Pitching: Form Over Function

In the past few weeks, the StartupYard Batch 7 startups have been practicing their pitches for DemoDay. Tonight, they’ll be live online and in person at Kino Svetozor, at 18:30 Prague time.

The pitch gets a lot of attention in the startup world, but for good reason. Done well, it is an effective way of communicating your ideas, and also challenging yourself to define the problem (or problems), you’re really solving.

Form and Function

Though you do hear the stray complaint about the emphasis pitches receive in the tech world, I generally find most objections miss the point. Certainly there are bad pitches, and there are ways in which founders and investors are not served well by them.

A startup pitch is very predictable. You introduce the theme in an exciting way, framing the pitch in the broader context. Then you address the “problem” you are solving. Then you present your solution. You then talk about the competitive landscape, and why your competitors (or whatever solution your customers currently have), are silly and outdated, and then you talk about your business and your team, and maybe ask for money.

Pretty simple. And anywhere you go, the format stays the same. Investors from anywhere, going anywhere else, know with some certainty that they will hear those things. The discussion is then about whether they agree with the conclusions the startup is making.

But every round, our startups struggle with staying in those boundaries.

This is at least partly because pitching is quite unlike the other ways in which founders are asked to prove themselves. We expect startups to break rules. To get around the usual processes. To “disrupt,” as the jargon word of the century puts it. But pitching is just not like that.

It’s the Problem, Stupid

For starters, pitching is form over function. It’s a tool of rigid constraint, that is meant to contain “out of the box” thinking inside a narrative box. Consider that at StartupYard, we spend 3 months helping founders to see that the normal rules don’t apply to them. And then we insist that they follow a pretty strict set of rules in order to pitch.

But we do that because the format shouldn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the content. What is the problem being solved? What does that problem mean in a broader sense?

The format is standardized because formal variations on that standard tend to draw more attention than the content of them. Anyone who’s been forced to write a haiku in school will know what I’m referring to. Constraints can force us to be creative in ways that we are not used to. Attention getting can work, in some cases, but it also carries a different set of risks.

I can give you an interesting example: a startup I heard pitch back in 2014 at LeWeb, called JukeDeck. Now what’s interesting about JukeDeck is that they use neural networks to auto-generate music according to a few simple parameters.

Of course, if you had been at that pitch, you wouldn’t have known that, because almost all of the pitch was taken up with the whole team dancing and rapping over music that had been generated using their software. It was certainly entertaining.

I did understand from their pitch that companies would probably use such software to auto-generate background music for corporate videos, and maybe even retail environments. But I learned nothing about the current solutions on the market, the business case for this one, or the actual pain point it was solving.

JukeDeck won LeWeb. And they won TechCrunch Disrupt a year later. If it’s a competition, certainly breaking the rules can help you win. But did that pitch actually help their business? I’m really not sure. The panel’s questions following the pitch were revealing: “why would a business want to use this?” and “how much would a company pay for this software, when stock music is relatively cheap?”

The whole panel was taken up with answering basic questions about the business- questions that could have been answered in the pitch itself. That instantly puts the founders on the defensive. This exciting, crowd-pleasing pitch, which generates buzz, might not actually help people understand what you do. And while the panel asked basic questions about the business, they consequently had no time to ask questions about the underlying technology.

Boring Works

StartupYard startups have won numerous awards for pitching themselves. Not least would be companies like Gjirafa, Neuron Soundware, and Speedifly. I’ve seen our startups pitch outside our program, and heard the feedback they get. Clarity, honesty, strength. These are none of them mind-blowing, but nevertheless more important.

I can tell you one thing about all of these pitches: they are not outwardly exciting. If you were to watch them from behind a pane of glass, you’d have no idea why they win awards.

Instead, they are exciting in the sense of what they talk about, and what new ideas and thinking they illustrate. But they contain no gimmicks. There’s no real flash. The founders, too, are practiced and calm. Everything goes according to plan.

Our thesis at StartupYard, when it comes to pitching, is that your plan better be exciting and game-changing, because trying to spice it up after the fact is putting lipstick on a pig. The drama is not in the performance, but in the story itself. If you hone in on a real, emotional storyline, involving real human beings and real world customer pain, then the pitch doesn’t need bells and whistles: it’s made of gold already.