- Entrepreneurship can feel like an uphill battle.
- This guide for first-time company founders pitching venture capitalists will make it a little easier.
- We asked experts — entrepreneurs and investors — to share their most practical and least obvious tips for pitching a VC.
- For example, have two versions of your deck and communicate how you’re different from your direct competitors.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Every small business is different, and not every entrepreneur will want to grow their company by raising capital. But if it’s something you’re considering, you should go in prepared.
Just because you’ve binge-watched “Shark Tank” doesn’t mean you know what it takes to deliver a successful pitch to investors.
Persuading a venture capitalist to support your business is both an art and a science — and few first-time founders get it exactly right. Still, you’ll want to avoid the most common mistakes and most egregious turnoffs.
To that end, we asked experts in entrepreneurship to distill their years of experience into concrete advice.
David Rose runs Gust, a digital platform for early-stage entrepreneurs and investors, and Rose Tech Ventures, an angel investment fund and incubator. Liz Wessel is the cofounder and CEO of WayUp, a jobs platform for early-career professionals. Patrick McGinnis is the managing director of the investment and advisory firm Dirigo Advisors. And Russ Wilcox is a partner at Pillar VC with 20 years of experience as a founder for venture-backed startups.
Read on for a series of practical (and nonobvious) tips on pitching a VC.
Before you pitch
Determine whether the business is appropriate for investment in the first place
If you’re bringing in a maximum of $1 million a year in revenue, “it may be a great, wonderful, much-needed business,” Rose said. “You may enjoy it and support your family.” But he emphasized, “the economics are just such that there is no way that you can get an investment from me at any reasonable number for that to make economic sense.”
This is because outside investors expect outsize returns on their money, often a large multiple of what they put in. And if there’s a low-millions ceiling on the revenue your startup can generate or eventual exit price, there’s not much incentive for a venture capitalist to write you a check.
In other words, your company may be a “lifestyle startup,” which doesn’t require venture capital and probably won’t ever be worth $1 billion.
Raise capital as late as possible, after you’ve gotten proof of concept
An entrepreneur’s pitch is a “combination of science and faith,” said McGinnis — but you want to stay more on the side of science than faith.
McGinnis often sees founders who don’t have any proof their idea is viable. You’d be wise to keep your day job and acquire customers and data before you ask a VC for money.
Remember that the VC wants to invest
VCs wouldn’t be hearing your pitch if they didn’t want to invest in your business, Rose said. They’re just hoping you’ll give them a compelling argument for why they should partner with you.
Before investors decide that your business is worth their money, they want to know you’re an individual they can bet on, said Wilcox. He recommends introducing yourself with a bio that explains why you are qualified to lead your company. “The bio only takes two minutes, but in fact, it’s like half the decision,” he said.
Have two versions of your deck
One version is for your presentation, and the other is the one you send via email, Wessel said. The difference is how much detail you go into in each slide.
The version that you’re presenting shouldn’t be able to be understood without narration, meaning it should have as little text as possible. Otherwise investors may spend all their time focused on trying to read the screen, rather than on listening to your vision.
Have a high-quality deck
There should be a detail-heavy version, though, which you can use for follow-up discussions. According to McGinnis, “If you can’t make a decent-looking pitch deck” (without typos and with correct info), “how can I believe that you can build an app or a product that will be excellent?”
Making a solid first impression is important, McGinnis added, because even if the investor doesn’t want to invest in this particular company, the investor may be able to introduce you to other people. Or, the person may invest in your company in the future.
Never meet the investors you’re really targeting first
Start with the “B team,” McGinnis said, i.e., the VCs who would be nice to have but aren’t your first choice. Get feedback from them so you’re more than prepared when you meet the VCs you’re really targeting.
Practice for interruptions if you’re pitching remotely
You can’t help it if your kid walks into the middle of your Zoom meeting, but practicing what you can control will help you to adapt on the fly when interruptions do happen.
“You wouldn’t put on a Broadway play without rehearsals, so why would you ever pitch for millions of dollars without having rehearsed?” Wilcox said.
During the pitch
Don’t ask for a valuation that’s absurdly high
Unless you’ve already founded a company that has sold for millions of dollars, “it’s hard to prove that you alone are worth that much,” Wessel said. What it does show is that you’re neither self-aware nor realistic.
Know your numbers
Simply put, show that you’ve done your research, Wessel said.
Show that you are the best person in the world to solve this problem
Wessel advised demonstrating to the VCs what you’ve already done to understand your customers or to take a stab at solving the problem.
McGinnis recommended flaunting your industry expertise. “Loving something is necessary but not sufficient” for starting a company, he said.
Above all, Rose said, remember that you’re pitching yourself — not just your business plan. “You bet on the jockey, not the horse.”
Know and communicate how you’re different from your direct competitors
If the VC knows something you don’t about the competitors in this space, “you’re in real trouble,” Rose said. (Also remember that if there are no competitors, that’s a bad sign, suggesting that no one else has thought this idea was worth pursuing.)
Convey enthusiasm and passion
Investors want to know that you’ll stick with this business through the ups and downs, Wessel said.
Manage your time well
Time management is another reflection of your character and leadership skills. Did you arrive on time for your meeting? Whether you have 60 minutes or just 15, did you use your time efficiently to communicate your point? Wilcox said your ability to manage scarce resources will make a difference to earn investors’ trust in your capabilities.
“Before I give you $2 million, I would like to see how well you spend 60 minutes of my time,” he said.
Polish your public speaking skills
Ginger Siegel is the North America small business lead at Mastercard and frequent pitch-competition judge. She previously told Business Insider that she looks for “executive presence,” or confidence in the way an entrepreneur makes eye contact, answers quickly, and carries themselves — even through the nerves. “How people present is very often indicative of how they lead,” Siegel said.
If you usually get nervous when presenting, there are a couple ways to conquer your fear. Simon Sinek is a leadership expert with one of the most-watched TEDx talks of all time. He told Entrepreneur that a public speaker should never talk as they walk out on stage. “That communicates a little bit of insecurity and fear,” he said.
The same concept applies if you’re in a board room of investors. Sinek suggests waiting a few seconds and taking a deep breath before you begin. “It shows the audience you’re totally confident and in charge of the situation,” he said.
Mitch Grasso, CEO and founder of the presentation software company Beautiful.AI, previously told Business Insider that giving up on perfecti on will help you relax before presenting. “Remember that you are an expert on your story and you have prepared for this moment,” he said.
After the pitch
Write down VCs’ questions
See if there are any trends, Wessel said, and then figure out how to address those gaps in your pitch.
Wilcox pointed out that if the same questions keep coming up about your business plan, customer base, or product, there may be a weakness or blind spot in your pitch. Address those questions with additional slides or in the appendix.
Suggest an action plan in a thank-you note
Always follow up with a thank-you note, McGinnis said. “Try to offer new positive information” that you may not have mentioned during the pitch.
Wessel recommended reminding the investors of specific topics you enjoyed discussing with them.
Just as important, McGinnis added, “propose concrete next steps for them to react to — amorphous communication conveys amorphous management.” Reiterate specifically what you’re asking for, and ask whether there are other people you should meet who the investors can introduce you to.
Once you’ve gotten an offer from one VC, don’t hesitate to let the others know. The idea, McGinnis said, is to communicate urgency: “The train is leaving the station. Are you in or are you out?”
Ready to make your first pitch deck? Here’s a great template to follow, from an entrepreneur who raised a $6 million seed round from all-star founders behind Dropbox, Yammer, and Yelp.