Helping founders with their pitches


Unlike some of my fellow mentors who in their years as VCs saw thousands of pitch decks, I’ve only seen a couple of hundred and done a fraction of that number myself. In the years since I was an active entrepreneur the term “pitch” has replaced “present” and “pitch deck” has replaced “slide presentation.” Yet despite the semantic changes the basics haven’t changed in years. While this blog has an entire category called Pitching , these blogs posts for the most part consist of my comments and annotations on other’s articles and posts, which is the modus operandi of this blog. There is one exception worth noting, Delivering a successful pitch, which contains a document I helped Bill Warner develop. It is focused specifically on how to deliver a successful  30-second pitch, not the 5 or 10 minutes pitches now so common in entrepreneurial contests, not the 15 to 20 minute pitches founders prepare for investors. There are also a few original posts such as Do’s and Don’t of presentations , How not to pitch!, and How not to pitch part II

As a mentor we are reactors, we are editors, we are reviewers, we are teachers. What we don’t do is work with founders to build a pitch from the ground up. That’s a job for the founder and his team and perhaps a pitch coach. The purpose of this document is to outline how we can best help the founders we mentor in our role as mentors: offering guidance, advice, and in the case of pitch reviews, most importantly, feedback.

Types of pitch review

The first step is determining what type of pitch review the mentors are conducting. Peter Miller, an MIT VMS director, has an excellent taxonomy which I’m going to quote from his email:

  • The pitch scrub: you’ve got your stuff together, you’re a complete venture, but you tell your story badly.
  • The strategy scrub: neat technology and people, perhaps, but you don’t have a business model, an idea of the transaction, and haven’t done customer discovery.
  • The incompletion scrub: parts of what you’re doing are great, but you’ve left out whole pieces of the plan that investors will expect to see in due diligence.

The founder’s audience

The second step in reviewing a founder’s deck is to understand their audience. Typical audiences are:

  • Customers – particularly in B2B and government, where formal presentations are expected
  • Investors – whether angel groups, VCs or strategic investors, a pitch deck is required at the port of entry. Individual angels might occasionally be an exception, usually if the founder already has a prototype or demo to kickstart the conversation
  • Partners – partner can mean a distributor or the participant in a joint product development project. Often this term gets misused to mean customer or investor.
  • Company – once your company gets to a certain size you may need to use presentations as a means of communicating with everyone at once, the all-hands meeting in today’s jargon.
  • Attendees at events – presenting at events is a great way to publicize and promote a venture. It helps build the founder’s personal brand. Members of the audience may consist of the press (media), financial analysts, investors, customers, or just interested onlookers, depending on the type of event.  If these events are pitch contests money, prestige, and publicity all may be at stake.
  • Incubators and accelerators – increasingly large incubators and accelerators like MassChallenge have far more applicants than seats. This year MassChallenge – Boston had 2,500 applicants for 128 slots in their incubator. While the first or even second cuts may be based on applications, the finalists need to pitch the decision makers.

For each audience the goal of the pitch will be somewhat different. As mentors the first part of our job is to understand both the audience and the founder’s goal or goals with that audience. For example, while customer presentation would seldom close a sale, but the goal is to help the founder get to  a smaller and more valuable audience: the decision makers.

It should be noted that pitch reviews or scrubs must be done in person. Many founders are confused by the difference between a deck that is designed to be emailed to investors or others, and a deck to be used in person. My post Creating presentations – who’s your audience? starts off by defining the differences. 

The review team

Virtually all mentors have some experience reviewing pitches. VMS has been holding pitch scrubs for its Demo Day for years. Sizable teams, roughly a half a dozen mentors, put founders through a highly effective two-part process which has amazingly effective results in improving how well founders tell their stories to investors. However, from my experience a smaller team is more effective, which it is almost always is with teams. Most importantly, none of the members should be mentors of the venture or familiar with the venture at all. The purpose of the pitch review is for the reviewers to be stand-ins for the audience, which normally will have little or no information about the venture. Beyond that former VCs can be great reviewers, just so long as they keep in mind that not all pitches are aimed at investors and act accordingly. Serial entrepreneurs like me who have given presentations to all or most of these audiences can also be helpful, but I know from my own experience I can be a bit quick on the trigger, especially when I see a typical mistake such as projecting total addressable market by simply taking a percentage of the total dollar size of an existing market (We plan to get 2% of the $50 billion market in foobars and we will break even in our second year.) Experienced mentors, most of who have been entrepreneurs or worked in startups, are often the best reviewers as they don’t have the drawbacks of either former VCs or serial entrepreneurs. Choosing the reviewers, whether done by founder or the mentoring organization, should be done with care. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it, friends and family are far too biased to be included.

The lead reviewer

It’s important that one of the reviewers act as lead to manage the meeting.The lead should make sure everyone attending is properly introduced and that the type of review and the audience are clearly elucidated at the start of the meeting. Either the lead or their designee should be the time keeper as the founder’s dress rehearsal needs to adhere to the same time constraints as their final pitch. As in any mentor meeting, the lead should ensure that no single reviewer dominates the discussion and that all reviewers are heard from.

