How to write a killer pitch deck – using lessons from $1bn start-ups

To win the support of investors, you’ll need an exceptional pitch. In this exclusive extract from ‘How to grow a Unicorn’, VCs and Unicorn backers share the formula for a premium-grade pitch

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Following a series of research and interviews with Unicorn companies, and Oracle NetSuite have discovered the ‘secret sauce’ for building a $1bn start-up. We’ve shared this recipe for success in this free ebook, covering everything from raising funding to errors of businesses that almost achieved Unicorn status. Below, you’ll find a sneak peek from How to grow a Unicorn…

There are more than a thousand pitch decks floating around on the internet to use for inspiration.

However, if you zoom in on pitch decks from Unicorns – start-ups with a valuation of over $1bn – it becomes clear they have an awful lot in common with each other. Roughly 10 to 25 pages long and following the same sequence of ideas. This is more than coincidence.

The big VC houses are explicit about the information they want.

Of course, they are; they see hundreds of pitches a year and have a vested interest in them being as good as possible. They set out the formula for a premium-grade pitch.

Unicorns win investment because they follow this advice.

And above all, they prioritise one quality above all: simplicity.

Pitch deck 101: Get back to the basics

Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, is fanatical about stripping pitch decks down to the basics:

“When there are a lot of words on a slide, people just skip reading it. So, look at your slides and ask of each word ‘could I cross this out? This includes gratuitous clip art. Try to get your slides under 20 words if you can.”

Graham advises entrepreneurs to reduce their pitch to 10 minutes when rehearsing. This strips out the extraneous material.

And simplifying this even further, Peter Diamandis, the co-founder of X-Prize foundation, believes it’s imperative that “you have an easy-to-communicate one-line pitch”.

You will also need to think carefully about the length of your deck. To find out how many slides your deck should be (for instance, Uber uses 25 slides), download How to grow a Unicorn.

The five-second rule

Vinod Khosla of Khosla Ventures puts a slide on a screen, flashes it to the audience for five-seconds, and then asks the viewers to describe it.

Obscure or complex slides fail the test.

Unicorn pitch decks focus on just two things:

  • How the product works
  • Proof that users will want it

Everything else is secondary. This includes commercial issues such as the business plan.

Surprising? In fact, the major VCs agree, the business plan is one of the least important factors.

Kleiner Perkins of Caufield & Byers says “VCs recognise that business models can change overtime. Instead of focusing on the merits of a business plan during the pitch, we use it to understand how an entrepreneur thinks about his/her business.”

The easiest way to create the perfect pitch deck

  1. Outline the problem
  2. Present the solution
  3. Estimate the size of the market
  4. Explain your business’ unique selling points
  5. Chart your current progress
  6. Describe future progress
  7. Highlight your/your founding team’s track record and background

Khosla Ventures’ advice for pitch decks

  • Use only one message per slide
  • Slide titles should be the takeaway
  • Declutter the visuals
  • No more than 25 words on a slide
  • Be succinct
  • No superfluous words, colours or images
  • Highlight your company advantage. Don’t obscure or simplify technological breakthroughs
  • Remember: Too much financial data is overwhelming
  • Show the strengths of your team
  • Investors want to know that you are proactively managing risk
  • Explain how you will use the new funding
  • Analogies are effective. For example, compare to the competition
  • Finish with a flourish. Use emotion to capture your audience’s imagination.
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