Women Pitching: Finesse to Success

Female founder companies raised only 2.2% of VC funding in 2017: Source Fortune.com and Pitch Book.

These numbers suck.

We all want to see more strong female founders gaining investment.

Unfortunately, the stats don’t support this.

A founder should be judged on their merits.

The question was posed to me by a female founder; “should female founders pitch differently to men?”.

Following a presentation, I gave during female entrepreneur week (and because the stats don’t lie) I decided to go a little deeper on the topic.

I wrote this article for the women who have said to me, ‘we just want honest feedback’, ‘I get a lot of time wasters’, ‘the investors changed the deal on me at the last minute and I don’t know what’s right’. There are too many bad experiences to list. Oh, and my favourite (that I can mention) is ‘when do you plan on becoming pregnant because, with women entrepreneurs, you never know how much time you’ve got’ lol, shock horror, the leading cause of female founders’ failures. The topic has been a taboo for too long. I want to make a few things clear:

  1. My goal is to get people talking to help founders and investors.
  2. This is not a definitive ‘how to’ anything. Just some observations coming from a place where I hope I can encourage good female founders not to give up because they’re having trouble raising.

You could be a female founder who says, ‘I’m an exception to that rule’ and to you I say, ‘go you.’ I would love to hear your experience or some feedback on the blog.

You might be an investor feeling some remorse or even saying that’s not your experience of female founders which you have invested in. Or you could be a female executive who has experienced the same sort of feelings in a corporate environment and wish to be better prepared. I’m writing this blog for every female founder I haven’t met.

Of course, this is no panacea for female founders. It could respectfully be a potential way to re-evaluate your approach if it is not going well.

TLDR: No secret, it’s not how well you pitch, but how well you shape a business that counts. Your go-to-market strategy, selling skills, branding, positioning, product development and managing the business fundamentals are of course far more important. These skills and your progress in these disciplines will determine (mostly) how well you are likely to perform. Did I mention resources and almighty cash? Again, the truth is that pitching is so much easier if you can finesse a few things before you pitch.

Understanding the problem is the first step. I’ve sat through so many pitch sessions with men and women (and just women) both in the audience and as a judge in pitching competitions. I’ve distilled some lessons from the thousands of pitches I’ve seen which are clear…at least to me. However, I would love to hear your thoughts on the list, other problems, and your hacks to pitching and business shaping.

So here it is, awareness leads to enlightenment and for those few who are prepared to change…success can be yours.

The problem, women are awesome, but…and this list is just based on the last 5 meetings I have had with female founders:

  1. They don’t want to be ‘that girl’ (you fill in the rest).
  2. Hate pretending to be something they are not. This grinds them and is not natural.
  3. Being the smartest in the room didn’t go so well for them at school.
  4. They apologize for perceived shortcomings rather than allowing their actual strengths to pervade during a pitch.

Of course, there are countless exceptions. Born superstars I have seen raise money in seemingly easy fashion. However, for everyone else, the above ‘rules’ are meant to be broken in my world.

Is there really any difference between how women should pitch?

Some of the best founders I have worked with are as good, and often much better at pitching to investors than their male contemporaries. There are definitely some common strategies that can be codified. I have watched this so many times so, I am putting it out there, girls and guys should pitch (slightly) differently.

Like it or not, we have all sorts of preconceived notions when we listen to anyone pitch. Things that go through people’s minds are (regardless of gender) either:

  1. I like this person, they are a winner
  2. They are a ditherer and can’t sell to save themselves or
  3. Same idea, no idea (‘I will just check my Facebook’) game over …

And so many more impressions. It is not uncommon that investors tend to label people early on in the pitch and then use the remainder of the pitch to justify their first impressions.

Female Pitch Routine

Why not consider this, if you haven’t closed your round yet?

  1. You might be quietly spoken, but you have poise
  2. You demand attention by articulately nailing the essence of the problem.
  3. You slow down, for maximum lean-in effect, reveal your solution.
  4. You add, with enthusiasm and some humour ‘I will tell you about my traction in a second’ but first you explain why you will nail this.
  5. You share a few diamonds on the rationale for the market, why the timing is ideal, that you are already working for free and a short but important list of things done so far.
  6. You briefly touch on the magical amount of traction …a list of 5 points up on a screen for 3 seconds only and then it’s gone!
  7. Some killer numbers, (high level only) explained with the assurance of a seasoned CEO. Explain how the numbers will scale, what the economics are for delivering the top line and a precise dollar amount required to become to a company that will have the following characteristics at Series A.
  8. Flicking to the final screen. Your logo. Pause. ‘I’m looking for investors who want to work with an A grade team if they have experience in sector ‘x’’.

Come up with an expression. A mantra just before you go up to the front of the room to pitch, this will get you into the zone.

Practice lots, not the words, but the mindset.

Break down and dilute your lack of confidence by looking at what you have achieved.
Of course, a lot of the above makes sense regardless of gender. But some subtle nuances may help your style.

Extra subtle points I would add:

  1. Remember, you are not reading the evening news. It’s not about being perfect/professional. Your passion and enthusiasm are infectious.
  2. Its ok to show, once, a little chink of vulnerability for effect
  3. You must build inner excitement, slowly. Perhaps when you hit your numbers slides with a cheeky grin say, ‘I’ve been trying to find what I’ve missed, but here are the numbers!’.
  4. Let the investor chase and qualify themselves stepping up to verify they have experience and track record. It invites them (feels good too) and allows them as people to feel relevant by adding value.
  5. Practice your narrative. Get feedback and reshape.
  6. Develop an ‘economy of words’ approach in the Q & A part of your presentation. For that matter probably, this applies across the board. Answering the question succinctly is gold.

For further context (and impact) during the course of the presentation if you can convey that you:

  1. Focus on the big picture, but you have already got the basics right.
  2. Think big but can back it up with numbers that make sense and that you ‘get’ resource management
  3. Demonstrate the rigour of your validation but you are still having fun.
  4. Have a sense of humour.
  5. Can be serious, demonstrate tenacity and possess a bold but believable vision.

You are generally going to get another meeting with investors (regardless of your gender).

The goal is to tell a story, weave in a business idea and a set of craving customers.
The pitch is step one in getting the cheque, so get your cash flow right to survive until you are topped up.

I stress too, start-up success is anything but all about pitching. In fact, ‘Pitching’ is a word I don’t really like anyway. It presupposes the founder is trying to sell you their crazy and often meritless business idea. However, you provide an insight into your resourcefulness and ability to sell, lead, your emotional intelligence and your ‘likeability’. Watch what happens.

Refocus on building a great business, defer your capital raising until you have derisked as much as possible.

Post pitch: the negotiation begins

A pitch is a very different mode to a chat with investors in a one-on-one setting.
A coffee meeting with a VC is all about building rapport and demonstrating integrity, passion, and capability (without using any of those words).
Make sure you get more than one investor to the table to keep the negotiation strength in your court. Recognise they are chasing you now.

Do your homework on the investor(s).

Scaling your business starts with you. I doubt many founders are afraid of constructive feedback and just want to get better. This innate drive differentiates the winners from the pack and is infectious. After all, everyone wants to be on a good team and be a little inspired.

Final best wishes

Don’t forget pitching is taking you away from you working on sales, the product, and your team. For survival, achieving long-term success and your sanity these three factors are infinitely more important than your slide deck. Bootstrapping a bit longer might be the tipping point for your success too.

Control your cash (no matter how little that is) and focus on getting better every day.
I would love to hear your stories. dkenney@hallchadwick.com.au

Be formidable. This is the new you.

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Topics: Capital Raising