The backstage of an investor presentation

Backstage start-up pitchIt was a sunny day and we just finished a one-hour meeting with a potential investor. We shake hands and everybody goes back home or back to business. One has the impression that the show started when the meeting room’s door was closed after coffee had been served and now that we reopened the door and the guests put a foot aside, it seemed as if the show has come to an end. Curtains close. Thank you for your attention.

Yet reality does not allow us to draw clear boundaries nor distinguish well defined beginnings and endings. You and I, as human beings, are great at creating all sorts of categories and we like to characterise things into black or white, good or bad, but in reality, an infinite range of options exist in between. The same happens with the beginning and the ending of an investor presentation. The start and the end of this exceptional show were never marked by the meeting room’s door, which by itself had never had anything special, except for the meaning we bestowed it.

Have you ever seen the backstage of a theatrical performance or that of a ballet show? We have the impression that the entrance fees we pay are for the work the performers do on stage for less than an hour, but in fact, these actors and/or dancers have been putting countless hours of work into the preparation of their show. They call it rehearsing.

This preparation phase does not belong exclusively to the theatre or ballet. We know this phase in sports as well; it is called training. Back in my office, as I prepare for an investor presentation, I suddenly realise there is no special name for the activities we do behind the scenes of an investor presentation. Am I rehearsing? Am I training? I am actually doing the same as those artists and sport stars do before going “live”: doing all the necessary stuff for the “real performance” in a meeting.

Perhaps the reason there is none well-known word for this process is that the activities that need to be undertaken are much more diverse than rehearsing the same dance steps multiple times at the sound of a music piece and much more complex than lifting weights at a gym to build muscles and remain fit. In fact, behind the investor presentation scene, the work looks much more like assembling a puzzle, putting things together. Some pieces are very small, such as making sure we have coffee when the investor comes. Regardless of size, I need to verify that each puzzle piece gives form to a bigger picture and as I do so, I check off my to-do list one by one.

Before anyone utters a single word in a meeting, I have already been assembling a puzzle. While I gave you above an example of a small puzzle piece: coffee for investors, there are bigger and more important puzzle pieces. It is precisely these latter that are the most rewarding because they allow you to learn, to grow and to move things forward.

Here are 3 of the biggest puzzle pieces:

Structuring thinking

Power Point or any other equivalent / alternative tool might be the first thing we think of when we want to prepare something for a meeting, yet that should in fact be the last step. Before putting anything on slides or any kind of document, we need to clarify our thinking. To do that, we need to attain a certain understanding. We need to understand our market, our business, and our product.

We can start with some research, either by talking to people who have expertise on the matter or dive into Google for some responses. Often interesting answers can be found in forums or in research reports. In the book “Act like a leader, Think like a leader”, Herminia Ibarra highlights the importance of outsight. In structuring our thinking, outsight allows us to gain better understanding.

When we understand the market, we can better understand our business, and when we understand our business, we can better understand our product. It’s only when we see something different from our own, that we can truly understand our “own thing”. This reminds me of Goethe who once said:

“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” ‒Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

I can understand Chinese or Spanish because I learned 5 other languages that allow me to compare and contrast. The same applies in business. Once we have outsight and know what is beyond our boundaries, we can better understand what we have in our hands.

The research and comprehension phase can be hard, especially in the beginning (just as all beginnings), but only by understanding can we make a compelling presentation. In fact, some venture capitals in Silicon Valley just want to check how well you understand and how clear you think; in those cases, you do not even need a single slide.

A presentation, of course, has its own value. It is a visible product and something that can be passed on to other parties very quickly. Understanding and knowledge are the main inputs for this product. We know that “garbage in, garbage out”; hence structuring our thinking is fundamental.

After having gained a clear understanding, we can wrap the knowledge into a nice presentation. Aesthetics will matter because the slides will be shown, but as with other things in life, as the popular phrase goes “it’s what’s inside that counts”. And the inside, the essence, should give a “cyan” feeling. Cyan is the mixture of blue and green. Hence a “cyan” feeling means that the presentation should make the audience feel like there is some blue (seriousness and discipline), but also feel like there is some green (which represents creativity and innovation).

