How Not to Screw Up a Startup Pitch


Let’s dispense with the light bulb jokes before we get on the pitch deck. There’s only way to screw it in properly, and you can screw it up in any number of ways. A startup pitch is no different – you get funding and bask in the warm glow of media coverage if you do it right, and the prospects will be very dark and bleak if you don’t. A winning pitch deck that wows investors and the press is not rocket science, but there are certain common elements and methods that all successful startups tend to follow.

What is traction and X-for-Y?

You’re going to hear a lot of words such as traction and X-for-Y. We’ll explain all this and more down below as part of a range of approaches used by startups looking to make a pitch. The most common approach is one where you have an idea for a product or service that fulfills a need as yet unmet by any other provider. It could be you have an idea/ technology/ team that you claim will work better than others that are already serving the market. Either way, this is a standard problem-solution approach where you need to convince the investor that

A) There is an existing market; and

B) Your plan will fill that hole.

Another approach is to describe your idea or project using the X-for-Y method. For example, a location-based realty search application that identifies real-estate agents and available properties would call itself the “Google for Real Estate.” A regional approach works in the same way – Baidu is the “Google for China” and Sina Weibo is the “Twitter for China.”


It’s a lot easier if you’re already in the process of implementing the idea and your project has started gaining “traction.” This is a stage where you are getting noticed with positive coverage, a growing user base/customers, and decent web traffic that looks all set to explode. You have traction, and the investors will be stepping in to fuel growth and scale it up to the next level.

Deliver with true passion and clarity

What’s common to all these methods is that they need to be delivered with true passion and clarity. Don’t include assumptions which you expect people to understand. You may have spent months figuring it out, but you can bet it’s going to mystify those at the receiving end if you don’t provide absolute clarity. Similarly, if you don’t feel passionately about the project, no one else is going to get overly worked up over it either.

Another common mistake that many brilliant entrepreneurs make is to focus all their energies on the project and let it speak for itself. The reality is that it won’t work unless you gin up publicity and engage in some smart business partnerships. Allow us to explain with the help of a story. Once upon a time… there were two startups (let’s say X &Y) jostling in the same space, and we did PR work for both of them.

Read about X and Y

X was a genius when it came to creating manually curated site content and user tools that were far superior to Y, which simply used semantic search technology to scrape content from across the web and integrate all of it under automatically generated pages. X regularly put out press releases for new tools and product launches and got positive reviews. But the media attention became harder to sustain because there’s only so many new things you can do as a startup before the press starts ignoring your releases.

Meanwhile, Y had set up a team to do SEO and reach out to partner sites. They set up a blog network and started covering news and events. They deployed a unique PR strategy which they called “Be the Media,” where they wrote about big companies in their space. The PR people of the companies in question would respond, one thing would lead to another, and pretty soon the business development executive of Y would be sitting with a vice president of a big company, hashing out the details for a partnership.

They had the press eating out of their hands in the same way. They would send out survey forms to people and other companies, and come up with a press release, blog post and social media buzz based on the survey results.

They often linked to and used articles published by major MSM or online news magazines as the basis for blog posts, and then contacted the magazines seeking press coverage for Y. It’s a two-way street and reporters are people too – they crave attention and adulation just like everyone else.

So what do you think happened? Two years after both X and Y came into existence, the brilliant founder and CEO of X stepped down because funding had dried up. X was purchased by Y, which had just received its next round of funding, and was able to acquire X along with two other attractive startups as a growth strategy.

Of course, traditional PR is still irreplaceable. You need to maintain relations with the media, and get your press releases out every now and then to reach every corner of the Internet. A good TechCrunch review for a startup is more than enough to get the ball rolling all by itself. How do you get reviewed by TechCrunch? Ask them.

Make sure you have a picture

One more thing – always provide at least one picture. If possible, make it a set of pictures and a video to go with the press release. It adds a human touch to an otherwise impersonal pitch, and reporters and bloggers are much more likely to pick up the release and publish an article or post if the source provides multimedia.


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One Response to How Not to Screw Up a Startup Pitch

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