Demo Day Presentations

Like all presentations, your demo day presentation is a story.

Demo Day Presentations

Like all presentations, your demo day presentation is a story.

Each founder will have the occasion to act as a salesperson for their company and to tell that story–this is a chance for everyone to get on the same page. Your presentation should be the culmination of an effort to synthesize and understand as deeply as possible your core message, your opportunity, and, especially, the product you are building. The very best demo day presentations have four core qualities:

  • Clarity – the presentation is clearly and simply presented.
  • Excitement – the opportunity is compelling; it demands listeners pay attention.
  • Informative – it teaches listeners something they did not know.
  • Memorable – your story stays with the audience; later they can recall who you are and what you do.

The best technique to achieve these qualities is a process of repetition, critique, and editing (including, importantly, selective removal). But in order to build your presentation you need to start with a framework. We call this the story’s vertebrae.

Most listeners will remember – at most – 3 or 4 key points from a presentation they have just heard, especially if it is one presentation out of many. The vertebrae of a presentation are those points. They will be the most compelling and memorable ways to describe the company and its opportunity. These are not necessarily the points that explain what the company does, but rather those that will be most likely to pique the attention of your audience and convince them that they want to learn more. The presentation is then constructed to convey these points as effectively as possible.

A great way to derive these four points is via the Socratic method. Ask yourselves:

  • What are we building and for whom?
  • Why hasn’t this been done before?
  • Why is it hard to do what we are doing?
  • Why is this an opportunity not to be missed?

It is helpful to begin your story as narrowly as you can and then expand upon that simple story only as far as you need to and no further. The best presentation will be complete yet concise: a story told with great clarity.

The Audience
The goal of any presenter is to capture an audience’s attention and bring them along through their story. The very best presenters are captivating, informative, provocative, and sometimes funny. The worst are painfully awkward, convoluted, boring, or all of these.

The first step to success is to know to whom you are speaking. Or, rather, to know what it is that speaks to the people in front of you. Investors care only to find the next hot startup, and your goal is to convince them that it might just be you. Unfortunately, you usually have a distressingly short time in which to do this. This is true regardless of the length allotted to your presentation since most investors will tune out almost instantly.

It turns out that investors have a much easier time deciding which startups they do not like. Since this is the easier path they do it first, and thus their initial goal is to decide which startups they do not have to talk to. This makes their main goal much simpler – to decide which startups they must meet.

A presentation that is built to make a company impossible to ignore, that actually instills fear in investors that missing this opportunity might mean missing the next Airbnb, is most likely to get you that next meeting and a chance to close a deal. All investors, angels, and venture capitalists alike have a deep fear of missing out on the next big thing when it is right in front of them.

Presentation Organization
Demo day presentations tend to follow a consistent structure, but there is also plenty of room for variation, especially for experienced presenters. Here is an outline of the usual components, though the order of how you present them is up to you; in most cases the introduction will come first and the conclusion at the end, though sometimes we advise companies to show impressive traction on the very first slide, and that is all it will take to grab the audience’s attention and hold it.

The Introduction
This is not much different from the so-called elevator pitch. Briefly say what you are doing and why. It is especially helpful to start off by saying as clearly as you can what you are in terms that the audience is likely to understand. For example, “We deliver groceries to customers in their homes,” is clearer than “we are a next generation, AI-based resolver of grocery needs.” This is sometimes called a mission statement, but regardless, strive for conciseness and clarity. A common error is to avoid describing what you do until far into the presentation. That is always a mistake.

The Problem You Are Solving
In almost every case, a simple description of the problem your product solves should be a part of your presentation. However, beware of the caveat above, and do not spend too much time describing your problem leading up to your fantastic solution, and leaving the listener wondering what, exactly, you do until half your pitch is done.

The Product and the Customer
Explain in more detail what you are building and for whom. This used to be where you would show a demo, but ironically, demos seldom work in modern demo day presentations. Explaining rapidly and clearly what your product does can be the most challenging, and rewarding part of getting ready for a demo day.

The Opportunity
This is usually expressed as a total addressable market (TAM). It is vastly better to be concrete and bottoms up (e.g., “We can sell for $X, and we have Y potential customers, leading to an addressable market of $X * Y”) rather than nebulous and top down (e.g., “The software market is a $15 trillion dollar market…and if we can capture just 1% of that market…”). You goal is to persuade the audience that the opportunity is real, that you are not making up data out of thin air, and that your company has a real shot at the dollars you describe.

The Traction
By demo day – thanks to the current era of shareware, frameworks and AWS – most companies are up and running, accepting customers, and, hopefully, growing like weeds. Here is where you get to show your weed-like growth. Bring out your hockey sticks and show us your startup growth curves. Sure you have a great story – but now is the chance to persuade listeners that it is non-fiction. What happens if you have no traction or have not launched? This is not the end of the world. Many startups have successfully presented their companies pre-traction, but you must keep in mind that in that case your success rests on the power of your story to persuade. You will be forced to lean more heavily on your personality and credentials, your story, and on your dream.

The Team
How you integrate your team into the presentation is up to you, but it is important to keep in mind that investors are investing in you and your team above all, and therefore to generate interest you must sell the team. However, realistically you cannot do much during this brief presentation, so only spend time here on truly notable aspects of the team (“Jill has a PhD in rocket science and holds the patent on the core technology upon which this market is built.”).

The Conclusion
Do not conclude with a whimper but rather with a bang. Insist that your audience remember you. Tell them as directly as possible what to remember about your company and opportunity. It is often effective to list explicitly the 3 or 4 vertebrae you would like them to retain.

Although I did not explicitly include a section on business model above, it is important that by the end of your presentation, investors believe you have one. Sometimes the model is obvious and it is unnecessary to belabor it (“we are a new kind of retail store”), but even in these cases it may be necessary to explain why you will be profitable. Few in the audience will believe a model where the unit economics seem impossible. You do not have time to elaborate and explain your model in detail, therefore you must find a way to describe it in simple and easy to retain terms.

The most important part of your presentation is the story you tell. The slides accompany and enhance your story, but should never dominate. They are the supporting cast and you are the leading man or woman. Work on your story and then build slides that support that story. Do not build a slide deck and then tell a story that supports your slides. In the latter case your presentation will stutter from slide to slide and you will try to memorize and smooth over slide transitions. In the former, your transitions will naturally blend into the story and it will become a cohesive whole.

Please remember that an audience cannot read a slide AND listen to you simultaneously. If you force them to do so, they will probably read the slide and ignore you. Slides have to be dead simple to glance at and understand. In a presentation that lasts a matter of minutes you do not have time to walk your audience through a complex slide. Try this and you will find 80% of your listeners will be reading their email by the time you are through. Do not count on your audience being willing to work to understand you.

Feel free to reach out to us if you want us to review your pitch deck and optimize your pitch.