For founders, the pitch deck is still the canonical way to introduce your startup to investors. As an early-stage investor, I see hundreds of pitch decks each year. Pitch decks are useful because they concisely demonstrate not just what you’re building but why. While subsequent dialogue with the founders is critical for developing a complete view, a pitch deck offers a precise look into the founders’ strategy.
Recognizing that a pitch deck might be many founders’ only shot at capturing an investor’s attention, I am sharing a 10-slide framework for creating a killer pitch deck that investors will love.
The order of these slides is important. Think of your pitch deck like a story: There is a necessary order for setting the context, presenting the villain (the market problem you’re tackling), introducing the hero (yes, that’s you), and proposing a solution. The following sequence is more or less a story arc that could work for most startups. Sidenote: When writing your story, assume your reader (the investor) is moderately familiar with the problem space. (You’re best served by choosing investors who are familiar as they will be the most useful to you as a founder.)
Slide 1: Problem Context
Start by asking the question: What does the reader need to know to understand this problem? Highlight the macro trends that are relevant to your company. These trends should start to answer what is arguably one of the most critical questions: Why now?
Let’s use Twilio as an example. Twilio is a developer tool for embedding telecommunications in an app with a few lines of code. Have you ever received a text message from your favorite food delivery app indicating your food has arrived? Yep, that text was powered by Twilio. The relevant industry trends when Twilio was founded might have been:
The number of apps that developers create every year is growing x% annually and set to reach # billion apps by 2024.
The % of newly created apps that require telecommunications is n%.
Developers are increasingly adopting 3rd-party APIs like Twilio and swiping a credit card to avoid designing what would normally be complex infrastructure.
To an investor, these trends indicate a growing market and the rising class of software buyers that would be relevant to Twilio.
Slide 2: The Problem
Introduce the problem that your startup proposes to solve. Ideally, this problem is measurable because most B2B purchases are empirical decisions: cost reduction, revenue acceleration, process enhancement, and so forth. Measurability is especially vital during category creation. If you aren’t replacing an existing solution or selling a product where the value proposition is already widely accepted, it is hard to anchor value.
You also want to describe the downstream effects of this problem. For example, if your product automatically enforces data quality in data pipelines, the downstream effects of having low-quality data = time spent diagnosing data issues and broken analytics dashboards.
This is also the section where you indicate who experiences this problem. Revisiting the Twilio example, the group experiencing the problem would be application developers building apps that use telecommunications for customer engagement. Being precise is essential because this customer persona will factor into your market sizing later in the deck.
Finally, the problem should be durable — investors need to believe that this problem is growing and relevant for the foreseeable future.
For example, InfiniGrow nicely framed the challenges of marketing budget planning in their seed pitch deck.
Slide 3: Incumbent Solutions
This slide should indicate how the problem is addressed today and why the current solutions are imperfect. If there are category leaders, call them out specifically. Make sure to include substitutes as well. For example, a substitute to Twilio might be push notifications or email. If you can measure the deficiencies, then do so (e.g., “it takes a small team of developers 10 months on average to build telecommunications infrastructure from scratch”).
Tie the incumbent solutions back to the aforementioned trends and how these solutions neglect those trends. If, for example, developers are a rising class of software buyers, but the current tools are hard for developers to adopt, you’d want to highlight this tension.
Indicate any users who may experience the problem that current solutions overlook. Before Salesforce, there was not a viable CRM solution available to small and medium-sized businesses.
If applicable, indicate why the incumbents may not easily solve the problem in the way that it should be. Would doing so cannibalize their own business model? Do they not have experience selling to the new buyer persona (e.g., they sell to CIOs, while developers are the ideal buyer)? Are there software architectural limitations that would mean rebuilding their product from scratch?
Take a look at this problem slide from Fivetran’s Series B pitch deck. Without knowing what “ETL” is, the reader still gathers enough context from this slide to contextualize a solution.
Slide 4: Introduce Your Solution
Focus more on what vs. how (this is especially the case with deeply technical solutions). When introducing your product, indicate how it solves the challenges from the problem slide, resolves the deficiencies highlighted in the incumbent solutions slide, and satisfies the market trends described in the opening slide. For example, if developers are a rising class of buyers, acknowledge how your product is sold and adopted by developers.
