Positioning and pitch decks for startups

A friend of mine is putting together his first deck for potential investors.  In typical startup fashion, they launched a product, got a number of users, and then iterated several times to improve the service.  With the product in the hands of tens of thousands of users, they started getting inbound requests from larger organizations who were willing to pay for customized and private group related services.  While Version 2.0 will be released to the greater world in the next 6-8 weeks, you may be interested in what I had to say about the pitch deck. 

IMHO, a great pitch deck is concise (15 slides) and highly focused.  And in the deck I like to see the following points covered (yes, this is my preferred order):

  1. One/Two sentence pitch for company -value proposition (1 slide)
  2. Brief history – founded when, capital raised to date and from whom, capital needed in new round (1 slide)
  3. Who/Team – give me some context of who you are, your backgrounds, success/failures so I can get an idea of your ability to deliver and surround yourself with experienced talent, also include any board members or advisory board members that may be relevant (1 slide)
  4. What's the problem? – too often I see pitches where the entrepreneurs dive right into the product and I scratch my head thinking why in the world we need another lifestreaming service or social network or ad network (1 – 2 slides)
  5. How do you UNIQUELY solve the problem? – solving the problem just like everyone else is not exciting.  You need to show how you solve the problem UNIQUELY and ultimately deliver a 5-10x improvement for the customer in terms of ease of use/functionality and cost.  What this boils down to is your simple product pitch. (1-2 slides)
  6. Product/Tech – make sure to tell me about your secret sauce or core tech that enables you to deliver a unique service – screen shots, overview, etc – could be good time to go into demo in a live meeting (1-2 slides)
  7. Customer traction – is product in hands of customers?  if so, how long in market and share some data on users or beta customers or customers (1-2 slides).
  8. Market size/Competitive Overview – how big is the market and how do you come up with that number – how are you positioned in the market – show graphically maybe by offering or value proposition (this is where you get your typical top right hand corner Gartner like quadrant).  A sin is to tell me you have no competition (1 – 2 slides)
  9. GoToMarket Strategy – how will you grow quickly and in a capital efficient manner?  How will you sell your product – online, direct, or indirect sales?  any potential partners signed or game changing partners that will help you deliver?  (1 slide)
  10. Business/Revenue model – show me that the economics of your business work – note that single digit gross margins will get you thrown out the door pretty quickly (1 slide)
  11. Financials – yes I know for early stage customers it is at best a guesstimate but give me an idea of how this will grow, what the revenue numbers look like over the next 3 years to give me an idea of how the business scales, and ultimately it helps me understand the true cash needs for the business to get to breakeven (1 slide)
  12. The financing round – lay out the dollars you are asking for, how it will be used, and how long the cash will last (1 slide)
  13. Milestones-what milestones have you hit so far and what do you plan on realizing during the next year with the new cash (1 slide)

Ok, pretty basic and that's it.  For those of you have triskaidekaphobia or fear of the number 13, it's ok as it is a lucky number in our house since my wife was born on the 13th.  Anyway, if you cover all of these points the deck should be about 15 pages in length and provide a great overview for potential investors.  One other point that I want to highlight is that how you position your business is key.  Take a look at this post from April 2004 titled What Aisle, What Shelf. You need to make sure that your audience gets where you fit in the ecosystem quickly and how you are different from what else is out there.

UPDATED: One item I forgot to mention: in this world of constant digital bombardment, you must figure out how your product or service becomes a "must-have" versus a "nice-to-have" solution in a customer's daily life.  If you are a "must have" with minimal substitute products then people will clearly pay for what you have.  If you are a "nice to have" in a world of many substitute products even though you may get some usage you will never be able to monetize that base. 

Sundance and a movie about a web pioneer you may have never heard of

My brother-in-law, composer and recent Emmy winner, Ben Decter, is kicking it this week in Sundance while two of his movies Heart of Stone and We Live in Public make the rounds. This summer he and I spoke about We Live in Public and Josh Harris.  It took me a few minutes to remember who he was and meeting him more than a few times while he was out raising capital for one of his many projects, Pseudo.com.

Josh started Jupiter Communications which during the mid-90s was the go-to research firm for market growth numbers for every startup business plan.  As a VC, you couldn't believe them, but it didn't stop every entrepreneur from using the hockey stick projections in their business plans.  Anyway, he went to start Pseudo.com, one of the first production companies for webisodes and streaming media.  In an old New York Magazine article from 1999 Josh proclaimed that ""The potential for a company like Pseudo is to start from a Website and replicate the success of ABC, NBC, or CBS — a long shot but an enormous payoff." He then went on to wire his house with heat sensing cameras so that his and his girlfriend's every move would be streamed live over the Internet."  Anyway, Pseudo.com went under in 2000 and Josh subsequently disappeared in isolation for quite awhile. 

