Naval here. Adeo Ressi recently invited me to speak at the Silicon Valley Founder Institute. The topic was how to present to investors.

[Nivi: There’s a lot of new stuff in this presentation — I learned a lot that goes far beyond the topic of pitching VCs. I bolded my favorite parts in the transcript below.]

SlideShare: Presentation hacks
Audio: Interview with chapters (for iPod, iPhone, iTunes)
Audio: Interview without chapters (MP3, play anywhere)
Transcript: See below


Here’s an outline and transcript of the presentation.

  1. Does the presentation matter?
  2. The presentation doesn’t matter
  3. What really matters
  4. Preparing for your presentation
  5. What’s in the pitch?
  6. Seducing investors
  7. The high concept pitch
  8. The elevator pitch
  9. Elevator pitch example
  10. The 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint
  11. The 12 pieces of the presentation
  12. Learn from the masters
  13. AngelList


Naval: So, Rashmi mentioned the information asymmetry that exists between investors and entrepreneurs, and at this point I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with a large number of startups as a founder, advisor, and investor. And along the way, what my partner Nivi and I are doing is trying to break open that information asymmetry. So everything we know about venture capital, from term sheets, financings, cap tables, equities, negotiations, goes up on Venture Hacks, and we’re always trying to update it.

Recently we even launched a list, an open directory of angels, and we connect the startups with the angels directly so they don’t have to pound the pavement all the time.

So, what is Venture Hacks? Basically, game theory applied to venture capital is the shortest summary I can give you, and I’ll get into it.

I’ve focused this time on presentation. There’s a lot we could talk about: How do you raise money? How do you pitch investors? How do you convince people? And [we could talk about] the process itself. But right now I’m just going to talk purely about presentation, because I think that was the topic at hand. So, let me see if this works. Forward! No.

Man in audience: We’ll go manually.

There we go. OK.

The presentation doesn’t matter

So here is my first piece of advice – the presentation doesn’t matter. I really don’t think it’s that relevant, not to a high-quality, experienced investor. They’re not really there for the presentation, and your presentation skills are kind of secondary.

What matters much more is the substance of what you’re talking about, and you should take heart in that because even though it seems like an arcane process, funding is still largely a meritocracy. It is your job to articulate what you have, but if you don’t have that much you’re not going to get funded. And if you have something great you will eventually get funded.

What really matters

Here are the things that matter in rough order of importance.

I think traction is the most important thing. So, congratulations to SlideShare; you guys did it the right way. You built a product that had traction, and then you went to raise money.

Secondly, you – you, the team – are the second most important thing. And if you’re not getting funded when you have traction, or you’re not getting funded when you think you have a really good team, maybe you don’t have that great a team. Maybe you need to take a cold, hard look in the mirror, go back to the drawing board, recruit another cofounder, or go get some more experience or build up your own credibility.

Social proof. As Rashmi said, investors are sheep; they stampede in herds. But you know what? Everyone does. We’re all the same. It’s the theory of cumulative advantage. We listen to a band because our friends listen to a band. We go and watch Avatar, not because it’s a great movie, it’s because everybody else went to see Avatar. Investors are no different.

The product is number four. Especially if you’re a consumer web facing company or a largely web facing company, you should have built a product before you go to raise money. Certainly if you’re spinning silicon or you’re building a giant routing device, you need to raise money before you can go and build a product, but if you’re on the web you should have a product or at least a strong prototype of a product.

The market size is important. Even angel investors look for fairly large markets, and it’s not because they necessarily need the huge exits, it’s because a lot of times they face a downstream funding scenario, which is the they might give you money, you run out of money, then you need VC money and VCs only fund very, very large ideas – things that are going after big markets.

In fact, if I had to point out one overarching failing of incubators and combinators and those kinds of institutions, it’s that too often their entrepreneurs are going after very niche ideas, and that means that when they go out for funding they hit a wall. So go for the biggest idea possible. You can always narrow it down.

So after all that stuff, now comes what I consider the three important components of presenting your company.

