This article is part of our series “Pitching to Investors” that shares real examples and practical advice from the Matrix General Partners on creating your pitch deck. The intro to the series is here: Five Ways to Nail Your Pitch and Win Over Investors.
Our goal of this series is to help entrepreneurs nail their investor pitches and communicate their incredible ideas to find the right VC partners to help them grow their companies. Our first post covered 5 tips on how to present to investors, and how to weave your slides together to tell your narrative and make investors believe in you and your idea. The second post in our series addressed the team slide, which seems simple, but is your chance to explain why your team is exceptional and the one an investor should bet on.
The opportunity slide is misunderstood by many entrepreneurs. In fact, it’s rare that we see a great one. Founders often think the way to pitch is to show there’s a clear problem, a large market, and that their team and solution are the ones to take on the problem. This is certainly a key part of your pitch. But, there’s a critical piece missing. You can have a big problem that is real for many people, and you can have an amazing team to solve it. But, you must also explain what has shifted to create the opportunity and how you will enter the market in a way that is defensible. If there’s no opportunity to enter the market and you don’t have a way to outcompete–you have no chance of building a successful company. This is one of the most important pieces of your pitch.
One of the reasons so few startups succeed is because usually there is no realistic way to get into a market. Often the market is too mature and crowded to break in. Or, the market doesn’t even exist yet, and there isn’t a sufficient force or trigger to create a new market.
But on rare occasions, there is a shift, an opening, that creates an opportunity to enter an existing market or create a new market.
When you can show in your pitch that you have found this opportunity and that you have a defensible advantage over others, that’s when you have a winning and investable idea.
The key to creating a convincing opportunity slide is answering these two questions:
- What has changed such that you can now enter an existing market or create a new market?
- What is your ‘proprietary rationale’ that positions you to enter or create that market?
Existing vs. New Market
Your explanation of the opportunity depends largely on whether you are entering an existing market or creating a new one. There will be a burden of proof you’ll need to demonstrate in each scenario.
In entering an existing market, you’ll need to answer why you’ll be able to displace current players, and why now is the right time to do so. You may have created a breakthrough technology, or can offer a product at a much lower cost, or have a vastly better user experience. With an existing market, you don’t need to prove that the market exists. Instead, the risk is that you will not be able to enter and compete with the entrenched players. Your burden of proof is to show that you have something so compelling that it will disrupt the status quo. You need to show something has changed or that a discontinuity exists that allows a new player to enter the current market.
Airbnb is a great example of a company that completely disrupted the existing hotel market with a new and different approach. Vacation home rentals had always been available, and people have always needed places to stay when traveling. But, by creating an easy, trusted way for hosts to list their homes and guests to find, reserve and pay for unique, affordable spaces, Airbnb overhauled the traditional hotel experience into something entirely new–a ‘home away from home’ travel experience.
If you are creating a new market, you need to answer why the opportunity necessitates the creation of a new market, why this hasn’t been done before, and why now is the right time. Your burden of proof will be that the market exists, and that there will be demand for your product or service. The risk in creating a new market is higher because you have to first create the market, then be the one to offer the best solution. But, with higher risk, comes higher reward, which is appealing to investors. And, the advantage to creating a market is that you have the potential to dominate the space early.
When 3D printed parts were first created, a new market came to life because the product did not previously exist. By printing 3D materials, the opportunity to manufacture functional parts with many different applications, present and future, came into possibility.
Once you’ve established what has shifted to create an opening in an existing market or an opportunity to create a new one, you’ll need to explain your ‘Proprietary Rationale’.
Your proprietary rationale is how you are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the opportunity – it’s what gives you your edge and creates a good pitch.
It shows you’re differentiated from your competition and aren’t simply trying to ‘out-execute’ others.
In my experience, there are many types of proprietary rationale for why there is a big opportunity to start a company. Here are a few of the main types we see.
Having a technical edge means you have created or have control of a unique technology that is vastly better than previous technology or that of your competitors. Having a technological edge creates an opportunity that wasn’t possible before, or allows you to surpass existing solutions using new innovation.
When Google launched their search engine in 1998, they were entering a crowded market. But, Google’s fundamental bet was that their technology was far superior to other players in the market. They offered greater access to information with a much simpler, and easier to use design. Users loved it, and they developed a loyal following because of it. With superior technology and user experience, Google successfully created the opportunity to enter and ultimately dominate an existing market.
