Startup pitching follows many of the conventions of standup comedy gigs:
- you present to a small room half-full of people with short attention spans and a glass of booze in their hand;
- you get a limited time slot to fill with your material to try to connect with your audience by whatever means possible;
- you’re competing against a small group of peers to get the strongest reaction; and
- you’re trying desperately to get people to want to see you again, to somehow ‘invest in your success’.
However, perhaps the biggest similarity is that both are ultimately long-term writing gigs, preparing carefully crafted hooks and gags to achieve your external ends: in the same way that few standups are naturally funny enough to improvise for more than a few seconds at a time, few startup pitchers are naturally communicative enough to present entirely “off-piste”, let’s say.
In fact, I call startup pitching “standup tragedy“, because what you’re really doing is standing up in front of a room of angels and posing the question: “wouldn’t it be a tragedy if you failed to back my proposal?”
So there in a nutshell is the weakness of the format: the hockey-stick graphs, forecasts, predictions, trends, figures are there not to communicate the opportunity but to heighten the personal tragedy (to the investor) of refusal. Can’t you see that my company INH (“Insert Name Here”) is the next GFW (“Google /Facebook / Whatever“), and you’re about to lose your chance to get a slice – your slice – of the big-time? Put in those terms, the whole activity comes over as a thoroughly abysmal way to try to persuade anyone of anything, for it’s essentially a long-winded and overformalized double negative – “don’t not invest in my startup“.
I think the main reason for this tangly rhetorical knot is that angels have come – for whatever reason – to distrust (if not outright mistrust) anything positive startups claim any more. For them, it’s not even as if the medium is the message: rather, the medium is no better than its blind spot, making it pathetically easy to construct a knee-jerk reason why any given way of communicating the startup’s situation is probably a lie:-
- Graphs? (Fantasy accountancy)
- Traction? (Hearsay)
- Social proof? (Engineered, not scalable)
- Market trends? (Too partial, too wide a range to choose from)
- IP? (Subjective, dubious value)
- Patents? (Contestable, expensive)
- Customers? (Exaggerated)
- Advisory boards? (Fake lists of uninvolved grandees)
- PowerPoint? (Simplistic, unhelpful)
- Business plans? (Deluded, narcissistic, MBA nonsense)
To the contemporary angel mindset, all these have become merely decorative features, mere “Borders & Shading” buttons in automatic business plan generators, when cashflow and market focus are the only two key aspects they particularly listen to (though even those only tangentially). Unless you can demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have utterly no need of their money, and that the only tangible reason you’re raising money is some toxic combination of greed, vanity, naivety and bad timing, they’re not going to be interested. In that sense, they’ve turned themselves into the worst parody of old-school VCs: truly the worst of both worlds.
Ultimately, the paradox of startup pitching is that you only say positive things in order to help sell a double negative. And when a discourse becomes this pervasively threaded through with distrust, mistrust, and negativity, I think it ceases to be a viable platform for finding common ground between parties. Surely it is this underlying triple negative – “don’t not invest in my startup” isn’t working – that is the real tragedy here?