The ability to grab someone’s attention is one of the most valuable skills for a startup founder. At a time when people routinely communicate in 280 characters or often “Blink” (what Malcolm Gladwell describes as the process of using ‘thin slices” of information to make quick, and often accurate judgments) there is more urgency than ever to engage your audience right from the start. The first 30 seconds are especially crucial in speaking with investors, pitching at demo days or briefing with reporters. (Case in point, I was recently at a demo day where founders had five minutes to pitch. After about a minute, you could see which founders were still engaging the room, and which founders were speaking to a room full of people checking email).
So what is it that goes into those first 30 seconds, and how do you ensure that you're delivering a remarkable and memorable pitch? Here’s what 15 experienced and successful tech founders had to say:
Rachel Blumenthal, Founder and CEO of Rockets of Awesome, a personal shopping service and vertical apparel brand for kids. “When presenting a pitch it's critical to describe your business in layman's terms within the first 5-10 seconds. Entrepreneurs often fall into the trap of wanting their business to sound sexier, more important or more innovative than it actually is. They use industry jargon - words like algorithm-based, market-driven, vertical, curation, authentic - which don't accurately describe their business, reduce credibility and cause the audience to immediately lose attention.”
Mike Jones, Co-founder and CEO of Science Inc., the startup studio behind Dollar Shave Club (bought by Unilever), HelloSociety (bought by New York Times) and FameBit (bought by Google). “Entrepreneurs should share a clear vision of what they are trying to do, why they want to do it, and who they are that makes them the right person to be successful with it.
Bea Arthur, Founder and CEO of The Difference, a think tank devoted to the future of therapy, self-discovery and self-mastery."A lot of founders build something because they're passionate about the 'why' of the problem: why this is necessary, why this is important to me. That's great, but if the person listening isn't as passionate, you won't keep their attention. It's a better pitch to explain your business from the angle of 'why now?' and 'why I'm the one to make it happen.' I see this a lot with my own company, The Difference: some investors cringe when I start talking about mental health, but they perk right up when I tell them it's a $55 billion market. So if they don't share your mission, make sure they see the money."
Greg Cohn, Cofounder and CEO of Burner, the app that help millions of people use to make their phone numbers smarter. “To be effective, a pitch needs to convince the listener of one of two things: a) that you have a deep understanding of a real problem that has a newly arriving opportunity to solve it in a way that wasn't possible before, or 2) that you have unique credibility to create demand and develop a market for something new.”
Suuchi Remeth, CEO and Founder of supply chain technology company Suuchi and EY Entrepreneur of the Year. “It’s important to be crisp in defining the problem you’re solving, a line or two. To keep it broad and simple to understand. Don’t go into features’ details, this has the risk of making your solution scope too specific...Amongst the million startups out there, your life and war stories make your startup like no other. Other rules that are always relevant - make eye contact, work a firm hand shake. Be yourself, and let your personality shine.”
Oded Vakrat, Co-founder and CEO of Earny, the smart shopping app that automatically gets you money back on almost every item you buy. “The most important piece in any pitch is the team. A great idea is nothing without a team to make it happen. Most investors know that people are the key ingredient to a successful business, and that in most cases, it all comes down to the people behind the business. This also quickly shows your team members' unique personalities and backgrounds. Your pitch should directly answer the question: How is this particular team able to execute this particular idea?”
Jeff Berger, CEO and founder, of Talent Inc., the global leader in career services: “Explain why someone should care. This reason could be through a story, a problem, a market opportunity, or just a flat-out explanation of how more money can be generated, but everyone wants to know in the first 30 seconds why it matters to them.”
Alex Kronman, Founder and CEO of Flytedesk, the leading college marketing platform. “Social proof! People listen to you through the lens of their first impression – if a person, brand or group that they admire is in on you, they’ll be predisposed to listening to what you have to say. I always drop a friend in common, investor they’ve heard of, or brand with cache – it sort of gives someone permission to listen and learn instead of spending too much time figuring out if you’re legit.”
Afton Vechery, Cofounder and CEO of Modern Fertility, the fertility test you can take at home. Show your audience that the problem––and the need––are real.
Steven Clausnitzer, Co-Founder & CEO of Forever Labs, the company that banks your stem cells so you can live healthier, longer. “This may sound obvious, but you need to include what you do and why it matters. It’s amazing how many pitches don’t begin with this. We worked very hard, with partners at Y Combinator, to distill a complex business offering down to this single sentence, “Forever Labs will store your stem cells so you can live healthier longer.” This was my leading sentence for our Y Combinator Demo Day pitch, which resulted in significant interest from both investors and clients.”
Ilir Sela, Founder & CEO of Slice, the online and mobile pizza ordering platform that connects people with authentic local pizzerias. “Articulating a clear and inspiring vision is by far the most important aspect of any pitch and it should be communicated in the first 30 seconds. A strong vision will include your audience in your “why”, weave together a powerful story, and elevate the rest of your pitch as a result. Storytelling is our superpower.”
Whitney Casey, Co-founder & CEO of Finery, the first digital wardrobe platform that organizes your wardrobe and uses predictive analytics to style you with the clothes you already own. "I like to start a pitch out with a question to the audience -- one that gets them invested in the story I'm about to tell, let's them be a part of the narrative. For example, our company, Finery, finds all of your purchases for the past 10 years and uploads them into an online wardrobe. We then use those items to style you and help you shop smarter. Therefore to get my audience to feel invested in the problem we're solving for, I'll ask: 'How many of you look at your closet full of clothes, shoes, and bags and say I've got nothing to wear?' Or I'll ask, 'Answer this question, most women spend more on their clothing than they do on their, A. Car, B. Education, C. Pets.' Almost no one answers this correctly. The answer is B, a millennial woman will spend more on her clothing than she does on her education! Now the audience is totally engaged and wants to know why. And how do we solve this problem -- FINERY.
Keith George, Co-founder & CEO of CoEdition, the first contemporary multi-brand site for women size 10 and above. The most important question for any size business is 'who is your customer and how are you serving them?' Investors say they invest in 'market, team and traction' but it all starts with the market. You need to know the customer deeply: all of their desires, motivations and needs. I once worked for a great leader at Old Navy, Tom Wyatt, who insisted that we name our customer, put her 'picture' up in the lobby and speak about her all the time. It created incredible focus and discipline for the team. Every time I have had success, it has been because our team knew our customer better than anyone."
Steve Gutentag + Demetri Karagas, Co-founders of Keeps, a full-service healthcare company that combines virtual diagnosis and FDA-approved treatments to create access to preventative medicine and care for millions of men. “Attention spans are shorter than ever, calendars are increasingly full, and everyone is trying to sell something. It's important that, from the very beginning of a pitch you give investors a reason to keep listening. Humanize your mission with a personal, relatable story that will start the conversation and pique interest. You want to paint a real picture of how many people, including the investors, can relate to the exact problem you're company is trying to solve.”
Kyle Bailey, CEO and founder, NuVinAir, a Dallas-based startup offering odor-elimination technology for the automotive industry. “The most important thing that needs to be communicated in the first 30 seconds of a pitch is cut-and-dried information. People see through fluff. Unveil the problem and inject the solution. Give them facts and they will follow.”