First impressions matter. Especially when the future of your company may depend on it.
So focus pitching one simple, memorable story at the first meeting to give the angel or early stage VC a reason to follow-up.
An obvious statement, I know. And we definitely understood the concept when we started fundraising for Bering Media back in 2008.
Then we quickly lost the forest from the trees once we dove into our pitch deck, market sizing, competitive analysis, traction metrics, financial models and the like trying to tell the biggest story possible.
What I didn’t fully appreciate back then was why being simple was so important at that very first meeting. Let alone how to actually craft a memorable story.
Will they remember your idea next week?
In your first meeting, that’s your only goal. Will the investor remember your pitch next week?
Back in 2008, we were so afraid of limiting the scope of our opportunity that we couldn’t risk leaving anything out now that we finally had that first meeting. We desperately wanted to convey every aspect of our billion dollar idea.
In hindsight, it was like trying to convince someone of all your great relationship worthy qualities on the first date, before ordering dinner. Rapid fire details is the fastest way to lose someone.
If the investor can’t remember your idea over the ten other pitches they heard last week, they’ll never get excited about it enough to follow-up.
In 20 minutes, it’s unlikely the investor will remember everything about your story. That’s just the reality of it.
So knowing that, you need to focus accordingly. Your goal is to leave with one simple, memorable idea rattling around inside the investor’s mind over the next week.
Hollywood doesn’t lie. Christopher Nolan dedicated an entire movie to this concept:
What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?
An idea. Resilient. Highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.
And therein lies the challenge for founders. You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grown naturally in your subjects mind. It’s perfectly possible, it’s just bloody difficult.
Here are some tips on how to get to the simplest version of your idea and make it memorable.
No marketing speak or buzzwords
All the investor remembers next week is something related to an AI-driven cryptocurrency platform.
Fortunately, there is an easy trick to avoid this trap. Focus on the problem, not the solution.
Big fancy words are always related to solutions, not problems. Blockchain, Internet of things, neural networks, smart assistants, chatbots, data pipelines, microservices, platform… are all solution related words that don’t explain what you do.
Problems are easy to explain in simple words. Need to describe your AI powered, traffic optimization platform startup? No problem, You reduce the time it takes to get from point A to point B.
That’s something the investor can remember, ponder and grow attached to over the next week.
Don’t worry, you’ll have lots of time to dive deeper into the details of your amazing AI powered, traffic optimization platform in the follow up meetings so long as you don’t first lose the investor trying to be fancy with buzzword bingo.
Write drunk. Edit Sober.
Maybe it’s not necessary to polish off four old fashioneds before getting started; but if it helps, who am I to stand in the way?
Vices aside, the spirit of Hemingway’s (misattributed) advice is still sound. Start by getting everything down on paper without judgement or filters. Then edit ruthlessly.
Jeff Bezos also recently pointed to editing as the key to crafting the perfect memo.
Start your editing by taking out any marketing speak, buzz or fluff words in order to get to the simplest form of each concept.
Next, be brutally honest with each concept when editing. Make sure every single concept in your story is answering one of the following questions.
- Who are your target customers & what are you helping them do?
- What does your team understand about the problem others don’t get?
- What have you accomplished to date?
If a concept doesn’t directly relate to one of the above questions, delete it.
If you need two or three concepts to answer any of the questions above, pick one, refine it so it answers the question on its own and lead with it, delete the others.
Don’t worry, all is not lost.
Anything that gets cut helps you develop a deeper understanding of your pitch and better prepares you for the follow-up questions or deeper due diligence process later on, assuming your first meeting is memorable.
Focus on results in the first sentence.
If you want the investor to remember your startup next week, you need to pull them into your idea in the first sentence of your pitch. (not the first sentence of your meeting; say hello and take a few minutes to build a rapport with the investor first)
It’s the classic 80/20 rule. You’re looking for the simplest version of your idea that gives the investor the greatest context of your market. Don’t worry if it doesn’t tell your whole story.
