The death of the napkin pitch; here's how to sell your tech startup

Pitching tech startups
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When I was first introduced to the Startup world, the word ‘pitch’ came up in nearly every conversation. It certainly didn’t help the fresh-faced foreigner I was that the term came from baseball, a sport I have yet to understand.

I’ve listened to hundreds of pitches from Hidden Founders applicants in the last eight months. Most have confessed that they expected more return from their pitching efforts when they started.

I’m hoping some insight will save first time founders time and help them avoid stagnation while trying to involve more and more people in their journey.

The who and the why

You pitch friends, family and fools initially. Depending on the type of entourage you’ve been blessed with (or the lack of), you decide whether you need that to get constructive feedback or only to practice and test the right wording for what’s coming next.

Who you pitch next deserves important attention. Eric Ries and Steve Blanks said it best: get out of the building to pitch your target audience or users. If, instead, you jump straight to CTOs, investors and media you’ll have made the classic noob mistake.

For the record, that’s exactly what I did in my first tour as a founder, I get the temptation: don’t do it. Your new entourage now must be your users.

Pitching your market

In my experience, engaging your market from the get go is the hardest step in a startup’s life-cycle. This is also exactly why most first-time founders avoid it. It takes a lot of maturity to properly handle this phase. Sadly, most will ask themselves the wrong questions. Will the guy I just added on LinkedIn talk to me for 15 minutes? Does he see me as yet another startup hippie? Is he impressed yet? No? Should I downplay the issue with a ‘this is just how we will penetrate the market’ and that ‘the product can do so much more than that’?

A pitch is a request for trust, and trust requires tangible evidence. People you ask to follow you will demand to see progress before committing. Luckily progress is hackable.

If you go down this path, you’ve lost before you’ve begun. The lesson here is to worry less about your ego and more about the person in front of you. Customer discovery is about listening. Just make sure you don’t mention (or only very briefly) the idea about your product while doing so.

Pitching technical co-founders, business angels, and prolific bloggers from a napkin is a sure way to get permanently written off.

What happened to the napkin?

The napkin is still a great way to capture an idea that spontaneously pops into your head while chatting with your best bud. The problem is: first-timers have a hard time gauging the pitch-expectation ratio.

A quick reminder: the napkin is for friends and family. Animated mock-ups and a Business Model Canvas are for target users (low fidelity, minimum viable product). An MVP with traction is for the potential co-founder CTO. A Product-market fit will get you VCs. The more you go to the right, the more you’ll get what you pitch for.

From napkin to traction

Napkin maxed out

The success and attention startups have received in recent years has caused a veritable gold rush, and hot trends always attract their share of shady characters who muddy the waters. For founders, this has meant a higher burden of data-driven proof before they can earn a spot in the limelight.

A pitch is a request for trust, and trust requires tangible evidence. People you ask to follow you will demand to see progress before committing. Luckily progress is hackable.

Pitch hacking

Being a non-technical founder in the tech industry is hard — and this is where a creative mind needs to shine. What is lacking in technical skills must be compensated by street smarts, rapid execution, and perseverance - what Paul Graham refers to as being a cockroach.

In order to survive and maximise the chances of a successful pitch, a low fidelity MVP is a key asset and prelude to a future, high fidelity MVP.

While this mantra seems to be on every founder’s lips, there is precious little action to back it up.

Below are some tools to help build a low-fidelity MVP: InVision, Marvel, 99designs, Unbounce, Optimizely, Launchrock, Strikingly, Google Analytics, Facebook Ads Manager, Google AdWords, RedditQuora and olark.

And, for a high-fidelity MVP: codeacademy, CTO co-founder (your best option), dribbble, upwork (mehh), your local dev shop, Hidden Founders (that’s us!), Amazon Web Services or DigitalOcean and Mixpanel.

Once you’re all set, you start your data quest.

You need one focus - traction

Traction is seed stage currency: without it, you’re broke, and pitching co-founders, investors or tech journalists begins to sound alarmingly like begging; data, charts, clicks, signups, logins, engagement, transactions and science - TRACTION.

While this mantra seems to be on every founder’s lips, there is precious little action to back it up. More often, when the minute product development begins they become hypnotised by tangential distractions. It’s a dangerously warm place where founders relax and chill. Colourful user experiences, typography, on-boarding… most simply end up feeding their distractions and get swallowed up in trivial details.

Let’s put it this way: traction is the only currency that matters. The more of it you have, the more nice things you can afford. Nothing is free. Traction is startup currency (#T).

Traction is the startup currency

Bon appétit!

The idea stage is a myth

Napkin idea stage no longer competes, especially with what the market offers CTOs these days. Only two types of founders are pitching ideas in 2015: the serially successful, and the lazy — and only the former get away with it.

Committed founders always find ways to produce something concrete because, as you may have guessed by now, it’s not going to get any easier.

About Yassine El Kachchani

Yassine El Kachchani

Hidden Founders is a mashup of dev skills and startup experience in an accelerated, bootstrap-friendly leasing package. 

We help founders build an MVP and get it to market to test their hypotheses at minimum costs. We do that with a leasing contract: founders can start working on their project with a 14% down payment, and fund the rest of the development cost by dividing it over subsequent monthly payments. After a period of six months, they have the possibility to cancel their lease at any time, with no obligation to pay the remaining costs. To keep the founders' cash investments down, we receive a 2% stake on each startup.

We work with a select batch of 7 startups only per cycle; We are completely invested in the projects we take on.

While building the product is our main focus, we also help our first time founders by connecting them with mentors and offering business assistance during office hours.


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