Death to the Pitch Deck!
New-era investors crave connection, not PowerPoints
This week I'm taking a stand because I'm tired of seeing an antiquated approach that's failing founders. There's a right way and a wrong way to use a pitch deck. We're diving into the mistakes founders make when they lean too hard on their pitch decks. I’ve also got some great resources to keep you leveling up as a storyteller and founder.
I jumped across the pond to spend 2 weeks in France with some founders I know. I'll be doing a bunch of writing, research, and enjoying some French wine. I hope you've had a chance to get away this summer and spark your creative side. As I sit here writing this in Bordeaux let’s step on the gas and get into death to the pitch deck.
DEEP DIVE: Ditching the Deck
Once upon a time, there was a magical land where VCs doled out loads of capital to unassuming founders with big dreams. With the proper funding, these startups grew into industry juggernauts, literally changing the world as we know it. You know the names: Uber. Facebook. Peloton.
The companies’ success stories inspired millions of entrepreneurs. If Mark Zuckerberg can do it from his Harvard dorm room, so can we! Naturally, these aspiring founders looked at past successful startups, searching for the secret sauce.
In doing so, many investment experts unfortunately came to the same conclusion. Sure, these companies all had strong visions and the iron will to succeed, but gurus also discovered the companies shared another thing in common: killer pitch decks.
Google “founder pitch decks” and you’re going to get over five million results, many of which are from reputable sources like Forbes and Tech Crunch. You can find Facebook’s original deck from 2004 or Uber’s from 2008. Some companies even turned these famous decks into templates so you can capture their unicorn magic!
But here’s the problem: we’re nearly two decades removed from when Facebook got off the ground. Why would you, a founder trying to demonstrate your innovative and creative thinking, want to base your pitch on a document that’s old enough to vote?
Furthermore, despite pitch decks being utilized more than ever, investors are viewing them less and less. According to a Docsend study, investors spend a little more than three minutes reading the average seed or Series A pitch deck. That viewing time has DECREASED each year since Docsend began reporting pitch deck trends in 2018.
And yet, we’ve now gotten to the point where I see founders assign SO MUCH importance to their pitch deck that they’ve lost sight of its true purpose. Instead of a handy tool that supplements a pitch, decks have BECOME the pitch.
Weeks or even months can go by while a founder obsesses over their deck. They spend thousands of dollars to get the design right and in the process waste hundreds of hours stressing to get it perfect. They think if the get the perfect deck, they can send it to investors and jobs done. Except it's not.
And those hundreds of hours are worth tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasted time and energy. So I take a strong opinionated approach and do things differently (shoutout to Apple for one of the greatest ads of all time).
When I work with clients on their pitches, I encourage them (encourage is way underselling it) to ditch the deck altogether. Here’s why:
You’ll Build a Deeper Connection
There’s this great episode of Entourage where superstar actor Vinny Chase is looking for a new agent. He goes to all the biggest agencies to hear their pitches, and he’s disappointed to discover that each one has an identical pitch deck.
Why is Vinny so bummed? Because all he wants is an agent who truly cares. He wants genuine connection.
The moment you tell an investor “Let me share my deck,” any chance of you standing out from the crowd is gone. You’re no longer having a conversation and building a connection—you’re conducting a business meeting full of dry numbers and stats.
On a quick side note, numbers and stats are meaningless. They can be framed as a strength or weakness. It's the narrative and how you use those numbers that matter. Which is another reason why storytelling is far more important than putting together the "perfect" numbers.
So why is pitching with a deck a losing strategy?
Here’s a secret you won’t find by Googling: the world now runs on relationships and connection. “As society continues to evolve beyond the industrial economy and the information economy, we are seeing personal connection, trust, and authentic relationships emerge to become valuable commodities,” Peace Mitchell writes in Forbes. “This economy is significantly different from those that came before because inherent in this economy is the connection to a deeper sense of community, purpose, and meaning over mass production, competition, and consumption.”
Networking expert Chris Tuff agrees, writing in his book Save Your Asks that we live in a world where our futures will depend more on our connections than our talents. “The more and better connections you build, the better your future will become,” Tuff writes.
As I wrote in last week’s issue, investors know some aspect of your business plan is likely to pivot significantly before you go to market. What they’re really asking themselves in the pitch meeting is whether they can envision working with you for the next five-to-10 years. They’re investing in YOU as much—if not more—than your product. Don’t plan on wow-ing them with facts and figures. Instead, use it as an opportunity to forge a genuine bond.
You’ll Become More Agile
The other reason I don’t like pitch decks is because I see founders use them as a crutch. If you need a pitch deck to walk through your vision, what does that say about the clarity and cohesion of your story? What are you going to do when you meet an investor at a networking event, pull up a pitch deck on your phone? Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen.
I saw an event this past week at LA Tech Week where founders were pitching their ideas out at the beach. First off...that's so LA. Second off, do you think they wheeled out a screen to share a deck? Of course not. Those founders needed to nail their story and share their vision without any help.
