Start-ups can’t pitch

By Alex Barrera on August 28th, 2012

Start-up competitions are the new black. While I have nothing against trends, it’s hard to miss that when something hits the Trendville, quality just gets thrown out of the window. Day in and day out we are seeing what seems to have become a required ingredient for any tech conference that wants to make a splash.

It’s great that start-ups are becoming ubiquitous in Europe, but I don’t see the need to plaster such competitions everywhere, particularly given the ridiculous tiny size of European deal flow.

What’s the goal of packing a room with start-ups, a jury and an audience? One would think it gives founders a good stage to make a case about their start-up, receive quality feedback from the jury and most importantly, get noticed by investors and the press in the audience.

The reality, of course, is very different. On rare occasions I’ve been lucky enough to sit in an audience packed with investors that invested, a jury that actually knew something about business models and markets and start-ups who knew how to deliver a powerful pitch. But, in most competitions, the audience is a mixture of peanut-eaters and angel wannabes.

Sometimes, the audience is just there for the talks, but is forced to swallow endless soporific pitches. Sometimes there is no audience at all, just a bunch of scattered bloggers reporting on a list of endless names and descriptions.

Even at conferences like LeWeb, where the room is full of good people, few of the investors that attend actually put money towards any of the projects that are pitched. It’s something to do with the quality of the start-ups on stage, but I’m under the impression that, even if they’re good, most investors just don’t bother.

Most of these competitions end up showcasing finalists to the main conference audience. Lucky founders will get the spotlight and the dollars of some investors there. The rest will fade into oblivion. Curiously enough, I keep hearing complaints from investors that there aren’t enough start-ups.

The thing is, most of the time it isn’t about the product: it’s about how much start-ups suck when they go on stage.

Let’s face it. Most investors are lazy motherfuckers. They want the next Google, wrapped in a big ribbon, with a low valuation, a terrific, experienced team and investment preference. That, my friends, is called a unicorn and, as far as I know, they don’t exist.

But we could solve some of the problem by teaching founders to present themselves more effectively. First of all, presentations are all about delivering a message, about communicating and conveying an emotion powerful enough that makes you want to buy whatever it is the founder is selling, right here, right now.

They’re composed of three parts: design, message and delivery. Design is not just about the aesthetics, but about building a structure that helps you deliver a powerful rhetorical punch. Most start-ups ignore design. They throw up a deck with the crappiest images they can find. Sorry guys, but watermarked images, badly cropped pictures and pixelated I-found-it-in-Google-images crops just don’t cut it.

Yes, everyone knows you did that graph with Word and you didn’t even bother to change the default color palette.

Some decks go the other way; they are literally scripts for the founders to read. But presentations are about telling a story. That means visually arresting frames accompanied by a powerful script or narrative. They are, in a sense, movie clips, where you play editor, screenwriter and director.

Messaging is critical, but shockingly most start-ups just aren’t sure what they want to say. Presenting is about connecting each slide through a plot. There needs to be a spine that binds them together: a narrative arc. One or two ideas that will resonate through the presentation. Most start-ups just go through their decks as if they were reading business charts to analysts.

What normally happens is that the moment someone throws a remotely emotive story into the pitch slam, they get all the attention. It’s not about showing how cool your numbers are, but about dazzling people. The “wow” effect is what grabs attention. This doesn’t mean you can forget your numbers. But you do need both.

Delivery is crucial. Even if your deck is visually arresting and you have a great story to tell, if the founder is as dull as ditchwater, you might want to get someone else up there on stage. If one of your co-founders is better on a stage, even if he isn’t the chief executive, for God’s sake, let him pitch.

If your marketing director does a better job, tells better jokes and has better delivery, sandwich your ego and let them take your place. This is not about you: it’s about generating impact. I’ve seen so many good presentations killed by letting everyone in the team talk about their part in the slides. Rule number one of pitch club is never disrupt the flow.

I like start-up competitions, but in the same way the audience needs to have some quality, pitches need to get up to scratch too. As an event organiser, you should make avoid nepotistic or monkeys throwing darts approaches to choosing start-ups. As a start-up participating, you need to do your homework.

Answer as many of the typical questions as you can during the presentation. If, after your delivery, someone asks: “And how exactly are you going to make money?” you know you did it wrong. The jury should not know more than you do about your market or your competition.

Let’s cut down the noise and bring the already battered audience some quality pitching, please.