The presenter(s)

Typically presentations are given by a single person, almost always a founder, often the CEO or CTO. However, increasingly pitches are given by two members of the venture team.  This can be effective, as each founder may have a somewhat different style or demeanor. And because many audiences, especially investors, make their decisions on the quality of the team, a team pitch can be a good preview of how well two co-founders work together. But this does add another element to the review. Would the venture be best served by the two presenters or is one far more engaging than the other? This can be a difficult decision and in my experience is often avoided – it’s taken as a given that the two presenters will do the pitch; feedback is confined to how well they work together.

Preparing the founder

Just before starting a pitch scrub I gave my business card to a presenter. “Oh, I know you. I was looking for something to help me figure out  how to pitch using Google and I found your site!” Other than making sure the founder knows their audience and their type of pitch should they be pointed at resources to help them build their pitch in the first place? Or is that the job of the mentor team? Are there just too many resources out there to choose from? Do these resources change so often that the list can’t be kept up to date? I’ve heard all these objections and reject them all. There are a lot of very valuable resources out there, ranging from books like The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo, which I highly recommend, to many posts on this blog and others. Perhaps VMS and similar organization supported founders’ pitch development skills should create a Wiki of resources crowd-sourced by mentors. That would take the administrative burden off the parent organization and help ensure up to date resources, annotated with mentors comments. One such resource is angel investor, entrepreneur, and former VC Guy Kawasaki’s outline for an investor pitch.

Certainly the founder’s mentor team should be working with the founder to develop the business and they should know when a pitch review of some type is needed, and equally  important, when the venture team is ready for it.

The run-through

In the dozens of pitches I’ve given most audiences are attentive and depending on the event, they audience may be asked to hold questions until conclusion of the pitch or questions may not even be allowed, as in pitch contests. But I’ve never given a pitch  to an investor where I haven’t been interrupted, often by more than one VC at the same time. Often I’ve never even gotten through the pitch. Usually this is a good sign. In fact the worst sign would be if the investors simply let you give your presenter without any interruptions. Interruptions equal engagement and a conversation, not a monolog. This is a good thing. But I’ve never seen a pitch review consciously attempt to simulate this firing line environment, though occasionally they do slip into this mode if not carefully managed.

What seems to work best is to let the founder go through the presentation completely with no interruptions. This is a good opportunity to do two things: one, time the pitch and two, confirm what type of pitch  review it is. A founder and others  think  it’s merely a pitch scrub but the reviewers may find on the run-through that actually it needs to be a strategy scrub, or as often happens, the pitch is solid but the presenter has neglected an important element, such as their customer acquisition strategy.

The review process

Beyond what’s already been written there isn’t a lot to be said for the pitch process. The leader needs to manage the clock, ensuring adequate time for both feedback from reviewers and questions from presenters. The leader needs to keep the reviewers from going down ratholes, which is all too easy given the variety of interesting technical and business challenges startups present. My personal style is Socratic, I ask questions rather than make statements, as a general rule. But a good mix of directive advice (“don’t wave  your hands around while speaking, it’s distracting”)  and question (“we haven’t heard what’s your barrier to entry? What’s to prevent other entrepreneurs from cloning your idea, raising a bunch of money and competing with you?)

Post review

My recommendation is that founder’s have someone to act as scribe. It is far too difficult to give a pitch, answer questions, and simultaneously take note of the feedback. The scribe should prepare a document that includes overall comments, slide by slide comments, and comments focused on format (how the slides appear), content (what messages the slides convey), and presentation (how well the founder speaks, use of hands, etc.) The best way I know to improve is to receive informed feedback from experts, the best ways to get that feedback are in real time in the voice of the reviewers coupled with a post-review document. Having the post-review document reviewed by the reviewers is probably going to far into the process, but could be considered.

As mentioned previously, the VMS Demo  Day pitch scrub is a two-part affair. Founders receive feedback and have the option, if time permits, of making changes on the fly and presenting their improved deck a second time at the first section. Whatever the case, all presenters are offered the option of taking a day to absorb their feedback and present a second time. If time can be found on everyone’s schedules, and that’s a very big if, the two-phase review process is unsurpassed in its effectiveness. I never cease  be to be amazed at the very significant improvement seen at the final presentations at Demo Day. Often the founders go above and beyond the reviewers’ feed back in improving the content, format, and delivery of their pitches. VMS has developed a great process  of tremendous value. But the process is only available once a year and only to those ventures who are deemed “investor ready.” There are many other times during the year when a venture needs to pitch and can benefit from a pitch review. And just because a venture doesn’t  get selected for Demo Day doesn’t mean they lack the capacity to succeed, generally it’s just too soon in their  lifecycle to be presenting to investors.

What we don’t do

Startups crave customers and investors, many crave introductions to large companies that could help them with distribution or other business functions. There’s a time and place for that type of help, the review session is not one of them. If a reviewer can help they should do that after the review session.

Continuous improvement

As I work with MIT VMS staff on adding a new pitch review service to VMS offerings this document will be revised accordingly. As usual any comments are welcom.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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