As a news anchor, I get pitched several stories a day from various public relations executives. The formulaic pitches get deleted immediately. The ones that come from people I know and trust I'll give a thorough read. And everything in between has to come with an explosive right hook that makes me want to pass it along to my producers.
The art of pitching is tough to figure out. It's even more complicated when you're not just pitching for a client, but for yourself-and while you're at it, for your own company. Around this time is when entrepreneurs take the month of August to perfect their pitches, ready to launch into a fundraising frenzy once the wealthy investors arrive back at their offices from the Hamptons or St. Barts.
I asked angel investor Michael Fertik, who goes to neither the Hamptons nor St. Barts, what mistakes entrepreneurs commit in their pitches. Fertik is also the founder and chief executive of Reputation.com, where he's raised some $80 million for his own company. He's also one of those curious souls I find in business who's always working and advising this or that company, while simultaneously writing a book, working on a film project, teaching at Harvard and popping up at every conference I'm attending.
Fertik is a mentor, a so-called "rabbi" to many startups. We recently sat down to discuss several ways entrepreneurs go wrong in their pitches. If you recover from those trip-ups gracefully, bravo. You get flustered? Goodbye.
1. Never say "I don't know"--say "I don't know, but I can find out." Investors understandably want lots and lots of data to justify why they should plunk money into your company. The problem is if you're trying to enter or create a whole new market, data is exactly the information you lack. Most of the time, entrepreneurs can find a way to get as much information as possible to support their business model. But oftentimes, the questions will zero in on something for where there is just no supporting information. Rather than stumble your way through with an "I don't know," it's better to recognize you don't have the information and promise that you'll do your best to find it out. "Investors are looking for self knowledge and intellectual accuracy as well as a point of view on how you're going to find out," Fertik says.
2. Beware the rabbit hole. Investors hear a thousand pitches or more a year. Some develop ways to see how well you handle pressure. One is to lead you down a rabbit hole that puts you on the backfoot. How do you get out of it? It might be something as insignificant as debating why your chief technology officer isn't called your chief product officer. You get the drift. When you start to feel you're being drawn down this hole, the best solution is to stop the conversation and say, "This seems to be a very important point to you but we unfortunately only have an hour so let's get back to this topic later but in the meantime, I'd like to focus on this next part" and move on. Chances are you'll never get back to that point and the investor will respect you for taking command.
3. Be ready with your next 3 steps. Fertik says every investor is attracted to the "BHAG"-the big, hairy, audacious goal but you also have to "clearly articulate a defensible set of immediate next steps" that will get you there. It's cool to show how you think big but can you execute? This is a particular favorite of mine as you can apply this to other situations. My kids and their friends had a big, hairy goal of starting a rock band until they realized the next step was to figure out who would sing, play guitar and drums and who would write the songs. It all ended quickly after that.
4. Know exactly how much you're raising. Basically you should know exactly how much you need to get your business going, what it would cover, and what that money will help achieve. Know those numbers cold. Enough said.
5. Explain your cap table. This is really more for the company that may have gotten some seed funding already and is looking for a bigger round of financing. A capitalization table is essentially a run-through of everyone's ownership-from investors, owners, employees and so forth. Early on, these tables can be fairly simple but with each round of investment, the tables become far more complex. There are issues of dilution, issuing stock options, and so on. "If you don't understand the terms under which you invested, you can come across as less on top of things," Fertik said.
Remember these five items above and you'll be much more prepared to ace that pitch.