A VC's Advice On How To Pitch VCs

Editor’s Note: In this guest post, Raj Kapoor gives entreprenuers advice on how to pitch VCs. Kapoor knows both sides of the equation. For the past five years, he’s been a VC at the Mayfield Fund. Before that he founded the photo site Snapfish, which he sold to Hewlett-Packard.

Its been almost five years now that I’ve been in venture capital.  I finally know what i don’t know.

The one thing I do know is how to give better advice on pitching VCs now that I’ve sat through hundreds of pitches and made 8 investments.  I gave some advice in an earlier post—this one builds on it at a deeper level (three years later)

I’ve mentioned in the past that there are some key things you should include in your presentation when you are pitching a VC.  David Cowan’s post on what to include is a great starting point.  I thought I would expand on this and add some of the nuances within each section. This may not apply to all types of companies but I think it works for internet-related businesses.

Also, I’ve found that if all the informoation below is addressed succinctly in an executive summary or first pitch deck, it can help us make a much faster decision —which is what the entrepreneur wants and so do we.  If we believe the story is lacking in too many areas, sometimes we just pass as there is too much else going on. At the same time, providing too much information is a problem as, like you, we are time-strapped and attention-starved.  I think most of the points below can be addressed in a few compelling sentences or slides.

  1. What Do You Do? The first thing we want to understand is what you do, very simply.   What’s the problem/solution or what’s the new experience that you think is exciting?  Why is this important to your customers?  For mass-market internet businesses we want to understand if this appeals to a wide or narrow audience and if it’s a frequent (daily) habit or something done once in a while (which is tougher to build a brand in the consumers mind).  Don’t talk vision or market at this point.  Zero in on what you are about.
  2. Reveal Your End Game. VCs typically don’t invest in just the first product or service being the end game or in a company’s whose biggest goal in life is to be a feature of a platform or “add-on” acquisition.  We want to understand that your product has really big potential and could be a platform possibly for others—like Facebook or Twitter.  Don’t be afraid to dream a bit.  Here’s an example from one of my companies –  “Rubicon Project will start solving the sharp pain point of optimizing ad networks for publishers and will leverage this position to be the trusted platform to help monetize all inventory for a publisher – the Control HQ for all revenue for web publishers”.  You won’t be penalized for having audacious goals.
  3. What Is The True Size Of Your Market?  No, Really.  The important point here is whether it’s a big enough market to be interesting to a VC.   Too often entrepreneurs simply state the size of the online ad market for an internet content business or the size of a retail category for e-commerce sectors.   We’re less interested in the top down market sizing and more focused on your Total Addressable Market (TAM).  If you sell widgets, how many customers are really out there that are interested in your widget (segment the market) times what price you get for your widget.  The more thoughtful and realistic you are about how you define the customer set, the faster we can make a decision.  We don’t mind getting surprised on the upside later on.
  4. The Secret Ingredient Is People.  Teams are critical and too little time is spent on them in pitches.  Don’t just include where you’ve worked but include in your slide or exec summary why this team is the best for this opportunity.  In many businesses, domain expertise matters a lot, so highlight that.  In some consumer businesses, its less about experience and more about product insight and relentless execution—highlight why you have that.  In other words, figure out what’s most important to the task at hand and make sure to tell us how each person will help accomplish that—not just where everyone worked and went to school.  In an early stage deal, Team and Market are the most important factors as everything else will change and a great team with wind at their backs will make it happen.  Also, be upfront about your holes/weaknesses in the team (and your own weaknesses) and if and when you believe you will need a new CEO.  Self awareness is one of the most important traits we look for in leaders.
  5. Go-To-Market Strategy.   This is often ignored or not given enough thought.  What is the path of least resistance that you can take in terms of customers (be specific here), channels, and initial product focus.  Your go-to-market strategy should ideally be in your control (versus reliant on big, unproven partnerships) and take as much risk off the table as possible in the least amount of time.  You need to go through customer acquisition economics if you pay for customers (lifetime value vs CPA) and why you will spread for free if you don’t require marketing.   Address how you will make it as painless as possible for consumers to adopt the solution and how you will build on top of that.  Also, your go-to-market focus should not force you into a niche that’s hard to maneuver out of.
  6. Be Honest About What Stage You Are At.  We need to understand what stage your company is at.  Are you at the idea stage or pre-traction in terms of customers and momentum?  Do you have momentum but are still working out the business model?  Or do you have both momentum and a solid understanding and proof behind the model.  The clearer you are about where you are, the faster we can make a decision.  Be upfront and honest on the risks and how you will deal with them.  If you have momentum, show graphs of key metrics over time (not just a snapshot of where you are)—we want to understand the shape of your growth curves and how your key metrics are performing against your expectations.
  7. Your Real Competitive Advantage is Being Different In The Long Term.  On the internet, there are at least 25 companies that are or can compete with you on almost anything you do.  Often times, it’s all about execution but we want to see if there are fundamental factors which will help you outdo your competition—very hard technology/IP, network effects in your business that will make it hard for others to catch up (such as with Wikipedia, Google AdSense, Facebook, Twitter) or a fundamentally different business model that will be hard for an incumbent to change (for instance, it wouldn’t be easy for Electronic Arts to cannibalize its retail games with free to play online versions).  While we want you to list all your competitors (be exhaustive otherwise we won’t have confidence you know your business and have done your homework), its not useful to only show a chart of your competitors comparing features or positioning on a 2×2 chart.  That is a very static view and any competitor worth their salt will morph and/or expand features to keep up with competition.  If its all about execution and there are no fundamental advantages, then you should focus on why your team will out-execute all the others (a tougher sell but possible).
  8. Product, Product, Product.  If it’s a live pitch, a demo is really key—but keep it short and to the point.  Don’t go into all the cool features—we are most focused on how its simple, intuitive, solves the problem and how well built it is and frictionless from a user experience point of view.  You can talk about some of the cool new features but the first meeting isn’t about going through your product requirements.  If it’s part of an executive summary or deck, this is harder but at least a few screenshots of the key experience flow are helpful.
  9. Plausible Financials.  It’s tough to create believable projections for an early stage company.  I suggest showing what it takes to get to $50M or $100M of revenue in terms of customers, products, pricing, and so forth, as that’s what we are focused on.  Show a simple table of key assumptions to get there and speak to why its believable.  We also want to know how much capital you think you will consume to get sustainably cash flow positive so the nitty gritty forecasts do matter—but be able to explain the key drivers and why its capital efficient (profitable under $5-10M of investment) or requires significant investment.
  10. The Ask.  Make sure to put down how much you want to raise.  Often a range is a good strategy as it usually depends on the valuation/dilution.  But there should be a minimum amount that makes sense to significantly reduce the risks in the business.  Importantly, highlight what risks you will remove and what momentum you expect to have about 6 months before you run out of cash.  We are very focused on whether we will be able to successfully raise a round at a higher valuation, so tell us what you think it will take to do that.

I hope this helps.  If you can nail the  points above, it can be a 30-45 minute meeting and I think you’ll get a quicker and more definitive answer from a VC.  Good luck with your pitch!

Photo credit: Flickr/Adam Bales