How to write a good pitch deck for early-stage startups
The team at STARTPLATZ created a template for a pitch deck that includes many of the tips that are written in the following guide. Feel free to use it as an inspiration. You can find it here: Link to pitch deck template
If you are a founder who recently started their first startup, then the topic of writing a pitch deck has most likely already become relevant for you (or will very soon). Writing a good pitch deck takes time but it will help you in many ways, both internally and externally. Internally because it will help to challenge your main assumptions on why you are building this specific startup and externally because a pitch deck is a great tool to present/pitch your startup to early outside stakeholders. These can include potential co-founders, investors, pilot customers or accelerator programs. Pitching your startup and idea to others in the early stages can be very difficult and thus a good pitch deck can support you in convincing others to follow you on your journey.
Many founders do not fully utilize this opportunity because they do not have a good pitch deck, be it unstructured, complicated or missing information. If externals are not able to understand or follow your pitch deck, it conveys a negative signal and therefore hinders the success chances of your startup. This pitch deck guide gives you the fundamentals that will help you create a great pitch deck independent of the specific content.
Note on differences between pitch decks you present in person and those you sent out via email. This pitch deck guide is focusing on the content and the design of the slide, not the presentation style in front of an audience. The presentation style is also important but another topic that needs to be addressed separately. Generally speaking, a pitch deck can have different purposes (winning a customer or raising money from investors) and you should always be clear with respect to what your target is.
📖 Telling an interesting story throughout your pitch deck
Whether you send your pitch deck via email (typically, investors spend 2–3 minutes on a pitch deck) or present it in front of an audience (the attention span is now down to 8 seconds, link), people have a very short attention span these days and get distracted if your pitch deck does not catch their attention. Therefore it is helpful to build your pitch deck around a specific storyline that supports your argument on why you started this company and why you want to solve this specific problem. In a good story a person or company faces the specific problem you are solving, therefore your startup improves their lives by solving this problem. Humans are triggered by stories because stories have always been the main format that uses emotions. The story you are telling should therefore trigger the reader’s emotions, as this can enhance their reading experience. It is crucial to include various elements of emotion in your written pitch deck that you send out via email, even if the story is harder to portray than if you were pitching it live on stage.
✅ Use a logical pitch deck structure that follows a thread
A good pitch deck should make logical sense when you read it from the beginning to the end. That means each slide builds upon the information of the previous slides and strengthens the argument on why your startup has a high potential. Remember, this should still feel like a story and not like a list of boring slides. Boring slides mean a lot of text and too much information.
A logical structure may look like the following example:
- COVER — Use a strong picture and a very short sentence to give the reader an initial idea about what you are doing. What is the essence of your startup?
- PROBLEM — Explain and if necessary quantify the problem you are solving. Who is facing the problem? Why is it relevant? How is this problem being solved today?
- SOLUTION — Now that the problem is understood, is there a solution that can fix or mitigate it? What exactly does your solution do? Why is it a good solution? Why now?
- MARKET — OK, there is a relevant problem and you have a good solution for it. But is there a big enough market for it? Is the market growing? Specify TAM, SAM and SOM.
- BUSINESS MODEL — Now the reader knows that there is a big enough market to justify going after it (or it is growing so fast, that it is attractive enough). Is it possible to monetise this? How do you plan to make money?
- COMPETITION — Alright. There is a market and you can make money. How about the competition? What sets you apart from other companies in this space and/or from substitutive solutions? There is almost always competition, even if it is just a small startup on the other side of the world.
- GO TO MARKET — Cool, you seem to have an interesting opportunity here. How are you planning to acquire customers and get market adoption? Depending on whether you are B2B or B2C focused, it is important to show the relevant channels and strategies here.
- STATUS QUO/TRACTION — Now that you have covered many important parts: What is your status quo? How many users do you have? Are you already making money? If you are a B2C company, make sure to show your CAC and CLTV.
- ROAD MAP — What is the roadmap ahead? How do you want to scale?
- TEAM — The most important part of any early-stage startup. Who is the team behind this idea? And what makes them uniquely skilled to execute on this problem? Do they have the key positions covered? (Some pitch deck guides will place the team slide in the beginning of the pitch deck but in my opinion, it is helpful to elaborate on all aspects of the startup first, before introducing the team. This allows the reader to identify whether the team’s professional expertise is suitable for the execution of this problem.)
- The ASK — What do you want from the reader? An investment? Customers? Have one slide at the end with a call to action.
- SUMMARY — You can wrap up the pitch deck with a summary and — very important — your contact data including your email and website.
Using this kind of logical structure immensely helps the reader to follow your story and argumentation.