The most important is the high-concept pitch. So for example, Venture Hacks, you could say in my words, is game theories applied to venture capital. That small, pithy pitch is very important. I’ll get more into that.

Then comes the elevator pitch – the old line, something you could pitch in an elevator or in a TV commercial.

And finally, the least important is the presentation itself. I spent maybe 30 minutes on this presentation, just as long as it took me to write the stuff down. So I’m reading it for the first time also, or second.

Preparing for your presentation

More important than your presentation is being prepared for your presentation. You have to know your subject cold, inside out. You have to know your company inside out, and the test that I use for that is the whiteboard test, which is: could you get up and pitch your company on a whiteboard without a single slide? If you cannot do that you are not ready to present. You don’t know your own material well enough.

In fact, the first company for which I raised a substantial amount of money, and I confess it was during the bubble, but I raised an $8 million Series A, with not a line of code written.

[audience laughter]

Those were the days. It was all done on a whiteboard. I just got up on a whiteboard with my cofounders and we just drew it out, and we walked out with a commitment for $8 million.

I think the whiteboard pitch is also very impressive because it stands out. Everybody fires up the slides – everybody. If you can just sit down in front of your investor and pull out a sheet of paper and sketch your business out, or if you can do it in front of a whiteboard, I guarantee you’re going to make an impression. Now, of course, if all of you do it then maybe it won’t make as much of an impression, but whichever ones of you can do it, I guarantee it will make an impression.

Public speaking. There’s a lot that’s been said on this topic. It’s actually quite simple. Public speaking is purely about confidence. Confidence comes from knowing your topic.

There is a famous school of public speaking called the Dale Carnegie School. Scott Adams, Warren Buffett – they have a lot of famous graduates. It’s the oldest school of public speaking in the country. You can go to that school; they do a great job, but I’ll tell you everything you need to know about that school. It’s just about confidence building. What they do is get you up there, you pitch, and then everybody in the audience, afterwards, is allowed to give you feedback on your pitch. But they’re only allowed to say positive things. They’re not allowed to criticize you in any way, shape or form. And after 10 sessions of this you think you are so great at public speaking that you are very confident, and you are a good public speaker. So public speaking is purely about confidence. A lot of this stuff applies to relationships, too.

[audience laughter]

Man in audience: So if we have Adeo Ressi, he’s building us up.

Yeah. OK, good. Yeah, Adeo…. that’s not building confidence.

[audience laughter]

Man in audience: We don’t say anything nice about anyone who gets up.

In the spirit of being positive, I’d say Adeo was trying a different strategy.

[audience laughter]

One big mistake I see in a lot of presentations is that the entrepreneur will go on and on about the macro economics of the market that they are operating in. They will spend a lot of time trying to convince you that it’s a $34 billion market instead of a $32 billion market. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s a big market. Forget macro economics. Anybody who reads the news knows that with macro economics you can find anybody who will say anything on the topic.

What matters are the micro economics of your business. You better know what a customer costs to acquire. You better know what they’re worth. You better know how long they’ll last. You better know their churn rate. You better know what their alternatives are. If you understand your customer, your individual customer at a micro economics level, then you will do a very good job of convincing the investor that you know your stuff around the business.

So whenever you’re dealing with stats, numbers or marketing, focus on the micro, not the macro.

What’s in the pitch?

This is an interesting thing that I learned a long time back, and I still can’t do it because I just used the word “uh” a moment ago. Get rid of the words “you know,” “like,” “uh,” and “so” from your vocabulary. They just make you sound less confident. They make you sound like you’re less of a good public speaker. The reason you do these things, the reason you go “uh” and “ah” is because your brain is buying time for you to figure out what to say next. It’s a very common thing. So, just learn to pause. It’s OK to pause. You don’t sound dumb because you pause; it adds more gravitas to the situation. But learn to eliminate these words from your vocabulary. This is probably the single best thing you can do to sound more intelligent and persuasive in your life, so this is beyond just presentation.

