pitch-decks-gotchas-make-or-break-startups

At Monk’s Hill Ventures, we receive dozens of pitch decks every day. I personally look at hundreds of pitch decks every year. As a venture investor, it comes with the territory. Crafting a great pitch deck is the first step toward securing funding and making your great idea a reality. For entrepreneurs, the stakes are high.

Type “pitch deck advice” into Google, and you’ll get millions of results. There are tons of resources out there, and they all say basically the same thing. In a nutshell: Your pitch deck should be 15-25 slides long and contain basic information from your business plan. It should include the important details about your company’s story, competition, business model, forecast, and team. 

Some resources get a little more nuanced. Startup veteran Mark Suster points out that your job isn’t to create one perfect pitch deck; it’s to create a customized pitch deck for the investor you’re meeting. (He also recommends creating a short teaser version to send before the meeting, and sending the deck as an attachment, not a link.) 

But for as much advice as there is online, little is said about the “gotchas”—those small details that trip entrepreneurs up and undermine their decks. The gotchas won’t necessarily prevent you from getting investors—but they will make it harder. 

Here are five issues I see all the time. 

1. Bullet Points Represent a Balancing Act 

VCs don’t have time to read decks that are packed with lengthy text. Period. Your average well-intentioned VC might want to circle back to an interesting deck they weren’t able to finish reading. But the truth is, they’ll probably put it at the bottom of the pile and never get back to it. (Hundreds of decks every year, remember?)

Decks that are highly memorable are more likely to earn meetings. You know what’s hard to remember? Really long paragraphs. Wordy decks are harder to follow, let alone recall days or weeks later. If I’m overwhelmed by details, I might not see the forest for the trees—and I’ll question whether you have a strong grasp of your pitch. 

Part of this is rooted in design. Designers recommend using white space to drive attention to the most important information and calls to action. By cutting any non-essential text, you’ll keep your audience’s attention focused right where it needs to be. 

On the flip side, your bullet points can’t be too concise. Your deck needs to speak for itself, whether you’re there to explain it or not. 

Your north star for deciding what stays and what goes should be your core story. I want you to tell me what the problem is, your brilliant solution, and why you’ll be successful once you secure funding—three tried and true elements of strong pitches. If text in your pitch deck doesn’t tie back to the story, it’s time to cut it.

Airbnb’s first pitch deck serves as a strong example. Its sparse but powerful text clearly spells out the key story: Hotels are too disconnected and expensive, so empowering locals to host visitors will decrease costs while increasing cultural exchange. One sentence is all it takes to describe Airbnb’s value proposition. 

Today, Airbnb is worth $31 billion with more than 6 million hosts worldwide. Clearly their pitch was onto something.

2. Are Your Axes Correctly Formatted? 

Every single pitch deck should have a competitor grid. Even though most entrepreneurs know they need to include this, not many realize that I can use it to instantly determine who actually knows what they’re doing, before I even read the specifics. 

I don’t have any special powers—just background knowledge. The competitor grid is actually based on Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, a methodology to graphically display a 30,000-foot view of market competition. 

In a traditional Magic Quadrant, the vertical axis displays the ability to execute, while the horizontal axis shows the completeness of the vision. You can use these or create custom labels that are specific to your industry, but you need to label them clearly and orient your competitor grid to the upper right corner. 

In 2004, LinkedIn created a Magic Quadrant during its bid for Series B funding:

Linkedin-Magic-Quadrant

Notice that LinkedIn is positioned in the top right quadrant. If your competitor grid is oriented anywhere other than up and to the right, like LinkedIn’s, it makes you look ill-informed. For better or worse, that’s the precedent Gartner set, and that’s what we use. 

3. Don’t Leave Communication to Chance: Always Use English and USD

In 1999, NASA made a $125 million mistake. It had partnered with Lockheed Martin to build and launch the Mars Climate Orbiter, which vanished before it ever reached the red planet. The problem? Lockheed Martin’s calculations were in English units of measurement (inches and pounds), but NASA used metric units (meters and kilograms). Engineers neglected to convert some key numbers from one system to another and doomed the orbiter to failure before it ever took off.

Most startups won’t be sending satellites to Mars, but the lesson still holds true. NASA’s main problem wasn’t the math; it was the lack of communication. Clarity and accuracy were simply lost in translation.

Pitch decks run the risk of disconnection in two key areas: language and currency. I work with regional investors based in Southeast Asia, and a common misconception is that regional businesses should use their local currency and language in pitch decks. If a Vietnamese startup is always going to operate in dong, why use the American dollar?

But in reality, English is the de facto language and USD is the de facto currency. Products and screenshots don’t have to be completely in English, but certainly all the numbers need to be in USD.

Most VCs will still read decks that don’t use these standard conventions, but entrepreneurs who don’t use USD and English take on some big risks. What if a VC gets a conversion wrong, causing them to undervalue your business? What if they misunderstand your most persuasive slide due to a language barrier? Your pitch deck should make every detail crystal clear.

If you make VCs do that extra work, you risk leaving the future of your entire business up to chance. Using standard language and currency is one simple way to avoid the problem altogether.

4. Have Someone Else Proofread Your Deck

This gotcha is self-explanatory. Your pitch deck shouldn’t have any spelling or grammatical mistakes. If you follow my first piece of advice by keeping your bullet points short and sweet, there won’t be many words on each slide—which makes typos especially glaring.

If you’re not meticulous about your deck, it makes me question what else you might be careless about. Will you get a number wrong on a financial? Blow a big customer pitch? Proofreading is one of the easiest things you can do to show attention to detail. 

But for such an obvious step, this one’s also more difficult than it seems. Once you’ve run through your pitch deck every day for weeks or months, it gets harder to spot errors. Reading text aloud and editing on a printout can help you catch mistakes, according to university writing specialists. You can also invest in tools that automatically check your spelling and grammar, such as Grammarly. 

But my favorite solution is even simpler: Ask someone who isn’t familiar with your pitch deck review it. Repeat the exercise every single time you make changes. When someone reads your deck with fresh eyes, they can help prevent you from making a totally avoidable mistake.

5. Refine, Refine, Refine

Of all the steps in this list, refining the deck is the one people don’t do enough. 

When I was pitching my own startup, I would usually sit in my car after meetings to take some quick notes. I’d flag slides that triggered questions—a signal my bullet points weren’t clear enough. If I found myself skipping a slide or circling back to a point, I’d rework the order to make it more natural. Refine, refine, refine your deck until your pitch just flows.

Even successful pitch decks can still be refined. Let’s take another look at LinkedIn. Remember the 2004 Series B slide deck I mentioned earlier for having a perfectly executed competitor grid? Well, in 2013 Reid Hoffman published blog post about it. He annotated every slide in the presentation, explaining what he would change to make it even stronger. 

For example, the second slide focused on LinkedIn’s revenue model. At the time, Hoffman listed three separate revenue streams. Later, he learned that listing multiple revenue streams can actually be a red flag for potential investors. 

“The charitable interpretation, which was true in our case, is that the company’s team doesn’t know which one model will work,” Hoffman wrote. “The bad interpretation is that the team lacks focus and doesn’t understand that they generally need to drive to one business model to succeed.”

It didn’t stop LinkedIn from securing funding—but it does go to show that there’s no such thing as a perfect pitch deck. Everything can be refined.

Like I said, the gotchas aren’t necessarily going to prevent your startup from attracting investors. But they’re small, simple details that are easy enough to fix. Now that you know what to watch out for, there’s no reason to let these little mistakes hold you back.

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