How VCs Evaluate Your Video Call Pitch
Pitching VCs remotely using video conferencing software such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Skype has been a fairly common practice for startup founders for years.
While the concept is nothing new, the outbreak of COVID-19 accelerated that trend “10X” and altered some of the underlying conditions and context, likely irrevocably.
Before COVID-19 founders who pitched remotely might have met their investors at least once before closing, but, since the outbreak, more founders have been able to close financing rounds without even a single physical handshake. This includes lead investors, too.
It’s a particularly pronounced challenge for VCs, who invest millions of dollars into a company they intend to work with for years. It’s not like an inexpensive mistake they can undo quickly and easily.
Meeting founders, particularly CEOs, in-person, has historically been an important data point for investors to assess the attractiveness of an opportunity.
While video conferencing is a super useful medium, it filters out a lot of the nuanced detail humans perceive in one another sharing the same physical space. Things like body language, energy, and even facial cues can be missed. Connection issues amplify these issues further.
Due to this, conversations don’t flow as easily. Meetings are shorter and follow a set template. Small talk is harder and feels time-constrained.
Idiosyncratic moments are also lost. For example, how someone carries themself into an unfamiliar room full of other people they’re not familiar with communicates a lot to investors.
There are tons of physical moments like these that can occur throughout a physical fundraising process. Things like unplanned interruptions, etiquette, and dealing with new situations.
In short, it makes it harder for VCs to assess the character, passion, and intrinsic skill-sets of the founders they’re considering investing in.
Despite all of this, VCs are, right now, investing in founding teams they have never met. After all, they don’t have much choice if they want to invest in the next generation of amazing companies. They’re still being founded throughout the pandemic.
To filter startup opportunities more effectively in a “remote-only world”, VCs have adjusted their approach accordingly. Below, I’ll detail how VCs will evaluate your video call pitch as part of this new approach.
Before I continue, I’d like to say a big thanks to NFX for providing the inspiration and insights to write this article. I’ve mixed in my own insights from doing this personally as a founder, too.
What VCs evaluate
Audio quality. This may say obvious, but it’s a common issue. If it’s hard for a prospective investor to clearly make out what you are saying, it’s probably not going to work out. It’s also a reflection on your ability to be a problem solver, and, a capable salesman and communicator.
- Make sure you’re not on mute pre-call. It’s a small thing, but annoying.
- Purchase a standalone microphone that’s of much higher quality than the built-in microphone on your PC or laptop. They’re easily available on Amazon. This makes a huge difference.
- Don’t place your speakers close to your microphone. This can create a noisy feedback loop for your listener.
- Upgrade your Internet connection if breakups are a frequent issue.
Lighting. If a VC can’t see you in person, they want to see you really clearly remotely. This means great lighting. Try to use a mixture of natural light and strategically positioned artificial lights to illuminate yourself appropriately.
Aside from coming across clearly, so VCs can read the energy and emotion on your facial clues more easily, it will make you appear more bright and positive. Dark and gloomy doesn’t send the same vibe.
Similar to audio quality, it’s also a reflection on your ability to prepare, problem-solve, and pro-actively deal with issues.
It will take trial and error to set up your lighting well. Too much light is also a bad thing.
Backup slides. Unlike a physical meeting, on a video call, you don’t have access to a whiteboard to quickly answer ad hoc questions that may be complex.
A great way to tackle this is “backup” slides that aren’t included in your core presentation. Have the answer to the question already prepared on a slide, with diagrams and illustrations if need be.
Another way to think of this is “FAQ” slides. Sometimes they are included as addendum slides at the end of the deck and are only presented if the given topic is probed.
Having such a slide prepared and ready to go achieves multiple things:
- It makes you look more competent and prepared.
- Avoid the frustrating situation where you attempt to answer the question verbally and failing. That only damages their view of your communication skills.
- It allows you to move on quickly to the next part of your presentation without disrupting the flow too significantly. Particularly if it’s a critical point to the whole pitch.
Small talk. Some investors, but not all, are keen to conduct a few minutes of small talk at the beginning of the call.
“the small talk tells me as much as the actual discussion does”. — Gigi Levy, NFX
They want to get some sense of who you are as a person before you transform into the programmed pitching version of yourself.
For every investor you speak with, prepare a list of talking points pre-call that you can use to break the ice. The obvious stuff like weather, time zones, and current issues like COVID-19 is preferably avoidable. Everyone uses these.
Unless you have a powerful unique insight or something valuable to share, these topics don’t distinguish you or pump energy into the conversation.
Instead, start off with topics that are important to your listener. Do this by finding articles they have written. Presentations or fireside chats they have been involved in. Projects or initiatives they have participated in. From researching this, you’ll be able to pick out conversational points that will instantly engage them.
Sometimes this can work so well that the reason you are on the call in the first place starts to get forgotten. This may seem bad, but it isn’t.
Set aside time for small talk, adjust the conversation, and switch to your “presentation mode” when it runs out. After some fun and engaging small talk the VC will be super engaged and in the right frame of mind for your presentation.
If the VC is not so engaged with your small talk and you get the vibe they’d rather get stuck straight into it, move things along accordingly. It’s not necessarily your fault. Some VCs don’t want to chit chat.
Multiple founders. Sometimes a CEO wants multiple founders to be on a video call, other times it's VC-driven.
However it comes about, investors glean a lot of insight into team dynamics when there is more than one founder on a call. Such as:
- Who is doing most of the talking, and why?
- Are all founders contributing value to the meeting?
- How do they interact with one another in a high-pressure environment?
- How do they react to a stressful situation like a hard question?
- Are they well organized collectively? Is there pre-meditated structure to their approach, or, is it haphazard?
- Are they in-sync with “telepathic-like” communication?
Make sure every founder is there for a reason. The CEO should do most of the talking and control the flow. Other founders should speak, when relevant, to their area of expertise and have something meaningful to say.
Plan and rehearse your pitch in advance so all founders know when it’s relevant for them to speak. This may seem obvious, but under stress, this can break down.
Have a plan in place so that every question a VC asks is either answered by the CEO, or the CEO assigns and delegates it. This avoids the awkward scenario of silences or multiple people speaking at the same time — situations that are amplified by long-distance delays in “the phone line”.
Are you engaging? In real life, it’s tough to keep a VC’s attention throughout the duration of the meeting. Energy can dissipate. Narratives breakdown. Distractions pop up.
On a video call, it’s even harder.
The key to keeping a VC’s attention is to be engaging. Draw them in with your passion, insights, and story. Demonstrate this with your tone, rate of speech, and facial behavior.
“Have a game plan for how you want to use all 30 minutes in a high-energy, thought-provoking discussion.” — Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures
You need to make up for your out of the frame and silenced body language and the intensity that’s brought by being in the moment with someone in shared physical space.
Capture their interest from the outset with a bold statement or insight and take them on a compelling journey with the story of your team, mission, and achievements.
Try not to “hide” behind your presentation. Calibrate your pitch so that you can draw VCs in with questions, and, are able to switch seamlessly back to your presentation when you’re done answering. The minutes should just melt away.
“Have your points be staccato so that an investor can jump in to ask questions, or make a point themselves.” — Mark Suster, Upfront Ventures
The key takeaway here is video calls are no longer “just” intro calls before the “proper” in-person meeting. They are are the “proper” meeting.
Treat it differently than you would a physical meeting. Don’t try to replicate in-person meetings, but instead play to the strengths of the video medium.
Plan, practice, and hone your video call pitch until its perfect.
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