If there’s a simple one-sentence description of what you’re doing that only conveys half your potential, that’s actually pretty good. You’re halfway to your destination in just the first sentence. – Paul Graham
The most effective way to describe your startup concisely is to focus on the results your customers experience as a result of your solution. Customers save 30% on airline tickets with Hopper.
Of course your idea is more than just airline tickets, but a specific example is far easier to remember than a grand general market.
Start with specifics and move to the generic.
This is by far the hardest for founders. It’s much more alluring to pitch the grand vision out of the gate rather than limiting your idea to one specific example.
I know, I know. Your startup is SO.MUCH.BIGGER. And I agree.
The problem is that the investor immediate gets lost in a sea of questions, competitors, risks and generalities. Clearly not the most effective way for someone to grasp your idea.
Start with a specific example to avoid the confusion. Choose a single customer segment and a single problem you are solving for them.
While it may not tell your whole story, it gives the investor an anchor to visualize your idea in their mind as you build towards the larger vision.
While it was always the plan, Amazon didn’t start with the everything store. They started with books. A simple concrete example investors could wrap their heads around.
Resist the temptation to reel off more examples. Remember that the investor doesn’t live and breathe your idea 24/7. While the different examples may seem related to you, the investor is stuck trying to figure out the common link.
Go deep with one specific example and dig into the emotions those customers feel.
Focus on the emotions of your customers
Cal Fussman said it best ‘Get to people’s heart first, then you can get to their head, and then there is a way to the soul’
You’ve likely heard the above quote, or at least a variation of it. It’s great advice to keep in mind during your first meeting with an investor, just don’t aim for your investors heart.
While it’s important to build a connection with the investor, it’s more important to help them understand the emotional connection your customers will make with your offering.
Kevin Rose wrote a great post on the subject. Start by taking the novel features and exhaustively play out how they might impact the emotions of the consumers that use them.
Help the investor feel the answers to what are you helping your customers do? and what do you understand about the problem others don’t get?
Just make sure you’ve validated that your customers actually deeply feel those emotions. Nothing misses the mark further than telling an emotional story that isn’t real.
This is obviously easier if you’re scratching your own itch. But even if you are, confirm your hypothesis with others.
Share your idea with others and listen.
The fastest way to validate whether the emotions are real is to share your idea with as many people as possible. And then actually listen to their feedback.
Founders find this hard for two reasons – fear and ego.
First, many founders are afraid of others stealing their idea. Much has been written on why this is a silly fear, and it is, but I can understand the anxiety founders feel about sharing their precious billion dollar idea at the early stages.
Fortunately there’s an easy hack to get yourself comfortable. Focus on the problem space. What founders fear the most is someone stealing their solution, not their problem space.
By exploring the emotions your customers are feeling about the problem, you’ll be able to tell a more memorable story to the investor.
Second, many founders fall in love with their idea so much they don’t actually listen to the feedback from others.
Either they believe they fully understand the problem but have overestimated the pain point, the emotional response, the frequency of the problem, etc. or they simply believe their solution solves the problem perfectly, under every conceivable circumstance for every conceivable customer type.
In the early stages you are often wrong on both accounts. Listening to the feedback from others will help identify gaps. Gaps can be solved. Blind spots are deadly.
As a founder, you should exercise this muscle as often as possible. Ideally before your first meeting with investors.
And finally, ditch the slides and have a conversation.
Very few investors enjoy sitting through founders reading their pitch deck and it’s impossible to build a relationship with someone through a deck.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of value putting together your pitch deck. Distilling your first thirty slides into less than ten is an important exercise. The pitch deck forces you to think through every aspect of your business.
However, few have mastered the art of the slideshow and staring at a screen gives too many chances for the investors mind to wander.
The deck acts as a great follow-up to reinforce your story.
But in that very first meeting, keep it simple. Relax and have a simple conversation with the investor about the simplest form of your idea that they will remember next week and want to follow-up with you.