“Visuals are Important Too!” — How Should a Pitch Deck Look?

Harald Wagner runs the Munich Business Plan Competition and Financing Coaching at BayStartUP. During our interview, he let us know what’s important when creating a pitch deck and what investors pay particular attention to.

Hi Harald! What does the perfect pitch deck look like in your mind?

There’s no such thing as a universally perfect pitch deck. We’re not that fond of articles along the lines of “This is the pitch deck that Airbnb used to win over its investors.” As a startup, I need to be able to tell my own story — and to keep it interesting. If my pitch deck is meant for investors, then I need to give them a certain amount of detail. A three minute pitch is probably ideal for a demo day where your aim is to tell a broad audience about your product.

For an investor pitch, however, all of the essential aspects of your business concept need to be touched upon: It needs to include the problem and its solution, the product, the business model, your marketing and sales concept, market and competitive analysis, the team, your implementation plan and road map and financial planning. Practicing to have it last eight to ten minutes with about twelve to fifteen slides, depending on the event, is a good ballpark figure. But it’s just that, a ballpark figure.

“Visuals are important too”

What should founders keep in mind while creating a pitch deck?

Visuals are important too! Of course, the slide design is only secondary if you have a genuine high-tech startup. On the other hand, a pitch deck makes the first impression, and it should be a professional one. The pitch deck should display a certain degree of maturity in terms of the startup’s corporate design, even though you should really be winning people over with the content.

Then — as trivial as it might sound — readability is also something that certainly needs to be mentioned, i.e. point size, colors and contrasts. The slides also shouldn’t be too busy. It makes sense to add key points as well as graphics that explain correlations and processes, but not to add any lengthy text. You should be able to quickly look at the slides while listening to the presenter talk and be able to find what they said. Sometimes you have to decide between reading what’s on the slides or listening to the presentation. That really needs to be avoided.

Another extreme is when what the presenter says doesn’t really coordinate with what’s on the slides. The spoken presentation should be understood as a detailed version of the slide content as opposed to being a journey into the thoughts and mind of the person giving the pitch. In this case, you really need to have a good instinctive feel for how to distribute content on the slides to make sure they don’t get too complex but to also avoid any hectic “zapping” back and forth.

Of particular importance: the team!

What do investors pay special attention to during a founder’s pitch?

Certainly the very first thing is to see if a real problem is definitely being solved. If the solution is convincing, meaning the product, then investors will be ready to listen to a lot more detail. How does the marketing concept work? Are there some initial empirical values and key figures? Do they really have an understanding of their marketing concept? Can it be implemented in a long-term and profitable manner?

Especially information about sales cycles, customer acquisition costs and lifetime values should be included, as should key indicators that are relevant to the industry or business model, such as conversion rates or click-through rates. The pitch also needs to address where the financial journey “might” be headed. It needs to be substantiated in a credible way, without anyone really believing in the forecasted euros in sales, with a sound market entry strategy and also a plausible approach for how you can scale towards a phase of growth.

And of course the team shouldn’t be forgotten. And by that, I don’t really mean the “slick” resumes on the team slide (though also interesting), but more as to whether the team works well together. Do they communicate on the same level? Do they let each other finish speaking? Does every member of the team know which member should say something about a specific subject area based on their professional expertise and when? Do you think the founding team is capable of being successful in sales? Are the founders themselves ready to “get their hands dirty”?

Thematic organization: yes! — Memorization: no!

What mistakes do founders often make during a pitch?

A fundamental mistake is not one that is made during an actual pitch, but that some people think you can just send a pitch deck to investors. Most investors these days probably do prefer a succinct document to a 30-page business plan.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to differentiate between a) a pitch deck that only makes sense when delivered along with verbal information from the presenter, and b) a written set of slides, let’s call it a “reading” or “investment deck,” that is detailed enough to explain all of the essential information on its own. In short, a set of slides that compiles all of the important information provided during a live presentation in explanatory text. Additional slides should be added to specific topics to provide more detail, and perhaps one or two of the back-up slides can be added to the main presentation.

The boss has to pitch!

The pitch itself should not sound memorized. Saying what you’re thinking is authentic. I would rather have a few extra “umms” in my presentation than lose my audience by reciting a memorized text. Of course, you should practice to have it organized thematically and to make sure you don’t go over the allotted time, but please don’t use any memorized phrases.

The pitch should also suit the audience and the event. A sales pitch is not an investor pitch, and even if it’s a B2C product, you shouldn’t serve up investors flowery phrases as if you’re trying to win them over as a new customer. And another thing: The boss has to pitch! In other words, it needs to be someone from the founding team — and it’s best for it to be the extroverted “sales pro” — and not necessarily the visionary person who first came up with the idea because no one wants to hurt their feelings.

Beware of too much storytelling!

What are absolute no-gos?

There are a lot. Just reading the slides exactly as they are, for example, or even worse, standing on the stage with index cards like it’s a school presentation. Comparisons like “We’re the Uber of the XY-industry” usually don’t work well either. And even if some people won’t want to hear it, too much storytelling is also bad. It’s certainly nice to work in a story while presenting the problem and introducing its solution. But too much storytelling often means you’re just scratching the surface (which might be perfect for the next demo day), and you also usually waste valuable time that could have been used to present more in-depth information. I would also not include my idea of a possible valuation in the pitch and would also do without any shady return-on-investment calculations. That most often just leads to pointless discussions.

How can founders stand out from the crowd with their pitch, for example, in a competition?

Be different: Start in a way that no one else does. Preparing well with a stopwatch can make you feel more confident. Be well prepared for the Q&A by having back-up slides. And the best thing is to just be as natural and genuine as possible. Being honest and friendly is usually received a lot better than being overconfident.

Thanks so much for the interview!

Harald Wagner BayStartUP
Harald Wagner

Harald Wagner – MBA, graduate in Business Studies

Harald Wagner runs the Munich Business Plan Competition and Financing Coaching at BayStartUP. BayStartUP offers founders and startups support for optimizing their strategies, developing their companies and finding seed and growth capital. Through the BayStartUP investor network, founders have the opportunity to contact more than 300 listed business angels and more than 100 institutional investors.

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