How to pitch your startup in 3 minutes

I attended Startup Riot (#occupystartups) yesterday, where 30 mostly seed stage startups pitched for 3 minutes each and then took 3 minutes of feedback and questions from two judges.  And thanks in large part to the feedback and questions asked by T. A. McCann and the other judges, it became a lesson in how to pitch your startup in 3 minutes. Below I have distilled some of the key lessons…with a few of my own thrown in.

1Clearly describe the problem you are solving. Whether your pitch is 3 minutes or 30 minutes your pitch has to paint the picture of pain that your product or service is trying to solve.  It is all the more compelling if you have felt this problem first hand or have specific customer examples. Explain what the problem is and convince your audience that you are passionate about solving this problem.  The audience is either going to personally identify with this pain or not.  If they don’t, you have to do more work to convince them that there are a lot of people that do have this pain. A note of caution:  I have seen presenters start the pitch with a detailed story, sometimes a real tear jerker of personal pain about a sick relative or something.  Often this story takes too much of the 3 or 5 minutes you have to make your pitch, it can make the audience uncomfortable, and they don’t know where you are going with this very personal story because you haven’t told them what the product is yet.

2. Make a clear benefit case with a before and after comparison.  Detail how your future customers solve this problem today and how much simpler/cheaper/faster the solution is once they use your product.  For example: Before I invented email, people had to write letters, print them, put them in envelopes which had to be addressed, and invest in stamps, then take those letters to a post box and hope that they arrived up to a week later.   With my new product called “email,” customers just type a note and hit “send.”  This type of comparison is helpful especially if your product is not something that everyone deals with every day, or if you can’t give a demo of the process.

3. Describe the relevant experience you and your team have.  Make sure you make the connection for the audience as to why your work experience is relevant to your startup. As CEO, you should know your domain.  If your product delivers high scale transaction infrastructure for purchases in games, you should know the game space and ideally the payment space too.   If members of your team have solved big meaty problems or built a big system at another company that is relevant to your product, make sure you say so. Your developer doesn’t have to know the specific industries, but it would be awesome if he built PayPal’s transaction processing engine, or any high scale, high reliability, highly secure system.

4If the team is compelling, share that information.  In any 10 minute pitch deck, you would have a dedicated team slide, but in some of the new demo day formats or the Startup Riot 3 minute format, you don’t have that luxury.  If your team is compelling, make sure you find a way to fit that in even if you just talk to it.

5. Show the product.  About a third of the companies didn’t even show a screen shot of their product.  I was amazed to see one company show random pictures of cats (no shit) instead of the UI of their product.  These companies were only allowed 3 or 4 slides and one company used two of those precious slides to show a picture of a happy cat and one of a sad cat.  We never saw their product. Another company had invented a hybrid between a poll and a discussion thread, but we never saw an example, so it was hard to grasp the concept.  Instead we saw simplistic diagrams showing a dollar sign going into a box or some such thing. Executing your concept well is critical to success, and you should want to show your audience how well you can deliver user experience.  You know how your product looks and works; your audience does not.  Show the product.  One note: Even if your product is a robust analytics dashboard, resist the urge to show screens full of charts or text that are too small for the audience to read on a slide.  Find a way to zoom in on key features or data.

6. Describe the best use case for the product.  If your product hasn’t launched, be clear about what the best use cases are. Which customer segment is going to be most successful with your product.  You have spent time putting your product in front of a range of customers; prove that you understand their needs well enough to know who will be the early adopters and passionate advocates.

7. Share the best examples of success with your product.  Big companies would call these customer testimonials.  “Customer X has achieved Y result with the product.”  If your product is live, provide concrete examples of how you provide value to your customers.

8. Share the exciting metrics.  If paying customers are doubling every sixty days, or the average customer generates $10/month, or 10,000 people are signing up a day, share those metrics!  In several cases, the presenters threw out these numbers as an after thought, or the judges had to pull them out with questions like, “Is your product live?  Do you have paying customers?”

9. Don’t try to be dramatic. You don’t have much time to tell your story and address all the points above, so don’t burn time being weird. One CEO started his pitch by saying very slowly and seriously “Everyone who doesn’t respect time loses something.” Pregnant pause. Then he says it again very slowly, while the audience is staring at a picture of a rusty watch.  Then “time is the only thing we can’t buy more of.”  I’m thinking, is the concept of time somehow unique to this guy’s product?  Has this guy invented fucking time travel?! As it turns out, the product had something to do with automating invoicing and payments for small businesses, but he didn’t have enough time to really explain it, and we never saw the product.  A few weeks ago, I saw a pitch in a large auditorium, and the speaker starts walking into the audience during his talk.  It was completely unnecessary; he just decided he wanted to be Phil Donahue or something and engage up close with people.  The audience was just bewildered and wasn’t even listening to what he was saying anymore, it was just such an odd thing to do.  Don’t try to be dramatic or use stunts. The audience is already listening.

10. Let your passion show.  This should be easy—your adrenalin is already pumping because you’re up on stage in the literal spotlight in front of 300 people you don’t know, but who could determine your success.  Don’t read notes verbatim.  If you can’t talk passionately about your startup for three minutes then how will you win over potential hires, investors, or customers?

Apologies to any companies singled out as examples…I hope this helps….

-Pete