“Startup Veteran” sounds like an oxymoron but it describes Bill Gross perfectly. Fresh out of Cal Tech in the 1980s, he started, grew, and sold three of his own companies. In 1996, he founded Idealab, a Pasadena-based organization to create and operate pioneering technology companies. Since then, Idealab has fostered the development of 125 companies, 40 of which have gone public or been acquired. That track record clearly qualifies Mr. Gross to offer advice to startups. He did so in a six minute TED talk last March, listing and discussing what, in his estimable opinion, are the five reasons why startups succeed:
Valid reasons all, but with all due respect—and the full disclosure that I have a vested interest in Idealab as a shareholder, as well as the fact that I am a presentation coach—I propose that Mr. Gross should add a sixth success factor: the perfected pitch.
Stories about startups financed on the basis of a single, short PowerPoint deck are legion, but those are “unicorn” cases. Most startup companies have to hit the road where, according to a study reported in TechCrunch, fledglings must dial for dollars an average 40 times before their call is answered. Competition is keen and venture capitalists are demanding. The same study in TechCrunch also reported that the average amount of time investors spend looking at pitch decks is 3 minutes and 44 seconds!
So the pitch becomes a matter of life or death for a young company. The best idea, team, timing, or business model cannot succeed if the presenter of the startup company does a poor job of communicating the value of its worth to potential investors. A poor pitch can move a startup from cradle to grave in less than four minutes.
My firm, Power Presentations, Ltd., along with countless other consultants, incubators, online resources, magazine articles, books, and even the venture firms themselves, offer plentiful advice on how to deliver a pitch. Much of that advice has been with us since Aristotle, but presenters, particularly at startups, often have to be put back on track because they are impeded by a single, seemingly insurmountable obstacle: the performance anxiety that comes from the pressure of that 3 minutes and 44 seconds time frame.
Heaven help us! And, as the Bible tells us, “seek and ye shall find” remedies for that universal condition. An internet search produces 21 million solutions, among them deep breathing, beta blocker drugs, belts of vodka, and even tapping your fingers. But the most effective solution of all is practice. Of course, everyone knows that practice makes perfect, but to be cool, calm, and collected when asking a time-challenged and challenging VC for an investment of several million dollars, it takes practice beyond practice, in what is known as “hyperpractice.”
Athletes are excellent role models for hyperpractice. The Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, who won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for two consecutive years, is known for his uncanny ability to sink three-point shots almost at will. In practice, however, the New York Times reported that Mr. Curry and his teammates “warm up by launching a series of court-length shots — heaves that graze light fixtures and ricochet off shot clocks.” 94 feet in practice makes the usual 20-, 30- or 40-foot three-pointer in a game easy by comparison.
Jerry Rice, the former superstar wide receiver of the San Francisco 49ers football team—the NFL career leader in thirteen categories—is another role model for hyperpractice. It was said of Mr. Rice that when he caught his first pass in any game, it was the 200th pass he caught that day.
Whether you are in a startup or a public company, hyperpractice the first 3 minutes and 44 seconds of every pitch you make. Everything that follows is icing on the cake.
You do not have a second chance to make a first impression.
This blog post was originally published on Forbes as The Sixth Success Factor For Startups: The Perfected Pitch on Monday, June 15, 2015.
Jerry Weissman is among the world’s foremost corporate presentations coaches. His private client list reads like a who’s who of the world’s best companies, including the top brass at Yahoo!, Intuit, Cisco, Microsoft, Netflix, RingCentral, Mobileye, OnDeck, CyberArk and many others.
Jerry founded Power Presentations, Ltd. in 1988. One of his earliest efforts was the Cisco IPO road show. Following its successful launch, Don Valentine, of Sequoia Capital, and then chairman of Cisco’s Board of Directors, attributed “at least two to three dollars” of the offering price to Jerry’s coaching. That endorsement led to more than 600 other IPO road show presentations that have raised hundreds of billions of dollars in the stock market.
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