Your Startup Pitch needs to pass the Grandma Test

TL:DR

  • Technical jargon can make pitches “superfluous” and “convoluted.” — see what I did there
  • For video calls or in-person meetings, facial expressions and body language indicate the level of interest in your company. Having your pitch summarised back to you works in other instances.

When we are at the fore of product building or company founding, we often lose sight of the layman’s perspective because the idea is so engrained in us. We understand it – in our worldview. Unfortunately, the layman is usually the customer, investor or relevant stakeholder (eg developer). They need to understand you to use your product, invest in it or integrate your APIs.

I had started drafting this article when I came across this tweet. 

We can easily lose investors when talking through our product because we seek to impress. We think the more buzzwords and technical speak we use, the more impressed they will be. What often happens is that 5 minutes into your presentation, they still don’t know what you are going on about. Most times, we don’t catch this. 

Using fluff or advanced technical terms is an indicator that you don’t understand what you are about enough to explain it to somebody else. Simpler terms can fulfil the same purpose (ref. to Mac the VC’s tweet)

That it sounds sweet in your head doesn’t mean it makes sense — not to Joe Schmo or average Jane anyway.

So what makes a better pitch?

The grandma test posits that giving a grandparent or high-schooler your content to review and then asking them to explain what you do will really put things in perspective. You should also watch how long it takes them to figure it out. 

A great proxy is someone so far flung from your work or industry vertical that their feedback is truly objective. 

Investors, more so Nigerian/African investors are very wary of investing in what they do not understand. A good way to evaluate their response is: 

Decision tree for pitch sessions

A few other things you can do to make yourself more understandable: 

  1. Use easy to understand analogies: You are easier to understand when you draw a comparison between your company and another in the audience’s side of the world. For example, we are building a Brex for Nigeria, a Stripe for Africa, a TikTok for X, a GitHub for Y — you get the idea. It is easier to understand your speech, pitch or slides in this context because the companies make yours more relatable and practical vs abstract. It also gives people a baseline to understand the fundamentals of what your company aims to achieve. 
  2. Cut down on buzzwords:
YouTube. Silicon Valley — Making the World a Better Place/Brian Hall

Is there a reason you want people to listen to you for 5 minutes and not understand what your company does? 

Using advanced technical terminology does not always make you smarter. If anything, I expect people get bored or uninterested in what you are saying. Instead, if you must use buzzwords, make sure the concept is understood the first time you use it — just like you would state what an acronym means the first time you use it. This makes everything that comes after easy to follow. 

3. Use examples and use cases: It’s important to state practical examples of the painpoints your product solves. This reiterates how to use your product or service, and that is a painkiller, not a vitamin. PS: If it’s a vitamin, execute regardless! 

4. Assume they have no idea what you are talking about — unless they say they do or show you they do: One way to confirm this is by researching your audience ahead of meetings and presentations. A more technical audience may be able to go into the nitty-gritty of what you are building. Another pointer is the type of questions you are getting. If they are more advanced or technical, it may be time to dial it up, if they are more layman-y, it’s time to take baby steps.

Remember, when you get the same (clarification) questions during independent calls, part of your pitch needs tweaking.

5. Have the audience replay your explanation to you: A good way to know you are being listened to is when an investor attempts to wrap up/summarise what you have just explained. 

6. Write about what you are building: Many startups have never drawn up internal documents that describe what they are building — therein lies the problem. Writing brings clarity and with that comes refinement of ideas. 

7. Stop talking without really saying anything: If you are going to skip out vital bits like how your product works or what your competitive advantage or business model is, you should remain bootstrapped.

Shark Tank AUS/ YouTube

Final Thoughts

What many founders (have to) chase after

If you are building something, you will have to pitch it some time — to investors or financiers, prospective customers or the dev community. You need to get better at explaining concepts as that’s a lower lift, compared to having people understand the subject indepth at your level.