The Evolution of The Startup Pitch: From Napkin to Traction Data

Written by Hicham Amine // Also shared on Startups.co.

When I was first introduced to the Startup world, the word “pitch” came up in nearly every conversation. It certainly didn’t help the fresh-faced foreigner I was that the term came from Baseball, a sport I have yet to understand.

I’ve listened to hundreds of pitches from Hidden Founders applicants these last 8 months. Most have confessed that they expected more return from their pitching efforts when they started.

I’m hoping some insight will save first time founders time and help them avoid stagnation while trying to involve more and more people in their journey.

THE WHO AND THE WHY

You pitch friends, family and fools initially. Depending on the type of entourage you’ve been blessed with (or the lack of), you decide whether you need that to get constructive feedback or only to practice and test the right wording for what’s coming next.

Who your startup pitches next deserves important attention. Eric Ries and Steve Blank said it best: get out of the building to pitch your startup’s target audience/users. If, instead, you jump straight to CTOs, investors and media you’ll have made the classic noob mistake. For the record, that’s exactly what I did in my first tour as a founder, I get the temptation: don’t do it. Your new entourage now must be your users.

PITCHING YOUR MARKET

In my experience, engaging your market from the get go is the hardest step in a Startup’s life-cycle. This is also exactly why most first time founders avoid it. It takes a lot of maturity to properly handle this phase. Sadly, most will ask themselves the wrong questions. Will the guy I just added on LinkedIn talk to me for 15 minutes? Does he see me as yet another startup-hippie? Is he impressed yet? No? Should I downplay the issue with a “this is just how we will penetrate the market” and that “the product can do so much more than that”? If you go down this path, you’ve lost before you’ve begun. The lesson here is to worry less about your ego and more about the person in front of you. Customer discovery is about listening. Just make sure you don’t mention (or very briefly) the idea about your product while doing so.

Pitching next technical co-founders, business angels, and prolific bloggers from a napkin is a sure way to get permanently written off.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE NAPKIN?

The napkin is still a great way to capture an idea that spontaneously pops into your head while chatting with your best bud. The problem is: first-timers have a hard time gauging the pitch/expectation ratio.

A quick reminder: the napkin is for friends and family. Animated Mockups and a Business Model Canvas are for target users (low fidelity MVP). An MVP with Traction is for the potential co-founder CTO. A Product/Market fit will get you VCs. The more you go to the right, the more you’ll get what you pitch for:

NAPKIN MAXED OUT

The success and attention startups have received in recent years has caused a veritable Gold Rush, and hot trends always attract their share of shady characters who muddy the waters. For founders, this has meant a higher burden of data-driven proof before they can earn a spot in the limelight.

A startup pitch is a request for trust, and trust requires tangible evidence. People you ask to follow you will demand to see progress before committing. Luckily progress is hackable.

STARTUP PITCH HACKING

Being a non-technical founder in the tech industry is hard — and this is where a creative mind needs to shine. What is lacking in technical skills must be compensated by street smarts, rapid execution, and perseverance. Essentially what Paul Graham refers to as being a cockroach.

In order to survive and maximize the chances of a successful startup pitch, a low fidelity MVP is a key asset and prelude to a future, high fidelity MVP. Below are some tools to achieve these:

Low fidelity MVP: InvisionApp, Marvel, 99designs, Unbounce, Optimizely, LaunchRock, Strikingly, Google Analytics, Facebook Ads, Google Adwords, reddit, Hackernews, Quora, Olark…

High fidelity MVP: CodeAcademy, CTO co-founder (your best option), Dribbble, UpWork, your local dev shop, Hidden Founders, Amazon AWS/DigitalOcean, Mixpanel…

Once you’re all set, you start your data quest.

ONE FOCUS

Data, charts, clicks, signups, logins, engagement, transactions, science, TRACTION. Traction is seed stage currency: without it, you’re broke, and pitching co-founders, investors or tech journalists begins to sound alarmingly like begging.

While this mantra seems to be on every founder’s lips, there is precious little action to back it up. More often, the minute product development begins, they become hypnotized by tangential distractions. It’s a dangerously warm place where founders relax and chill. Colorful user experiences, typography, on-boarding… most simply end up feeding their distractions and get swallowed up in trivial details.

Let’s put it this way: traction is the only currency that matters. The more of it you have, the more nice things you can afford. Nothing is free.

IDEA STAGE IS A MYTH

Napkin idea stage no longer competes, especially with what the market offers CTOs these days. Only two types of founders are pitching ideas in 2017: the serially successful, and the lazy — and only the former get away with it. Committed founders always find ways (😉 ) to produce something concrete, because as you may have guessed by now: it’s not gonna get any easier.

Welcome to the new Startup pitch.

PS: This doesn’t apply to established founders. They can keep enjoying the napkin. I was at Square’s office and saw Jack Dorsey’s initial product screens on a napkin hanging on their workplace wall.

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