How to Handle a VC Presentation with No Deck

Posted on Jan 13, 2011 | 45 comments


I recently filmed a show for This Week in Venture Capital in which I talked about how to prepare for a VC meeting: whom you’ll meet, who should attend from your side, what materials you should bring and how you should run the meeting.  I wrote the summary notes in this blog post.  That notes only told part of the story.

Bijan Sabet – investor & board member in some small ;-) companies you might have heard of like Twitter, Tumblr, Boxee & OMGPOP – took issue with the whole notion that you even need a Powerpoint deck anymore.  Please read his compelling & short post on the topic.  The beautiful thing about VC’s who blog is that they tell you their preferences before you pitch to them!

His key quote is,

“there are a couple things in this particular post that don’t work for me personally (every VC is different!).

First, if it’s an early stage company, I don’t need to see a powerpoint deck. I’m comfortable with introductions and then getting into the demo.”

He’s right that increasingly there is a tribe of investors who don’t care to see your Powerpoint deck.

I would argue that this mostly consists of consumer Internet companies (although not exclusively) and it is predominantly early-stage people who are product gurus and have a mildly technical bend to them.  In VC there are the obvious people including Bijan, Brad Feld, Fred Wilson, Josh Kopelman and Bryce Roberts.  I’m sure there are many more.  I would mostly lump me in that category.  I’m usually itching to just see what you’ve built.  I’m a product geek more than a spreadsheet ninja.

I talked about this in the TWiVC video but I didn’t do a good enough job of writing it up in the summary notes in the post.

And it’s almost universally true that the new band of angels & seed investors are product gurus.  Obvious examples include Chris Dixon, Keith Rabois, Aydin Senkut, Dave McClure, Chris Sacca, XG Ventures, Reid Hoffman and so on.  If you get the chance to see any of these people (or similar who I’m forgetting right now) you should.  The product feedback will be invaluable.

I believe in this so much that, despite my post advising you to be prepared for the *norm* in VC, I wrote a post about a company that came in for a presentation and never even got the slides out or presented a demo.  I funded them 8 weeks later.  I called the meeting a 10/10 because we had a great 90-minute discussion in which we had great rapport.

So why would I have talked so much about the deck in my post?  Isn’t it antithetical to my arguments above?  And did I really just try to drop an SAT word into my blog post?  No, the ideas aren’t conflicting.  Yes, two glasses of Syrah will make you want to use pretentious words that you wouldn’t ordinarily say with a straight face.

The “Triple Play” of VC Presentations

doubleplay

So is the PowerPoint deck passé?  Can you just show up without one?  Short answer – ‘no.’  You need to be prepared for the “Triple Play.”  If you feel comfortable trying the no deck discussion – go for it.  If you want to go quickly to the demo – knock yourself out.  But take prompts from the VC.  Not all of them are driving from product orientation, not all of them are early-stage, not all of them are consumer specialists.

I think the norm in the industry is still to see Powerpoint slides and I wouldn’t hold this against anybody.  In reading the comments on Bijan’s blog and having discussed this so many times, I know some entrepreneurs only want to talk with VCs that think that Powerpoint causes leprosy.

The reason I’m more nuanced is that I  believe that a well-crafted Powerpoint deck can actually set some context for what you’re about to show the VC.  It can orient you like a map so that when you look at product it is framed.  And when you finish the demo you can bring in the other important components such as competition, team, customer acquisition strategy, etc.  Powerpoint can be especially useful for platform businesses or B2B.

Consumer?  Mobile app?  Just jump into the demo after intros.  Bijan is right.

The best policy is to ask.  Something like, “I was thinking about jumping into the demo first before discussing the market.  Does that work for you or would you prefer that I start with slides?”  And if you prefer a demo and they don’t – don’t be dogmatic.  Call an audible.  Be ready to map your presentation to their preferred method.

Act I – The Discussion:

I think the negative reaction to Powerpoint from some VCs is that it usually becomes a crutch.  Use it as a framework for a dialog not a script.  Your goal in the meeting is to establish rapport and have a dialog that is participatory – meaning two-way.  It’s why I wrote that the best meetings are debates and not pitches.  It’s the same as in any sales-oriented meeting and make no mistake raising money is sales.  In Bijan’s post he references Bryce Roberts who recommends getting up and white-boarding.  That’s an awesome suggestion.  The quote from Bryce is:

“When an entrepreneur steps to the whiteboard the energy in the room totally changes. There’s movement, there’s action, there’s something happening that requires attention. The conversation moves from consuming images on a screen in lean back mode, to active engagement. Half baked ideas get refined, new ideas emerge and a two way dialoge develops where a one way monologue once was.”

Beautifully written.  You want the VC speaking.  The white board is a great way to make this happen.  And he / she wants to hear how you really think, not the presentation you’ve memorized.  But if you’re not the worlds best free-formed debater and prefer not to jump up to the white board, you can also do this with well placed and purposeful questions in a Powerpoint deck or demo.

In my opinion you need to establish rapport & credibility with the VC before you try to flip the meeting on them and ask them questions.  It’s subtle.  But flip you must –  just as in a sales meeting.

Use something like, “I noticed you invested in a couple of companies in the x,y,z space.  Have you had similar experiences with them? Or has your experience with them proved counter to what our current thinking is?” or some other similar way to engage them in speaking.

Now here is the part that I don’t believe can be taught.  You need to be a good judge on whether you feel the VC is engaged with you.  Does the conversation flow naturally?  Are they asking you questions?  Are they actively listening?  Do they seem excited to answer the questions you have asked them?

The tell-tale signs that they’re not engaged are: reading through papers in front of them,  not asking you questions, no  looking you in the eyes or looking at their watch (yes, this happens).  But more subtly it’s just an expression on their face that they’re not having fun.

Remember that 90% of all communications are non verbal.  You need to pay attention.  If you’re not “feeling it” then you need to shift to the slides or demo quickly as a means of trying to engage.  If you find yourself in this situation I recommend you politely ask, “would you like me to carry on telling you about the company or would it be helpful if I went through our PowerPoint slides or do you prefer that I start with a demo?”

Very few people ask.  I recommend it.  Let them guide you.

Act II – The Deck

So your goal is to create a dialog – white board, free form or otherwise – but a large % of VC will prefer that start off with or involve a PowerPoint deck.  The majority, I would guess.  So on any given day you need to be ready for Act II.  The reason for this is that most VC’s still want to get oriented in some way and the established norm for this happens to be the PowerPoint deck covering:  What problem are you solving?  What does your solution do?  How big is the market?  Who are your key customers?  Competitors?  How do you make money?  What are you 3 year projections?

Do not be put off by direct questions that are fired at you as you present.  Again, 90% of communication is non verbal.  If you seem annoyed with the questions or get defensive it will establish negative rapport.  View the questions as engagement.  Maybe they could have used more tact but at least they’re involved in the discussion.  If you’re asked a tough question and you’re not sure if you answered in a way that they expected don’t be afraid to say,  “That’s obviously a tough question.  I’d love to hear you point of view on X topic.  Do you see it a different way?”

Get through Act II as quickly as you can.  You really want to get to the demo.

Act III – The Demo

In addition to getting quickly through your slides you also need to be prepared for the VC who wants you to get straight to a product demo.  Bjian has made it clear he’s in this camp.  I find this is more often an ex operator VC and often somebody who deep down is a product guy, like Bijan.  I find myself wanting to get to product demos pretty quickly, too.  I get too bored with abstract slides.  But admittedly for some topics I like some orientation about the market before I see the product.

If you LEAD with the demo, I’d encourage you to be prepared to weave through all of the key messages that would have been discussed if you were in your PowerPoint slides but get them out as you walk through your demo.  DO NOT make it a features & functions presentation.  Unfortunately most people do.

“Here’s how you upload a document.  Here’s how you add tags.  Here’s how you notify a user.  Here’s how you vote up / down their content.”

Lame.  You’re showing them features, not value.  Value is when you frame the demo in terms of why it solves somebody’s true pain point.  You know the cliche – it needs to be medicine, not aspirin.  I recommend that you make your demo “a day in the life of” your key user persona.  Present from the user’s point-of-view.

“Let me show you how a user would do X.  In today’s world without our solution they have to enter this information in 3 separate places, which is both time-consuming and leads to errors.  Our solution cuts down on both.  Let me show you how we would do A, B, C using OurSolution and now let me show you how they do it before OurCo.”

Talk about the customer problem and how you solve it.  Talk about the existing solutions, the market opportunity and the competition.  Weave all your key messages through the demo.  If you can give the equivalent of our PowerPoint slides while conducting the demo that’s the best outcome.  I wrote a very specific separate post on how to nail a demo.

Some final thoughts:

– Not everybody is good with impromptu discussions.  If you’re not then stick to just the intros and break out your slides.  Make sure that in your slides you’re not racing through them but using them as a way to engage in the discussion in a way that puts you more in your comfort zone

– If you’re good with white boards and one exists – go for it.  It’s a wonderful way to show how you think, your ability to lead, your raw intelligence to debate and it’s a great way to get others speaking.  Not everybody is a natural at this.   In my opinion it’s kind of like telling jokes, don’t go for it if it’s not your strength

– On the other hand, if you’re not good at giving demo’s you’re going to have to learn to be.  Practice.  Get feedback.  Find great presenters and have them hear your pitch.  Giving great demo’s matters in every part of your business operations.  The kiss of death is the CEO who says to me, “I’m not good at demo’s – my product guys never let me do them” (you’d be surprised at how often this gets said).  If you’re not intimate with the product it’s hard for me to buy that you’re going to be a successful tech entrepreneur.

Worse yet some people say, “I’m going to set up a follow up meeting to have my sales guy walk you through the product.”  Um … no thanks.

  • http://www.stickyslides.com Jan Schultink

    Great post!

    Very early consumer companies can create a mock-up demo in PowerPoint: a demo, but it's in PPT

  • http://twitter.com/gatorcris Cris Bjelajac

    Great post as usual. Sorry to post this grammar comment here, but blame the Syrah: Act 1 section, 3rd sentence, should be “Your goal…”

  • http://www.knyshov.com Leonid S. Knyshov

    There is one resource I found very useful when developing my decks.

    Take a look at http://extremepresentation.com

    The ebook tells the story of how to condense 73 slides into 4.

    Here is a direct link for those who hate to opt-in to lists :) http://www.extremepresentation…/

    I prefer doing demos, but visual aids help a lot to get the point across.

  • Dinesh Vadhia

    All good VC firms have an overhead projector, whiteboards and flipcharts. Use them all to tell your story, to explain and to engage. It is your story. If you need to keep asking permission then you pass control of the presentation flow to the VCs which is never a good idea. Most entrepreuners get freaked out because VCs generally stay quiet and don't provide much feedback during the early parts of the presentation. Don't worry about it … go into a zen state and focus on telling your story.

  • http://twitter.com/Sirachm Sirach Mendes

    Mark,
    Yesterday I did a meeting with a few Angels with a deck and these guys were not from the Web services industry.
    I am trying to raise Angel money in Brazil (not so easy with limited ecosystem)

    So during the presentation – i got a feel that they were not very comfortable with a deck (and their minds started to wander off and one partner started using his BB)

    So instead of continuing with the Deck …..I moved things to the WHITE BOARD and eureka ! the whole meeting dynamic changed

    I guess going back to basics and old school – worked well and we got alot of questions and healthy debate on the business model.

    So yes +1 for white board !

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Like your website, especially regarding graphics- “If you have to explain it, it ain't working”

  • http://www.stickyslides.com Jan Schultink

    Thank you

  • JoeYevoli

    I know some VC's like to see decks that are 10 slides long. Others, about 75. Should you prepare multiple decks to suit the VC you're presenting to? If so, how do you know which VC's will want to see which deck?

    Also, if a whiteboard isn't available, would it be to much to bring one? (A small one of course. I actually feel a little ridiculous asking this.) Thanks in advance.

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    Great timing! Part of “school” here in NYC today is 5 minute demo pitch practice…

  • http://flavors.me/joshuahenderson Joshua Henderson

    Great post, Mark. Your comment on how entrepreneurs give demos – highlighting features instead of telling a use-case story – is what I've seen a lot of entrepreneurs struggle with when they pitch using a powerpoint.

    In my experience, VCs still want to see powerpoints but just like how VCs no longer look at business plans perhaps this trend will continue. I suppose it's all about the VC's preferences in the end, and how well you know them/do your pre-meeting due diligence on what they expect.

  • http://charlescarter.tumblr.com ccarter

    “Lame. You’re showing them features, not value. Value is when you frame the demo in terms of why it solves somebody’s true pain point.”

    - That, is what I will call 'illuminating genius'.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. And, yes, as per Dave Baldwin's recommendation below – I highly recommend Jan's site: http://www.stickyslides.com

  • philsugar

    You could have re-posted this as a topic on sales and it would have been just as good, just not as popular since sales is still a dirty word :-)

    Best and most simple advice I ever got on a demo: Show the end result first.

    That's it. So simple, but so few people do it. It seems much better to build up to a crescendo, but you'll lose everybody along the way.

    Show the three wow this is what I'll be able to do results. Takes three minutes. If the person is interested, the rest of the demo will flow as you are just their guide as they ask how you came to the end result.

    If they aren't impressed with your three results….i.e. don't care how you got there because they don't care where you went, then you need to explore to see if you are a fit.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    bugger! that wasn't the wine – it was the midnight timestamp. I do that all the time when I type too fast. Thank you for spotting – saved!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks. I guess this qualifies as the field of “info graphics” which I love.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I agree with all there except “asking for permission.” Don't “beg” for permission but start going down your path and make the polite “unless you'd like me to do X” type comment. If they have a strong bias they'll let you know. Otherwise they'll let you drive. Better that you know before proceeding.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    awesome story. by the way, what I've done before in meetings with Blackberry people is ask them a non-threatening question when they're using the device as a tool to both engage them and letting them know that it's not ok. but your white board method is effective – especially if you give the bb person lots of eye contact.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: deck – always 10-12 slides max. if you need more they go in the appendix. I normally recommend 10-20 more max.

    re: white board – it's no probably to call the assistants in advance and ask whether they have white boards. If not, for sure it's ok to bring your own. ask the assistants if you can show up 10 minutes early to set up so you're not dragging a white board around as everybody is shaking your hand and greeting you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    And a big congratulations to you for being selected! LA loses out!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I know people don't like when I say this, but raising money is a sales process and the person with the money is your customers. So to an extend you need to understand your customer and cater to their preferred methods. In some cases – like Bijan – he's made his preferences known. For others it will be Powerpoint!

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    Thanks again.

    LA sounds nice under all this snow…

  • JoeYevoli

    Thanks, Mark! Appreciate the advice, as always.

  • http://www.gooddisruptivechange.com Susan Alexander

    Mark ~

    The talk you gave at yesterday's NextGen conference was super useful. Thanks for taking the time to speak. What a great day Cory Levy organized for everyone lucky enough to attend.

    Your “how to” posts are invaluable. They're beautifully clear and presented in a format similar to what I've read about John Wooden's coaching, which included a technique described as M+, M-, M+ (a quick 3 part sequence where he'd show his players: 1) how to something; 2) how not to do it; and then 3) once again, how to do it.

    No detail was too small for Wooden, nor is it in the context you're writing about. What we say and how we say it is what determines whether or not someone gets us. Same with what we do and how we do it.

    Well done, Mark, as usual.

    Susan Alexander
    @SusanRPM4

    Note: Wooden's approach is detailed in Daniel Coyle's book, The Talent Code – a fascinating read about how we learn and grow skill, and the huge role that practice and feedback have in the process. Here's the Amazon link: http://amzn.to/faFPVs. See also Coyle's blog http://bit.ly/f9PeJG.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    what perfect advice. the “wow” factor in a demo is the equivalent of what I tell people about putting their bio's up front in Powerpoint. It gets people leaning forward and wanting to learn more.

    My good friend, co-founder, and product / demo mentor – Tim Barker (now runs marketing in Europe for Salesforce.com) – used to tell me a version of, “put your one, big impressive feature up front and blow people away and the rest will go more smoothly. And leave them wanting more versus showing them everything.”

  • http://twitter.com/Sirachm Sirach Mendes

    Thanks Mark for the advice

    Yes i did try out something with the BB person – to engage him I asked him questions about his own company and how he built it ( As people LOVE to talk about themselves)

    The guy was smiling and enthusiastic by the end of the meeting with a whole new energy and rapport.

    +1 eye contact

  • http://daleallyn.com Dale Allyn

    Great post, Mark (again). I'm very happy to read this post. As one who has been in business a while, I'm always a bit frustrated by the suggested “cookie cutter” requirements for presenting a slide deck. Especially with the idea that it must be the starting point of a presentation (after intros).

    If one has a working demo or product (e.g. a functioning application, esp. for web), and if that application presents the product well, as a business person putting myself on the investors' side of the table I'd feel tortured to have to endure a slide presentation first. “Just show me what you have.” To me, the deck then makes a good recap, helping gel what the live demo has just illustrated, but in a structured and organized form that helps complete the illustration. Or for helping partners who need info presented in a different style to wrap their heads around the product. Does this seem right to you?

    I could see a presentation working which started with 3 to 5 quick slides for the 50,000 feet view, moving directly to the application, and then recapping with a deck of a few slides (appendix sitting in the wings if needed). People and products are quite varied, but I often read or hear of 20+ minutes of slide presentation and wonder if many listeners wouldn't rather “just get to meat”. Thoughts?

  • philsugar

    Baffles me when I hear that. Even more that you would have a CEO want to have somebody else give a demo.

    When I'm in the room, I literally can't control myself from wanting to take over the demo. Even if its a sales process where the salesperson has been working the account, and they should be giving the demo.

    I have to literally sit my hands.

  • http://sisyph.us/ ErikSchwartz

    Do you really want a VC that does not have a whiteboard in the conference room?

  • http://www.stickyslides.com Jan Schultink

    Thank you Mark

  • Dave W Baldwin

    I'm trying to get time to read Leonid Knyshov's link http://www.extremepresentation…. I forgot about the square seperated into 4. You guys are a Godsend!

  • http://influads.com/ damiansen

    Let's say that i pitch groupon without a deck? Groupon doesn't offer a PRODUCT but a curation SERVICE. Demo'ing would be hard.

    What would be your recommendation for a pitch for a concept that's not groupon but it's service-driven?

  • Josh Webb

    Mark had a recent post on the “table of contents” for a pitch deck (http://www.bothsidesofthetable…/) bullet point #6

    Guy Kawasaki has another rule of thumb that he calls his 10/20/30 rule (http://blog.guykawasaki.com/20…).
    -No more than 10 slides (with the option to revert to appendix when required)
    -No more than 20 minutes
    -Nothing less than 30 pt font size

  • http://www.kehalim.com/ mluggy

    Top post. I've seen a whiteboard on some VCs but never approached it, maybe next time :)

  • Saeble

    Does anyone still make real and tangible products anymore ? Is everyone obsessed with pretty code ? Does a guy with the next best thing in breadmakers have to go wanting ? Everything you tell me is heavily slanted towards Start-Ups out there in Binaryland. What about us schmucks still battling things like physics and materials science. Sure, the digital age is dominated by the 'Net and devices attached to it but not every single guy out there is pushing an App or a clever Webgadget. If I frame the above with “pitching a new physical tangible device” it starts falling apart in large lumps.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelshimmins Michael Shimmins

    Possibly yes – could be a few reasons why not. I get your point, but it wouldn't be *the* decider for me.

  • http://sisyph.us/ ErikSchwartz

    Not “the decider” for me either. But it would make me raise an eyebrow.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelshimmins Michael Shimmins

    The assumption that because it is written in code and is software it is somehow less tangible or real is a bit weird. I'm pretty confident Accel are happy with their investment in Facebook, that return is looking pretty real at the moment.

    I'm not surprised that these posts are slanted toward 'binaryland'. GPR's focuses in these areas, as well as financial etc.

    Also I disagree that the above points can't be applied to a physical product. If you invent a toaster that solves whatever problem everyone has with their current one, and have had a long history in the toasting industry, I will be much convinced if you a) tell me you're an expert and why upfront (bio slide), then b) get your toaster out and show me how amazing it is, solving my toasting problem that is still annoying me from breakfast a few hours ago (demo before presentation). If I'm still interested, show me the business behind it, how it will be successful, what your financial projections are etc (10 slid deck). Seems like the same pattern to me.

    Perhaps there aren't enough resources out there for pharmo, physics, maths etc startups. Perhaps there should be. The tech startup industry didn't have these resources in '99 – maybe you could pay forward and help out your sector by starting awesome resources for that area.

  • Cpohl_2000

    Great article. A must read for the MBA.

    I had a laptop die 20 minutes before a presentation to early stage investors. With one sheet of paper I drew my market graph, explaining as I was drawing. Then flipped it over and drew my market trend slide. It was an engaging, lean-forward type meeting. By far my best presentation ever.

    In 2004, I gave a presentation to a major player with a 11×17″ piece of paper with the status quo process printed on it, and three printed transparencies that I layered over the paper as I explained “the right way”. The only interruption was 30-minutes into the chat to ask for my acquisition terms.

    I have gigs of powerpoints – 6 years worth – for one venture. They helped me refine my message. Now I don't need them.

    As for poor demo skills… hire a voice-over person on Elance for $50. Someone with a nice accent – opposite your gender. Have them read your script (1.5min max), then put the script to a video of screen shots or your slides. An investor cannot interrupt a video, and you can leave them a private link to the video on YouTube so they can show their fellow investors what they are looking at.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Great double feature or combination flurry Mark.

    What's your take on a potential investor demoing the product without heavy interference (no training wheels) and framing the market with a discussion as they try out your startups work first hand?

  • http://twitter.com/sventured Conrad Wai

    Another great post, Mark! What I've come to realize is that in addition to lending themselves to different types of information, the three acts (discussion, deck, demo) focus on different modalities, or ways of engaging with content. Because different people have different preferences – some need to write things down, others do best when pacing around the room – at Jump Ventures (http://www.jumpventures.net) we advise startups to consider all three modalities when presenting: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic.

    Your post helped me connect the dots. The discussion and verbal pitch is auditory, the demo is kinesthetic/ physical… and the deck gives visual thinkers something to engage with. No wonder stepping up to the whiteboard can be so powerful – it combines elements of all three modalities.

  • http://www.repeatablesale.com/ Scott Barnett

    What's interesting about your post is that I don't think there's any difference whatsoever between pitching to VC's and pitching to a potential customer. Your fundamental premise here is don't speak “at” your audience, converse “with” them. With any group dynamic, some folks will prefer to learn more about you first, some like the whiteboard, some the demo, etc. The part of your post I liked the best is when you suggested that we just ASK THEM what they want. How simple!

    When I think back about how I made the move from programmer to sales, it was because as the lead on the product team (at that time), the sales folks really liked having me on a sales call with them. I never came with a deck or a demo. I would get up and whiteboard how our solution could handle the prospects need – AFTER I had learned enough about their environment to give them helpful information. That was gold most of the time. I have never liked walking through a PowerPoint – it's almost always a one-way conversation.

    Bottom line – understand and cater to your audience, no matter who they are. Having pitched to way too many VC's, I will say one thing I do use my PowerPoint for is collateral – after our meeting, I will make sure they have it, since it's unlikely they'll remember everything we discussed, at least the key items are a slide away.

    Also – minor nit, but I always knew the expression to be “sell aspirin, not vitamins”. :-)

  • http://www.eqentia.com William Mougayar

    So I didn't do too badly at our lunch last Wedn… :)

  • Rosema088

    A big congratulation for your sucess keep it up.
    ……………..

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  • http://twitter.com/mattamyers Matthew A Myers

    I was wondering if someone you like you existed – and of course you rightly commented on a post about presentations. :)

  • http://www.stickyslides.com Jan Schultink

    Smiling, yes we do exist