Dear Advisor: What are the most common pre-seed and seed-stage Pitch deck mistakes?
Post was originally published in December 2020, updated in March, September + October 2022, March + August 2023
Especially as a first-time founder, you don't know what you don't know. It’s no easy task to give a 90-second/2- or 3-minute pitch that inspires confidence and convinces your audience that they’ll be missing out if they don’t become a part of your journey as an investor or customer.
Between mentoring, advising and attending pitch events for pre-seed and seed-stage start-ups, I’ve seen 100s of pitch decks. Everyone has an opinion on your pitch deck -- here's mine. :)
Why you? Why now?
Connect the dots for me so that we both agree -- and get an "aha" moment -- in agreement around understanding the customers' needs -- and how only you (and your team) can fill:
Is there a clear need in the market now -- that's (especially) different from before?
Do you -- and your team -- have all required skillsets and experience to pull this off?
Is it clear what pain point(s) your customers have and how you’re solving them -- to fill this need in the market?
Advice for understanding your customer pain points: Dear Advisor: I have a startup idea, now what?
How will your product/service will stand out from the competition?
Is this the right audience for your pitch?
Do the types of start-ups in VC’s portfolio align with your industry, business model, expertise, etc.?
Does the audience need an industry/technical background to understand your pitch?
Is there anyone in the audience who may be a potential customer?
Are you speaking to the most technical person in the room -- or to attendees of all backgrounds? That is, how hard is it to understand your pitch deck for the average person (that may not even be familiar with how things work in your industry) -- and follow along?
If you're a technical/clinical founder, please don't assume everyone has the same technical expertise as you! (Though I'm flattered :) If you can't follow along, it's harder to say "yes"/advise.)
Do you cover "team, traction and tech"?
Shruti Gandhi recommends focusing on the story around the "team, traction and tech" as early as possible in your pitch deck.
If you don't have traction, Michael Houck shares 9 things on what to include instead
Do your milestones inspire confidence? You heard that your graphs need to up and to the right, to show the "hockey stick" growth. Are your graphs telling a true story?
MVP hasn’t launched -- and your 1st year projections are $800K
(freemium) MVP just launched -- and your projections go 4 years out
Recommendation: if showing projections, consider projecting to the end of the quarter and (potentially) one more quarter out at most, as there’s a lot of uncertainty with how things may go, especially during COVID
Aaron Dinin, PhD goes a step further to say that this graph and how he talked about it "... Nearly Destroyed My Reputation as an Investible Startup Founder With One Stupid Phrase"
Graph is going up and to the right -- based on cumulative calculations, not new demand
e.g. If you get 1 new customer per month for 12 months, rather than showing a flat line at 1 for each of the 12 months, your graph plots 1, 2, 3, ..., 12.
Graph is going up and to the right -- based on graph formatting, not growth
Graph for launched 2-sided marketplace is missing the demand-side
Graph shows impressive exponential growth -- based on simulated data
Not showcasing traction or key milestones of what it took to get the MVP to this point, what the pre-orders (for pre-MVP) or engagement (post-MVP) is, and where the product will go in the near future
Having said all of that, is "hockey stick" realistic? Joe Procopio advises on "How Aggressive Goals Doom a Startup: That “Hockey Stick” Revenue Chart Might Be Setting You Up For Failure"
How is the raise going to help you hit the next milestones?
Chart covering how the raised money will be spent focuses on 50%+ going into SEO, e.g. raising $2M, with $1.2M for Facebook ads
Raising money to turn side-hustle into a full-time role, per panelists on "The Real Truth About Running a Start-Up: From Protecting Your IP to Avoiding Burnout", e.g. focusing on creating the whole company, which includes hiring legal, executives, developers, etc. -- with no clear ties to milestones
Raising to hire for roles A, B and C -- not raising to hit milestones X, Y and Z
Raising money to “have AI solve this” need
Recommendation: Talk to experts in analytics/AI (including me), to learn what it may take to develop the capability you want -- and discuss if this is the biggest need for the product right now.
More advice here on understanding challenges with AI: Dear Advisor: How do I avoid the biggest AI/ML mistakes others make?
Are you mentioning exit plans?, which panelists on "Perfecting the Raise: Raising Capital for Pre-Seed and Seed Stage Startups" advise against
Do you require an NDA to see the pitch deck? as panelists on "Demystifying Venture Capital" not recommend
Parting advice with general presentation tips:
Did you leave time for questions, brainstorming, mentoring, and discussion?
Do you have too much information on the slide? e.g. Can someone not familiar with your product use your slides to give your pitch?
Do you read off the slides?
Did you practice? Does the pitch fit in the time allotted (which shows respect for your host and founders pitching after you) -- or did you end up going over or get cut off?? (I'm practicing at Toastmasters.)
Are you able to explain concepts in layperson's terms? Or do you assume that the audience has the same science/technology/etc. background as you?
Did you tailor the pitch to your audience and the time allotted? Or do you plan to cover the same content in a 3-minute pitch in 90 seconds?
Do your visualizations pass the "5-second rule"? e.g. will it take someone 5 seconds or less to understand what’s going on?
Hopefully now you've learned from others, won't make the same mistakes other are -- and stand out from the crowd. Good luck!
(Not affiliated) Opportunities to practice pitching and get feedback:
Dolphin Tank with the Women Founder's Network
You're not hearing yeses from investors and you need advice on how to align incentives, what‘s not clear or what can be improved. I'd love to support you; please feel free to schedule this flat-fee session with me.
You may also like:
Dear Advisor: I have a start-up idea, what should I do next?
"Lessons from working with 600+ YC startups" with Gustaf Alströmer (Y Combinator, Airbnb) in interview with Lenny Rachitsky
Pitch deck advice from others:
Pitch decks from successful start-ups
Common Pitch Deck Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, by Anne Cocquyt
Lenny Rachitsky's advice on answering "Why now?"
Advice on Data Rooms: