Be a deckless wonder

In 2013, my life devolved; seriously devolved.  Too often, I sat in listless, darkened rooms, pitchwatching slides go by,  slides explaining why I should part with money and why that money should find a way into some startup’s coffers.  At times, I fought off sleep with afternoon coffee.  At times, I checked my Clash of Clans village on the iPad rather than pretending to listen. But, no slide presentation I’ve ever seen inspired or impressed.  I am not talking Jobs’ style “slide shows:” images as background and words as inspiration, very few can pull that off.  I mean the usual 60 minute PowerPoint drudgery that sets the tone for most company meetings. That was, and still is, my job.  But slideshows were then, and this is now.

2014 — new year, new rule  — NO DECKS.  This year, I will not let companies show their coveted pitch deck at our first meeting.  We will talk, like humans, and they will explain why they are addressing a big, hungry market yearning for their product, how it works, why it is something new, and why the team that built it should make me want to spend all my waking hours at their office.  They will explain where they are, how they came there  and where they hope to go relying solely on rudimentary communication techniques:  WORDS, DRAWINGS, and CHARTS.

Now, there is nothing wrong with going through the motions and putting together a set of slides, today’s panacea for business persuasion.  There are books on the subject, there are blog pollockposts explaining how it’s done, and suggesting ways to craft that sequence of snippets (promptly discarded once a company is either funded or rejected).  I talk about it here, for example.  Braking your racing thoughts, and organizing them into a coherent, logical argument investors understand is useful you and your company.  And as everything hard, it’s worth doing once.

VCs tend to approach company evaluation and valuation methodically (too methodically, in some cases): understand the market you are chasing, the product you are building, and the team building it.  This background information is important, and a presentation designed as a series of logical points represented by rectangular slides goes a long way toward organizing your thinking and letting us check off our boxes.  But, remember — these things should be shared with investors before the meeting, and it is our responsibility to go through these materials and meet you prepared.  And your responsibility is to make your pitch deck feel like a Pythagorean proof with a premise, argument, and conclusion — not a jumbled stream of consciousness with a Jackson Pollock background.  So, by all means, create a deck that is short enough to be interesting and summarize your company’s raison d’être in a paragraph attached to an email.  But when we meet, be ready to talk, not present.

If I advise to go through the deck building exercise, why do I hate pitch decks so much?

1. Decks are a cop out.  For us the viewers, watching slide presentations and clicking away at laptops (I also banned those from meetings) is neither listening nor thinking.  When “pitched at”, I become the audience, passively watching instead of hearing, understanding, and actively engaging.  Decks are not about conversations, they are about lectures.  I want us to talk and I don’t want to sit back and just listen. But for VCs and VC types who have nothing relevant to say, decks make pretending to hear, passing time and “passing” on companies way too easy.  It frees us from having to follow arguments and analyzing the founder’s logic.  Cop out: kick back, say “thank you, I will talk to my partners about this,” check off another complete meeting in the CRM of choice and complain about being “crazy busy” (another blog post coming about this phrase).  But it’s a lie.

2. Decks are boring.  When you sit through 8-12 “pitches” a week, every week, month after month — the world becomes a monotonous repeating sequence of points made over and over, all saying the same thing, pulling you to seemingly same conclusions via the same iffy logic.  And because advice about decks dots the blogosphere, all decks seem similar, boring and presenters sound like automatons delivering the same message because…

3. Decks are dehumanizing.  Hey, there are actual homo sapiens (which means “wise man”) on both sides of the table.  Let VCs try to be wise while you try to be human.  People who think, people who are passionate about what they do, and people who want to learn is what makes things interesting.  Decks wash away the humanity, negate the dialectics so essential to grasping ideas, and leave a trail of factoids littering someone’s notebook or, even worse, Word document.  Factoids that resurface once, if ever.  Because no one studies meeting notes after the meeting. And a VC’s meeting notes usually serve to jog his memory when bragging or complaining to partners about a company that drifted through the transom.  If a VC needs notes to remember you, well, you’re off to a bad start because he doesn’t remember who you are and what you’re about without scribbles made in a dark room a week ago.

4. Decks don’t foster understanding.  Yes, they present a summary of everything your company did, hopes to do, and how it hopes to do it (if not, it’s a real waste of time).  But, remember, investors should have seen the bulleted, decked version before the meeting.  VC meetings are about talking, not presenting, about learning, not teaching.  Facts are not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.  We should have seen the facts and now you need to provide information which will turn into our knowing who you are and what you do.  This is what will let us make a wise decision, hopefully, in your favor.

So, entrepreneurs, save your “deck” for the partner meeting (assuming you get there).  I don’t want to see decks unless they are attached to an email (or, even better, a shared link).  I want our first meeting to be different.

  1. You have to be able to explain, in English or Russian, why we are meeting and why this is an opportunity I shouldn’t miss.  Explain what you are doing, and who, other than you and your co-founder, cares about your plans.  I need to feel you are the right team to make the picture you paint come to life, so make me feel it.  Tell me about how you got the idea, how you felt the market yearn for your product.  (Use WORDS).  If founders can’t explain why they’re in business and be eloquent and persuasive, this deal is not for me. Chances are, we won’t get get along.

  2. Draw a diagram on my whiteboard explaining how things work.  Whiteboard — one of the most useful tools in most (though surprisingly not all) VC offices.  Draw the architecture, draw the business model.  Draw and talk, and let me draw my own arrows.  (Use DRAWINGS)  Present a visual premise leading to a financial conclusion.  If you’re not technical enough to draw your product architecture AND visually explain your business model, I don’t want to invest in you.  I am a tech investor, and we like blank slates, whiteboard and otherwisetufte

  3. Chart to help me see.  Not everyone needs to be Edward Tufte or create oversized, increasingly pointless, infographics.  But, a picture is worth a thousand words (and  two thousand slides).  Have visuals that show how the product works, how revenues are growing and where they are bound to go (up and to the right, but make it a curve), and even how your competition stacks up.  (Use CHARTS) If you can’t take the minutia crowding Excel spreadsheets and boil it down to a few compelling pictures, I don’t want to be in your board meetings.  I’d rather nap at home.

  4. Do a demo.  I love seeing the product, not just watching you talk about it.  Save a large portion of our first meeting to show me how it actually works.  I can even check out the code and we can talk about the components and libraries you used, what challenges you faced building your software.  I’m a techie.  And tech VCs should all be techies.

  5. Be human.  I want us to be talk like normal people.  In all my meetings I try hard to lighten the atmosphere, joke, smile, and speak to founders in a language they understand.  You should be yourself.  I won’t work with boring businessmen or nervous nerds.  I know this is a tall order, but your first meeting with a VC should be fun and entertaining, despite the hard questions you have to answer.  Too often, VCs don’t feel human — sitting like gargoyles on a parapet, Gothic finial up our ass, seemingly above a pedestrian world.  That’s bullshit, I won’t do it, and, when I was an entrepreneur I steered clear of investors who sat and shat from their high perches.

And that’s it.  Send me your slide, spreadsheets, competitive analysis as supporting materials.  Put them in an online folder or send me a link.  But, if I don’t like the discussion at our first meeting, save disk space.  There won’t be a need to see them.  If the first meeting doesn’t fill me with wonder — wonder about you and the world your company will amaze, there won’t be a next one.  Make me feel that the business you are building is a wonder of the world, a deckless wonder.