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In the Weeds with a pitch deck expert: Honing your story
Marie-Christine Razaire of Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures shares advice for building a pitch deck that delivers.
As a values-driven founder, it’s likely you’re passionate about the solution you’re creating and you’re ready to talk about it. Enthusiasm is not your problem.
But have you translated the core message of that story and vision into a pitch deck that helps bring in the funding you need to grow? The reality is that if you’re on the path of raising funds to scale your business, you need a deck that sparks interest — and financial support — to fuel your big idea.
Whether you’re just starting to build or looking to hone and evolve an existing deck, we have an expert to lead you out of the weeds.
Marie-Christine (MC) Razaire has seen a few pitch decks in her career — and by a few we mean thousands. As a venture associate at Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reviewing pitch decks and working with startup founders is her daily bread. She also spent time as a scout for State Farm Labs in Silicon Valley and pitched her own company to investors in a past incarnation as a founder.
All that to say, MC has earned her stripes when it comes to expertise from both sides of the pitch. Read on for her advice on building a stronger pitch deck.
From the top: What do you want founders (first-time and those further along in the funding journey) you work with to know about the role of a pitch deck in the fundraising process?
First, if you haven’t yet pitched a deck or you haven’t had luck getting investment after pitching many times, know this: Pitching isn't easy, and if you haven’t seen success yet, you're not necessarily doing anything wrong. At the end of the day, creating a successful deck (and presenting it, if you get that opportunity) is about effectively communicating your idea in a tight timeframe. It’s a skill, and it can be learned and honed like anything else.
Are there common misconceptions about the purpose or presentation of a deck that you can help debunk?
I think founders can underestimate the role that a pitch deck can play. Decks are really the most important piece of pitching, especially in the pre-seed and seed stages. During the pandemic, when so many meetings have been virtual and we don’t have the benefit and cushion of in-person connection, your deck plays an even bigger part in helping you stand out in the crowd. If you’re sending a deck to an investor via a portal or attached to an email, that first glance from the reviewer needs to attract attention right away and generate curiosity and follow up.
But the flip side is that there’s an inverse relationship between the importance of a deck and the time a typical investor will spend in an initial review. Founders may have misconceptions about how much time will be spent by an investor on an initial review. Research has shown that the average time an investor takes to review a deck can come down to less than four minutes — and even a 30-second review is common. Given that reality, your ability to make the most of an investor’s first impression of a deck is everything.
I think there’s also a misconception about how much information to include in a deck, which ties back to the limited time that an investor has to review. Founders, especially early-stage or pre-launch, often want to include everything, which makes the deck much too dense. I’ve seen decks that have 40 slides. That’s just too much. For pre-seed and seed decks, 10 to 12 sections, with no more than 20 slides total, is a good goal.
Given your experience and how many decks you’ve seen over the years, what generally separates a successful pitch deck?
You want anyone who reviews your deck — regardless of their background — to understand your idea and what sets your company apart from others in the space. If you’re presenting the deck as part of a pitch presentation — virtually or in person — you need to talk through the entire deck in five to six minutes. Within that presentation, describing the core of the idea and what makes it compelling should take no more than 30 seconds.
The person reviewing your deck should be able to understand your idea right away and be able to share it with other potential investors without having to go back and review it multiple times to understand what you’re trying to do. The role of the deck is to spark interest if sent alone or to support your idea if you’re presenting in person.
The order of the slides you present is also important in delivering a successful pitch, and, depending on the stage of the startup, certain slides will carry more weight. As you advance through each stage of growth, the narrative needs to evolve away from a story and vision toward traction and tangible metrics that show you're hitting the milestones that are expected for the stage/market you're in.
From a design standpoint, a successful deck is one that is clean, leaves investors wanting to learn more, and doesn’t bog them down in too much detail or complicated design. A deck should clearly present your idea and why you’re the person to move it forward, but it should also prompt a deeper dive from your potential investor.
I always advise founders to have friends and family review the deck and ask those folks, “What stands out?” Can your friends and family describe your business to you from their review of the deck? That’s a good early indicator of if the deck is on track.
Should a founder customize a pitch deck for different investors?
Given the large number of pre-seed investors that founders meet with, customizing decks just isn’t an efficient use of time. It’s also important to have one consistent deck to avoid any confusion as it’s shared, especially if you want the deck to be shared when VCs share deal flow. That said, if you have the chance to present the deck yourself, customizing how you present to that unique audience or investor to appeal to their interests or priorities can be a good approach.
What are the key elements — data and qualitative or narrative elements — that a founder needs to include?
The information you include in a deck needs to reflect a narrative that matches the company’s current stage. At pre-seed, it's important to include clear insight into product readiness: Have you launched the product? Are you launching with a minimum viable product (MVP)? Are you launching in beta? Where do you fit in the current competitive landscape?
