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How to build a startup pitch deck

Posted by Stéphane Nasser | Jun 03, 2020

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In this playbook, I break down my home-made, battle-tested process to prepare the structure, content, and design of a typical early-stage startup pitch deck.

These 2 hours of prep work will save you 10x more time down the road, I promise.

Like all my posts, this playbook follows my policy regarding affiliation, impartiality, and non-finito.


But first, what is a pitch deck?

A pitch deck is a short presentation optimized for clarity and impact. It can be sent to a recipient who reads it, but the original intention of a pitch deck is to be "pitched" i.e. presented in person.

In the case of a startup, the pitch deck introduces the project to stakeholders - usually potential investors. As such, the pitch deck is a key document when raising funds.

The pitch deck is usually created by the founder(s) of the company. A designer or consultant may be brought in, but ultimately, the CEO is the one who owns and pitches the deck.

Building a pitch deck is deceptively simple. At first sight, all you have to do is pick a template, slap together a bunch of sleek slides and you're good to go. The truth, however, is that getting to a stable version of your deck takes weeks or even months.

This playbook is based on my own experience working as a consultant, then operating a startup accelerator, and eventually becoming an entrepreneur. It's not perfect, but I hope it can help you. Feel free to share your own tips and tricks in the comment section, I'll add them to the post.


Table of content



1. Structuring your content

“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six sharpening my ax.” 

The same goes for pitch decks. Before jumping to slides, font, and colors, let's properly define the content and structure of the deck.


1.1. Lay down the framework

Start with a spreadsheet. I've put together a Google Sheet, you can just copy it into your own drive or download it as an Excel file. Get it here.

In the Slide type column are listed 20+ typical startup slides, included Mission/Vision, Problem, Solution, Product, How it works, Persona, Benefits / Case Study, Business model, Market, Why now, Competition, Traction, Team, Milestones/Roadmap, Funding and more.

 


1.2. Fill in the key messages

Start filling the key message for each Slide type.

 The key message is the one thing the reader should remember about your startup on each topic. For example, if you are raising $3M to go to market, your "Funding" message should be: "We are raising $3M to go to market". It's that simple.

The key message should be formulated as a proper sentence. In consulting gibberish, that's what we call an "action title". A key message is like the title of a blog post: you want to spend quite some time refining it. Come up with 3-5 variations and test them on other people. It needs to be crystal clear.

If you can't come up with a key message, that's fine. Maybe this slide is not key to your pitch. Maybe you'll figure this out later. Move it at the bottom of the list - just don't delete it yet.

 


1.3. Back up your claims with supporting elements

Next, you want to give credibility to your key message. Why should the reader believe you? What elements can you provide that support your statement? That's what marketing people call the "reason to believe".

That supporting element can be a number (revenue, market size…), a testimonial, a chart, an analysis, etc. The supporting element should be perfectly aligned with the key message. Don't claim something you cannot prove. If needed, iterate your key message and/or your reason to believe until you are satisfied.

 


1.4. Add messages that are unique to your project and story

So far, you have hit the standard slides that are expected by default. Now, it's time to take a step back. What extra slides - specific to your project or storytelling - could be useful? For instance, some founders open with a personal story about how they encountered the problem.

Add a few more rows for those. Here, I've added an "Advisors" and an "IP strategy" slide, but it's perfectly fine to add none.

 


1.5. Organize the whole thing

Now that you've listed down your ideas, organize them.

Start by separating what goes into the main deck and what goes into the appendix. The main deck consists of 10-15 slides whose purpose is to get you a meeting. For a seed round, keep it short and simple. Focus on building a compelling story about (a) what problem you are trying to solve, (b) why it's a significant business opportunity, and (c) why you are the best team to do it.

I insist: the details about your glorious product features and masterful go-to-market strategy will be just fine in the Appendix section.

 

This content framework is super helpful to get you started. I rely heavily on it for the first couple of weeks when I start a new deck.

Having said that, don't waste time maintaining that sheet. Once you are up and running, drop it and work 100% in your deck!




2. Designing your deck

Your content is ready. Time to make it shine.


2.1. Choose your weapon

The slide editor itself doesn't matter much. Pick the one you prefer or you are most familiar with.

Popular options include Microsoft Powerpoint, Google Slides, and Apple Keynote, but some founders happily work with Slidebean or Canva

As long the presentation can be shared in PDF, you're good to go!

 


2.2. Pick a template

Once you have your slide editor, I recommend you pick a template. A good template will save you a massive amount of time. It will also give the deck that professional "look and feel'' that we're all chasing after.