Counterintuitive Point of View
A counterintuitive point of view is a unique perspective that few others share. Most people believe what you’re doing can’t be done, but you have a solid rationale for why it will work, and why the conventional wisdom is ripe for being overthrown. As Peter Thiel famously states, a counterintuitive point of view is your answer to, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
When Elon Musk created Tesla, he had a counterintuitive point of view about a new type of car, that could be sold direct, that could compete with the existing car manufactures. There was no room to enter the car market by building another traditional car; there was no way to create a dealer network fast enough and big enough to compete with the big manufacturers. So, Musk created an opportunity where no one believed there was one. Prior to Tesla, electric cars had been solely built and targeted toward functionality and eco-friendliness, never performance and luxury. Musk successfully entered an established industry with a radically different product that appealed to a large segment of the population interested in a high performance luxury electric vehicle.
A New Model
Your proprietary rationale may be a novel model for selling into a new or existing market. This could be a new sales and distribution strategy, or extending a known business model to an atypical or underserved customer segment. Or, it could even be a new strategy for taking on tough industry regulations (more on this later).
SaaS as a business model, is a great example of this. Enterprise software had existed for several decades–businesses clearly needed and were willing to pay for the enhanced capabilities and productivity all kinds of software afforded. But, with no cost effective way to sell into smaller businesses, very little of this software made its way into the mid-market. Enter SaaS to fill this gap. Taking advantage of new UI developments and cloud infrastructure, a new model was created in which software could now be easily utilized with very little training and integration. Also, the subscription pricing model that came with it, negated the need for large, negotiated contracts and sales teams. With a pricing, distribution, and support model to fit the needs and economics of the mid-market, the “SaaS for X” movement took off and continues to expand into still unmet niche areas.
Putting Technological Advances to Work
In contrast to the technical edge rationale described earlier, which implies you’ve created (or acquired) the new technology yourself, an opportunity can be created when a team recognizes technological advances in the market and builds a new offering on top. Timing is critical here–you need to be one of the first to recognize the potential a new technology affords, and act on it. Once others recognize it, you may face tough competition and will need a different rationale for why you are going to win.
Oculus VR shows a time where several technological advances came together to create an opportunity in VR. In the years prior to Oculus, there were many failed attempts at VR that were just too early because the technology could not support a great VR product. Oculus came into being just when the required technology became advanced enough, and the component prices affordable enough, to create a significant opportunity. Oculus jumped in when the time was right, allowing them to build a technologically robust product, and dominate the market, importantly the talent market, early.
Large scale changes in user behavior can also cause an opening into a market.
For example, in the past decade, increased access to mobile devices has created a ‘mobile friendly’, and now often mobile-first world. Snapchat took advantage of this shift toward wider and more frequent mobile usage. They offered social sharing on the go and in real time, using a mobile-only approach to leverage the shift in user behavior toward frequent and widespread mobile usage.
HubSpot also took advantage of a shift in user behavior. As people started to ignore the constant bombardment of online ads, HubSpot developed a new approach to marketing called Inbound Marketing. They created an entirely new way to reach people that was not only less expensive, but a better experience and more useful to their target market.
A Layered Proprietary Rationale
A single, strong proprietary rationale is sufficient to pitch your case and build a winning company. But, as with some of the examples here, it’s not just one thing, but several factors combine to give a founding team an overwhelming advantage to win in or create a new market.
Uber is an example of a company with a layered proprietary rationale. Uber created an opportunity, not so much through building their own technology, but by leveraging the mass adoption of smartphones with GPS. They created a ride-sharing experience on top of the smartphone platform that was vastly superior to hailing a traditional taxi.
Perhaps more important in their situation–as they faced legally entrenched competition–they used the phone platform, their significantly better experience, and aggressive marketing to grow their user base extremely quickly. This created an initial foothold on the market, and a well nurtured grassroots community, which allowed them to take on the stringent regulations of the taxi industry–something no one else thought would be possible. By the time taxi drivers began to protest against Uber, they had already demonstrated huge value and a superior experience for many customers. They had built up an army of loyal customers who did not want to return to the old way of hailing taxis. With their ‘army’ of customer proponents, Uber was in a strong position to take on the regulations of the taxi industry.
The way Uber could have pitched the opportunity and their layered proprietary rationale (with hindsight of course), is:
“We have an opportunity to completely disrupt the taxi industry worldwide. The recent shift in the prevalence of people with GPS enabled smartphones creates the opportunity for rapid growth of a super attractive app-based service that will be so far superior to current solutions, that we will be able to overcome the regulatory barriers that may otherwise prevent this service from taking off.”
Example 1: A Great Opportunity Slide
Here is what a great opportunity slide in Zendesk’s Series A pitch deck might have looked like, with the benefit of hindsight.
- The slide clearly shows they are entering an existing market-customer service software. There is less risk when companies are showing an established need for their solution.
