Having a great idea will only take you so far on your startup journey. At the very earliest stages you’re also going to need to have some way to articulate the vision and galvanize investors and partners behind your idea. This is where the pre-seed pitch deck comes in, as a way of visualizing the idea behind the startup and focus people’s attention on why it is important.
How does a pre-seed pitch deck differ from other pitch decks?
At that pre-seed stage of the business, you haven’t got much by way of tangibles to show off. There’s typically no product or revenues to build a case for your business, and for that reason the pitch-deck does need to be handled differently.
At this stage, the deck needs to be about the vision and the possibilities. In other exercises at the pre-seed startup phase, you will work on the startup value proposition, the vision and mission statements, and defining the customer problem that you are setting out to solve. These are the qualities that you want the pre-seed deck to focus on, with particular emphasis on inspiring whoever is looking at it.
The other thing you want to focus the pre-seed deck on is the people. The team of visionaries that are behind the company and will be responsible for driving it in the early stages. At the pre-seed stage, success rests on being able to assure people that the team has the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg in it, who have the ability to take an idea and turn it into something with meaning.
How to make a pre-seed pitch deck that will get noticed
One of the first things to note is that the ideal approach to pitch decks will vary, depending on region. The basic information you want to convey will be similar, but how to effectively package that up will vary from place to place.
For example, in Japan people tend to look for slightly more wordy and detail-oriented pitch decks, with information arrayed in bullet points. In many western settings, you want a more visual approach. So, if you know who you’re presenting the pitch deck to, consider how you can tailor it best for that audience.
As you sit down to craft the pitch deck, regardless of your audience, keep these key objectives in mind:
You want to tell a story
There are so many startup ideas out there, and investors are so bombarded with pitch decks, that the ones that stand out are the ones that tell a great story. As humans, we are hardwired to respond to an inspiring narrative that conveys emotion, drive and ambition.
As you get deeper into conversations with investors and partners, and as the business gets going, the numbers and the details are, of course, important. The pitch deck, however, is the first impression, and with that the priority is making sure that each person that sees it walks away with the feeling that your story is going to be one to remember.
Keep it short
When you move into later rounds of funding and pitches, the decks will grow in length, but at the pre-seed stage, you haven’t got a product, or P&L statements, or other pieces of hard data to share. So, don’t try and squeeze too much in there! Instead, make sure it’s clear, concise, and easy to follow.
A good rule of thumb is to assume that the investor will look at your deck for just three minutes—the time you’ll wait for a cup of noodles to be ready! To catch them, you need to make it stand out with only the most important pieces of information. Make it skimmable.
Aesthetics matter—yes, that means the font
One thing that trips many pitch decks up is that they’re difficult to read because the founder has used a non-standard font, thinking that it looks good and will help make the text stand out. Unfortunately, because the font is overly embellished, difficult to read, or simply too small, it becomes too easy to ignore.
There’s nothing wrong with using a standard font for a pitch deck. Certain fonts are popular precisely because they are legible and clear. A good starting point is Helvetica, with a big, 100-pt text for the heading.
Practice the presentation that will go with the pitch deck
The pitch deck is nothing without the performance that will go with it. Practice the way you’ll deliver the pitch deck to potential investors! Practice your presentation in the mirror to watch yourself in real-time, video yourself to watch back how you look, and make sure you can speak to each slide, without relying on notes.
If you’re delivering the pitch in person, make sure you’ve trained your entire body to project confidence. If you’re pitching over video conferencing, then be sure to practice pitching while seated (it does change the dynamics of everything from your voice to presence), and be sure to practice hand movements, as they will be important for emphasis.
What to include in a pre-seed pitch deck?
Here’s a breakdown of what will be found in the typical pre-seed pitch deck:
Right from the outset you want to set a tone for your startup. Make sure that you explain upfront, on this first slide, who you are and why you’re here, presenting the pitch deck. Also use the first slide to set the aesthetic tone for the complete deck.
Here’s a useful trick to keep in mind: Blue is a color that conveys trust and calm. These are qualities that you do want to impart on people as they sit down to your pitch deck, so don’t overlook the value of some color psychology.
At the very front of the pitch deck sits its beating heart. Within the first slide or two, you want to define the problem that you’ll be looking to solve. One of the first things that you do when conceptualizing your startup is to craft the problem statement. Bring that into your pitch deck, and then present it in the slide as the start of the story.
Immediately following the slide that describes the problem, explain what the solution is (i.e. what your startup will be doing to address the problem). The key thing to remember here is that the solution needs to connect to the problem in a clear and relatable way. Too often, founders get caught up in the development of their product, and lose sight of the ultimate problem they’re solving.
4) Why now?
The “why now” slide is important, as timing is everything in business. Prospective investors and/or partners will want to see an explanation of why it has suddenly become important to have your team address this problem.
This could be as simple as highlighting that the target market that your startup is for has reached a critical mass (i.e. “for the first time, sales in this segment eclipsed $1 billion this year). You might want to highlight the number of related companies going through successful IPOs, or point to an outcrying of consumers about a problem that hasn’t been adequately addressed.
However you define the timeliness of your startup, make sure you do—92% of successful decks worldwide have a “why now?” section.
5) Market Size
Here’s where you begin to establish the numbers behind the startup. You would have already researched the TAM and SAM numbers to understand the opportunity for the business. If your business is going to be targeting a niche market, then you also need to be able to explain how you can get to win over the majority of the customers in it.
