16 startup pitching tips every entrepreneur needs to hear
Startup pitching is an art form, and if you want to succeed, you must master it. Here, our expert coaches share their top tips for nailing your startup pitch.
So you’ve decided to pour your heart and soul into launching a startup? Wunderbar. This will probably be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. But, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. It also involves coping with the ever-looming pressure to raise capital.
To successfully drum up funding, you need to win over investors in short and increasingly virtual pitches, which, let’s face it, isn’t the most thrilling way to meet someone.
But the good news is: with the right approach it’s perfectly possible to nail your startup pitch and secure that much-coveted second meeting.
I asked Sting’s pitch coaches and the winners of our recent demo day pitch event for their most important pieces of advice when pitching to investors. Here’s what they said.
- Treat your first pitch like a teaser
Sting pitch coach Jenny Lindblad has 15 years’ experience as a pitch coach and startup mentor. She’s also a TEDx Moderator and has delivered over 5,000 presentations to top execs and investors in over 130 countries.
“The initial pitch should provide a teaser for every aspect of your business, not just the problem and your solution. It should touch on your vision, what drives you, your business model, what you’ve achieved so far, what’s next, and answer questions like ‘why now?’ and ‘why you?’. No one is going to invest after a first pitch – the whole purpose is to secure a second meeting,” explains Jenny.
If there are too many outstanding questions, investors are much less likely to book that second meeting – so make sure you touch on each of these areas.
2. Keep your vision tangible and simple
Jenny can’t stress enough how important it is to create a simple, tangible vision. Here’s an example: our vision is to help one billion people stop using plastic bags to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10%. It’s easy to understand and includes a tangible outcome.
“Your vision should stay the same regardless of the audience, and people must be able to grasp it quickly,” says Jenny.
If you’re struggling to define your company vision, start by thinking about what drives you. What makes you jump out of bed every morning?
3. Never assume anything
The biggest mistake young startups make when pitching is making assumptions about what the audience knows (and doesn’t know). Never assume that the people you’re pitching to know what you’re talking about or understand the specifics of your industry, the problem you’re solving or your product.
4. Accept that your product won’t sell itself
Time for some tough love: your product will not sell itself. Unfortunately, a lot of first-time entrepreneurs think it will and under prepare for pitches. It’s good to be confident, but dangerous to be overconfident. If people don’t understand what you do, they won’t invest in your startup, regardless of how amazing it is. But, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably not going to make that mistake.
5. Work out how to touch your audience – and do it fast
Sting pitch coach Anette Andersson has worked with us since 2003. She’s helped hundreds of startups develop and sharpen their messaging to strengthen their pitch and successfully secure funding.
“If you travel on the subway you’ll only remember the people who touched you in some way. They could have physically touched you, said something unusual, or looked like an ex-boyfriend. Whatever it is, they’ve made a memorable impression, and that’s exactly what you need to do when pitching your startup,” says Anette.
“Investors pass on 94-98% of companies that pitch to them, so you have to find out how to touch your audience and do it quickly,” she explains. If you don’t, they’ll mentally check out. Think about who you’re meeting every time you pitch, what they know, what they want, and how you – or your business – relates to that.
If you have a startup in the mental health space, for example, this is relatively easy, as we all know someone who’s been affected by mental health issues. But no matter what industry you’re in, think about what you have that’s special and how you can touch your audience with it.
6. Sell your story, not your business
Over 90% of pitch coaching at Sting focuses on content and storytelling. There are specific things you need to cover in your pitch deck (the problem, your solution, market size, competition, business model, go-to-market strategy, the team and financials), but the trick is to develop a story arc and use human narratives to keep your audience engaged and establish a connection. Investors are more interested in value and scaling possibilities than the exact technologies.
How does the problem affect people day to day? If a person uses your product, what does it mean for them? How will it make their life better, or even the world?
Johann Gross, Co-Founder of online referencing tool Citationsy (and Sting Demo Day pitch winner) and his team used storytelling during their pitch to secure meetings with investors.
“Our product is a digital tool for academic referencing, so it’s not the sexiest of products. But during our last pitch, we talked less about the product itself, and more about the problem it solves for people, the benefits that it offers and explained how it worked in a very simple way. Then we focused on what we’ve already achieved and where we’re heading next – which built a success story and positioned our startup as a non-losing bet,” says Johann.
Watch Citationsy’s Sting Demo Day pitch (24:05)
7. Think like a journalist
Like any good piece of journalism, your startup pitch should follow a logical order and keep people interested to the end.
