Pitch Decks are the presentations startups make to venture capitalists to secure funding.  They are most often used in introductory meetings.  An effective pitch deck can make or break a company’s chances of being funded.  Product Managers can learn a lot from startup pitch decks.  A pitch deck essentially tells a story of why a company should be funded.  Product managers face similar challenges every day.  Often they use tools like the Lean Business Canvas.  They need to be able to tell the story of their product to a wide set of constituencies like executives for funding, development teams for context and prioritization, and marketing for campaigns and demand generation.  We’ll explore the anatomy of a pitch of a pitch deck and review a few legendary pitch decks.

Anatomy of a Pitch Deck

Pitch decks have been around for as long as companies have raised money from VCs.  During the DotCom bubble the stories of kids getting funded with nothing but a PowerPoint deck are legendary.  Guy Kawasaki, noted evangelist and founder of Garage Technology Ventures, offered this advice on pitch decks:

It’s quite simple: a pitch should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points. This rule is applicable for any presentation to reach agreement: for example, raising capital, making a sale, forming a partnership, etc.

Ten slides. Ten is the optimal number of slides in a PowerPoint presentation because a normal human being cannot comprehend more than ten concepts in a meeting—and venture capitalists are very normal. (The only difference between you and venture capitalist is that he is getting paid to gamble with someone else’s money). If you must use more than ten slides to explain your business, you probably don’t have a business.

Twenty minutes. You should give your ten slides in twenty minutes. Sure, you have an hour time slot, but you’re using a Windows laptop, so it will take forty minutes to make it work with the projector. Even if setup goes perfectly, people will arrive late and have to leave early. In a perfect world, you give your pitch in twenty minutes, and you have forty minutes left for discussion.

Thirty-point font. The majority of the presentations that I see have text in a ten point font. As much text as possible is jammed into the slide, and then the presenter reads it. However, as soon as the audience figures out that you’re reading the text, it reads ahead of you because it can read faster than you can speak. The result is that you and the audience are out of synch.

The Only 10 Slides You Need in Your Pitch

Sequoia, the legendary venture capital firm, suggests the following structure for a pitch deck from their Writing a Business Plan by Team Sequoia

  • Company purpose Start here: define your company in a single declarative sentence. This is harder than it looks. It’s easy to get caught up listing features instead of communicating your mission.
  • Problem Describe the pain of your customer. How is this addressed today and what are the shortcomings to current solutions.
  • Solution Explain your eureka moment. Why is your value prop unique and compelling? Why will it endure? And where does it go from here?
  • Why now? The best companies almost always have a clear why now? Nature hates a vacuum—so why hasn’t your solution been built before now?
  • Market potential Identify your customer and your market. Some of the best companies invent their own markets.
  • Competition / alternatives Who are your direct and indirect competitors. Show that you have a plan to win.
  • Business model How do you intend to thrive?
  • Team Tell the story of your founders and key team members.
  • Financials If you have any, please include.
  • Vision If all goes well, what will you have built in five years?

Google has about 1.39 million suggestions for how to write a pitch deck.  Conventional wisdom says that you should combine the key aspects of what Kawasaki and Sequoia recommend.

VC Funding Perspective

It is important to put the effectiveness of a given pitch into perspective.  While it may have been relatively easy to raise funding at the height of the DotCom boom, things have changed.  Here is a chart that shows the trends in VC funding since 2003:

startup pitch deck vc funding

Example VC Pitch Decks

Here are seven pitch decks and the year when they were pitched:

Here is a table with links to each deck:

Company Year Round Slides
MySQL 2003 Series B 186
LinkedIn 2004 Series B 37
Facebook 2004 Seed 27
Uber 2008 Seed 25
WeWork 2008 Series D 37
Coinbase 2012 Seed 11
Pilleve 2017 PreSeed 10

Pitch Deck Takeaways

There are a few things that product managers can take away from these pitches:

There Is No Recipe for a Winning Deck

None of these decks strictly followed the Kawasaki/Sequoia recommendation.  Each reflects the nature and personality of the founders.  MySQL is almost a dissertation while CoinBase was more like a movie trailer.

Story is Most Important

All of these decks tell a story.  The stories have beginning, middles, and ends.  Their stories start with a problem, continue with a conflict or catalyst (new tech to solve the problem), and end with a resolution (everyone makes a lot of money and can buy a jet).

Numbers Are Not the Main Point

One thing that is surprising is that aside from market sizes and potential, financial numbers play a very small part of these presentations.  At most, these decks have one slide on pro-forma P&Ls.  At some point in the fund raising process financial projections become important, but significant details are not required in the beginning.

Summary

Product Managers can learn a lot from startup pitch decks.  There is more art than science when it comes to telling an interesting and compelling story.  Product managers can use startup pitch decks as an inspiration for how they tell their stories to executives, developers, marketing, and sales.  To access an entire library of startup pitch decks check out Startup Decks, an online resource that catalogs dozens of startup pitch decks.


Also published on Medium.