Mastering your startup pitch

Practice makes perfect - that's the device when it comes to pitching your idea in front of investors. During the Accelerator our startups receive pitch training and individual coaching from Ole Tillmann. Ole shared with us his insights on mastering any startup pitch.

 Photo:  Dominik Tryba

Dear Ole, if you look at early stage startups, they don’t really have a product to start off with, so why should they invest time and resources in pitch training? 

The best idea can only become a successful business if the founders manage to convince lots of relevant stakeholders of its potential as quickly as possible. At the very beginning, most startups don’t have a large budget for marketing so the founders need to personally get people in the industry enthused about their idea.  The best way to do that is with a professional pitch.

The pitch acts as a condensed account of the product vision as well as the startup’s overall strategy. Even if the product doesn’t exist yet, the team can still present a ‘virtual’ product, similar to how an architect draws up a model of a house for his customers before it’s actually built.

By publicising their idea right at the start, the startup also receives valuable feedback which it can take on board and then integrate into the product. And they can do it before a costly product has been developed.

What does your work with the startups look like over the duration of the programme? Are there different phases?

The aim of our three-month Pitch Training programme is for our startups to be able to present a professional five-minute pitch on stage on demo day.  So straight away, on day two of the programme, we start with a kick-off workshop in which we work on the teams’ communications strategies,   which is important because every week the startups do some public pitch training in front of 50-60 guests. That way, they can be already pitching to relevant investors in only the second week of the programme.

We also provide individual sessions where we rework the storyline of the pitch and test its ‘investability’ as well as honing the pitch at the end of the programme.  In addition I show the teams a few acting tricks that they can use to improve their stage presence. It’s fairly crazy stuff but it’s a lot of fun.

How does the one-to-one coaching differ from the pitch training?

In the one-to-one sessions we can give them individual support and help with their strategy, which there isn’t time for in the group training. Some startups need feedback on their strategy while others have difficulty articulating their thoughts or get nervous speaking in front of people.

Conversely, the public pitch training puts the startups in the real-life situation.  The more often they can do that in conjunction with the one-to-one sessions, the better they’ll get.

Are there certain tools and concepts you use to make the pitch easier for the startups?

Over time I’ve developed my own tools.  My principle is:  The key to a successful pitch is the strategy. The strategy is followed by the story, the story is followed by the design, and the design is followed by the delivery. I work with the ideas of rapid prototyping and customer-centred design which people know from the world of design thinking.

What are the “must-haves” that every pitch presentation needs?

Basically I think every pitch should have a unique storyline with relevant facts for investors weaved in.  This relevant information should include: Company purpose, big picture/problem/opportunity, product demonstration, business model, customers, traction, market size, competition, USP, go-to-market strategy, roadmap, the team, how much funding is needed and a call to action.

What are the common mistakes startups make in pitches and how can they avoid them?

Lots of founders are experts in their own field.  That means they no longer know how it feels to not have knowledge of a subject. We call this a “flight of knowledge”. To balance this disparity in knowledge between the entrepreneur and the audience, the founder must try to develop empathy for his or her audience. This is part of the strategic work that should always come at the start when producing a pitch. Only by doing so can you decide to what extent the pitch should contain educational or advisory elements.

If the founders have more of a technical background, they often focus more on the product details than, for example, the financial potential of the business idea. But that’s actually what it should be about:  demonstrating to the investors why your startup is a good business to invest in.

 Photo:  Dominik Tryba

What do you get out of working with startups?

It’s super-exciting to see how the teams use digitalisation and new technologies to design more efficient processes and develop new products. And it’s interesting to observe how lots of similar business models can be applied to different industries. With limited resources, the teams can also get very creative with their marketing. I find that inspiring.

What’s been THE most successful outcome for you in your work with startups?

When I watch the startups give a great presentation on the demo day and I hear that they’ve subsequently received investment and their business model works. That pleases me because the teams work hard for their success!

About the author:

Ole is the founder of PEAK (, an innovation and communications agency based in Berlin. Along with his work as an adviser and coach, he chairs international tech and business conferences.

He’s developed the Pitch Training programme for the Axel Springer Plug and Play Accelerator and has been helping startups with their pitch presentation on demo day for three and a half years.