At seed stage, the revenue model and traction become more important: Have you clearly thought about your monetization strategy? Is your traction compelling? Investor expectations will shift depending on market size and what you're building, but it's important to include metrics that demonstrate demand with a scalable path forward.
A clear indication of how you will scale the revenue model should take into account various regulations or other factors across states or countries. Do your homework and understand your market, and be ready to educate investors about the landscape so they can understand how your approach will set you apart, especially in a crowded market. Do everything you can to anticipate questions around risk to provide the investor confidence that you’ve done the work to understand both the potential and the risks.
When you present that information, it’s important to be realistic, but I’ve also seen founders approach this aspect too conservatively. You want the deck to reflect a deep knowledge of the market that shows you understand the limitations, but you also want to show the potential for scale — which will spark the interest of an investor who wants to know that the company can grow and is entering a market large enough to deliver expected returns.
Balance is also important in terms of the amount of detail you offer in the data you present. An investor will glaze over if they see too many figures on a slide, so I tell people to keep it clean and minimal, but be ready to answer any data-related questions that come up to offer more depth on what they’re sharing.
The time to be thorough is when you share your data in full, after the pitch. That's when an investor will go through your financial model in detail and will want to see documents and data that reflect the narrative you've shared on the initial calls.
At the end of the day, as an investor, I’m very aware that what a founder presents to me in a deck is an estimate — a projection. I take that into account, and I advise people to be realistic but also optimistic to be sure they generate interest. Ultimately, it's a balance between building excitement about what you're creating while communicating that you're the right person to do it.
What about visual and multimedia elements in a deck?
You want the visuals to draw attention to the most important elements of your idea, but you don’t want to distract your time-crunched reviewer or make it difficult for that person to pass along the deck to other potential investors. If you have a product demo or other supporting video or visual elements, you can send those later as additional, supporting elements. Again, aim for a clean and simple deck that highlights the key ideas — and keep in mind that many VCs review decks on their phones, so be sure to test the deck on your mobile device, too.
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How important is a founder’s personal story and that of their co-founder(s) or team in the deck?
It’s important that a deck conveys your “why.” What’s motivating you to build this company, and is there a personal story or experience behind the idea? Why are you the right person to solve this problem? That personal connection can create helpful engagement.
But I caution founders from taking too much time on this piece. Be intentional, and focus on including only information that's relevant to why your experience and background will help you succeed.
When you’re reviewing a pitch deck, what are the most glaring mistakes people make?
At the most basic level, a deck that doesn’t clearly articulate a founder’s idea in a way that sets it apart — and can be remembered and repeated — just won’t hit the mark. One way to get closer to a well-defined and clear idea is to avoid using jargon. If you’re using the same buzzwords and stats that every other founder in the space is using to describe their idea, your deck will get lost. Focus instead on what sets your idea — and you as a founder — apart, and describe that in a succinct, unique way that makes an impact.
How should a pitch deck evolve as a company grows?
If you’re the founder of a pre-launch or early stage company, we expect that there are going to be some question marks related to what you share in the deck. Don’t feel the need to apologize for what you can’t possibly have at this point.
I see this tendency often, especially among women and underrepresented founders. They apologize for early data or incomplete results. Don’t waste time apologizing; instead, make the best case in the most clear, succinct way possible for where you will be and what you will solve for.
Later on, the deck should reflect current traction and revenue to show progress, but even more important, a founder should be ready to answer more in-depth questions about where they want to grow and how they are planning to get there. Risk perspective is also adjusted in a successful deck to reflect growth: If you’re first to market, why hasn't anyone done it before, and how have you solved for that? If you're entering a crowded space, make sure to emphasize how you're different and why you'll win.
At this later stage, the purpose of a deck is less about a founder’s vision and more about demonstrating results and mapping the expectations.
The bottom line: What’s the key takeaway you’d offer founders looking to build or hone a deck to attract the interest and investment they’re seeking?
I’d say that self-awareness — knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a founder and as a company — is key to creating a good deck. When you have clarity around what you’re aiming to do and why you’re the founder and company to do it in a fresh, scalable way, that will translate to a deck that highlights that in 30 seconds or less. Make it crisp, clear, and compelling.
Do you have recommendations for resources, good examples, or learning more?
There are so many great resources to help you get started and to later hone a deck. Here are a few of my favorites:
Start with Slidebean: They've done a great job of consolidating and analyzing startups across the board. (After building your own deck, you can always hire someone to clean up and refine the design, but you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars making a deck.)
DocSend by Dropbox provides pitch deck analysis, and the blog is a great resource for founder and startup insights.
Twitch Pitch from Lightspeed Capital is a livestream pitch competition that provides real-time feedback for founders.
The Bunch of Founders Slack community is an inclusive community space for underrepresented founders, future founders, allies, and venture capitalists.
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