The Startup Pitch
The purpose of this note is to outline the key features of, or buttons that should be pushed during, a solid startup pitch. Frankly, it would be impossible to describe in a single document the entirety and subtlety of this craft. And so, at best I can only hope to define and describe the sorts of inputs and outputs you should be attempting to master.
The construction and presentation of a great startup pitch is as much an art as it is a science. In fact, assembling the inputs that ultimately convince someone else of the viability (which is not the invincibility) of your venture — whether at the stage of just an idea or later in the lifecycle of the venture — is a craft, “an activity involving skill in making things by hand” and mind (New Oxford American Dictionary, with my addition).
I have organized the features of a startup pitch into a set of “M’s”: Moment, Mission, Market, Method, Model, Mortals, Milestones, and Money. There is no formally prescribed order to this M-set. Therefore, at the end of this note, I will highlight how and why you might present these M’s into different orders.
Either at the beginning of or at some time during the pitch presenters often serve up a Moment: a brief story or personal aside that connects the audience with the venture, supporting the claim that the venture is, at the very least, relevant.
This connection usually arrives by way of showing how at least one member of the audience, if not the founder him/herself has experienced or will experience the problem (or “the pain”) the venture is working to address. Furthermore, the content of the moment often tries to hint that the opportunity (or “the upside”) could be significant.
Moments sound something like: “Have you ever found yourself in bumper-to-bumper traffic and wondered, ‘How did I get here? I wish there were some way I could have known, in advance, that this road would be backed up with traffic.’ You are not alone. 50 million commuters sit in traffic jams every day.”
The purpose of a moment is, quite simply, to trigger understanding if not also empathy—to directly connect the investor with the venture, by way of a personal experience or a compelling circumstance. Given this connection, an investor or partner may be more likely to not only understand the issue(s) the venture is hoping to address, but also value the product or service the venture will develop.
The Mission of a startup is simply the venture’s reason for being, expressed in no greater than two or three sentences. If a startup were a zealot, the mission would be its calling. For example, Facebook’s mission is:
To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.
While some missions (such as Facebook’s) are expressed in very general terms, others can be more directed. Directed missions usually identify three things: (1) the goal or anticipated outcome of the venture, (2) the action or method the venture performs that leads to the goal/outcome, and (3) the audience or target market for the venture. For example, the mission of DonorsChoose is:
DonorsChoose.org engages the public in public schools by giving people a simple, accountable and personal way to address educational inequity. We envision a nation where children in every community have the tools and experiences needed for an excellent education.
To be clear, a mission is not a moniker or an anchoring comparison like: “we’re Evernote for Audio” or “we’re Facebook for Pharmacists.” These sorts of asides qualify, at best, as moments hoping to make the venture more comprehensible to the audience.
The Market is a coherent, concise and relevant expression of the context (whether competitive or otherwise) within which your venture is intending to operate. To invoke the knowledge of Oxford’s New American Dictionary again, a market is “the area or arena in which commercial dealings are conducted.”
Both for-profit and non-profit ventures operate in markets. These markets are comprised of the people/firms whose lives you are hoping to impact, the causes and consequences of the problem or opportunity you are hoping to address, the ventures that are hoping to have similar or related impact, and the partners or other actors that are relevant to this impact.
Accordingly, you will be expected to quickly answer a set of questions about the Market:
- What is the problem you are trying to address, and what might be its causes and or consequences (aka, the problem and/or the oppotunity);
- Who faces this problem, and how many of these someones or somethings are out there and what might be the total value of providing a solution (aka, the size of the market, in both customer number and dollar value terms)?
- What competitors/alternatives already exist? How do customers or communities decide amongst these alternatives?
- How do these competitors/alternatives navigate a marketplace wherein they all operate (aka, the competitive dynamics).
The purpose of this market exercise is to both (a) make it clear that you know what you are talking about (i.e., you have done your homework and are not simply presenting some idea that popped in your head this morning) and (b) provide the market-based reasoning for why you are developing the venture in the ways that you are.
Your objective when researching the market-relevant portion of the pitch is to become so fully informed that, were you to face further questioning, no one would deny that you are an expert in this industry. This part of the exercise can can take hours and weeks of work.
Your challenge for the pitch is to distill all of this expert knowledge and these hours/weeks of work into a coherent and concise declaration—lasting as little as a minute or two—of your conclusions and what matters most.
The Method is the Technology of the venture. Technology, in this case, is with a capital “T,” implying not simply the tools but also the techniques through which your venture creates impact. Impact is something that changes the lives of your customers, communities, or constituencies.
Every venture has a technology. Technology, broadly defined, is the method(s) through which a venture converts inputs to outputs. For some ventures these methods may involve real (or virtual) machines. For other ventures, these methods are performed by the hands or minds of employees (or even partners and communities). McDonalds makes burgers. Google (search) returns search results.
