I’ve seen several dozen business pitches in the last few weeks. That includes pitches for the angel investment group I’m in, plus pitches for two international business plan competitions. I’ve been doing this since the 1990s. Styles have changed, expectations have changed, but the fundamentals haven’t.
Here’s a worst-ever moment: The person pitching is pulling in for a close, a financial summary slide goes up, and the investors have issues. The sales forecast appears to rise like a hockey stick, but expenses do not. The profits are projected to be as much as 60 percent of all sales. And that’s in a hardware business, computer peripherals, in which profitability in the real world is less than10 percent.
As investors poke at that, highlighting the problem, the entrepreneur frowns, almost as if to acknowledge the concern. “Yeah, sorry about that,” he says.“We had a finance major do the projections and he didn’t get it. We’ve been pushing for a complete redo, but he’s been failing to deliver. We’re going to have to change people on that.”
Needless to say, that pitch failed.
In, contrast, here's another one: As the pitch draws to a close and the financial summary slide goes up, the investors have issues. One of them shoots the entrepreneur a challenge: “Those numbers are different from the ones in your business plan.”
“Of course not,” she answers, without the slightest pause, as if she expected the question. “That business plan is three weeks old now," she says. "We’re always revising it.”
Both of these stories are true. The worst-ever scenario happened 10 years ago. The best-ever case occurred two years ago. Indeed, pitches, like everything else, are changing to reflect technology and other trends.
Here are five trends in business pitches that I’m seeing:
1. Pitches are becoming more visual and less wordy. It’s been 10 or so years since authors including Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds, in books, blog posts and speeches, veered away from using boring bullet points toward offering more interesting visual and dramatic slide presentations. It took a long time for that trend to reach high-level business pitches for investors. But it's there now. I'm seing a lot fewer boring bullet-point presentations.
2. Nowadays the live pitch has to be something radically different from just the slide show that's delivered as a standalone. It's a matter of form following function. Slide decks are often left behind after a live presentation or sent by themselves to be viewed. Yet when the entrepreneur is speaking, pictures are helpful.
So the person giving a presentation should create two slide decks: One, mostly of pictures, can be used for live pitches; and the other, with pictures and words, can be used as a leave-behind document or a standalone presentation sent to people who will watch it on their own. The distinction is about the bullet points: The target audience ideally should not read the bullet points during a live presentation. But such text can explain the pictures for those not hearing a live presentation. The two slide decks should match in their general flow and content, but each is optimized for their actual use.
3. Pitches are getting better in their presentation of the stories that drive the numbers. Numbers still help but investors want to understand the exact problem a proposed business will solve so that they can judge for themselves how big the market is. So, for example, most of the dozen or so pitches I’ve seen related to medical technology started with the story of a problem faced by a single person with a name, and went on from that to the numbers about the larger market. It’s not that the numbers don’t matter, but they don’t stand alone very well.
4. Sales projections based on a small percent of a large market are more suspect than ever. The tired idea of aiming for just a small percentage of a multibillion-dollar market just doesn’t fly anymore. The best pitches include bottoms-up projections that add up details like sales through channels, by market segments or by product configurations. Also successful are pitches that include projected downloads, web traffic and conversions of prospects into sales.
5. Early validation is more important than ever. The best validation is found in early sales, showing that people are already spending money, which happens a lot these days. Kickstarter efforts show up frequently as evidence in pitches. And investors like pitches backed by real dollar figures gleaned from Kickstarter marketing (essentially promises to buy before the sales have begun). Purchase orders are convincing.
In absence of anything else, signed letters from future customers or from sales channels (distributors or retail chains are very helpful. And when possible, don’t just talk about documents. Take a picture and post it on a slide in the deck.