My venture capital fund sees more than 50 slide decks each week. Some come in cold (our email addresses are on the website), some are forwarded from friends and co-investors who think a company's a good fit, and others are follow-ups from meetings I’ve had throughout the week.
If a company operates in a space I understand well, I’ll spend no more than five minutes on a quick read-through of the deck before deciding whether or not to dig in further. Many other investors do the same. In some ways, a startup's pitch deck is like a college admission essay, condensing down your life story and mission into a few words to get your message across beautifully and briefly.
Start with the problem you’re solving, why you’re the right team to solve it, why now is the right time to solve it, and what you need to solve it. You should be able to do this in 10–12 slides. It’s fine to have a longer version of the same deck on hand featuring appendix slides, too, but every startup needs to have a shorter, five-minute version to give prospective investors a first look. Here are the slides it should include.
In certain industries, market slides all start to look the same: bar charts going up and to the right to demonstrate a growing market; competitor landscape matrices with the pitching company in the upper right quadrant; the same estimates for market size, total addressable market, blah blah blah.
There was a time—around three or four years ago—when everybody would come in quoting the same stats about mobile app revenues and the growth of mobile devices around the world in order to justify their addressable market. It was terribly boring.
For businesses that are post-revenue, the unit economics slide is the new "up-and-to-the-right" growth slide and I care more about this than high level, general market data. And a better alternative to the standard 2x2 competitive landscape matrix could involve a more pointed differentiation scale, focusing specifically on differences between your company and its competitors.
Market slides are usually a good place to talk about the problem you’re trying to solve: What’s wrong with this market you describe, and why is now the right time for its disruption?
At the seed stage, where my firm does most of our deals, you’re betting on your team above all else. It’s all you really have to go on. In today’s market, folks getting funded often have computer science PhDs, Stanford MBAs, and previous venture-backed exits on the team slide. Logos of colleges and tech companies noting experience at Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft adorn many a slide deck like medals of honor.
That stuff is all impressive and can help convey relevant educational and work experience efficiently. But it doesn’t always help uncover a first-time entrepreneur who dropped out of college to build her first company—and investors are very interested in backing those people, too.
It’s important to look for strong, technical-minded founders (or cofounders) who have a clear passion for building something that can make a real impact. These founders yearn to tear down something stale and apply a fresh perspective to doing it better, and you sometimes need to look beyond credentials to find signs of that.
The App Store is crowded—no revelations there. It’s harder to get your app noticed now than it was five years ago. So instead, VCs need to see evidence of how you'll get your product into users’ hands. Are you going to do paid marketing on Facebook? Event sponsorships? Influencer-driven marketing campaigns? Whatever it may be, understand that distribution is an important concern for any business today, so be sure to clearly explain how you’ll get the word out.
How much capital has been raised previously and from whom? How much do you need at this stage of your company’s growth? How many months of runway will this get you before your next funding round?
Financial projections are somewhat fabricated, particularly around top-line revenue forecasts. But cost and operating expense projections should be pretty well understood. Typically, entrepreneurs will show a roadmap that incorporates product development, launch plans, and other milestones, alongside their funding requirements along the way.
That can get cumbersome quickly. You need to have a financial model that can back up your "uses of funds" claims, but there’s no need to put this in the initial pitch deck. Excerpts should instead go in the appendix alongside your financial projections.
A final piece of advice: While this could be a personal quirk, it's smart to use a system like DocSend when emailing out your pitch deck. You should only put into your deck whatever you’re comfortable sharing, because you should assume it’s going to get forwarded around.
PDFs can just bounce around from person to person without the original sender ever knowing who's had their eyeballs on them. But with Docsend, you can at least know who it’s been forwarded along to and how long each reader spends on particular slides. That's valuable information—especially since most investors may only bank a few minutes.
Sunny Dhillon is a partner at Signia Venture Partners, an early-stage fund focused on seed- and series-A investment across consumer and enterprise software startups. Follow Sunny on Twitter at @SunDhillon.