And finally, when you’re in doubt about your fundraising and your pitch, when you think your presentation is not up to snuff, don’t work on your presentation. Go and code. Build your product. That’s far more important than actually tweaking your presentation. Anyone who tweaks their presentation repeatedly is wasting their time.

Now, the pitch itself — we will get to the pitch. Uh….

I just used “uh.” See? Even after 10 years of knowing that rule, it’s very hard to get it out of your vocabulary.

Start off by introducing yourself. People should know who they’re speaking to. Tell them a story – this is very important. Don’t just give them a random series of facts; stitch together a narrative. Very often it is a true historical narrative of how you started the company, how you met your cofounder, why you got excited about what you’re doing. Tell a story.

Keep a quick pace. You have about 10 minutes before you lose everybody. Human beings do not have a long attention span. This is true in almost anything. Very often in good pitches I find that you get stuck on the summary slide that’s at the beginning and you never get past that because right there in the summary you’ve pointed out all of the important things for the investor, and then they just go straight into Q&A.

Confess ignorance if you don’t know the answer to something. It’s always OK to say: Well, you know, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that. I’m going to go figure that out.

Now, that shouldn’t be about core and basic things. That should only be about curve balls that they throw at you.

And finally, it’s OK to think out loud and to muse about things. It’s completely OK to say on the one hand this, on the other hand that. You don’t want to project false confidence when you don’t have any.

One of the things you’ll find in this process from a lot of the mentors is that very often we’re going to contradict each other. We’re going to contradict each other because there are no absolute rights and wrongs in this game. If there were it would have been automated a long time ago, and there would be no value to being an entrepreneur. Every situation is unique, has to be figured out on its own merits, so it’s OK to think out loud and to express uncertainty.

Seducing investors

Now we get into the fine art of actually seducing the venture capitalist. A very good friend of mine put this well, He said, “The process of raising venture capital is a process of younger men and women seducing older men and women.”

[audience laughter]

Basically what you’re doing is going to somebody who still fancies themselves an entrepreneur, but no longer has the energy or the time to be an entrepreneur, but they don’t know this. So what they’re doing is projecting into your shoes and saying: Oh yeah, this is great! I can see the younger me. If I wasn’t already above this or beyond this, I would go ahead and do this and I would be so good at it.

So you’re going through that process. The best study on seduction is a book by Robert Cialdini called Influence. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Cialdini is a psychologist who basically breaks down what he believes are the six ways in which people influence other people, and he goes into it in excruciating detail, but here they are. I’m just going to give you examples as they apply towards fundraising.

Reciprocity might be [where] you do the investor a favor; they want to do you a favor. A classic example is when there are entrepreneurs who, before they even come to me to raise money they send me high-quality deals. And then after I’ve looked at a couple of high-quality deals they’ve sent me I have no choice but to look favorably upon them.

The classic example of reciprocity is the Hari Krishnas. You’re walking around the airport and they hand you a flower. You just got a 10 cent flower and then they try to sell you a $20 copy of the Bhagavad Gita. At this point, reciprocity kicks in, and the next thing you know you’re forking over $20 for a $2 book.

Commitment and consistency bias. People are highly consistent with their past statements, so if your investor has written a blog, and in a blog post they’ve made a certain point, you can always say, well, we agree with your point on so-and-so. It’s sort of locking them into their earlier decision.

Social proof I’ve talked about. It’s very, very, very important. It’s a herd mentality. You build up your advisors and you build up your angels and you build up your VCs.

Authority. If you have people who come from a high stature or a high background, as Rashmi mentioned, some very high name and value advisors like Mark Cuban for example, those people can lend you a lot of proof.

Liking just means that they like you. Do you smile? You don’t have to dress well, but you have to be a likeable person. I think that’s actually pretty important. This one is underplayed. Most investors have more money than time, and so they’re always having to choose; is this someone I’m going to spend time with? And every great investor that I know eventually comes to the same set of conclusions, and those conclusions are: this business is completely random, I don’t know if I’m going to succeed, and so I might as well only spend time with people that I really like because that way, even if it doesn’t work out, I had a good time.