I have selected the best templates for startup pitch decks in a previous article, available here. I picked both free and paid templates, and even threw in my own template (still WIP, don't be too harsh) so you have plenty of options.

Obviously, those templates are for Powerpoint/Keynote/Google Slides users. If you are on Canva or Slidebean, directly use the templates at your disposal.

 


2.3. Master the slide master

Once you find the perfect template, you want to modify it so that it reflects your brand identity. To do so, you need to access the "Slide Master". 

The Slide Master is a feature of most editors that allow users to create a "default design" for a presentation, protected from involuntary changes. Here is how to access your Slide Master in Powerpoint and here it is in Google Slides. You can easily find how to do it for other editors.

Set up your master once and update it as needed. This will ensure consistency across your slides and save you tons of time as you iterate.


2.4. Nail your graphic identity: fonts and colors

If your startup already has a graphic identity, update your Master accordingly. If not, this is a great opportunity to experiment with your future brand!

I am no designer, so I'll stick to a few basic principles:

  • Pick a font that is readily available across most systems. Roboto is a safe choice. Stay away from fonts that need to be downloaded and installed. DON'T use Comic Sans MS.
  • Stick to 3 to 4 font sizes across your deck. A larger one for titles, a normal one for paragraphs, and a smaller one for notes and footers.
  • Same with colors: less is more. I usually go with a primary color (e.g. bright red), a secondary color (e.g. softer version of the same red), and a background color (e.g. plain white). Play around with Adobe Color if you are indecisive.

Pro tip #1: if you use MS Powerpoint, download Deckrobot. It's a free plugin that automates slide design for startup pitch decks.

Pro tip #2: at the end of your deck, create a memo slide. List down the name of your font, the 3 sizes you've picked, and the color codes you've picked. No more forgetting and much easier for collaboration!

 


Many founders add a footer with supposedly important information. The most extreme "footer cases" include logo, company name, a "CONFIDENTIAL" mention, date, and slide number.

 

I don't like it. Most of it is already on your cover anyways. It serves no real purpose. It's eating up space that could be used to make your charts bigger. It adds clutter. It distracts the reader from your key message.

Even the slide number, arguably the only element that **could** be useful, doesn't bring much value. I'd much rather refer to "the Market slide" than "slide 5".

Then again, I have been wrong before. Up to you.




3. Composing your slides

As you've guessed by now, the content sheet that you filled earlier serves as a basis for your deck.

  • The "key message" is the action title of your slide
  • The "slide type" is the main title of your slide
  • The "supporting elements" are the visuals of your slide

The first two elements are pretty straightforward. The real challenge consists in finding a good layout to translate supporting elements into powerful visual information. That's the focus of this section 3.

3.1. Compose with the Rule of Thirds

To compose your slide layout, follow the Rule of Thirds.

 

The Rule of Thirds is a simple yet highly effective way to organize information on a slide. You see it all the time in startup pitch decks.

 

To learn more about visual composition, check out this page. That's where I got the illustration above by the way.


3.2. Steal great layouts from other decks

Sometimes, the Rule of Thirds is not enough and you get stuck. You want to express an idea, you could write a paragraph about it, but you don't know how to communicate it visually.

That's where you have to start stealing.

I have put together a public Airtable with 1,000+ slides from famous decks - including Coinbase, Buffer, Airbnb. More importantly, I've categorized them by slide type: Market, Competition, Team, etc. This allows you to build great slides super fast.

Let's say you can't come up with a great layout for your Market slide. Check out the Market slides of other decks, find your favorite, then mercilessly steal it for your own use.

Rinse and repeat as needed. :)

 


3.3. Make your graphs sexy

Chances are, your deck includes bar charts, mekkos, and the obligatory pie chart. Here are a few tricks to make your graphs stand out:

  • DO NOT copy-paste a graph from a report or a market study. It's ugly. Recreate it.
  • Remove gridlines
  • Remove vertical axes and add labels - unless clearly inconvenient
  • Round up numbers. Use the function "=round(REF, -n)" to do so.
  • Remove legends when redundant (e.g. already in the horizontal axis)
  • Use your company's fonts and colors
  • Add a title and a subtitle if needed
  • Add the source somewhere on the same slide

As a general rule, your graphs should "stand on their own" i.e. they should be understood by anyone who reads your deck without any sort of explanation.

 

If you need to display complex graphs, my go-to add-in is Thinkcell for Powerpoint. You probably won't need it at seed round, but just in case, Thinkcell made my life brighter in my consulting years.

