How to Write Your Demo Day Pitch

My cofounder Ryan recently published a very well-received post on how to practice and deliver a Demo Day pitch.  I hope this post on writing will serve as a natural companion to Ryan’s post on performing.

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I’m a big believer in Stephen Covey’s principle of Begin with the end in mind.  So for starters, let’s talk about the goal.

Know your goal.

Think about it:  why are you pitching at Demo Day in the first place?  What’s the goal?

Most founders tend to answer with some variant of “to raise capital for my startup,” “to get published in TechCrunch,” or “to get Nike or Ikea etc. to become a customer.”

Of course these are all fine goals to have.  But, these goals aren’t super instructive when it comes to designing your pitch, because they’re too long term.  There isn’t a direct/adjacent causal relationship between pitching and any of these happy outcomes — it’s hard to imagine a world where you step off the stage at Demo Day and immediately someone writes you a check.  The best you can really hope for is to get a first meeting.

So we’ve identified our goal:  when you’re pitching at Demo Day, the goal is to get a first meeting.

Now on to some strategies that might help you achieve that goal :)

Grab credibility early.

If you’re credible (and I hope you are), demonstrate this fact early in your pitch.

If you’re looking for inspiration on what to say, just pretend your audience is asking you these questions:  Why should I pay attention to the rest of your pitch?  Why should I make an effort to remember your pitch instead of one of the many others I’ll hear today?

For example, did your team quit their jobs at Facebook to do this?  Did Mark Cuban and Marc Benioff both invest in your company?  Have Nike and Adobe both signed up to use your service in the last week?  Might want to mention that.

If I wanted to write the credibility grab for this blog post (and I do, because I want you to know why I’m credible so you’ll keep reading!), I might communicate one or more of the following things:

  • Nine months ago, my company (Keen IO) gave the opening pitch at the inaugural TechStars Cloud Demo Day.  I co-wrote the pitch with my cofounder Dan, and it was a massive success.
  • We invited our top three recruitment choices to come watch us at Demo Day, and within a month, all three of them joined the team!
  • We successfully raised a heavily oversubscribed seed financing from a brilliant investor group.
  • Our pitch was among the highest-rated pitches in TechStars history.
  • Two months after Demo Day, we were invited by GigaOm to compete at their Structure LaunchPad pitch competition, where we won first prize!

Phew.  So.  Now that you know why I’m a credible author on the subject, aren’t you more curious about the rest of this blog post?

That’s exactly the sort of curiosity you need to build in your audience on Demo Day.

If you have traction, lead with traction.

On a recent Geeks on a Plane trip, I heard my friend Dave McClure give this advice on stage at least a half-dozen times: If you have traction, lead with traction. 

I couldn’t agree more, and I think traction is the best of all credibility grabs.  Traction inoculates your audience against disbelief.  Regardless of how well they understand your business from a five minute pitch, investors know they can rely on evidence of traction as a proxy for such understanding.  Often, traction alone is enough to get the first meeting!

Priorities are:  Entertain, Impress, Inform (in that order).

People will forget what you said.  But people will never forget how you made them feel.  

-Maya Angelou

The biggest mistake I see in Demo Day pitch content is this:  most pitches focus far too much on information and far too little on entertainment.

This is one of Nicole Glaros’ (TechStars) golden rules.  I firmly believe it’s the key to successfully pitching at Demo Day — that is, the key to getting a first meeting — is to prioritize your content in this order:  Entertain, Impress, Inform (I don’t mean temporal order, but rather order of importance).

When it comes to the information in your pitch, less is more.

Substance is overrated.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.

- Albert Einstein

If you’re feeling uneasy about removing substance from your presentation and focusing instead on style:  I get it.  You’re a super-smart team, and you’ve been working all day and night to make something you’re passionate about.  Your business is a complex and integrated web of concepts, technologies, and people, and you and your cofounders hold the whole damn thing in your heads.  You’re aching to express all of these insights to the world, because you don’t want to risk having anyone in the room walk away from Demo Day with any doubts about your business or your team’s understanding of your business.

