. At this stage, there is very little need for what a true CFO does for a company. It always makes me stop and question the strategic rationale behind this choice. Generally, the earliest our portfolio companies add a CFO to their leadership team is post-series A, often waiting until right before they raise a series B or even after closing a B round.
Most often at our stage we see two or three of some combination of these titles CEO, COO, CTO, and CPO. Occasionally, a nod is given to a CMO or Chief Data Scientist. And yes, a CFO unquestionably holds a pivotal role in a startup’s long term journey, but their presence within a pitch deck at the pre-seed/seed stage is a red flag for me.
I’m not really sold on the whole advisors-in-a-pitch-deck thing. Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions to every rule, but overall, I usually assume they don’t add a ton of value. I am never sure how active they are, how long they are going to be around, etc. I also really don’t like name-drops for the sake of dropping names. I understand that advisors can be truly impactful for your startup. But from what I’ve seen, throwing their names into the pitch deck mix (where there’s already limited real estate) doesn’t add to your story. What truly grabs my attention is your core team, the folks driving the ship and their game plan. If you really want to include an advisor slide, put it in the appendix. When you are running through your pitch live, feel free to speak to any incredibly impactful advisors you have. With the added context in a meeting, it can add value!
Too often early stage founders think they are improving their pitch through a lot of c-titles and name-dropped advisors. When they do this, they have the exact opposite effect on me (and probably lots of other investors out there). First, make sure you have the right team around you for the stage you are at. It is all about getting to the next phase with the resources you have! Then be transparent and proud of what you do have at the table. You will be better off.