The internet is overflowing with schadenfreude right now toward anyone who had a role in the disaster known as the Fyre Festival. Everyone is an easy target, from the “Influencers” who were so easily duped to the investors who poured in over $25 million.
But to me, Fyre Festival is just a flashier and larger version of the same bulls%&t that gets passed around in pitch decks every day from SF to NY and everywhere between.
Having been involved in startups since 2004 and reviewing what has to be 6,000+ pitch decks, I’m going to confidently say I’ve seen every kind of deck imaginable.
And the Fyre Festival is not the worst I’ve had the misfortune of viewing.
The Main Pitch
Ignore the first three slides as they are standard boilerplate for any modern pitch deck. Let’s look at slides 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Slide 4 is just a summary of their value proposition. Other than using a bit too much jargon, this looks pretty standard.
Slide 6 introduces the problem they want to solve with their Fyre Media platform. In this case, it’s a real problem the industry is still facing today in 2019, like it was back in 2016.
Slide 7 is the classic, “And this is how we are going to crush the problem!!!” type slide. It’s full of big promises, generalities, and more jargon. Including this giant claim:
“thousands of offers representing tens of millions of dollars of performances and appearances have been made and accepted with Fyre.
Now, this is where you might interject, “Come on Seth, that’s a very bold claim to make and was obviously complete horses$&t.”
I’d love to pretend that legitimate pitch decks NEVER include ridiculous claims, exaggerations, verbal promises being portrayed as signed contracts, unintentional misinformation, or gross miscalculations.
But, I’d be lying to you. Decks include these ALL THE TIME.
Unlike Billy McFarland, who was intentionally running a con, most of the time this bad information in decks comes from:
- A lack of experience.
- A lack of knowledge around fundraising laws.
- Copying what they see in other decks.
- Bad advice from other founders and advisors on what to include.
- Bad media portrayals of how founders are supposed to behave.
- The mentality of “fake it until you make it” which is worn like a badge of honor in the startup world.
Slide 8 just looks like the classic list of logos and names so many decks include, in this case they just happen to be celebrities.
This standard slide is where the startup brags about the partners they have, the big customers they have signed up, and then typically proceed to misconstrue the conversations they are having with more potential customers as being a sure thing (…the classic “and hundreds more” line I see so often). Savvier VCs learned long ago to be highly skeptical of this slide in decks, because as soon as you start to dive into the real story behind each item listed, you often find out how flimsy the actual relationship is.
Slide 9 explains the process of how the Fyre Media platform works. It’s probably the most boring, but most important slide of the deck to understand what it is their platform actually does. Some decks drone on for five slides to cover this, so at least they kept it concise.
Slide 10 is the “How we will make money” slide. You might assume that ALL pitch decks would include an elaborate explanation of how the company will generate revenue. Hahahahahahah….
I’ve seen real decks, that raised real money ($1M+), that had a single slide with some bullet points as hypothetical ways they could generate revenue. This Fyre slide is actually better than most, since they clearly explain their revenue model. It’s not the “Here’s seven ways we can generate revenue” style I see where it’s clear the founder is just throwing everything against the wall, hoping one sticks in the VC’s mind.
The Fyre Festival Pitch
Most of the media attention and flack the Fyre deck receives is concerning Slides 11 through 31. And it’s deservedly so.
You are suddenly taken on a bizarre tangent. Why are we talking about a giant festival in the middle of a booking platform pitch deck? Is the money going to be used for the app or the festival? It’s a very strange way to introduce the festival and I can only imagine the confused looks on investors’ faces.
Here’s the thing though. I have also looked at a TON of marketing/sponsorship decks for large events and I’ve created sponsorship decks for my own events. If you take out the celebrity models, this looks like so many other event sponsorship decks. The bigger the event, the more ridiculous the deck normally is.
If you think startup fundraising decks are full of hyperbole, you have never seen an event sponsorship deck. Claims of being able to easily sell out, book major talent, and land huge sponsors are way, way too common. The wording tends to be “incredibly amazing” and I’ve seen an obscene amount of exclamation points. This deck does better than most at toning that down, except for the abusive amount of times it uses the word Fyre.
Even with all of that said, the Fyre Festival pitch stands out to me as the most outrageous I’ve ever seen. It talks about hosting 40,000 people on a small sandy island, it lists off dozens of moving parts (island-wide treasure hunt anyone?), and it claims that Fyre has been gifted millions of dollars of FREE land. This is part of the deck is the most “What the hell were people thinking?” section.
Closing Out the Deck
The rest of the deck from Slide 32 onward talks about how much they’re raising and what they want to use it for. Other than being vague, this isn’t out of the ordinary in design.