Accordingly, a startup pitch usually includes a high level description of what the product is and how it works, or what the service is and how it happens.
Technology is usually deployed for a reason: in order to make a transformation—some change in the state of some thing. And, that transformation should matter. For example: “After taking our course, students are able to score 50 points higher on the GMAT.”
Thus, a pitch also reveals evidence that clearly suggests the method you apply (a) aligns with those factors most important to a customer or community (e.g., "People really want to see green lights as compared to other colors.") and (b) has the intended impact that you claim upon these customers/communities (i.e, "When someone pushes the red button, they really do get the green light.").
Evidence to support both the factors that matter and the effectiveness of the transformation is often in such high demand from investors that startups must demo privately if not already have launched publically some version of their product or service—thereby, gathering the data themselves.
A google search for the phrase "business model" can return up to 6.4 BILLION results. For context, a search for the word "money" returns only 5.3 billion results.
And so, its worth beginning this brief section with a little respect for how challenging it can be me to explain how you should explain the Model—the business model—as part of a brief, startup pitch.
For example: in the words of Osterwalder and Pigneur (2010) in Business Model Generation, a business model “describes the rationale of how an organization creates, delivers, and captures value.” However, even Osterwalder and Pigneur's "brief preview" of their book is also 72 pages in length! The whole book is nearly 450 pages.
At the very least, and within a brief pitch, the Model is an explanation for how the venture "works," whether just financially—with revenue sources being greater than cost structures—or more broadly—such that the various moving parts of the entity all fit together.
Simply recognize and communicate "the very least" as described above. Try to find simple means or metrics through which to communicate the most basic evidence for the financial viability of the enterprise. And, take a moment to describe how the product/service goes from inside the wall of your company to into the hands of a customer (or into the community you serve).
Given the challenges of financially and operational viability have multiple dimensions, difficult to communicate through a single metric or cell in a spreadsheet, successful presenters often try to answer a set of questions through which we might "see" this viability from different angles, such as:
- how do you earn revenue? And why will people pay that price (aka, the value proposition)?
- what are the key costs in producing the product/service?
- what is "price minus cost," on a per-unit basis—whether product or service? Is there some minimum scale you will need to grow before that equation will even make sense?
- how do you find a customer, and what is the process through which the product/service arrives in their hands and the sale can be made?
- what is the difference between the cost of acquiring any new customer and the long-term value of that customer?
In other words, if viability were an elephant too big to see in one glance, we try to provide a reasonable set of perspectives from which to see the various parts of that elephant.
At greater length, the description of a startup's business model involves a detailed, insightful, evidence-based, and (therefore) credible explanation of how your venture creates impact upon customers or communities, what the value of that impact might be to someone or something, and how you intend upon capturing some if not all of this value—whether directly or indirectly.
Your goal is to present your conclusions in the startup pitch. And then, be able to explain those conclusions in greater detail should you get a real meeting with the investor.
The founders, early employees, advisors, board members, and even prior investors are the Mortals behind your venture. I chose the word mortal simply to make it clear that you should not present yourself and anyone else involved as a divine being. Instead, you are real people.
Don’t simply highlight the roles and qualifications certain individuals might play or possess. Also describe the crucial skills/experience these people have and the contributions they will make. And, align these contributions with the things your venture needs and needs to accomplish.
What’s truly important about the real people involved with your venture are the contributions they will make, and how those contributions are a natural consquence of the experience and insights these people possess.
Milestones are the key events that have occurred or you anticipate to occur during the lifecycle of your venture. The timing (as in date and order) of these events is important. Equally, if not more important, is the reasoning behind these moments and their timing.
When communicating milestones, solid pitches tend to signal that the founder(s) can:
- Breakdown a big, perhaps intractable challenge (e.g., building out a successful new venture!) into smaller, yet key and more accomplishable chunks;
- Identify and test the most significant uncertainties or assumptions of the venture, the resolution or proof of which stand in the way of the success of the venture;
- and Organize (1) and (2) according to a realistic and reasonable order of events and windows of time.
The Money is a realistic and reasoned presentation of:
- a funding request (i.e., how much money are you hoping to raise?);
- the proposed terms for the investment (e.g., equity/debt, pre-money/post-money, etc.);
- the intended use of these funds (i.e., towards which activities/issues will these dollars be used?) and how long should the funds should last;
- a preview of what you will have accomplished after these funds have been spent, a (brief) justification for why these accomplishments are important to the company, and whether subsequent funding will be necessary;
- a sense of what this enterprise will look like someday—and might even be worth—should you accomplish all the things you hope to accomplish.
The five points mentioned above could be an entire presentation all on their own. Which is why you should expect that if a potential investor is interested you will ultimately surface an entire presentation focused solely upon these five points. And, you will spend 30-90 days navigating these terms and this discussion.
However, for the initial startup pitch, your job is to make these five claims clearly and succinctly, hoping for the chance to to spend weeks and months supporting these claims in greater detail.