Pitch Deck Guidelines for Early-Stage Startups

A pitch deck is a key element to garner interest and investment in your startup. A successful pitch deck is focused, relevant, and concise. This guide will help you develop a successful pitch deck. Keep in mind, this is a  guide, NOT a template. 

Feel free to creatively address all the key elements of a pitch deck outlined below. More importantly, strive to tell a story vs. just being informative. 

Pitch guidelines: 

Depending on the event sponsor, pitch parameters will vary. Regardless, your  goal is to cover the key elements with the following parameters in mind: 

  • Pitch length: Strive to cut words not content. Be prepared to present your pitch within 6 to 10 minutes. Ask the sponsor of the pitch for the allocated time for your pitch and stick with it. 
  • Deck length: Strive to keep slides clean, simple, and concise vs. cramming them with too much information. The hero of the presentation is you, not the slides! You can expect your deck to contain 12 to  20 slides. More important than the number of slides, is to make sure you are telling a cohesive visual story that supports your verbal speech. 
  • Q&A: Be prepared to listen to the questions and address the questions directly. You can expect the question portion to last anywhere from 5 to 7 min. Keep in mind, tough, direct questions are a good sign. This means they are eager to learn more and to test your ability to think and respond under pressure. Q&A is also an opportunity to have some additional prepared slides you keep in your “hip pocket”, in anticipation of some questions. This is a great way to show how prepared you are, showcase your thinking, and continue telling your story.

Key Sections and questions to be covered: 

Your deck should cover the following: 

  • Problem — What problem/pain point you are solving and why? What inspired you to solve it? Is this a “real” problem? Supporting this with well-sourced data or research, illustrating the severity of the problem, is very helpful. Basically, validate the problem you are solving and why. 
  • Vision — Describe your company’s vision. In other words, what is the north star you seek to achieve? Describe your vision in a way your audience can identify with it and, if possible, feel an emotional connection with it. 
  • Your Approach / Solution — This is where you tell us what your company is doing and how you will differentiate it. This is where you may include a demo of your product or designs/screenshots. 
  • Team — Introduce and tell us about the key members of your team and their backgrounds. Remember, investors are investing in you and your team. You need to convey to them that your team is the right team to solve this problem. If you have worked successfully together previously,  highlight that and prior successes, to convey comfort with each other. 
  • Why now? — How long has this problem existed and why is NOW the right time for you to solve this pain point? In other words, help your investors understand why the problem has not been successfully addressed previously, and why this time could be different. 
  • Target Market — Don’t only focus on the total addressable market. More importantly, tell us who is your target market and why. This is your opportunity to showcase the depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding you have of your target market. Create and show us target personas, their pain points, their decision-making process, and how your solution is something they are willing to pay for. If you haven’t gotten to product market fit (PMF), then tell us your plan and timeline to get to PMF. 
  • Competition — Outline the key direct and indirect competitors. Stating that you have no competitors will make you very vulnerable to losing credibility. That’s why you need to display a thorough understanding of your direct AND indirect competitors.
  • Go-to-market strategy — What is your strategy to advertise, market, and distribute your product/service? What is your branding strategy? What is your market positioning? What is your USP? Clearly, demonstrate how you plan to differentiate. 
  • Revenue model — How do you plan to make money? Investors want to know how and when they will get a return on their investment. 
  • Traction metrics — Tell us and show us how your company is currently doing. These metrics can be revenue, gross margin, unit economics,  etc. Give us a snapshot of where you started and where you are now. The exact metrics will depend on the KPIs of your company, your industry, and your customers. 
  • Milestones & projections — Tell us what the key metrics above will be over the next 12–24 months as well as 5-year revenue projections. Make sure to highlight major product or growth milestones (city expansions, new products, etc.). The goal is to share the future of your business and its growth potential. 
  • Fundraise — Clearly state the desired level of investment and what you plan to do with it. If you have already raised money previously, state how much and from whom. Also, be prepared to negotiate, if it gets to that level.

Additional tips 

  • Use the KISS principle – Keep It Simple and Short. Chances are you are a product or industry expert for your startup. Your audience is most likely not at the same level of expertise. To understand your solution, your audience needs to clearly understand the problem and your solution in a  non-technical manner. You need to start at a basic level and bring up your level of understanding to your level. Tell stories and give examples to facilitate this. 
  • Use the storytelling approach to convey what your customers are going through; their pain points and how you will tackle those pain points. You want your audience to empathize with your potential customers.
  • Cut words, not contend. Strive for conciseness. If you can say something in 10 words rather than 25 then do it. Aim for simplicity vs. technical jargon and lofty concepts. 
  • The deck needs to be visually appealing and in sync with your oral presentation. In other words, what you are saying and showing need be in complete sync. Otherwise, it will serve as a distraction to your audience.  Most likely, this will be your first opportunity to make an impression on your audience or an investor. A deck that says all the right things but is poorly designed will hurt you. 
  • Infographics and visual depictions can reduce wording and make more of an impact on your audience. However, make they are not complicated and intricate to comprehend. 
  • Demonstrate a strong grasp of your target customers and competition. Really understand who they are, what they are seeking/offering, and how you are different. You can weave this into your storytelling approach as well. If you have a target market or competitor stories and anecdotes highlight them in your presentation. 
  • Make sure you clearly help us understand how your startup is going to be different. There are many ways to differentiate. Make sure we can see that you have really thought this through and have found a space in which you can thrive. 

Remember to have fun during the presentation. At the end of the day, investors are ultimately going to ask themselves, “do I think I can work  with this team?” To get an affirmative answer, will require them to get to know you quickly and like you. Getting them to like you is half the battle.

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