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Data tells us that investors love a good story

And other secrets to a winning pitch deck, from DocSend


Image Credits: Vertigo3d (opens in a new window) / Getty Images under a Vertigo3d (opens in a new window) license.

Russ Heddleston


Russ Heddleston is co-founder and former CEO of DocSend at Dropbox.

More posts from Russ Heddleston

Hundreds of billions of dollars in venture capital went into tech startups last year, topping off huge growth this decade. Here at DocSend, we’re seeing the downstream effects in our data: investors who receive DocSend links are reviewing more pitch decks than ever, as more people build companies and try to get a slice of the funding opportunities.

So it stands to reason that making your pitch deck stand out is critical to raising a round. But how do you do that in such a competitive landscape?

After analyzing both successful and failed fundraising pitch decks, we’ve learned that storytelling matters and this hasn’t changed over the last few years. This makes intuitive sense — who doesn’t love a good story?

But does telling a story help founders raise capital successfully? And more importantly, do you fail to fundraise if you don’t tell a story? In this post, I’m going to share some hard evidence.

It follows up on my post over on TechCrunch, looking at three big mistakes we see in failed pitch decks.

Before we start diving into the data, here’s why we know: our document sharing and tracking platform is used every day by thousands of startups to share their decks securely with investors, with visits to pitch decks shared via DocSend having grown 4x from 2017 to 2018. Controlling for DocSend’s growth, we estimate that investors are viewing 35% more decks in 2018 than they did in 2017.

In total, over 100,000 users have shared over 2.2 million links through DocSend since we launched in 2014, and these documents have received over 220 million views; while we’ve grown quickly among sales, business development and customer success teams, startup pitch decks have continued to be a popular use-case. We’ve also been analyzing the pitch data in a collaboration with Harvard Business School since 2015, so we’re experienced at analyzing and interpreting this data. (You can read more about our startup opt-in process and other aspects of our methodology here.) The data included in the research below came from companies that explicitly opted in to participate by responding to an automated email sent to them. We are incredibly appreciative to these founders for making this research possible.

First impressions stick

The old adage “you only get one chance to make a first impression” is true when it comes to pitch decks, and in fact that was the case for our company’s own fundraising process. When I pitched DocSend for our seed round, I knew what we were up against — why will this be a big business? And, why won’t Google build this? Our product was still in private beta, and we had no revenue. However, we had an MVP and those who were using our product, including our potential investors, found the product to be very useful.

So instead of a hockey stick user growth graph (since we were still in closed beta), we used excerpts from customer interviews where users were telling us what they liked and why they liked it. We built a narrative around what was working in our favor: our team, feedback from our beta users, and a demonstrable MVP. It worked, and we raised $1.7m in seed funding.

In 2015 we did a study on more than 200 pitch decks to understand how startups went about raising a Seed or A round. Since then, over 9,000 customer companies have shared over 2.2 million DocSend links.

Across the board, we’ve learned that an opening that clearly speaks to the company’s purpose is the most successful way to begin a pitch. Conversely, the common denominator of unsuccessful fundraising pitch decks is leading with the product rather than contextualizing why the company exists.

In successful pitch decks, investors spent 22 seconds, on average, on company purpose slide while they spent an average of 61 seconds on the opening product page of a failed pitch deck: that’s 20% of their total time spent viewing a pitch deck.

This is likely because they didn’t fully understand the story behind what the product does and why this product matters in the first place.

Sequence matters

Our research indicated that when it comes to a fundraising pitch deck, the slide sequence matters. There is, in fact, a right way to “tell the story” that is more likely to yield a successful outcome. Sequoia Capital’s pitch deck template most closely matches the sequence found in a majority of successful fundraising pitch decks in our study.

In fact, even though successful pitch decks were a bit longer, an average of 20 pages versus 17 pages for failed decks, they still kept the investors engaged in the story.

Notice that company purpose leads the deck and that product is nowhere near the beginning of the story.

Sequoia Capital pitch deck recommendations from its article, “Writing a Business Plan”

A clear beginning, middle, and end

A lot can be learned from one of the best storytellers of our time, Pixar studios. Their rules of storytelling tell us that every story has a structure: a clear beginning, middle, and end. The clear beginning is the “what if?” part of your presentation. In Pixar’s case, what if a rat wanted to cook haute cuisine? What if our toys could come alive?

For a startup, it’s the core purpose and why this problem merits solving. The middle part of the story is where the stakes are raised for the main characters. The rat is now in the kitchen helping a chef who cannot cook, and a newer, more fancy, toy arrives — upsetting the natural order of things. For your pitch deck, this is the “why should I care?” part addressed by the why now and why you.

While pitching DocSend, we leaned into the obviousness of the problems we wanted to solve. What if your most important documents didn’t get into the wrong hands? What if you understood what others thought of your documents? Won’t business move forward a lot faster? Won’t people be willing to share more? This helped us address the “why should I care?” question right off the bat.

Explicitly or implicitly, an investor is asking “Why should I care?” and once this question enters their head, they can only focus on trying to get the answer to this one question. So it doesn’t matter if you wax poetically about your technology stack or your MVP, it will not register.

Moreover, in failed fundraising pitch decks investors spend 56% of their time on the product, financials, and the team while in successful pitch decks they spend only 26% of their time on these slides.

Once the company purpose and market has been validated, it becomes more self-evident that this is a good business to invest it and why this team is the best positioned to execute on this idea. In successful pitch decks, there is no one section or slide where investors spend significantly more time than others. In other words, a good story flows easily; and investors understand the narrative arc and say, “Ok, tell me more.”

Make it personal

Investors are not just investing in a company or an idea, they are investing in a team that will lead this company to success. Personal anecdotes and experience go a long way in helping investors understand why you and the team are the right people for this task. When we raised our Seed Round for DocSend, we leaned on the fact that our founding team had been coworkers, classmates, and friends for over 11 years.

My co-founders Dave and Tony were freshman year roommates and did all their Stanford CS projects together. Dave and I had also been roommates, and all three of us had worked together in the engineering team of a company called Greystripe. So no potential investors questioned our commitment to working together to build DocSend.

Perhaps you’ve raised money before and had a successful exit. Talk about what worked and what didn’t. Maybe you worked at an enterprise where the problem your startup is solving was felt acutely, and you have

Our data shows that raising a seed round takes 24% longer than raising an A round and most startups will need to pitch 20-30 investors to close a round.

Practice your pitch and make each subsequent pitch more personal and relevant to the investor you are pitching.

This is the start of a series of articles about fundraising. I’ll be sharing more about the difference between Seed, Series A, and Series B rounds as well as how fundraising challenges change as your company grows. In the next post, I will be writing about why some pitch decks raise way more money than others. In the meantime, have questions about the best way to raise money? Check out our blog or reach out to us on Twitter at: @rheddleston or @docsend.

This article has been updated to include additional information on DocSend’s survey methodology.

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