 


3.4. Use high-quality illustrations

If you use Slidebean, you natively enjoy droves of high-quality illustrations so you don't need to worry about it. Jump to 3.5.

Otherwise, here are my go-to places for icons, photos, and drawings:

 


3.5. Have a presentation deck and a reading deck

As annoying as it is, you'll need two versions of your deck. One to be read and one to be presented.

Having said that, you don't need to MAINTAIN two versions of your deck.

I usually start by creating the reading deck. Meant to be shared by email and read by the recipient without me being there, it includes quite a bit of information and up to 4 levels of font sizes. That's the only deck I maintain and iterate on.

When I need to pitch my deck in person, I just make a copy of the reading deck and remove the text in smaller font sizes. All those details, that's what I am going to speak about - and I want the audience to focus on me, not read the slides behind me.

Removing extra details also makes space for bigger visuals. The people in the back of the room are thankful.

On that topic, BaseTemplate provides both a presentation and a reading version of their pitch deck template. To my knowledge, they are the only ones who put in the effort, so kudos to them.

 




4. Optimizing your pitch deck

Even after following all the recommendations above, your deck will still suck. That's why you need to spend some time optimizing before pitching investors. Here's how to do it.


4.1. Pre-empt investors' expectations

Investors are creatures of habit.

When they open a deck, investors are not trying to learn about your project. No, they are scanning for signals.

Is your TAM above $1bn? Is your MoM MRR growth double-digit? How big is your moat? Each slide is basically a litmus test against a pre-established framework.

You may not like it, but these are the rules of the game. Therefore, it is your duty as a founder to make sure that each one of your slides meets or exceeds investors' expectations.

Thankfully, investors being creatures of habit makes them highly predictable. Their expectations are always the same. Zero originality. So you can easily learn about them. I wrote a whole playbook on this, available here. You're welcome.

Whatever you do, don't lie. Never lie. Your reputation is worth more than any slide.


4.2. Optimize your deck for clarity

Clarity means that your message is instantly understood and remembered.

"Normal people", i.e. people who are not into startups, are the best audience to help you dumb down your pitch. If they can understand your message, anybody can.

At slide level: your visuals should speak for your title. Hide the title and ask your mom to guess the general idea of the slide based on the content. (If you can't find a satisfying layout to convey your message, go back to 3.2 and steal more inspiration).

At deck level: ask your mom to read the whole deck. Tell her she has 3 minutes to go through it. Ask her what she remembers from it in a few sentences. You'll be amazed by how simple your message must be in order to get across unscathed.

Repeat the same process with your brother, your best friend, your dog until you get a predictable answer.


4.3. Conduct dry runs with "startup people"

The final "quality check" consists of pitching your deck to professionals who have experience in the startup space.

Fellow entrepreneurs, consultants, incubators and accelerators, mentors… Opportunities abound when it comes to getting a second opinion. Heck, there's even a subreddit where you can post your deck and get roasted.

 

Having said that, opinions are a dime a dozen. Accept feedback gracefully, then apply discretion. More importantly, get multiple opinions.


4.4. Iterate between each investor meeting

That's the single most important point of the whole post.

Your deck is not finished when you start meeting investors. Actually, it's the opposite.

Once you start pitching investors, you get onto a learning curve that you need to climb as fast as possible. Start by pitching the investors you want the least, then move up your order of preference. Leave your ideal investors last.

After every pitch, make sure to incorporate relevant feedback to your deck. When you think about it, an investor is the best pitch deck consultant you can ever find. Make the most of it.

Again, not all feedback is good feedback. Investors are not always right. Use your judgment, filter out noise, and retain signal.


4.5. Learn to use versioning

One last piece of advice. If you've got to iterate, you've got to learn to use versioning.

Versioning is a feature commonly found in Google Slides, Powerpoint et alii. As its name indicates, versioning automatically saves and manages older versions of your deck, so you can return to them weeks or even months later. Very convenient if like me, you are prone to second thoughts.

On top of that, I like to manually create copies of my deck every time I make a major change. The older versions go into an "Archive" folder. After 6-month fundraising, I have reached version 13...

 





Conclusion: a good deck doesn't make a good startup

A deck can communicate your project better. It won't make your project better. If the basics are crap, it will show. 

Build a great startup first, a great pitch deck second.

I hope you found this playbook useful. As a reminder, you can check out this article on the best template for pitch decks and that one on startup financial models.

Don't hesitate to share your best practices in comments and I'll update the playbook accordingly.

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