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How to nail a first impression when millions of dollars are on the line

Six VCs who are familiar with high-stakes situations weigh in on what you need to do—and what founders should avoid at all costs.

How to nail a first impression when millions of dollars are on the line
[Photo: Andrew Seaman/Unsplash]

Making a good first impression is critical, whether you’re in a job interview or a social setting. For founders seeking funding, that first impression becomes especially crucial. But the tough part is, you don’t have long to get it right. In fact, some research suggests that you have mere seconds.

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What matters most to investors during the first meeting? What should founders avoid? I asked a few top VCs to weigh in on how to nail a first impression.

Know your audience

Investors aren’t the only ones that should be doing pre-meeting diligence. Doing your research, and adapting based on this knowledge, is essential to making a good impression.

“Fifteen years ago, it might have been necessary to show up in a suit, but now, you’ll look out of place. … Dress consistent with your audience and the geography,” says Jonathan Tower, managing partner at Catapult VC. “Do your homework on the VC and what they invest in, both historically and more recently. Be up to date on industry news and other players in your space, know your market cold, and know your metrics even colder.”

He also advises founders to consider the tone of the meeting and plan accordingly. “Is it a formal pitch or just a coffee conversation? Be prepared for either. Will there be a projector or monitor available, or will you simply talk the investor through the pitch? Figure these items out in advance so you know what’s expected.”

Be confident, yet coachable

Creating a good first impression with an investor starts with the understanding that there is a tension between confidence and humility,” says Kelly Perdew, cofounder and general partner at Moonshots Capital. “The entrepreneur should be confident that they have the answers but also display enough humility to convey that they will hear my advice and be coachable.”

Cut to the chase

Scott Lenet, the founder and president of Touchdown Ventures, suggests getting to the point as quickly as possible. “Many VCs disagree with me on this, but I recommend you don’t start with a story, or describe your market, even though your personal motivations for starting the business might be one of the most important factors a VC will assess,” Lenet says. “Just tell me what you do. An elevator pitch for an investor isn’t an onstage performance like a TED Talk, where you are likely to have a patient audience. Instead, it’s a conversation starter with another human being who hears pitches for a living.”

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According to Olivia Moore, a venture investor at CRV, this includes being an open book when it comes to the ins and outs of your product.
“Once we get the basics of the founder and company background, we love to dig into what engagement looks like on a product or service. Beyond the standard metrics (monthly active users, retention, average revenue per user, etc.), it’s helpful when founders walk us through what is really ‘working’ in their user base,” says Moore. “Especially in the first meeting, we typically spend less time strictly walking through a pitch deck or future projections, and more discussing what the product looks like now and how it plays into the one, three, five, or 10-year vision for the company.”

Show your personality and character

Although focusing on your elevator pitch is important, so is being a human, says Sheldon Lewis, a managing partner at Blueprint Equity. “I’m focused on eye contact, body language, and confidence, and look for their ability to connect in the first few minutes,” says Lewis. “Let’s talk about something other than the weather. I value personality, as it goes a long way in building relationships with clients and employees—both of which are important if they are going to scale the business.”

VCs also want to witness examples of your character and values as a founder. “In a first meeting, I’m looking at the person on the other side of the table as a human first. This is more important to me than their initial idea. I want to understand their values and get a sense of the characteristics they have that make them a good human,” says Heather Hartnett, CEO and founding partner at Human Ventures. “Some examples of these values include demonstrating your commitment to personal growth, listening to your intuition and taking big swings, having resiliency and an ability to shake off your mistakes.”

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About the author

Beck Bamberger founded BAM Communications in 2008 and writes regularly for Forbes, Inc., and HuffPost about entrepreneurship, public relations, and culture.

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