The more you focus on telling your story in your own words, the better you’ll be able to authentically convey it. You’ll also project a sense of confidence and competence that can’t be accomplished through charts and bullet points.
Researchers have long concluded that a standard business presentation will activate the language processing areas of the brain but not much else. A story, on the other hand, activates much more, including the areas we’d use when experiencing the events ourselves.
When to Use A Pitch Deck
I know I just spent a good chunk of time railing against pitch decks, so this piece of advice might come as a surprise:
You should ABSOLUTELY have a pitch deck.
Pitch decks are great tools to help you clarify your thinking early on. You can and should create them to organize your thoughts and get your story straight before heading into a meeting. Think of them as the flash cards you used when you were in school: an excellent study aid, but not something you can reference while taking the exam.
They can also be helpful in providing an investor with supplemental information about your company. Once you have your first meeting with an investor, including a deck in your follow up communication can be a pro move. Something like: It was great getting to know you today. I’ve attached a deck that expounds on some of the things we talked about.
Keyword...can. This does not mean it should be your default move. If you do a great job with your storytelling and building a meaningful connection, the deck becomes unnecessary.
Jason Lemkin of Saastr said he is 90% sure of whether to invest in a founder within the first 20 minutes.
He's not alone and it's a strong first impression that wows investors.
I know you want to have your company mentioned with the greats, but it’s important to remember that times change, and trying to replicate Airbnb’s success through imitation isn’t a viable option. Take control of your pitch by standing out from the crowd. Convey your passion, personality, and command. Leave that dusty deck at home.
Quick related personal story (if you're interested)
When I was a trial lawyer, my first boss told me I had to use a powerpoint (lawyers are stuck in old ways) during my closing argument. The problem is I'd watched too many trial lawyers use this method and put jurors to sleep. I knew that all the best trial lawyers captivated jury's with their words, mannerisms, and storytelling.
But this was my first job and I didn't feel like losing it in my first month.
So I put together a powerpoint, showed it to my boss, and proceeded to trial. I knew that boss wouldn't come to my trial and watch. With that knowledge, I got to my closing argument and never opened the powerpoint.
For 15 minutes I spoke to the jury. Then the jury came back with the verdict. Guilty.
As I got back into the office my boss congratulated me and asked how everything went. I replayed the case for her, answered questions she had, and then had to come clean.
"I didn't use the powerpoint. It just didn't feel right in that moment with where the case was at."
She sighed and said "give it a shot next time but congrats on the win."
I never used a deck in my next 101 jury trials.
Neither did any of the best trial lawyers I knew. We all hated them because jurors became too analytical and focused on the deck. We wanted them focused on the emotion and our story.
I never used a deck because I couldn't afford to lose. When a child who has been physically, emotionally, and sexually abused trusted me to protect them, there was nothing that would stand in my way.
At the end of the day being a trial lawyer is what I call competitive storytelling.
You win that game by being the best storyteller, not by presenting with a deck.
RESOURCES for Founders and Storytellers
I’m not the only one who thinks pitch decks are becoming bad news. Dan Simmons, the founder of UK investor deal flow platform Propelia recently wrote a blog suggesting that investors should stop wasting their time sifting through pitch decks to find the next unicorn. Check it out here.
Tired of networking the same boring ways? Say goodbye to nametags and stale conference room coffee by checking out Chris Tuff’s book Save Your Asks: Evolve Your Networking Currencies, Grow Your Influence, Triple Your Business. Chris interviewed hundreds of successful entrepreneurs to understand how they use genuine connection to expand their network and realize their dreams. I recommend the audiobook, which Chris narrates himself.
Don’t let the bear market and rumblings of a recession get you nervous about raising. I wrote about this on LinkedIn this week and there are 3 things to remember. 1. There's capital out there (many of my founders continue to close checks). 2. Sell a big vision (how can you 100x the investment?). 3. Life's not fair but complaining won't change anything (like Denzel Washington said "ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship").
Infamous WeWork exec Adam Neumann shocked the world last week after announcing he’d raised $350 million from Andreessen Horowitz for his recent venture, a real estate company called Flow. It’s the largest single investment a 16z has ever made. If a guy who has a TV show called WeCrashed made about him can still raise that kind of capital, what are YOU worried about?
We've only scratched the surface of topics I want to write on and share with you. That being said, if there's something you're particularly interested in, go ahead and reply to this email and let me know. If you have the question, plenty of other founders will too.
Know a founder, investor, or startup executive that would love this newsletter? Share it with them or post on social media.
As I've said before and I'll say it again...this will be the best newsletter in the world for founders and the venture capital ecosystem when it comes to fundraising and storytelling.
These days I work with a small handful of founders to coach them through their fundraising and storytelling. We are highly selective and not cheap to work with. If you're interested to learn more about how we work with venture backed seed through series c founders, you can check out the Founder Fundraising Program.