- Their proprietary rationale: a new pricing and distribution model (SaaS) to sell efficiently into the the mid-market, which has been underserved in the customer service space. They are betting that they won’t need the expensive sales process that other customer service software requires by offering a self-service, simpler product, that is beautiful in design and a pleasure to use.
- The time is now and they’re ahead of others who will make this play.
Mistakes To Avoid
Not addressing major barriers in your sector
Barriers always exist–investors expect this.
Barriers are what make an idea interesting and valuable. If there weren’t barriers, anyone could solve it and probably already would have.
Ignoring or not bringing up barriers makes you look ignorant and avoidant. Investors want to see that you’re facing the facts and ready to take on anything that comes your way.
Examples of barriers could be regulatory or technical issues. Getting people to use your product may require people to change their current behavior by switching from an existing solution–how will you do that? If it’s known to be a market that’s really hard to sell into, such as retail or healthcare, how will you do that?
You may not have all the answers yet for addressing these barriers. At a minimum, you should have a very well thought out understanding of the barriers, and a hypothesis for how you will address them. Not addressing potential barriers at all is where many founders run into trouble.
In one case, a startup developed a new water meter that could save a city a lot of money. The solution itself was compelling–it provided a huge value at a lower cost. However, what the company didn’t recognize or take into account was that the barrier to sell was nearly impossible. The decision makers for buying the water meters didn’t actually value saving money, and had existing relationships with other companies that trumped any desire to switch. Because the company hadn’t thought through the “how” of getting into the existing market, they weren’t able to overcome the barrier to make the sale, despite their valuable product.
The Obvious Play
A huge mistake in outlining your opportunity is the case in which an investor starts thinking, “This is obvious–everyone will do this or already has. This is a me-too company”. It’s much harder to win, and therefore harder to convince an investor to bet on you, with an obvious product that is already out there in an overcrowded market.
Yes, it’s possible. Everyone needs their drone or virtual assistant investment. But, it’s harder to raise unless you show how you’re different.
If you’re going to run the same race as 18 other people, you had better be able to explain why you’ll win.
If you’re running a similar race as others, simply saying, “We’re going to fight harder than anyone else,” is rarely a convincing argument. The best investors don’t make this bet very often.
Instead, think about how to show you’re differentiated from the competition and why you will be able to run a better race. If you’re familiar with the terrain and the race conditions, you have prepared for this particular course, and you know all the shortcuts, this gives you an advantage. This is where investors want to make their bets. Explain your advantages so that investors know how your approach is different, better, and likely to win. Again, the opportunity all comes back to the explanation of your proprietary rationale.
Example 2: What to Avoid
This is an opportunity slide where a company positions themselves as a new alternative to existing social media sites.
- This slide is a poor attempt at showing the opportunity because it doesn’t answer the key questions: What has shifted in the market to create this opportunity? How are you going to enter this established market and compete? And, what is your proprietary rationale?
- It cites numbers that attempt to instill a feeling of immense size of the opportunity. However, these numbers are almost arbitrary. They don’t explain SAM (Served Annual Market) vs. TAM (Total Annual Market) or an entry point into the market.
- A huge barrier goes unaddressed: how do they plan to beat other social networking sites, like Facebook, who already have a strong hold on the market? “Our customers like us better” is not a convincing argument.
- This is a classic example of a slide that will have investors thinking “This is obvious, it’s been done”. It’s a me-too company, where the only statement about how they will enter the market is one of the worst arguments possible, the dreaded, “We’re going to fight harder than anyone else”.
- There could be another successful social network–Google and Facebook show that you can enter an established market and win. But, what’s your advantage over the current players?
Expecting investors to put the pieces together
Often when founders pitch their idea they state the problem, the market size, and their solution. Then, we frequently see them use the opportunity slide to reiterate that the opportunity exists because of the size of the market and the intensity of the problem. But, this is not what the opportunity slide is about. Founders often don’t spend the time showing how these factors line up to create an opportunity. They don’t explain what has shifted to create the opportunity at this point in time and how they are uniquely positioned to enter the market. Instead, they assume investors will connect the dots themselves. This is a missed opportunity.
The magic is when a founder crafts a narrative about the problem, solution and their team, and then brings it all together to show what has changed to create an opportunity for them to enter that market.
As with every slide in your pitch, you should be thinking about what questions investors will have. For the opportunity slide, investors want to know, at this moment in time, what has happened to create an opportunity for someone to enter or create a new market, and why that someone is you. Of all the slides in your pitch, this is the one that brings it all together. Use this slide make it crystal clear to investors why they should bet on you and your company.
To read more about how to create a stellar investor deck, you can read more posts from this series here: