You’re a startup founder. You are from the future and you’re here to help

You have probably set yourself the wrong goal for your pitch. The goal is to paint a clear picture of the future.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

A clear picture. Not a hazy picture of one possible future from a multiverse in which today’s decisions could lead to many different tomorrows.

It should be the only possible future, from which you have only just returned. A future in which the events you describe in your pitch comes true. A future in which you haven’t been deposed by your board or stepped down for personal reasons or have continued to lean on your CFO because you’re ‘not a numbers person’. A future in which you are the master of the universe you were always going to be.

Why did you come back from the future?

You have come back to the now with one purpose — to tell us exactly how the future will work out, and to offer some of us (if we’re lucky and we act now) a small bet that has a 100% chance of paying off big.

When you’re pitching to a potential cofounder, you’re asking them to bet that working with you and sacrificing their career will be the best decision of their life.

When pitching to a potential employee, you’re asking them to bet that this company will become famous for the best company culture, the best workplace conditions, the best work, and the best compensation in the industry.

When you’re pitching to your life partner, you’re asking them to bet that all the near-term work/life compromises and financial security risks will pay off in an abundance of life opportunities and financial security later.

When you’re pitching to customers and the media, you’re asking them to be an early adopter, to believe that even the MVP is unpolished, it’s deliberately unpolished. There’s a 1.0 only a short time away, and a 2.0 right after that.

And when you’re pitching to investors, you’re asking them to put their money down alongside the blood, sweat and tears contributed by a team of newcomers who will, in ten years time, be a case study in technology leadership, who will have built a large, valuable company out of a solution nobody would believe would work, solving a problem most people haven’t yet realised exists, for a customer segment the rest of the market hasn’t clearly identified yet.

And this future isn’t a work of speculative fiction. It’s the accurate retelling of an inevitable series of events that will fall into place like a line of dominoes. The future is not in doubt — the only question is whether the listener wants to take up the opportunity.

Don’t be a prick about it

Not everybody believes you right away, no matter how good you are. I could bring you back a charred, broken Terminator skeleton and still fail to make you believe that an android Arnold Schwarzenegger will return later tonight to save the saviour of mankind in the AI Wars.

Some people need to be eased gently into accepting that you’ve just returned from the future, and the best way to do that is to ease into it, by being polite and allowing them to believe what they want to believe, while still making it clear that there is really only one future coming, you know what it is, and how to take advantage of it. You don’t have to convert anybody on the first pitch.

So don’t be an arrogant prick — when you meet with objections, don’t descend into debate (because nobody wins an argument over whose version of the future is best) and don’t disrespect the other’s opinion. Respect the difference of opinion, thank them for their time, and leave on smiling terms.

If you’ve done it right, your uncanny certainty in the face of their dissenting opinion will keep them up at night, will niggle at them while they wait in the coffee queue — “If I’d given her another 15mins of my time, would I understand why she’s so certain about this? What didn’t she tell me when it was clear that I thought she was wrong about this? Who’s she talking to now, instead of me? Should I call her back?”

Founders from the future don’t recite a pitch

You don’t need a pitch if you’re from the future. When you’re from the future you’re just telling it how it will inevitably be. It’s a pleasure to listen to you talk because you’re actually a confident, magnetic, well-spoken leader from the future, not because what you’re saying is the result of a carefully scripted pitch.

In other words, in order for you to appear to be a confident, magnetic, well-spoken leader from the future, you may need to develop and memorise a pitch script.

But the goal is not to memorise and rehearse it to the point that you can recite it without making a mistake. Confident, magnetic, well-spoken leaders from the future don’t recite scripts. They’re just their confident, magnetic, well-spoken selves.

There’s a point in the repeated rehearsal of a scripted pitch, way beyond just memorising it, and some distance past the point that you can recite it correctly. Get far enough past those two milestones and the pitch will become natural and conversational for you. It will lose the artifacts of the conscious mind trying to project it in a persuasive way, and it will become just the way you always talk about it, to everyone.

The way, in other words, that you would tell it if you’d just returned from the future.

Let’s time travel together

This is how most founders will look back on the pitching process:

  1. Design a good looking deck;
  2. Make sure the deck includes a slide on each of Customer, Problem, Competitors, Our Solution, Total Addressable Market, Business Model, Progress, Team, Next Steps, Investment Ask;
  3. Think of something to talk about while you click through the slides;
  4. Realise you should probably script some of the trickier parts and memorise some of the key metrics;
  5. Realise you should definitely script all of it and understand the underlying mechanics that cause one metric to change in response to a change in another metric;
  6. Rehearse
  7. Get a warm intro;
  8. Dress right;
  9. Get there early;
  10. Own the stage;
  11. Don’t choke
  12. Have the answers to the questions;
  13. Follow-up right away;
  14. Follow-up again;
  15. Close;
  16. Goto 7.

But the true purpose is:

I’m from the future, I can tell you how the next few years will go down. It goes like this. Would you like to be part of that while you still can?

That is a mindset you start developing at Step 0.9 and allow as much time as it needs at Step 6 to get to the point that you’re just talking, not pitching. Talking like a leader. You know, that is, if you want to succeed.


Postscript

Actually DeLorean was pretty much a ‘70s automotive industry version of an archetypical tech startup founder in many respects. Responsible for some of the most iconic American cars made by GM and for the first ‘muscle car’ the Pontiac GTO.

He was forced out of GM for not doing what he was told (because what he was told was to stay in his place, obey the company line and not outshine others). He started DeLorean to make the cars GM should have been making.

Stoked by ambition but limited by the huge sums of capital required to not just build a little mom-and-pop car brand but a proper rival to GM and Ford, he was lured into manufacturing in Ireland because of massive tax breaks offered to lure manufacturing jobs to Ireland.

But Irish workers didn’t know how to make cars, so at vast expense Europeans built the factory and trained staff.

Designed by Giugiario, bodywork by Lotus and engine by Peugeot, the DMC-12 was all stainless steel and every bit as revolutionary as the first iPhone. But that made it even harder for inexperienced factory workers to build successfully.

Tensions grew and developed into extended industrial action, which delayed the car’s eventual release by an entire decade.

Not surprisingly, by then the market had moved on. Unlike an iPhone you couldn’t just update the OS to bring it up to date, and no sales rev for 10 years!

DeLorean certainly pitched to every possible source of capital to keep DMC afloat and a number of times it looked like it would be saved to live another day. Which is perhaps why, when DeLorean was charged by the FBI for cocaine trafficking, a lot of people assumed he was guilty.

It didn’t help that the major auto manufacturers which hated this upstart threat to their cosy oligopoly combined their PR influence to make sure everybody assumed DeLorean was a drug smuggler. But the truth was very different.

DeLorean was a victim of entrapment. James Hoffman, seeking a reduced sentence for his own cocaine trafficking conviction, told DeLorean he had investors and he was going to set up a deal. Hoffman then lied to the FBI that it was DeLorean’s idea to traffic in cocaine.

Despite flaws in the prosecution’s case, the trial went to court (it had to – the auto industry has already made sure the whole world knew the famous DeLorean was facing drug charges). DeLorean was found not guilty on all charges. Defence didn’t even call a single witness.

But by then DMC had gone bankrupt (hard to raise investment when you’re facing drug charges after all) and the auto industry had succeeded in trashing DeLorean’s reputation for life.

The one serious American car making startup to ever threaten GM and Ford was now gone. It would be many decades before GM/Ford faced another man smart/determined/crazy enough to take them on.

His name is Elon Musk.

Like DeLorean, he’s an engineer, has no time for diplomacy, has an ego and a sense of humour and likes to show off.

He also stands a better chance of succeeding. Electric cars can be simple to manufacture because they have hundreds of fewer components, since there’s no internal combustion, power goes straight from motor to wheel without gearbox or differentials, there’s no need for liquid cooling systems, and no need to use a petrol engine to generate electricity to charge a battery, drive a spark circuit, power lights and amenities. It’s way simpler.

And instead of rushing to release an updated version of each modem each season like Ford or GM have to, Tesla owners can keep their cars for longer because they magically get better the longer you own one. Electric cars can be upgraded through software.

When a Tesla model is delayed in shipping, or when Tesla needs to keep existing customers happy so they don’t switch to a competitor, Tesla can update their cars over-the-air. Suddenly they are faster, handle better and have new features and services.

That’s something poor DeLorean could never have done.

The other advantage Musk has is that nobody much believed in startups in 1971. There was no such thing.

Musk is a startup entrepreneur in a global culture that very much wants to believe he can succeed.

It has seen maverick startup entrepreneurs before him such as Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Pierre Omidyar, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Brian Chesky and many others succeed in disrupting a fat, stale, cosy oligopoly.

John DeLorean probably never stood a chance but he deserved one.

He brought us some of America’s most iconic performance cars and wasn’t afraid to experiment with new designs, materials, techniques and assumptions about what America wanted from a performance car.

He was never a drug trafficker. He deserves to be remembered as a maverick, a rogue, an egotist, who rubbed many people up the wrong way, who wouldn’t listen when people tried to tell him he’d fail.

He deserves to be remembered as a startup entrepreneur in a world that wasn’t yet ready to believe in startup entrepreneurs.

He was a startup founder. He was from the future.