👀 Thinking about the reader’s perspective
Who is the audience and how much do they already know about your business, market or customers? How much do they need to know? Throughout your whole presentation it is crucial that you always put yourself in the perspective of the reader or listener. In general, the reader will know much less about the problem you are solving than you. That means, it is always useful to keep your pitch deck simple to understand and also not filled with too much information. Most of that is probably not super relevant to the reader in the beginning. Remember that a good pitch deck is often just the key to getting a second meeting or call in which you can go into more detail.
Depending on your audience, you can use different versions of the pitch so that it is tailored more specifically: If you’re pitching to investors, your main goal should be to show that your startup has the potential to scale rapidly and for a billion-dollar exit. You need to include information such as competition in this scenario. Also, investors often know many industries and you don’t need several slides explaining the problem you are solving. They get it. When pitching to potential customers, however, it’s much more important to go more in depth on your product offering. In this version, you probably do not want to show them all potential competitors.
🎨 Design versus content in pitch decks
The design and layout of your pitch deck are as important as your content but often do not receive the equal amount of love. A bad design distracts you from the content itself and is confusing. A great design doubles down on the content provided by making the content easier to read, easier to understand and easier to follow, supplementing the logical structure provided before.
In fact, the content itself is made up of design. The text on your slides can be influenced by many factors such as the position on the slide, the size, the intensity, the colour or the font. So what are some design features that you should think about when creating a pitch deck? Here are three design features that will go a long way:
1. White space as a guidance tool
The most important space is the one you don’t use. Think about a slide with a lot of information. It is very difficult to focus on what to look at and read first. You want to use lots of empty space instead to guide the viewer’s attention towards the important parts of the slide (similar concepts apply to websites). As a founder, you often feel like there is a lot of information you want to convey that you want to share and need to cover. That is why many startup pitch decks feel overly stuffed and sometimes chaotic. Don’t do that and use space to guide your reader.
2. Colour matching
If you look at a very well-done pitch deck, you will see a common theme when it comes to colour picking throughout the presentation. Only very few colours are used and they support each other. It is also helpful to use one colour that generally highlights key points or visually guides the reader through the slides. For that, you don’t necessarily need to have a complete CI (corporate identity) document ready but it is advisable to stick to two to three colours max throughout the pitch deck. An easy start here is to decide on your main colour and then use the colour wheel. Mark your main colour and then look at the opposite colour on the wheel for the complementary colour. Another option is to pick the two colours to the left and to the right of your main colour, called analogous. Or you pick two colours that form a triangle with your main colour, called triad. According to color theory these combinations work best. This should give you a good enough start and obviously you can then use various intensity levels of the colours that you picked to add certain emphasis.
3. Icons and pictures or screenshots
Visual elements such as icons, pictures, or product screenshots can make a pitch deck much more appealing to look at, as well as help you deliver the message more easily. Humans can understand pictures faster than text and emotions are transferred much easier. You should therefore use this to your advantage. Specific parts in the pitch decks where this makes more sense are for example: The problem slide, the solution slide or the business model slide. It works better for some startups and industries than others. So play around and see what works for you.
Note: It is generally good to have (at least) two versions of the pitch deck, one for sending out and one for presenting in front of an audience. If you are presenting in front of an audience, you can keep the slides even cleaner and focus mainly on visuals, everything else you will explain verbally.
🚫 Common mistakes in pitch decks
- Important info is missing. Often: competition and go-to-market slides.
- Too many slides. Try to keep it at around 12 slides.
- Too much info/content on some slides. Don’t confuse the reader, help them focus on the most important points instead. You want to create curiosity to get a follow-up meeting/call, not dump all info at once.
- Slides are in the wrong order, thus making it harder to follow the logical flow and structure of the pitch deck (see B)
- The design is ugly or distracts too much from the content
- Ambitions are too low. This is a specific problem for mainland European startups. You should aim high if you want to convince investors, meaning setting high goals for yourself and show that you as the team are hungry to execute
🤓 Final advice
Your pitch deck is a never-ending document and requires constant iteration and improvement. So don’t worry if it is not perfect, it will probably never be and many people will have opinions about it. If you can manage to keep it clean and simple, clearly convey your vision and make it easy to understand, you have a higher chance of succeeding with your investor or customer meetings. This guide hopefully helps you to avoid some mistakes and gives you some useful tips on how to improve your pitch deck.
As a best practice for pitch deck, you often come across the deck that AirBnb used to raise their Seed round. It is indeed very clean and simple and you can study it in detail here: link.
If you want to network with other founders and gain more knowledge, we highly recommend coming by to one of our speed-dating events or online circles.