“Just like a written article, you need a headline that grabs attention, then something that intrigues your audience further before you dive into the details,” says Anette.
Try to structure your messaging in a logical way, with the most catchy information at the beginning. Essential information like who, what, where, why, when and how are core building blocks of any story. Make sure that you answer these questions in an order that makes sense for your audience.
It’s also important to make it clear what part of the story you’re telling now, so use visual queues like subheadings to signpost where you are. Just like an article, end with a strong conclusion and a clear call to action (more on that later).
8. Challenge any preconceptions
What does the audience know, and what do they think they know that might be wrong? A good example is cryptocurrency. Initially, they were perceived as risky and highly volatile, and investors stayed well clear of them. But today that perception has shifted. If it’s common for people to have incorrect preconceptions of your industry or the work you do, you need to clear them up by sharing knowledge and facts.
9. Save way more time for discussion
In the past, it was common practice to leave ten minutes at the end of a meeting for questions, but Jenny has flipped this entirely.
Now, she urges startups to dedicate five minutes to hellos, seven to 10 minutes for the pitch and a whopping 45-minutes for questions (this depends on the length of the meeting, but roughly 75% of it should be set aside for discussion). And this approach doesn’t just work for young companies.
“I recently tried this format with a VC company that’s raising a huge fund. They used to present to potential investors for 45 minutes, but since cutting this down to 10 they’ve been having some fantastic discussions and seeing a much more positive response,” says Jenny.
10. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes
Know your audience. Who are they? What do they want? What other companies has your audience invested in? What potential questions would they have for you? Some tough ones include:
- “If this is such a big problem, why has no one solved it yet?”
- “What makes you uniquely positioned to solve this problem?”
- “Why did you decide to X….”
- “Could you grow faster with more money?”
Listen back to your presentation and put yourself in their shoes.
11. Don’t memorize your pitch word-for-word
“You should know your pitch inside out, but not word-for-word. If you do, forgetting one word completely throws you off”, says Johann. When prepping for pitches, Johann walks around in his apartment in circles presenting the pitch out loud but without memorizing the words. This also helps him…
12. Practice body language and non-verbal communication
According to many experts, only 7% of meaning is communicated verbally, with 38% coming through tone of voice and 55% through body language.
“When we watched our pitch back, one of the things we realised was how stiff we were. It’s just as important to practice physical movement as what you’re going to say. You can really feel the energy and passion when someone makes the right moves too,” says Johann.
Like any good public speaker, you should use physical movement to emphasize key messages and elicit emotion from the audience.
13. Put stage directions in your cue cards
Another of Johann’s key tips is to use stage directions: “Writing reminders to pause and take a breath in our cue cards really helped us set a good pace and establish a rhythm”.
This is particularly helpful if multiple people from your team are pitching, as you can assign names to different sections and include reminders to look at each other when appropriate.
14. Walk the stage
If you’re pitching in person, it’s really important to practice walking on and off the stage beforehand.
“When people haven’t practised walking upstairs onto a stage it usually throws them off. They either stop or end up looking like they’re walking in slow motion,” says Jenny.
Walking the stage and being comfortable with the set-up beforehand also makes any last-minute changes easier to navigate.
“I did a speech in Stockholm City Hall in front of 1,400 people on a round stage that was really shaky. I wore really high heels, but I practised the stairs over and over again to make sure I felt comfortable. At the last second, someone also pinched my props, but if you’re comfortable with your surroundings it’s easier to adapt to things like that,” shares Jenny.
15. Remember to smile
When you smile, your body releases endorphins, which makes you feel happier and more relaxed. Research also suggests that people who smile appear more confident, and even more successful.
“It’s amazing how many people forget to do this in the heat of the moment. My smile is always my secret weapon,” says Jenny.
If you do stumble during your startup pitch, smiling is a great way to deflect it. No one will judge you too harshly if you stay cheerful and approachable.
16. End with a call to action
What do you want to get out of your pitch? If an investor is interested, what’s the next step? Make it clear.
The secret to nailing your pitch presentation
Don’t forget that the most powerful tool when it comes to pitching isn’t your presentation, it’s you. Investors need to understand your vision, but you must let your passion and your people shine through.
Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren, CEO & Co-founder, Karma, says: “Make sure that you have a good convincing case that you believe in. Don’t forget that you’re supposed to believe in the business when no one else does. Be enthusiastic but not ignorant, every model has its pros and cons and knowing your weaknesses and being able to convince others on how to solve them is sometimes just as impressive as good historical growth.”