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How to Pitch Your Startup on Stage

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At technology conferences over the past couple months I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing startups by talented people from around the world. Unfortunately, I’ve often had to determine that their startups were interesting by deciphering a very confusing pitch.

One of the big things we do with startups during the Y Combinator batch is help them refine their demo day pitch. How you pitch is important, because investors (and other people you will be pitching, like press, potential employees and customers) don’t have an obligation to expend the mental energy to figure out what you are talking about. More likely, if you approach someone with a pitch that takes work to understand, they will just turn their brain off and go back to checking their phone (if they are in an audience) or nodding and planning an escape (if it’s just you and them). When an investor checks their phone during your pitch, you have already lost.

In three minutes you will be able to communicate between 1 and 3 things that the audience remembers afterwards. Your whole goal should be to make those few points as compelling as possible, so that they want to follow up with you afterwards. Your goal is not to convince them to invest right there on the spot by providing them with dozens of slides of diligence information.

Here are some presentation basics for startup pitches:

  • Speak slowly. This is the most important thing you can do: the instant you stop being understandable is the instant I start looking at my phone. I am not going to work to understand you. If you are presenting in your second language, or your audience is listening in their second language, you should go extra slowly.
  • Your pitch should follow this basic flow: market and problem, your solution, evidence that your solution works or will work (traction, sales, your team’s expertise, etc). I’ve seen pitches that just talk about the market but don’t actually explain what the startup does! Don’t do that.
  • Explain everything simply in plain language. Your audience is not full of domain experts. Use simple concepts and analogies to explain what your product does, otherwise you risk people checking out and going back to their phones.
  • Don’t do a demo. Demos break. If your product is truly that amazing (like a self driving car), show a video, and interested audience members will clamor for a demo afterwards.
  • Don’t show full screenshots. It is almost impossible to understand a full UI at a glance. If you want to highlight something, blow it up huge and only show a selected part of your UI.
  • Make sure everything on the screen is legible. Don’t put up a full Excel screenshot of your P&L or your Wikipedia page. No one is going to read that. Yes, this means that you are limited to only a small amount of written text on your slides, and that is a good thing. Your slides should emphasize the points you are making verbally.
  • More on legibility: make sure you have high contrast between your slide backgrounds and your text. Remove random flashy graphics and animations (they just distract the audience from your message).

There are many more advanced presentation tips and techniques, but from what I’ve seen most startups out there would do well to just master the basics. Regardless of how good your idea is or how far along you are, if you can’t communicate to your audience, your pitch will not be successful.


For more tips on pitch and presentation style, check out What I Wish I Had Known at Demo Day: Tips From Past YC Founders.

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Justin Kan is a renowned figure in Silicon Valley most known for co-founding Twitch, formerly justin.tv, which sold to Amazon for $1 billion. Since he started his entrepreneurial journey in the Valley 15 years ago, Justin has founded 5 startups and invested in over 120 companies. Today, he’s the CEO and Co-founder of Atrium, a company that’s reimagining the delivery and consumption of professional services to allow founders to re-focus on their superpower. Previous to Atrium, Justin was a Partner at the preeminent startup accelerator Y Combinator. There, he mentored many founders and learned the value of having a startup community to exchange information and knowledge. During this time, Justin also realized that no founder succeeds alone - and that all first-time founders or serial entrepreneurs - need guidance and resources to compete in today’s increasingly saturated startup market. This realization helped inspire the inception of Atrium. Other companies Justin founded include Exec, an on-demand errand service (acquired by Handybook in 2014); Socialcam, a mobile app for sharing video (acquired by Autodesk in 2012); and Kiko, the first Ajax web calendar. Outside of his professional accomplishments and activities, Justin is an advocate for living consciously and being holistically healthy, especially emotionally. He often leads discussions about what it means to be a conscious individual and bring your whole self to any situation in or out of work. Justin graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor’s in Physics and Philosophy.

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