As the writeup for the movie mentions, Josh "proved how in the not-so-distant future of life online, we will willingly trade our privacy for the connection and recognition we all deeply desire.  Through his experiments, including a six-month stint living under 24-hour live surveillance online which led him to mental collapse, he demonstrated the price we will all pay for living in public."  While his predictions were dead on in many respects, it is also quite tragic to see the pain that it inflicts on his own life. Who would have thought how quickly our private lives have become public as we leave a digital trail of ourselves, our loaction, our videos and pictures, and our thoughts all over the web, social networks, and Twitter.  The question we should all ask is where will all of this connectedness leave us 10 years from now.  I hope you enjoy the trailer and more importantly my brother-in-law's music đŸ™‚

Going old school – how to reach people effectively

I had lunch with a friend last week when we were talking about the days years and years ago where it was cool to have an email address on your business card.  In fact, I remember picking attorneys to work on our venture deals in the mid-90s not only based on cost and experience but also based on how digital they were – no AOL email addresses please and if you use IM, then great.  Now I can honestly say that I can be overburdened at times dealing with my email, IMs, sms messages, phone calls, LinkedIn and Facebook messages.  So I must say it was quite refreshing last week when I received a hand delivered note from Robert Samet who runs Madison Search Partners, a well respected boutique search firm for senior level sales searches in the digital media and software sectors.  He, of course, had sent me a few emails before that and also followed up with an email afterwards.  Robert went old school with snail mail and physical communcations and with that got my attention.  Yes this is an old marketing trick but one that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of digital communcation.  I, of course, had to take his call and when we spoke I asked him how his campaign went.  His hit rate was quite high and given his creativity, he is definitely a guy I want to use in the future for a search.  So in this day of constant and immediate communication, physical mail and snail mail can sometimes leave a lasting impression.  As for myself, I actually got some personal stationary last year to send note cards to friends and business contacts when I want to make sure that I deliver a more effective message.

Is 2009 the year of mobile computing?

 As I look around post-holiday season, I am seeing more and more regular, non-technical friends and family get connected on their mobile devices.  What does that mean? A great example is that of my father-in-law who got rid of his old Motorola Startac and exchanged it for an iPhone.  Yes, he got an iPhone, and then days later I got a message to get connected to him on Facebook.  Ever since, he has been using the phone to take pictures nonstop, send emails and SMS messages, stay connected to Facebook, and surf the web looking for the latest news or directions. I last wrote about the iPhone in November 2007 when my wife and her friends started getting iPhones.  Clearly that was just the beginning of a longer term trend for mobile devices to get more powerful, easier to use, and more widely deployed into the market.  Since then, we have the new Google phone, a better Palm device, Blackberrys for consumers, and numerous other devices from Samsung and HTC.

So is this the year that mobile computing becomes mainstream and that mobile software/service companies become a household name?  More importantly, will there be any grand slam venture capital opportunities in wireless?  Through various forms I have been involved from an investment perspective in wireless-related companies since 1996 when I made an investment in a company called AirMedia.  It was way ahead of its time in the sense that it had a hardware device that connected to a paging network to deliver email alerts, stock quotes, and breaking news.  From a business model perspective we had it nailed…or so we thought…buy the hardware device at cost and we would make money back by selling a monthly subscription service.  It raised an additional $30mm of venture capital after we invested and subsequently was long on buzz but short on customer adoption.  I learned a lot from that investment.  The first lesson I learned is that "pioneers get arrows in their backs."  In other words, we were way ahead of the market and were bleeding edge.  Wireless was thought of as the next big thing, but we were way too early and also had to get people to adopt a new device-virtually impossible!  Secondly, I learned that you can't invest in a technology in search of a problem to solve.  It was surely cool stuff but no one really cared and in order to get people to care you had to spend lots of money to define not only a new product but also a new category – the wireless Internet connected device.

Here we are 13 years later and I have seen very few successful wireless pure play software/service related companies.  I wonder if 2009 is the year that some wireless startups breakthrough.  Trust me, I am a big believer in being connected anywhere and anytime but at the same time I am skeptical of how these startups plan to make money.  What is different in 2009 versus 1996 is that we do have a user base, we have some awesome devices that are cheap, powerful, and easy to use, and we have all you can eat service plans with unlimited data.  However the same fundamental challenges still remain as it is still difficult for wireless startups to get their products to the market.  You can either go on-deck through the carrier channel and their walled gardens or off-deck through the web where you will need to have an incredibly viral product or spend lots of money on marketing.  You can also reach users through handset manufacturers like the iPhone marketplace or through Nokia (one of my portfolio companies Gizmo5 is also distributed through Nokia) but in these cases you are either still under one company's complete contrl (Apple) or have to spend incredible amounts of time negotiating with a large company like Nokia.

So even with a huge user base of wireless devices and users, the odds are still stacked against pure-play wireless startups.  If anything, I see wireless as just a natural extension of any web-based product or service.  Take Cisco's Webex as an example.  Even though their users have wanted a mobile app for awhile, they just launched an iPhone app that let's users schedule and join Webex conferences from their device.  Why do we need a pure-play wireless conferencing play if the big guys can easily extend their functionality? So while we read about increased wireless usage it is clear to me that either many folks are still using the lowest common denominator on their devices (taking pictures, sending SMS messages, doing a simple web search) or mostly using the large incumbents' technology like Google Maps or GMail or Yahoo on the Go or Microsoft Search or Facebook.  This is a tough market for startups to break into and while we may see some products get strong adoption out of the gate like a flatulance app on the iPhone, this doesn't mean that these are real businesses.The bottom line is that as more apps become delivered over the cloud, the delineation between a desktop play and wireless one diminishes rapidly unless you are a mobile only location-based service.  Wireless is just a technology and 2009 will be a year where wireless and desktop continue to blur as people only care about what web service they use and always expect to get it from any device over any network.