December 1, 2012

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Don’t Peeve the VC

A Strong Funding Pitch Can Still Suffer if You Violate These Five Rules

Brad Plothow

December 1, 2012

Chris Stone has seen a few interesting pitches in his days as managing partner at Epic Ventures, but none as memorable as the guy who asked if he could smoke a joint. The entrepreneur, who was pitching a software program, was maybe a little too cozy with the venture capitalists he was asking to fund his endeavor.

“I love it when people are comfortable and confident, but that was probably not a good idea,” Stone says.

Asking to blaze up is a pretty obvious faux pas, as is spitting on the sidewalk as you walk to lunch with your potential VC partners, an experience that did nothing to win the favor of Dan Peterson, partner at Peterson Ventures.

Beyond these extreme examples, countless little things can distract from an otherwise solid funding pitch. Venture capitalists aren’t banks, and they resent it when entrepreneurs treat the pitching process like a loan application, for example. For startups in search of funding, knowing what gets under the skin of VCs is almost as important as having a viable business plan.

Here are a few things to think about in preparing a pitch for VC money:

Be Authentic
Stone is immediately turned off when he sees someone give a presentation in a suit, mainly because he can sense that most of his potential partners are totally out of character when they’re all dappered up.

“I don’t care if you have on a T-shirt and shorts. What we look for is a genuine person,” Stone says.

Peterson is less accepting of casual dress, suggesting that many entrepreneurs think that wearing jeans and sandals makes them look like one of the “truly self-confident entrepreneurs … along Sand Hill Road.”

The upshot is to be authentic in your appearance—or at least default to business casual.

Get to the Point
This is another area requiring a skillful dance by the would-be beneficiary. On one hand, Peterson notes that rapport is one of the most important factors in granting VC support. But that doesn’t mean you should blather on endlessly about your affinity for cookie dough ice cream or collection of rare Star Wars figurines.

“It’s amazing to us how long it takes for people to get to the point,” Stone says. “Sometimes you want to hear the life story, but let us ask.”

Ask Meaningful Questions
Again, this is not an application for a small business loan. The relationship matters, meaning the entrepreneur must find some genuine interest in what the VCs think and feel. Too often, Peterson and Stone agree, a pitch never gets into what the funding group’s goals and priorities are. Of course, asking a staged or disingenuous question will backfire, so discovering some kind of authentic interest is key.

“People generally have very sensitive antennae about whether people are being genuine or formulaic,” Peterson says.

Don’t Get Offended
Most entrepreneurs have two qualities: a lot of passion and a high degree of technical expertise. While these are essential ingredients in a successful startup, sometimes the broader business questions don’t get fully answered until the VCs bring them up during a pitch. When the questions come firing, try not to get agitated.

“Most people think it’s just the product—it’s such a whiz-bang product, it’s going to sell itself,” Stone says. “They sometimes haven’t thought about pricing models, competitors, market position. We will help you brush up on your Shakespeare, so to speak. Just don’t be upset when we try to get questions answered.”

Be Nice to the Receptionist
Even if you hit it off beautifully with the VCs, it won’t matter if you’ve been curt with the receptionist—or anyone else for that matter. And yes, the receptionist is probably spying on you. 

“Some [receptionists] are assigned to take careful notes on your phone demeanor, friendliness [and] degree of condescension,” Peterson says.

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