If done properly, this first big puzzle piece will be of great support when delivering a presentation of any sort. Ideas and slides, however, are not always sufficient and that’s why start-ups have turned to another pitching tool: demos.

Organizing demos

A demo is certainly a very useful tool for any kind of presentation. Even for employees, it is helpful to see the type of things the company can do “in action”. Should a demo not already be in place, one would have to define the characteristics and functions the demo will highlight. This step would rely upon the understanding that we achieved in the previous puzzle piece.

The demo puzzle piece has two parts. One which is technical and one which is process related. Think about baking a cake. The technical part would be to make sure we have the right ingredients and the right tools to process the ingredients. We would have to check that we have electricity and that we have blenders and mixers that work. The process part would be to know how we would actually make the cake. What are the steps to be followed? Do we put eggs first or water first?

We ask ourselves similar questions while organising a demo and we need both parts of the puzzle.

  • Technical part: We want to make sure all technical requirements are in place: that we have WIFI or VPN connection as necessary, that an adaptor is prepared, that servers are running, that the operating systems are compatible, etc.
  • Process part: We want to know which demos we are going to show (in case we have several), in which order we are going the present them, what features we would like to show, what questions might the audience ask, etc.

The demo organization starts very early on and can keep on going during entire meetings. Among other reasons, we know that even computers that do not get tired are still imperfect and subject to failures. If you are like me, you might still remember how often Microsoft Office crashed some years ago. While performing a demo, you want to monitor that both the technical and the process parts are going smoothly.
While assembling this puzzle piece, you will need help from your team. For example, if there is any system error, you need to call the system administrator. This leads me to the third puzzle piece: coordinating people.

Coordinating people

As in a theatrical piece, an investor presentation is actually the result of a team work. Each person has a different role; some make sure that data is coming in at the right time; others ensure the proper functioning of servers and systems. With specialization getting ever more intense in the modern world, people are taking very specific roles. However, someone will need to coordinate all these people in the end. That is my third puzzle piece.

Processes need to be in harmony with each other. People with different functions need to know what is going on in other departments. For example, IT people need to know when a program update or maintenance should be rescheduled and when an investor presentation is going to take place.
When coordinating people, one realises that very often showing up is already a significant step towards outperformance.

“80% of success is showing up” – Woody Allen

Problems will certainly emerge during either preparation or “show time” and by always showing up, people know that whenever something happens, I will be there.

Even if there are no urgent issues, people most often need someone who listens to them. There are people who will not necessarily go to speak with their direct superiors, either because of lack of trust or some other reason. If you show up, they might end up reaching out to you and sharing their perspective with you. Each time this happens, you get invaluable input that opens your eyes a bit more. All you had to do was to show up.

Coordinating people, of course, is not merely an internal job. It also relates to external people, either suppliers or investors themselves. For an investor presentation, for instance, you have to coordinate the meeting time and after the meeting, you might need to send follow-up material or answer further questions.

Communicating and showing up are essential in this coordination puzzle piece.

We have now seen the three big puzzle pieces that need to be assembled at the backstage of an investor presentation. What is most beautiful about this game is that it always changes. The only constant is change and it becomes more exciting when you can take control of the change: improve continuously, or as Japanese people say: kaizen.

“When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.” – John Richardson

Our PPTs have gone through numerous versions. It is at version 31 and it might still change as necessary. Technology and processes are also getting refined as we go along. Each time a puzzle is constructed, it feels like a new adventure. Each time, you learn new people, new approaches and new perspectives. It takes persistence to get really good, but you know that each step you take, each sacrifice you make, each candle you burn is worthwhile.

An investor presentation, as simple as it sounds, is actually like a theatrical or ballet performance. The audience sits in front of us, listens to us, asks us questions and sees the results. And now, you, my dear reader, also know what happens behind the scenes (at least from my perspective): structuring thinking, organising demos and coordinating people. And one more thing: kaizen.