With plenty of resources available for entrepreneurs about how to craft an effective pitch deck for raising seed-stage capital from VCs, often what’s left out are some of the tactical components of an initial meeting. The following is a list of mistakes that, despite seeming obvious or perhaps mundane, are still frequently committed by founders and CEOs. The good news? They’re easy to fix.
Mistake #1: Not clearly articulating the basics in the beginning of a pitch.
Every single pitch should, but unfortunately often don’t, contain specific, succinct details about WHO the customers/end-users are, WHAT problem is being solved, and HOW the company’s product/service accomplishes it.
While a number of VCs do some basic homework prior to an initial meeting about the company, most don’t. And even if so, without a contextual framing of the business explained by the entrepreneur, the basic facts of the business can easily get lost. It’s instead productive to over-communicate the core components of the company and opportunity to ensure they become the lasting impression leaving the meeting. (One very simple way to approach this would be to use a single slide up front that previews the conversation to come, covering these basics so the investor is up to speed right away.)
Mistake #2: Worrying about the demo/presentation that just won’t seem to work.
Murphy’s Law often comes into play with demonstrations and on-screen presentations. VCs understand. But if possible, entrepreneurs should find out if they can get their laptop hooked up to a projector in the room before the meeting starts. This requires arriving at the office a few minutes early which, surprisingly, doesn’t consistently happen.
If a product demo doesn’t work, it’s best to try again once, then move on. Wasting 10 minutes to attempt to fix whatever isn’t working kills the conversation momentum and effectiveness of the pitch. Backup paper copies if the on-screen presentation fails are a bit low-tech but work almost as well.
Mistake #3: Not knowing who you are talking to ahead of time.
Different partners in a VC firm are different. Entrepreneurs should know their audience, and most importantly, how savvy it is about the company’s particular market segment. If the partner involved is on the board of an online ad network, an entrepreneur spending tons of time presenting an argument about the explosion of online spending ad isn’t necessary. Also, it’s important to note that sometimes other partners, junior investment professionals, and EIRs unexpectedly “ambush” a pitch session. So when a meeting is confirmed, it’s best to ask them who will be attending. The situation may change, but the answer will help set expectations.
Mistake #4: Not controlling the timing and pace of the meeting.
The meeting time, whether informal for feedback or more formal for a pitch, is the entrepreneur’s opportunity to shine. Spending too much time on introductions, small talk, and the name-game detracts from the opportunity to convey the primary message. Some VCs may allocate an hour (or more) to a first meeting, while some only allot 30 minutes (or less). As a general rule, founders should ask those at the table how much time they have and/or confirm the initial allotted time (e.g. “Does the full hour still work for you?”). This initial time-check helps frame the pacing of the presentation and discussion.
It can also help the entrepreneur better decide when and how to address mid-stream questions. Spending time where an investor wants to learn more can be productive, but founders should proactively guide the conversation away from less relevant topics and towards things that are essential in communicating the full agenda and full value of an idea. A VC’s mind will wander, but it’s the entrepreneur’s job to refocus the conversation when it drifts.
Now, admittedly, this can be difficult or even awkward. Of course the urge is to immediately answer any question a potential investor may pose during a pitch meeting. I’d recommend approaching it a few ways to make it easier. First, as mentioned above, understand how much time you have. Second, have an “out” if the conversation starts getting away from you. If you’re going too far down one path, say something like, “We’ve got some backup slides or data elsewhere that I can definitely send you to address that.” Third, be polite but firm: “There are a couple other points I want to make sure we address in this time period. Is it okay if we come back to that?” And lastly, above all, use good judgment. If a question comes up repeatedly, then absolutely answer it. If it feels like a tangent, make the call as best you can.
Mistake #5: Attempting to force definitive feedback immediately.
It takes a few days for VCs to “process,” consider, possibly do some early diligence and fact-finding, and to think about what’s been presented to them in the context of what they already know. Additionally, if there was more than one person in the meeting, they need to take some time to reconvene to assess together.
I’d recommend ending your interaction by asking what the process is like from that point onward. You might even ask, “If this ends up being of interest to you, what would be the things you’d want to cover in a next conversation?” Above all, show that you’re outcome driven. Asking to understand the process shows you’re focused on the task to be done in a tactful way, without being overly demanding. As a bonus, it also showcases a good character trait to the VC: You’re focused on and driven by results.
Mistake #6: Not following up in a timely manner.
Entrepreneurs should check in with their primary contact a few days after the conversation to suggest possible next steps that the VC can follow to learn more about the company and the opportunity. No news isn’t necessarily bad news for a founder, but it’s helpful to keep your startup top of mind and communicate some urgency about your fundraising process to an investor. This email can serve as a catalyst for pushing the process ahead — either forward in a favorable direction or to a definitive pass from the VC. Obviously, these are vastly different outcomes, but both are helpful to know and preferable to waiting in limbo as an entrepreneur.
Mistake #7: Inauthenticity.
At NextView, we talk quite a bit about valuing authenticity in founders. But all investors implicitly look for entrepreneurs who present themselves and their businesses genuinely — as in, both truthfully (i.e. no easy-to-spot sensationalism) and true to the founder’s experiences (i.e. building companies based on real passion and not merely distant recognitions of market opportunities). Attempts to “dress up” or “massage” their own individual backgrounds or the current company situation will be either immediately recognized by the VC or discovered later in the due diligence process. It goes without saying that, in any introductory meeting in life, one should put their best foot forward … but never at the expense of the truth.
All of the mistakes above, when committed, show a lack of effective leadership in the fundraising process on the part of the founder. So while making a minor mistake in the above categories may seem inconsequential, they can absolutely signal something greater and much more worrisome when strung together. With team being the most critical component to any early stage investment decision, these little things can be big … but they’re easy to get right.