Using Fivetran’s deck again, here is the slide that immediately followed the problem slide from above. This slide perfectly resolves the problems stated in the previous slide.
Slide 5: Team
Focus on the background and biographical details that suggest founder-market fit. The fact that you attended Harvard is only relevant if your area of study and/or research directly relates to the product you are building. Many of the founders we meet are previously in roles where they experienced the problem first-hand — share those details. I am not as interested in the places you worked as I am in what you actually accomplished in those jobs. If you built a data system at Netflix and are now building a product that makes it easier for companies to build data systems, then hell yes, I want to know this detail.
Here is the team slide from Cloudera’s pitch deck. Cloudera sells a data platform built on Hadoop technology; notice how strongly the founders' backgrounds correspond to the company they are building.
Slide 6: How You’ll Make Money
Answer these questions: What is your business model? Why is this business model optimal given the product and buyer? Who is your target buyer? This is not a screenshot of your pricing page but rather a summary of the strategy behind your business model. The relationship between your business model and your product should be symbiotic — one serves the other and vice versa.
Slide 7: Total Addressable Market (TAM) Calculation
A quality TAM analysis is bottoms-up vs. top-down. If you are selling data analytics software, do not show me the size of the data market. Investors do not want to see “5% of the data analytics market = $XXX.” This is lazy. 😉
Instead, identify your inputs and “reason up” to calculate the size of your market. First, qualify your ideal customer profile (ICP) because this is the first input to the TAM. Second, indicate how many companies satisfy your ICP criteria. Third, approximate an average of what you can earn from these companies on an annual basis. Multiply these two variables together to determine your TAM.
If there are adjacent markets or product expansion opportunities, indicate how the TAM might expand over time: In 24 months, we will ship these new features, which open our addressable market to include new people, thus increasing the TAM by $X.
Slide 8: How You’re Going to Win
The execution plan ties it all together by indicating how your team will realize the market opportunity. Think of this as the order of operations for company building. It’s useful to present an ~18-month timeline because it demonstrates goal-oriented thinking and a precise blueprint for market execution. These timelines usually highlight leading indicators or, said another way, the “business inputs,” which include product milestones, hiring plans, and market development plans (e.g., release product to 3 design partners).
Slide 9: Current Progress
Show off a little bit. Show the outputs (revenue, adoption, usage, etc.) instead of the inputs (hiring, product development status, founding history, etc.). Investors are testing for progress relative to time spent and expectations given the type of product you’re building. The most sustainable tailwind you can use to stay ahead of the competition at the early-stages is your pace of execution. Founders who demonstrate an efficient conversion of inputs into meaningful outputs can benefit from these tailwinds. As an investor, I want to believe that you can do what you set out to do at a rapid pace.
Slide 10: Fundraising & Milestones
Indicate how much you plan to raise and be precise. As a rule of thumb, you can deviate up to ~10% in either direction (e.g., If your target is $10m, you can suggest $9–11m). Founders who suggest target ranges like “$2–5m” demonstrate a lack of clarity about company-building because these numbers have wildly different implications for the inputs and milestones. Building on this idea, indicate why this fundraising goal is the right amount: We need this many developers to launch this product and validate our hypothesis about the market need.
Milestones are equally as important. Indicate what revenue, customer adoption, and product milestones you hope to achieve. If there are specific roles you intend to hire for, highlight these as well. This detail builds on the idea that investors like founders who are goal-oriented and understand where they are going. People do not win races when they do not know the destination. These goals also demonstrate your ambition and ability to create a viable plan to reach them.
Bonus slide: Dream the dream
While your pitch deck tells a story about the medium-term, it’s interesting to understand what this company could become in the fullness of time. Are there adjacent products? Is this a wedge to a broader market? How will the market change in the next few years in a way that may open the door to more ambitious opportunities? Help us dream the dream as investors, and show us how you can oscillate between the tactics and the bigger picture.
Building the arc of your deck in this way will set you up to deliver a solid pitch. If you are a founder in the early-stage enterprise industry building something awesome, drop me a line here.