How to Make Investor Decks That Don’t Suck

Most aspects of being a startup founder did not come naturally to me, but making fundraising decks did. It felt like a natural outgrowth of writing and theater, the arts I spent most of my high school and college life in. Although my company ultimately failed, we were always pretty good at raising money along the way. (We actually had an investment offer on the table even when we shut down, which we decided not to take—but that’s a story for another day.)

These days, I often find myself helping other founders with their decks, and I see a lot of them making the same kinds of mistakes. So I decided to write out my philosophy of deck-making here. This will obviously be most helpful for founders working on their decks, but I think it might be interesting even to people who aren’t currently in that position. (Also, although it’s focused on investor decks, most of the advice applies to presentations of any kind.)

What even is a deck, anyway?

A lot of people go wrong with making decks because they think that “making a deck” is some kind of specific thing they’re doing. Then they get caught up in rules they think all decks have to follow.

But a deck is just a vehicle to tell your company’s story. You’re not “making a deck,” you’re telling a story. The deck is just the medium.

As such, good decks don’t use templates. There’s no good template for a deck, just like there’s no good template for a movie. Yes, there are certain basic rules of the form you have to follow—for example, you’d rarely see a movie where most of the shots are upside down. But following a template from start to finish leads to mediocrity.

That’s because templates compress the range of possible outcomes. A template will elevate a bad deck to mediocrity—and will drag a great deck down to the same place.

My single most important piece of deck advice: make the actual deck last. You wouldn’t start shooting a movie before you’d finished the script, so don’t start making your deck until you’ve nailed down the story you want to use it to tell.

What should you put in your deck?

There are only three reasons to put something in your deck:

1. It’s impressive

Make sure your deck hammers home the most impressive things about your company.

This sounds obvious, but many founders screw it up—in part because many founders have a poor understanding of what the most impressive things about their company actually are.

For example, my friend Mike was recently talking to a startup that made software for organizing book clubs. He was getting lost in the details when they offhandedly mentioned that they’d crowdfunded the money to develop their product from the users of a Facebook group they ran. That’s super impressive: they built a community who was willing to front their development costs before they even had a working product. But because that wasn’t a stat that fit in the traditional mold of users or revenue, the founders didn’t see how impressive it was.

2. It provides necessary context

In addition to showing off, you also have to explain how your business works.

Do so as quickly and concisely as possible. Your deck’s job is not to answer every possible question an investor might have about your company. It’s to get them interested enough that they want to learn more.

3. Its absence would be suspicious

You’ll have to include unimpressive facts about your company when leaving them out would make it seem like you’re hiding something.

For example, if you don’t include revenue numbers, investors will assume they’re really bad—and that you’re being shady by trying to obscure that fact.

What order should you put these things in?

Lots of articles will tell you to put your deck in a certain order. This advice is wrong.

The only guideline for arranging your deck is this: put your deck in whatever order tells your story best.

Now, there are certain orders that are unlikely to tell anyone’s story best. For example, it’s usually better to explain the problem your company is solving before you go too deep into the solution. Similarly, I’ve never seen a deck that put their ask as the very first slide.

But beyond that, there’s a lot of room to play around. At YC, I saw a few companies that seemed boring put their impressive revenue numbers right up front, to get people’s attention, before diving into the details of what they actually did.

With apologies to Tolstoy: all bad decks are alike, but every great deck is great in its own way.

How should you make your deck?

Let’s get down to tactics. Here’s the process I use to make a deck. Note that only the last step involves an actual deck!

  1. Figure out the story you want to tell.

  2. Write that story out in headlines.

  3. Add supporting details to each headline.

  4. Put what you just wrote into deck form.

1. Figure out the story you want to tell

Consider the story of your fundraise. Your story should answer five questions:

  1. What are you building?

  2. Why will you win? 

  3. What have you figured out so far?

  4. What do you need to figure out next?

  5. What will the future look like if you’re successful?

This is not just a list-style explanation of your product, market, and metrics—it’s a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end.

If you’re having trouble with this, you might want to try recording yourself literally telling this story, out loud, to a friend, and then transcribing the results. Writing often leads people to slip into using buzzwords and overly-complex language that they’d never actually say out loud. Whether I’m reviewing decks or essays, probably the #1 piece of writing advice I give is “take what you just said to me and write that.”

2. Write that story out in headlines

Once you know what story you want to tell, use Google Docs—or even a piece of paper—and tell your story one headline at a time. Each headline will eventually become a slide.

Your story should make sense and be compelling with the headlines only, since that’s how most investors will read your deck anyway. (At least at first—they’ll likely go back for a more detailed read-through if they like the headlines.)

3. Add supporting details to each headline

Remember, assume no one will read the details unless the headline grabs them.

The best supporting details are numbers. If you're not adding facts, is this really a new detail, or are you just re-stating the headline? But you may still need the occasional supporting detail that isn’t a hard fact.

4. Put your headlines and details into deck form

Congratulations—you’re 90% of the way there, and you haven’t even opened Keynote yet.

Make each headline a slide, and add the supporting details. Now’s also the time to add charts, graphs, and visual flair.

I usually make two versions of each deck: one for presenting (less text) and one for email (more text).

One final caveat…

Remember how I said never to use a template? In a way, these guidelines are also a (much looser) kind of “template.” Deviate from them if you have a good reason to do so!

Yours in the worry that writing this post has made me a true startup stereotype,

Max