[audience laughter]

And finally, scarcity. You do have to create a sense of scarcity around your business. You have to create a time limit on your fund-raising process. You have to make it clear, especially to lead investors, that there’s not room for two or three, so that they will collude. And, it is only when they feel that the deal is disappearing that people will be incented to move.

The high concept pitch

So let’s get into high-concept pitch. This is the most important piece of your presentation. Hollywood has perfected the art of the high-concept pitch.

So, Sequoia Capital has their version of it that they put on the back of a business card.

And here are the Hollywood examples: jaws in space is Alien, bus with a bomb is Speed, snakes on plane – self explanatory. They’re very, very, very, good at summarizing a very quick pitch.

Here are examples from the entrepreneurial world, from the world we know. I especially like the Sequoia Capital one. I think that one’s pretty clever. It would have taken me a while to come up with that one.

Venture Hacks is a little self explanatory.

YouTube did start off pitching as Flickr for video, which actually did them a bit of a disservice because the Flickr exit was pretty small by comparison.

You basically want to draw quick, short analogies.

The elevator pitch

Elevator pitch is a little longer. Here you just go through some of the other factors that I’ve talked about. It shouldn’t be very long. It should be something that could run in a 60 second TV ad. You could write it down in two paragraphs, or you could explain it in a long elevator ride.

The pieces of it are kind of obvious, and I’ll hand this presentation out later so you don’t have to write all this down. The one piece that I think is pretty important is to be very, very, very concrete. I see a lot of elevator pitches where people say: we are creating an exciting and large new business! Well, that was a worthless sentence. They coded absolutely no information. Be very concrete. Do not use adjectives. Do not use adverbs, they have no value. You should actually talk about things that are specific and unique to you. If you see a single word in there that could apply to any startup in your graduating class other than “the” or “a” or prepositions, remove it.

Elevator pitch example

Here’s an example of an elevator pitch. It’s a little hard to read. It violates all the rules of presentation, but you can go over it later. This is one Nivi and I wrote up of what Marc Andreessen would be like if he were pitching Ning. We have all the components tagged out such as the links to the product, the social proof, talking about the team, et cetera, et cetera. Your experience might vary.

The 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint

I like Guy Kawasaki‘s rule on the presentation itself, the 10, 20, 30 rule of PowerPoint: no more than 10 slides, no more than 20 minutes, no font smaller than 30 points.

There are exceptions to that when you’re presenting data, when you’re presenting charts and graphs and information, of course you can go a little more data-heavy. In fact, in those cases you probably want to go very dense rather than less dense, but in general you should be talking to your audience, not reading off the slides. You should know a lot more about the business than is prevalent on the slides. And you also have to be watching your audience, and obviously adapting what you’re saying to them. It helps to be a little empathic.

The 12 pieces of the presentation

These are the 12 pieces of what could go in a pitch. I’m just going to talk about what I think are the non-intuitive pieces.

On the team, I think it’s pretty important to brag. I think it’s pretty important to brag about your accomplishments, but you can’t do it for yourself. So, normally you go into a pitch with a cofounder; your cofounder should be talking about how amazing you are; you should be talking about how amazing your cofounder is. That’s great.

When you talk about the problem, people can belabor this one. Just be quick. You should be able to summarize it, again, a high concept pitch.

When you talk about your solution, especially if you’re a web company, you should be able to show it, you shouldn’t be talking about it.

When you’re talking about your technology piece, you should be pointing out that you’re doing something hard. Fundamentally we’re all in tech business. If it’s something that you’re doing that can be very, very easily replicated, or if you need an NDA to protect it, then it’s probably not really hard technology.

When you talk about marketing this is a tough one. A lot of people, when they’re talking about marketing are being very qualitative. I think it’s important to be quantitative. Your marketing slides should be among the heaviest in numbers. All the modern marketing on the web is done through numbers, either SEM where you’re buying traffic, or SEO where you’re doing link building, or even in APIs and cost of customer acquisitions or Facebook virality coefficients and so on, you should be very quantitative in your marketing slide. And I think this is where engineers can excel in marketing. It’s a real opportunity for an engineering-trained marketer that did not exist 5 or 10 years ago.