Slides 34–40 The team (“Squad”) that is behind the app is the typical bragging I see in every deck. Just take all the combined years of experience of the people (sometimes including investors & advisors), all the revenue generated by those people, all the companies anyone on the team has ever been associated with, and then just paste that info onto a slide that is supposed to overwhelm the investor with confidence in the team’s abilities.
Just like the list of partners and customers slide, most VCs have grown weary of this one as well. They know its laced with hyperbole and that just because a team might have 70 years of combined experience, it doesn’t mean they were good at their jobs.
Slides 41–43 are pretty typical to an event sponsorship deck, but are definitely over the top for a startup deck. I’ll just chock that up to an overzealous presentation designer.
This Deck Isn’t the Problem
The reason Billy Mcfarland is currently in prison for fraud isn’t this deck, it’s that he lied in associated emails, phone calls, texts, meetings, and supporting documentation about what the real financial situation of the company was, what he was using the funds for, and his personal pocketing of money.
What makes this deck truly laughable is the inclusion of an event deck mashed into the middle. The rest of it is pretty standard and you’ll find thousands of decks just like this flying around the Bay Area on any given Tuesday.
And that’s a problem. This is the modern state of fundraising if you are a startup.
What was the festival pitch in reality?
It’s their big marketing idea to rapidly scale the Fyre Media booking platform to make it worthy of investment.
While I’ve never seen 20+ pages dedicated to a ridiculous promotional idea in a fundraising deck, I’ve seen plenty in real startup decks. Many times it includes magically landing major press coverage, a celebrity endorsement, a huge contest, or some other scheme that requires 54 things to go perfectly in order to pull off. They might as well say “magic”.
In a tech fundraising world that celebrates big headlines and big hype, the Fyre Festival section of this deck is nothing more than an exaggerated version of the current problem most startups raising venture capital face. In the words of Reid Hoffman, “How are you going to blitzscale this?”.
Billy McFarland thought hosting a massive festival would be the ultimate blitzscale for the Fyre platform. His was a scam, but it had an eerie resemblance to so many other decks I’ve viewed.
It’s sad that in 2019 startups still feel like the only way they can make their startup worthwhile (and be a “real” founder) is to try to prove they can explosively grow their company. If you can’t blitzscale, you’re a failure (…a “blitzfail”?). This pushes founders into unsustainable burn rates, crushing anxiety, depression, and burnout. It sets a terrible precedent that this is somehow supposed to be normal.
Over the last 20 years in startupland, the funding community has placed unreasonable requirements on what it means to be a true startup. If you can’t prove your startup can explosively grow, you are labeled a “lifestyle business” and are uninvestable. Wanting to be profitable, have small teams, and being able to sleep occasionally became disgusting things. It meant you aren’t serious about wanting to create a company that can actually grow.
While Billy took this to the most extreme possible, I’m sure I’ll keep receiving decks that are laced with same underlying promise of hyper-growth, exaggerations, and dreams of being BIG BIG BIG!!!!
This is the current state of modern startup fundraising and it won’t be changing anytime soon.
How Not to be Billy in Your Next Deck
Since we operate in a funding community that wants to see fireworks, here is a quick tip.
The biggest challenge in a deck is trying to walk that fine line that exists where being truthful & not exaggerating meets up against the very high demands that today’s VC’s have for any startup they will consider investing in.
Too many founders decide to cross that line and show the investor exactly what they want to hear, even if they know the story they are painting is at best, a highly exaggerated version of the truth.
I get it. I can 100% see why they succumb to that pressure.
There is another way. The best decks I have ever seen were actually quite simple in both their content and design. They don’t try to overwhelm the VC with tons of data, too much explanation about their plans (which tends to only encourage them to stretch the truth more), and they focus on telling a clear and relatable story.
The key word is relatable. Not supermodels in bikinis on jetskis. More like, “Meet Jeff, he’s a local banker in Ohio and he has a problem…”
That’s the key piece of advice I learned years ago from my friend Brian Burkhart. Focus on telling a story in your deck (a true story!) and answer the question of WHY does your startup exist. Do it with the simplest design and the least amount of text you can get away with.
More slides just pose the risk of more trouble. More excuses to fill in blanks with exaggerations. More chances to have your ethics and morals tested.
The temptation will always be there to a tell investors everything they want to hear, but it’s these small decisions that add up over time that will define who you are as a founder. Don’t become the next Billy.
PS — If you are interested in another example of outrageous pitch decks and investor meetings, definitely check out the podcast about the $9 billion alleged fraud by the Theranos founder.