How to build the perfect pitch deck and 7 common mistakes to avoid
This Symbl for Startups content series separates facts about the founder journey from fiction — with a little help from program mentors and startup experts. For additional information about how early stage businesses can benefit from the Symbl for Startups program, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Building and presenting a pitch deck doesn’t have to be a painful experience. First and foremost, it’s your opportunity to tell potential investors a compelling overarching story that weaves together your business’ mission, target user, total addressable market, progress to date and more — and hopefully it gets you to that crucial second meeting.
In crafting a stellar pitch deck you will learn how to prove to others that you are passionate about the problem you’re solving, which is important because potential investors must view you as a driven, trustworthy steward of their money before they take the next step with your company.
Every founder will have his or her own way of creatively approaching this task, but there are certain ground rules that will keep you from looking like an amateur. We also want to note up front that there are many differing opinions with regard to what makes a pitch deck stand out—every investor is different! That being said, the Symbl for Startups team has reviewed hundreds of sub-par to excellent decks and provides some educated guidance on the topic below.
Less is more
To begin with, it’s important to ensure you aren’t bombarding your audience with excess information. Keep the design of the presentation sleek and minimal and limit yourself to one idea or statistic per slide — if you can keep the words on each slide to 10 or less, even better. While the number of slides in a presentation will differ for every business, aim for 10 or less.
Getting straight into the meat of the matter is of the utmost importance once you have a potential investor’s attention, so go ahead and eliminate any “fluff” across your messaging. Note that verifiable numbers such as user engagement, monthly recurring revenue, and traffic will have a bigger impact than clunky text-based slides.
Your business is a living entity, and the pitch deck you use to represent your company should reflect this. Set a regular time on your calendar to review the core presentation and discard any irrelevant information as your business scales. Revisiting your original pitch deck also gives you a helpful birds-eye view of the business’ progress that might lead you to address roadblocks in new ways.
As the company grows, you will begin presenting modified quickie versions of your pitch deck on a monthly or quarterly basis to investors with pertinent updates. This is why, once again, it is practical to view your pitch deck as a central corporate document that should always be kept aesthetically clean, well-written, and otherwise up to date.
Understand your audience
Depending on who you are meeting with, it is beneficial to keep a few versions of your pitch deck on hand. Potential customers, mentors, investors, co-founders, and partners are often looking for different information when it comes to a business pitch; customers require less information about granular financial matters than investors, for instance. However, demoing is KING for all of these audiences. If you have a working product or prototype, giving people access to that in the form of a video tutorial or interactive demo is invaluable.
Researching potential investors’ goals could lead you to tweak your slides one way or another prior to a meeting as well. Angel investors tend to operate in the spheres they know well and are comfortable with, and they are quicker to deliver in terms of handing over funds. Venture capital investors, on the other hand, are managing other peoples’ money and have longer wait times but more flexibility with regard to the types of startups they will work with within a given market.
Pitch competitions are also an excellent way to get your name out there, reach new audiences and network with other entrepreneurs. For these events, streamlining your pitch deck is of the utmost importance because you will have to reveal as much essential information as possible to judges of various backgrounds in a limited time period.
Necessary information to include
Beyond the intro slide, which is the perfect place to showcase your business’ awesome logo and tagline, make sure that one of your very first informational slides offers potential investors a brief value proposition — which, hopefully, you are able to squeeze into a single sentence. This slide is all about hooking your audience as though they were a fish on a line; reflect on what makes you buzz with excitement about your company and run with that.
The basic structure of your pitch deck should look like this: Intro→The Problem→The Solution→The Product→The Business Model→The Go-To-Market Plan→The Competition→The Team→Progress To Date→Contact Information.
Once you have these essentials down pat, you can begin to plug in optional slides that cater to the specific audience you’ll be pitching to—but remember to keep it brief. DocSend reports that the average VC will spend 3 minutes and 44 seconds reading a seed pitch deck, but the most successful pitch decks can be consumed in roughly 2 minutes as a result of their simplicity and readability.
7 common mistakes to avoid and top takeaways
In this section we’re going to describe seven frequent missteps that bear repeating from earlier sections. The most frequent mistake founders make is not stating what their business does extremely clearly and up front.
What exactly does your business do? Make sure that the problem you are solving is right at the beginning of the presentation, because more likely than not your audience is time-strapped and won’t want to listen to or read through a drawn out spiel.
The second mistake, somewhat related to the first, is using flowery marketing language instead of phrasing the basic premise in a matter-of-fact way. Do not pepper in buzzwords or trendy phrases across the presentation in an effort to sound more impressive — just be very plain spoken, as though you were explaining a concept to a 5 year old.
Mistake №3 is the overuse of visuals. Only use visuals when they are absolutely necessary. Placing stock photography or background images on every slide will drive your audience nuts. This goes for anything visual, even data-based graphs. You should really only have these in the presentation if they tell a story and are actually meaningful. If you email someone a pitch deck and the cover slide is just a flashy image without any signifier of what the document contains, the person you sent it to might not even read it.
The fourth mistake is not using the concrete data you do have. If it’s easier to showcase these numbers in a graph or plot or picture, then a visual is fine. A really important caveat to this is to exclude all “creative” math. There are numbers that mean something and numbers that mean nothing. Revenue, users and MRR are all totally fine to keep in there, but if you’re making numbers up your audience will know. For example, “projected MRR” isn’t a real number and won’t impress anyone.
Mistake №5 is overloading your audience with information on each slide–keep the copy on these as brief as possible.
The sixth mistake is using Docusign when circulating your pitch deck. Instead of this, format the presentation as an uneditable PDF. If you send out a link to your original PowerPoint file, you run the risk of having people mess things up in there. Additionally, the file name should be the name of the company, your name, and the date you’re sending it so that the recipient immediately knows how old it is.
Finally, mistake №7 is trying to sound more impressive than you are. Nothing smells more like B.S. to investors when every startup is reportedly solving a multi-billion-dollar problem! Be real with both yourself and your audience about the problem you’re solving. The Symbl for Startups team also isn’t a fan of competitive landscape graphs that make it look like your business is the only one out there solving a particular problem — odds are, that’s just not the case.
Again, experienced VCs can see straight through exaggerated claims; be confident in your product’s ability to solve a problem and refrain from blowing up the market size or opportunity. This will only land you with inexperienced or ineffective investors.