I’ll talk on sales on business development. Business development is just sales without a quota. It’s a bunch of people sitting around having coffee.

[audience laughter]

You should not have BD people in your company at the start. It’s a huge negative indicator. You should have a sales person, you should have a quota driven, pipeline driven, card carrying, bag carrying sales person who’s willing to fly to the ends of the Earth and get you your 10 customers every quarter.

BD as a role did not used to exist in Silicon Valley until around 1990 when we had to figure out what to do with the problem of that business founder who was now useless in the company because the company had outgrown them, and what do you with them? So you stuck them in BD.

[audience laughter]

It’s not a real role, people.

About the competition, be honest.

Man in audience: That’s like 2/3 of the room.

[audience laughter]

Yeah. Well, sorry. It’s not too late to go to Stanford for that CS class. Don’t mind that. I did BD for a while.

So, on the competition be honest. Those two-by-two matrices are kind of neat, and yes, you’re supposed to be up and to the right, but I don’t take any competition slide seriously unless someone tells me the tradeoffs the competition made. So, it’s not that the competition is worse than you at everything; it’s that they made a different set of tradeoffs. They made a different set of decisions. Be articulate about what those decisions are, especially when you’re competing with big companies. Don’t say the big company can’t do this; it’s better to say the big company won’t do this. They will make a different decision because of their incentives, their motivations, or their legacy structure. I think that’s a much more intellectually honest way of talking about the competition.

Milestones are good; projections are bad. By that I mean that projections are prognosticating about how you’re going to perform in the market. Nobody really knows. Milestones are good because they’re talking about what you’re going to build and who you’re going to hire and what you’re going to do. Milestones are talking about things under your own control. Projections are often talking about things outside of your control, so projections are often not taken seriously. Milestones are taken seriously.

That’s kind of it.

On the financing side, as Rashmi said, you can answer that question wrong by throwing out a valuation when you shouldn’t be. On the other hand, if you have talked to someone who is knowledgeable in the space and you have a good sense of what a valuation is, there are ways to signal it without being too Machiavellian about it. For example, you don’t want to say you have $5 million pre-money because that’s putting a number out there and you’re kind of throwing it in their face, but you can say something like: we’re raising a million bucks and we don’t want to give up more than 20% of the company. So there are subtle ways to signal it. All of this is on Venture Hacks.

Learn from the masters

Finally, if you actually want to do a good presentation or a good pitch or a good explanation, [here are] the two most influential things I’ve seen or read on the topic. First is this guy, Charlie Munger. He’s Warren Buffett’s right-hand-man. He has a little speech that he gave where he dissected Coca-Cola as a business, and he did it in what I would call whiteboard fashion. It’s really worth reading that speech. I have the link to it up there. But it’s fascinating how he digs underneath and shows that he clearly understands the important pieces of the business. After you’ve read that you would write that man a check for any amount that he wanted.

And finally, Lawrence Lessig, who is a professor at Stanford, did a presentation called Free Culture. The whole flash of it is online, and he does kind of this fun stream of consciousness rolling presentation. You can learn almost every trick about presenting by watching that presentation.


And next steps: Pitching Hacks is our book on Venture Hacks that is kind of the collated, best-of hits about how to go out and pitch your startup. Just as a freebie, afterwards, Adeo, I can give you a link. You can pass it around and give it to everyone in the company as well as everyone here. It’s a paid product normally, but we’re not really making money off of it. It’s just there because if something doesn’t have value people aren’t going to pay for it.

And then we have Startup List and Angel List in Venture Hacks. When you’re ready to raise money, please feel free to send us your companies. We’re happy to introduce you to any number of angels, assuming you pass muster. Right now we have about 75 angels on the Angel List, including people like Ram Shriram and Ron Conway‘s group and Founder Collective. And what we do is every week select one or two great startups and we send them out to the whole list.

That’s it.

Topics Pitching

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