10 Pitch Tips From 500 Startups

During a series of 3-minute pitches, I witnessed brave souls pitch their idea to 500 startup judges. They were slowly (but respectfully) critiqued to help polish their story. Here’s what I captured.

July 5th, 2017   |    By: Pubs Abayasiri    |    Tags: Pitching, Pitch Deck

500 Startups Pitch

I was fortunate enough to travel to San Francisco for a week in early May and on one of my evenings I attended a pitch night which was moderated and judged by 500 Startups. These tips don’t just apply in the startup-world, but also apply for any type of persuasive presentation environment. Here’s what I learned:

1. Tell a story

I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times. However, what does that mean? For starters, when you’re explaining your product, don’t be so transactional — e.g. try not to explain your pitch as follows “if you struggle to track your logistics when you go for traveling, use our app.” It won’t help you to connect with your audience, it won’t help your audience remember your solution, and your audience won’t be able to really appreciate the value. Instead, try along the lines of: “Last September, my wife and I went to Japan for the first time where we traveled to 3 cities. It was a beautiful country, and we enjoyed our time at each destination, but one thing that spoiled the trip was the logistics. We had a spreadsheet that tracked expenses, we kept a paper folder to track hotel bookings and itineraries, and each hop from point to point was troubled with anxiety.” People can picture this and will likely nod their head relating to this.

As part of telling the story, make sure you highlight the pain, amplify it, then start to introduce your solution.

2. What is your unique market insight

Include market statistics in your story but aim to focus on your unique market insights as part of laying the foundation in order to pave the way to adding credibility as to what the market opportunity is for your solution. This should answer the question “why is this even necessary?”

3. Be brutally concise and focus on three things

Don’t take your pitch time to explain everything about your product. The pitch is just the first date. Just like a first date, you want to showcase your best bits so that there’s a yearning for a second. You want to get your audience/investors interested enough so that they will want to engage you, ask you questions, find out more about your offering.

Hence, identify the best three things about your solution and focus on making sure your audience understand these clearly.

4. Do not be apologetic or downplay yourself

One contestant transitioned from problem statement to demonstrating the solution with the comment: “we saw the need, so we figured we’d take a shot at it.” A variation of this, “thank you for your time, we know it’s valuable,” or “we’re sorry we’re taking up your time and we thank you for it.” Your time is valuable and important. You have something to offer that is valuable and will make the lives of your target audience better. Yes, you’re serving your audience, but you’re not a servant to your audience.

Own your solution, own your stage, own your pitch.

5. Do not be cliche

Don’t excessively state things your audience is going to guess what you’re going to say. You want your audience to be nodding their head at what you’re saying because they can relate, not because they know what you’re about to say. For example, don’t excessively explain how you or your partner loves to travel.. most of the world loves to travel.

6. Be wary of buzzwords

Don’t use buzzwords unless you can back it up with substance — i.e. glittering your deck with big data, machine learning, AI, won’t get you points unless you can weave the why and how into your narrative. Otherwise, your audience may just feel you’re pulling wool over their eyes.

7. Why are you different

There should be a unique selling proposition which you can articulate clearly. You can be more explicit “we are different because,” or you can be a little bit more implicit “where others do X, our solution excels because we do Y.” Either way, you need to address the naysayers who may be thinking “haven’t I heard this before?” “surely others are doing this,” or the very dangerous “what’s the big deal?”

8. Why hasn’t anyone else done this before

One question you may need to address if it isn’t obvious, is why is this solution relevant now? Why wasn’t this solved below? This is especially important when your audience may start asking themselves “ok, I get the idea, but why hasn’t anyone else done this before?”

9. Practice your pitch, then practice it again and again..

This is a no-brainer but I have to state it since many people don’t do this. There’s a misconception that you can wing it, or you can follow queue cards. Don’t ever follow queue cards. You can use the slide as prompts if you need to, but it’s better you can do the pitch without your slides — then you’ll own your messaging.

If you struggle with communicating (perhaps your pitch language is not your native tongue), then make sure you slides align to what you’re saying so that at least the audience can follow along — but make sure your slide deck is not overly verbose, then your audience will likely focus on reading rather than listening.

10. Test your pitch

One thing which is painful, and I have to drag myself to do this many a time, is to pitch this to 5–10 people and see what are the most common questions that come up. Then tailor your presentation so that they address these common questions (still taking into consideration the above)


You rarely get a second chance, so take the extra time to fine tune your pitch. Although this may feel like a poor use of your time, it is immensely important as if you cannot capture your audience from the get-go, you’ll have an uphill battle that will cause you even more time. That investment you make will help you get beyond just spending time on explaining your product to potentially having more useful conversations about how you can move it forward.

About the Author

Pubs Abayasiri

Hi, my name is Pubs. I've been in IT for over 15 years and specialize in data analytics, development, and project management across multiple industries. Follow me on Twitter: @pubs12

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