Ram is the earnest, go-getter CMO of an exciting agri-tech startup. His was one among 10 promising ventures being mentored by Agri Udaan, a leading Hyderabad based agri-business accelerator.
An ‘accelerator’ is a program that speeds up a startup’s evolution, and gets it ready for the next stage. In such programs, a key milestone is typically the ‘Demo Day’1. On this day, the Accelerator gets folks from about 30-35 funds in one room and provides the startups with a rare opportunity – to tell their story to a large set of potential investors at one go.
But here’s the challenge – within just 8 minutes a startup has to coherently pitch the following: the customer need, its (technically complex) product, the market opportunity, the business model, performance metrics, the future potential, the team, competition, differentiation, client testimonials, financials, funding needed… and did I mention they only had 8 minutes?
No wonder, Ram and his co-incubatees found the task daunting. So, to help them pitch better, Agri Udaan organised a 2-day workshop and called me in to mentor the startups and help refine their pitch.
I landed in Hyderabad on a cool February morning and reached the gorgeously green campus where Agri-Udaan was based. After a hearty breakfast of uthappams and coffee, we reached the training room where all the startups were gathering. We had less than 48 hours to redo 10 startup pitches. Our task was cut out.
Template: good for MECE, not as a story though
In order to ensure some standardisation of pitches, Agri-Udaan had given the startups a pitch template with 10 aspects to be covered:
As a template there’s little to fault with the one above – it covers all critical questions and doesn’t have anything irrelevant. It seems “MECE” (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive). The trouble is, that’s not enough.
That’s because – just covering all these questions in your pitch deck won’t guarantee a winning document. For instance, check out this pre-workshop pitch made by Ram for his startup:
Sure, it answers all the questions, but one would hardly call the bullet-riddled document an alive (pun unintended) and engaging pitch. A good pitch can’t be put together just with a template or an SOP. For that you need to apply the right storytelling principles and tools. And while there are guidelines on how to use these tools, it’s only with practice that you learn the critical lesson: which tool to apply in which context.
Like Ram’s, the nine other pitches needed a strong infusion of storytelling principles to make them clearer and more impactful. To achieve this, we followed a simple plan for the workshop: first a 3-hour session where I outlined the relevant storytelling tools (illustrated by vivid examples); followed by individual mentoring sessions with the startups.
Step 1: An overview of the storytelling tools
The key storytelling tools were divided into three parts:
In illustrating some of these tips, we took inspiration from some superbly-crafted pitches by global startups. The 500 Startups YouTube Channel is a great source for such pitches. For instance, watch this absorbing presentation by a quirky, funny founder:
After the 3-hour session, suitably enlightened and inspired, we got down to the real task: re-doing the Agri-Udaan startup pitches
Step 2: Pitch makeovers
Over several intense one-on-one discussions with the startups, we slowly started cranking up the pitch storylines and visuals. Some founders struggled with the makeovers given the limited time, while others flowered.
Ram was one of the latter – it was as if a switch had been turned on in him, and he beautifully channelised his inner storyteller to completely revamp his pitch deck:
Instead of boring bullet points, this is how he told his visual story:
- Let me start with the story of Mr. ABC, the CFO of an industry leading brand M. He is fed up of this major issue X.
- Mr. ABC is not alone – Issue X is widespread across the agri supply chain and is a massive market opportunity sized at $Y Bn and growing at Z%
- We have come up with a proprietary, AI-based deep-tech solution for this issue. Here’s how it works. With this solution, Mr. ABC can breathe easy.
- Mr. ABC isn’t alone – here is an indicative list of the marquee customers for our product. We are getting massive traction and have demonstrated N% month-on-month growth over the past 6 months
- Here’s a snapshot of our competition: We are the only company to have both Characteristic P and Attribute Q.
- Our promising traction has been made possible by a stellar team with rich credentials. I’d like to point out Mr. D and Ms. E for what they bring to the table.
- We are at an exciting stage now, poised to scale up. We would love to partner with the right-minded investor who can add value to our venture and help us effectively solve Issue X. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have.
A pitch like the one above makes a clear, compelling case for your venture. Like Ram, many of the others too achieved significant clarity in their presentations.
The COO of Agri-Udaan, Vijay Nadiminti was very happy with the workshop outcomes. He found a significant improvement in the startups’ communication of their message in a crisp way.
Outcome: Improved odds
Of course, you may ask a fundamental question – Did this exercise lead to instant success with deals being signed left right and centre on Demo Day?
I wish I could say that… but investing doesn’t work that way. There are a thousand factors that play a role in getting funding – the startup’s intrinsic ‘invest-ability’ (good storytelling cannot shore up a bad idea or execution), the investor’s mindset, the investment cycle, hype around certain themes, global events … it’s a long list. Many of these factors are not in your control. But some – like how well you tell your story – are.
Even if better storytelling doesn’t assuredly result in that signed cheque, at the very least you are improving your odds of getting funded. And just for that reason, there is tremendous value in getting your story right.
Featured image credit: By ILRI from Flickr (CC BY 2.0)