The ultimate success of the startup will depend on your ability to dominate the segment. In other words, you don’t necessarily need a big number here to impress investors. You do, however, need a lot of proof.
This slide is an important one, particularly in the pre-seed stage. Research shows that VCs will spend 55 seconds looking at this slide in the pre-seed stage, and only 34 seconds once the startup has moved on to the seed stage. This makes sense, since VCs are going to want to know what you’re up against, and see that you’ve thought about it too.
The best way to show this is to include the full SWOT analysis that you would have written up for each competitor. Represent this visually, making sure to highlight the competition’s strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, where your point of difference lies.
At the pre-seed stage, you don’t have a product to give the investor a hands-on experience with. What you can do, however, is have a designer mock-up a design flow that will highlight how the product will be revolutionary. The founders of Tinder didn’t need a working prototype to explain how the “swipe left/right” core of their app would work, for example.
8) Market Validation.
Again, this would seem like it would be a challenge for a company that doesn’t yet have a product that people have used, but there are ways of getting market validation into a pre-seed pitch deck. Getting some industry leaders on record for saying how a solution to the problem would be valued is one option. Having a first customer explain how they’re looking forward to the product is another. We explore tactical ways you can validate your business idea in this resource here.
9) Business Model.
The next slide should focus on two things: the revenue model that the company will follow, as well as the pricing. Specifically, it should discuss how you’ll be pricing the product and, if you’re taking an unusual or innovative approach to pricing, why this approach is superior for your business than a traditional model. For example, I have a friend who started a jobs board that allowed companies to list jobs for free, and would only charge if the job listing resulted in a hire. To ensure that successful hires were reported, the company would pay the new hire a “congratulations” reward.
All of this information needed to be included on the slide, because it highlights the advantage of the company (a lower cost risk for recruitment for employers) while also explaining how the startup’s unique business model was protecting itself.
10) Go-To-Market Strategy.
For a pre-seed startup, having a defined go-to-market strategy can, again, be difficult as there’s no product or service at this stage. However, what you want to do here is show the investor or partner that you’ve thought about two things: distribution and how you’ll go about getting your product in-front of your B2B or B2C customers, and what some of your first marketing activities will be.
For example, can you identify a list of influencers that you can get to be the first users of your product and talk about it on their platform?
The financial slide should include a realistic, educated estimate of what the business can achieve within its vision. You can arrive at this information by looking at the market size, the problem that you’re looking to solve, and the pricing that you’re looking at for the product.
It’s also important to show that you’ve thought about the roadmap—where the company will be in three, five years, when it will seek further funding, when the formal launch will be and when key marketing activities will kick in. Most importantly is that here you need to be realistic, and not promise a launched app within the span of weeks.
The team slide might come at the end, but you should also seriously consider moving it to the front. At this stage of the startup, the investors are looking for the right people: they want to see the next Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Mike Cannon-Brookes. They want to see vision and charisma. Make sure you present that through the team slide, and if you’ve got it, flaunt it!
Use this slide to convince the investors that it wouldn’t matter what your startup did. With you and your co-founder(s), you could make anything work.
These thirteen elements combined will comprise the bulk of most pre-seed pitch decks, but again, remember that you’ll want to vary the contents depending on where and who you’re pitching to. In Japan, for example, investors will want to see a more granular breakdown in the financials section, while American investors will be more focused if they hear a strong narrative emerge across the entire deck.
Some great pre-seed pitch decks to learn from
Castle was an American property management company that was ultimately unsuccessful but did raise $270,000 in pre-seed funding with this excellent pitch deck. It states the problem clearly upfront, segues elegantly into the solution that it will offer, backs it with numbers and a sense of the growth opportunity, and wraps things up with a clear roadmap for the future.
Sports podcast platform, Bluewire, has a pitch deck that was just nine slides long. It is enormously effective at explaining the opportunity for the product, however. The company explains how the audience for sports is shifting, and how it has the opportunity to position itself in the center of that shift.
Men’s essentials startup, Manpacks, has a particularly interesting pitch deck, because it breaks some rules along the way. The deck is just 12 slides long, but spends five of them telling a “flip book” like story that encompasses the problem, solution, and value proposition in a highly visual, almost wordless manner. The other key slide was highlighting the initial interest from the community in the product, as well as the media coverage that they had already gotten. It might seem light on details, but the storytelling journey that this pitch deck takes you through resulted in a $500,000 investment.
Once you’ve got your deck ready, start refining
The final thing to remember about the pitch deck is that you should approach it as a “living document.” As you make your pitches, actively seek out feedback and refine the pitch deck based on it. Look at what catches investor’s attention the most clearly, and build a number of different pitch decks for different scenarios and conditions.
In addition to having a “generic” pitch deck on the hard drive and ready to go, it also pays to do some research into who you’re pitching to, looking at the pitch decks for companies they had previously invested in, and tweaking your pitch deck in kind. Ultimately a pitch deck is there to represent your company and vision, so, rather than focus on following a set formula, make sure you’re conveying the right information in a way that will creatively represent that vision to the person you’re presenting to.
One final note on pre-seed pitch decks
One final thing to keep in mind as you write your pitch deck is that you’re going to be presenting this to human beings, not machines, and that you should keep their motivations in mind. Pre-seed investors are inspired by great teams of people, they’re not looking for quick returns but rather a long-term 5-7 year return on their investment, and they don’t want to miss out on a good opportunity.
The pitch deck is an opportunity to talk directly to these people and make your startup idea impossible to resist, so make sure that the pitch deck speaks to the human side of investors too.