The Pitch Deck That Won Us $82K

You Win in the First 30 Seconds. Here’s Why

Accepting the 1st50k Startup Competition Award — a big ass check.

A few months ago, my friend Vaibhav left his job at Lazard — one of the biggest financial firms in the world — to build a startup. He’s one of the most capable people I know, but soon after starting, he texted me to say he was struggling.

“I really believe in what we’re building,” Vaibhav said. “But we’re running out of cash. I don’t know how much longer Foodie can go without capital.”

As I’ve written before, I’ve found that startup life can be chaotic and lonely — and wanted to make sure my friend didn’t have to tackle all of these things alone. So I called Vaibhav one fall afternoon during a hike through Mark Twain National park.

As I walked up the bank of a small cliff, I asked Vaibhav, “Have you tried applying for any pitch competitions?”

“I don’t know, I don’t really believe in pitch competitions,” he said.

I replied that it wasn’t about the competition, it was about telling a story that made people feel something. Ascending the slope, the trees fall away to reveal a clearing with a steep drop into a dark blue lagoon. I sat down here, pulled out my laptop, and told him I’d send him an email.

“What are you sending me?” Vaibhav asked.

“This,” I said, “is the pitch deck that won us $82,000.”

Building an Undeniable Narrative

The pitch deck I sent Vaibhav was for our startup, Homecooked, the social dining app that organizes small communal meals at the homes of local cooks. If you love connecting over food, there’s a good chance that you’ll love the product.

When we started in January, the pitch was little more than a couple slides of chicken-scratch. By August, we had built a deck that helped us close $82,000 in non-dilutive grant funding. No dilution. We didn’t give up a single percent of equity. And as college student-entrepreneurs, it gave us confidence in our decision to drop out by giving us valuable runway.

Traction, team, market size — sure, these are important. But all of that is just icing on the cake. If you can’t captivate your audience within the first 30 seconds, those facts will fall completely flat.

Instead, we honed in on the first two slides to establish a powerful narrative structure right off the bat. Here’s how we did it in 30 seconds:

The first slide. Homecooked: Social Dining.

#1. Insight into a Trend

Through 20 pitch competitions, I’ve seen almost every permutation of slide deck around. 90% of startups set up their pitch with a Problem — Solution framework. Often they attach a personal story meant to grab the audience’s attention.

Here’s why that doesn’t work. The more personal your story, the less likely it is that any of the judges actually experience the same problem. And even if they do, people don’t like being told that they have a problem and you can fix it.

Instead, we like to do start with these two things:

  1. Show insight into a wide societal trend.
  2. Illustrate why it is worsening.
57% of all meals are eaten alone. That number rises every year, and each new generation struggles with loneliness more and more.

Not only does the founding team have an insight into a trend, but they also have tapped into one that continues to grow. It immediately communicates that your business is strengthened by team knowledge and a growing market.

#2. Why Does It Matter?

Start with why. — Simon Sinek

In the Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is on stage for a speaking engagement. He pauses, in silence, looking out at the audience. Then, he slowly walks off the stage and walks up to the first row. He looks an audience member dead in the eye, and says:

Sell me this pen.

The poor guy stammers out how great the pen is before DiCaprio stops him, and moves on to his next victim. As he goes down the line, each audience member talks about what the pen is, about its excellent qualities. DiCaprio cuts each of them off, snatching the pen away from them.

Sure, the pen might be amazing. But why do I want to buy it? Why does this matter?

It’s not about what you do. It’s why the world needs it.

Here’s our why:

Loneliness is slowly killing us. Mental health problems are skyrocketing. We now know that digitized isolation is directly harming our health across all socio-economic classes and ages.

The trend of loneliness will soon affect vast amounts of people. It will have very real effects on our mental and physical health. And massive digitization through social media is a major influencing factor.

What we’re really building addresses a core need that large amounts of people struggle with.

This sets up what you’re building as something impactful, before you’ve even pitched your solution.

#3: How Do You Do It?

A photo from Fayzeh’s table. Fayzeh is a Syrian home cook and mom, and one of our most amazing Homecooked hosts.
Today, I want to tell you about how we want to reconnect people around the home dining table.

Before you even talk about what you’re building, tell the judges how you’re going to do it. This demonstrates the purpose of your product before telling them what the product is.

All of this sets up the pins for you to knock them down.

#4: What Are You Building?

We don’t even get to what we’re building until the very end of the 30 seconds. Because it’s the least important.

And if you love connecting with people over food, you can download it here.

If we started off here, the judges would think:

Oh, they’re selling homecooked food.

But we’re not selling food. We’re providing an experience that connects people.

But none of that makes sense if we don’t start with the underlying trend of loneliness. What we do doesn’t compel people — make them feel something.

But why we do it? Now that’s powerful.

Here’s the full 30 seconds. We pause between each section to ramp up from Trend-Impact (Why)-How-What.

57% of all meals are eaten alone. That number rises every year, and each new generation struggles with loneliness more and more.
Loneliness is slowly killing us. Mental health problems are skyrocketing. We now know that digitized isolation is directly harming our health across all socio-economic classes and ages.
Today, I want to tell you about how we want to reconnect people around the home dining table.
Homecooked is a social dining platform that organizes small communal meals at the homes of local cooks. Each event is personal, intimate, and unique.

If you follow this framework, here’s what happens.

Within the first 30 seconds of your pitch, you’ve managed to communicate:

  1. Your knowledge on a trend.
  2. The impact of that trend.
  3. How and why you’re building.
  4. And last, and least: what you’re building.

The Best Pitches Are About Problems That Matter

Of course, successful pitches are never about just the deck. Countless hours go into building great businesses. Every single aspect does matter — team, market size, traction, vision.

But when boostrapping the startup through grants and pitch competitions, the story is king. And the best stories are built around problems that matter.

Solve. Problems. That. Matter. — Chamath Palihapitiya, Founder and CEO of Social Capital

It’s not about pitch competitions. It’s about the story — the foundation for every relevant part of your business — finding customers who will buy what you’re selling, venture partners who will back you, and teammates who will become the core of your founding team.

The Promised Land

Just two weeks after our call, Vaibhav texted me back to say that he had just gotten an interview with Y Combinator — the most prestigious startup accelerator in the world.

Then, two weeks after that, Vaibhav was over the moon: He had just been accepted into Y Combinator’s Class of W19.

Next time I’m in San Francisco, dinner’s on him.