Surviving First Contact

pitch-2.jpgYesterday, I did something I haven’t done since the dot com flameout – I pitched to a west coast VC (Norwest). Refreshing. Invigorating. And they didn’t bounce us out on our rear-ends, which is a good thing. :) In fact, we did several pitches this week, which was both exhausting, and exciting. All of our efforts got me thinking about pitches in general, and I decided to put down some of my thoughts.

I will say with certainty that for a 20 minute pitch, we probably spent four months preparing for it (at various levels.) However, no matter how well prepared you are from a pitch perspective, anyone can throw you for a loop. The bullet-proof pitch does not exist. Nevertheless, it pays to be as prepared as possible. So, in this piece, I am going to share some of my hard-earned lessons learned, so you won’t have to spill too much of your own blood in the process of preparing for your next pitch.

Note: There exists a wealth of opinions, tips, and guides on how to create an effective pitch. This is not such an animal. Instead, I am going to focus on how to prepare for and handle the unexpected. In other words, what you can do to fend off Mr. Murphy when he shows up at around slide 3 of your presentation.

Being ex-military, I tend be a buff of all things related to military history. One of my favorite quotes is from German Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke:

Kein Plan ├╝berlebt Kontakt mit dem Feind.

Or better known in English as:

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Sans the reference to “the enemy” (investors are not your enemy), this is a very applicable analogy. No matter how well you prepare for your pitch, you WILL have to go off script, side-step, tango, and perform all sorts of other in-game maneuvers when you actually put your pitch to work. And no matter how well thought out you think your pitch is, not everyone will think it is organized properly and delivered effectively.

Tip #1: Don’t simply prepare. Game plan instead. Among the investors we had lined up this week were Norwest Ventures (Promod Haque and Jeff Crowe), Kinetic Ventures (Nelson Chu), and several smaller private equity guys. While we were equally as excited about each of them, we prepared for each of them separately. Why? Simple. They all have their own unique needs, desires, hot buttons, and more importantly, professional backgrounds.

Research each investor, and put together a game plan for each one. Don’t just read their bio online and go off and think that is enough. Go beyond the bio. Talk to people. Dig. Use your noggin’. Finding out where someone went to school is one thing. Learning their hot buttons and pet peeves takes some good old-fashioned sleuthing. If you can’t find anything on an investor, that’s okay, but you need to try. If you learn one thing out of it, then it was worth the time.

For example, from networking and listening we determined that one of our potential investors didn’t prefer slides, but instead preferred to just “chat” about the deal. So we adapted. As another example, we learned that one investor’s area of expertise was in user conversions, so we game planned for this, and tried to make our user conversion strategy as defensible as possible. When the tough question comes (and it will), you’ll be ready to field it.

If you aren’t willing to spend this type of effort game planning for your pitch, do yourself a favor and hang up your cleats.

Tip #2: Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em what you just told ’em. While I have heard this a million times, I owe my buddy Gregg Granberg for poking me in the face and reminding me of it this week. On your opening slide, frame the discussion by telling them a 3-5 sentence executive summary of your pitch. For example:

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time today. I am pleased to have the opportunity to share with you our story and vision, and I hope you get as excited about it as we are. Today, I am going to demonstrate to you why we are going to be the best widget maker in the world, and why our team is nicely positioned to make a run at the $10B sparkly widget market. We have a unique product, a solid team, some initial sales, and are ready to go. With that being said, let’s get started.

By framing this up front, if you get sidetracked into something, at least you’ve thrown out the highlights already. Then, go through your pitch, and along the way, reinforce each of these areas. When you get to the end of the pitch, say the same thing again:

Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes our presentation. I thank you for your time today. It is my hope that you are now as excited as we are about Acme Widgets, and our plan to take aim at the $10B sparkly widget market. Just to recap: we have a unique product, an experienced team, some early customers, and are ready to scale this thing. If I can answer any followon questions, or provide a clarification, I am certainly happy to do so.

More importantly, by following this formula, you will avoid some potential pitfalls in explaining your story. It is easier to grasp an abstract idea when you’ve heard it three times.

Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to rework your deck. There is no such thing as the perfect deck, much less a perfect pitch. If your slide deck is torn to shreds by your audience, your peers, or your partners, examine your options. Don’t be so locked into your approach that you can’t be fluid. Being fluid is a critical skill of the successful entrepreneur. I’ll bet we’ve reworked our deck 10 times. And you know what? It is better because of it. We’ve also rejected the inclination to rework it at least 5 other times. There is probably a correlation with this ratio.

Tip #4: Take the opinons of others cum grano salis, or as they say, with a grain of salt. It is up to you, as the entrepreneur, to accumulate reputable feedback, synthesize this information, and determine what, if any, of that feedback you will listen to. If an investor or peer has some input, listen to them. However, resist the impulse to rush off and make sweeping changes to your presentation until you’ve had the opportunity to think through things carefully. You know what they say about opinions – everyone has one – just like that other thing that is usually included in that analogy.

I tell you this because invariably, someone won’t get your idea. And that is okay! If the pitch turns negative, take it for what it is – a chance to learn something, and possibly improve. Listen to their feedback, mull on it, then possibly act on it.

Tip #5: Don’t stress too much over the numbers game. For every person that tells you that you need a “10 slide deck”, I can find three more that will tell you that you need twelve, or twenty. For every person that tells you that you need to have the management team slide up front in your deck, I can find another that will argue that it should be at the end. For every guy who says a one page executive summary is the right path, I can find others who will argue that it needs to be 2, or 3.

At the end of the day, it isn’t about the size of your deck ( ha! ), the length of your business plan, or the order of your slides. It is about you (the entrepreneur), your idea, your market, and your traction or progress. Keep that in mind. If you are comfortable delivering your pitch, and the pitch itself doesn’t stink, it won’t matter what order your slides are in, or whether you had one marketing slide or two.

Tip #6: Don’t be a bullshit artist. “Winging it” in a pitch is the wrong answer. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” when asked a tough question that you are not fully prepared to answer. Investors (particularly VCs) tend to be very highly educated people. More importantly, they see more pitches in a month than you will give in your entire lifetime. They have seen it all. Trust me, if you are blowing smoke, you will stink up the joint in quick order. If you don’t know the answer to something, or don’t have a firm strategy around it, simply say that, and promise to follow up with them on the issue. Trust me …

Tip #7: Don’t be afraid to say “I know!” Conversely, if you do have an answer to something, don’t be afraid to take a stand and say it. The VC may or may not share your opinion, but they will at least respect the fact that you took a stand and were confident in your approach.

Tip #8: Role play. Role playing isn’t just for nerdy geeks that like to run around dressed like wizards and hitting each other with wooden swords. Find a fellow entrepreneur, co-worker, or someone else who can listen to your pitch and play the role of VC. And don’t make the mistake of using just one person – find as many as you can. I can promise you that if you throw 3 or 4 people in a room, and have them shoot holes in your pitch, or ask you tough questions, you will be very prepared for 90% of the questions that an investor will ask. You will never be able to anticipate everything, but that is not your worry. Focus on the obvious – the things you can control.

Tip #9: Don’t do a hasty retreat. If your pitch goes south, resist the temptation to pack up your laptop and find the nearest watering hole. Ask for feedback. Most of the time, an investor will gladly share with you a few points about your pitch and your deal. Listen!

Tip #10: Follow up. You should always follow up after a pitch. A short email goes a long way to bridging the pitch with any future activities. However, if your pitch goes sour, you may be tempted to not follow up. This is a mistake. Write them an email and ask for feedback. Write them an email the next week and demonstrate how you’ve made your pitch (or product, idea, team, etc.) a better one. Explain to the investor how you’ve made a mid-course adjustment. After all, they are betting on you as an entrepreneur, and they will take comfort in knowing that you can right the ship when need be.

Learn. Never stop learning. Besides, you might just be surprised at the possibilities.

Hopefully, these ramblings will be of help to some of you. If you have your own suggestions or approaches for surviving first contact with your pitch, I welcome you to post them below!



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