I get it.

But there’s a whole universe of potential doubts.  You can’t preemptively defend against this universe of doubt in a single pitch.

Also, I’m not saying to have zero substance, just to have the right substance, and to remove the wrong substance.  During TechStars, Nicole told us, “The audience is only going to remember two or three points from your pitch.”  If that’s true, then isn’t the best strategy to be intentional about those two or three points?  If you’ve buried them with hundreds of other little factoids, it will make it harder to remember the two or three things that you want them to remember.

I remember spending a lot of time during TechStars soul-searching with Dan and Ryan about this one, and the resulting clarity was super valuable both for our pitch and for our actual business.  We decided our message would be: (1) We’re a killer team that’s (2) reinventing analytics.  (3) We’re focused on mobile first.

It’s certainly possible that giving a rapid-fire-jargon-heavy-brain-dump of your business can get you a meeting with some super smart audience member — an audience member who has the domain expertise and the brainpower to process your entire company strategy even when it’s compressed down to a few minutes of realtime theater.  But you could also get their attention with a more minimal pitch, so why alienate everyone else in the audience?

Reduce communication bandwidth.

During TechStars, I remember Jason Seats telling a lot of the teams (not least our own) that they needed to “reduce communication bandwidth.”  Rather than dwell on the hypocrisy of those three words, I’ll explain what he meant and why he said it.

Here’s what happens if you try to explain your whole business in a five minute pitch:  You find yourselves running up against the time limit, and there are only a few ways you could cram more information into a fixed-length pitch.  First, you could speak faster, which is bad for listener comprehension.  Second, you could use bigger words and more abstract jargon, which is bad for listener comprehension.  Finally, you could pile a bunch of extra visual information into the slides themselves, which is just plain awful for listener comprehension.

Rather than trying to optimize for more information by increasing the communication bandwidth of your pitch (i.e. saying more in the same amount of time), you should probably be optimizing for more entertainment and clarity by reducing it.

And honestly, what’s the point of jamming in all this information in the first place?  After all, recall that the stated goal of your pitch is not to deliver a firm understanding of all of the intricacies of your business.  The goal isn’t to educate them about your market, your team, your traction, your corporate history, whatever.  The goal isn’t even to wow everyone with a sexy product demo.  Sure, your pitch will include some (or all) of these pieces of information, but those are not the goal.  Remember: the goal is to get a first meeting.

For further reading about this, I highly recommend Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by Frank Luntz.  I read it during TechStars, and it had a huge impact on the specific word choices we made in our pitch.  In case you don’t want to invest in reading the whole thing, I dug up this review, which has a decent summary.

Entertainment equals storytelling.

Everyone is entertained by a good story.  I’ve seen a lot of pitches that have a story in them, but they’re often not very good.  Good storytelling is about making the story fascinating, rather than merely using it as a device for information.  For a quick read about this topic, check out Sally Hogshead’s book Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation.

For example, we opened our Demo Day pitch with a 60-second story about a pair of mustachioed astronomers from the 16th century.  It was a hit.  Feel free to check it out on YouTube here.

Oh, and if you’re funny, it helps to use that too :P

If you want more reading on this subject, I recommend checking out Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

I’ll leave you with a story of my own.

In the weeks that followed Demo Day, we climbed quickly to become the #1 trending startup on AngelList.  This put us in the sidebar on almost every page on the AngelList website, and it also meant we were featured at the top of the weekly mass email that AngelList sends to every single registered member.  The video of our pitch was featured prominently at the very top of our AngelList profile, and according to YouTube, thousands of people watched it.

We fielded a crush of inbound interest from would-be investors, and in the end we were very much oversubscribed, meaning we had the luxury of choosing the most value-adding investors we could imagine.

And we owe a ton of it to our Demo Day pitch.

I think you can do the same, and I want to help you get there.  Hopefully this blog post provides a good starting point, but if you have specific follow-up questions, please ask me on the Hacker News thread here, or mention me on Twitter at @dorkitude.

Kyle Wild

Founder/CEO at Keen IO. Way cooler on the internet than in person.